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Kevin Harvick wins Cup pole at Richmond

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Kevin Harvick won the pole for Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with a top qualifying speed of 121.880 mph.

Harvick led 10 of the 16 playoff drivers in qualifying in the top 12.

It is Harvick’s third pole of the year.

“We ended our last race run (in practice), I was really happy with the car,” Harvick told NBCSN. “Didn’t know what we had for qualifying there. But just a huge credit to the race team for putting a qualifying setup underneath it. Obviously, Aric (Almirola) came here and tested and kind of had a baseline for where we needed to shoot for for targets.”

The top five was filled out by Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney and Daniel Suarez, a non-playoff driver.

The top 12 was completed by Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Cole Custer and Kyle Busch

Custer, driving Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Ford – in a car prepped by Stewart-Haas Racing, is making his third-career start. This is his last Cup race of the season.

Where the rest of the playoff field qualified:

Joey Logano (13th), Alex Bowman (14th), Chase Elliott (19th), Jimmie Johnson (22nd), Clint Bowyer (25th) and Austin Dillon (28th).

The starting lineup will be finalized tomorrow after inspection.

Click here for results.

Kyle Busch leads Cup practice at Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. – Kyle Busch posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Cup practice at Richmond Raceway.

Busch ran a lap of 121.190 mph. He was followed by Aric Almirola (120.968 mph), Erik Jones (120.697), Ty Dillon (120.514) and AJ Allmendinger (120.273).

There were no incidents in the session.

Alex Bowman ran the most laps at 58. Denny Hamlin ran 57 laps. Ty Dillon ran 54 laps.

Busch had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 120.141 mph. He was followed by Almirola (119.156) and Allmendinger (119.065).

Click here for practice report

Friday 5: A final quest at a ‘childhood dream’

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Elliott Sadler is blunt when he considers his NASCAR career ending without a championship.

“(It) would be a huge void in my life,” he said.

The 43-year-old driver, in his 22nd and final full-time NASCAR season, makes his last run at an Xfinity title beginning with tonight’s playoff opener at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Four times in the last seven years Sadler finished runner-up for the Xfinity crown, including last season when he lost the title in the final laps to JR Motorsports teammate William Byron.

“Last year really hurt,” Sadler said. “Really, really hurt. We were in position to win that championship. I don’t know if I’m 100 percent over it yet.”

Sadler was upset last year with Ryan Preece, who slowed Sadler by challenging him for position as Sadler tried to hold off Byron with 10 laps left. Byron got by Sadler. Any hopes Sadler had for a title ended when he made contact with Preece’s car and cut a right front tire. 

Sadler’s anger bubbled after the race and he yelled at Preece on pit road as NASCAR officials stood between them.

Sadler, who competed full-time in Cup from 1999-2010, has called it a “childhood dream” to win a NASCAR championship.

“If we’re not able to win a championship, it would definitely be a scar in my mind of not being a NASCAR champion after putting 20 years of effort into it, after being a kid and a fan and dreaming of being a part of this sport,” he said. “Now, that will not define me as a dad or define me as a person. I’ll still be able, hopefully, to do good things in my community, but it will definitely leave a mark.”

Before he gets to that point, he will have to get through his final race at his home track tonight. Richmond Raceway will honor the Emporia, Virginia, native by having Sadler’s children help with the command to start engines.

Even better for him would be going to Victory Lane with his family. Sadler has never won at Richmond in 56 starts in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. Asked to recall his biggest moment at the track, he instantly brings up the 2005 Xfinity race when Carl Edwards bumped him out of the lead on the last lap to win.

“I’m probably more nervous about going to Richmond, trying to win the race than I am trying to make it to Homestead,” Sadler said.

When the season ends in two months, don’t expect to see Sadler at the track often in the future.

“I don’t see myself involved in any racing at all,” Sadler said of his post-driving career. “I’ve been offered a job to come do TV, but I don’t see traveling away from home to talk about racing.”

Instead he’ll coach youth sports teams.

“My dad was a huge coach growing up,” Sadler said. “My brother is a wonderful coach and I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I love it. We’re at the facility every night hopefully changing kids’ lives. It would be hard for me to do both at 100 percent. It’s not really that I’m retiring from racing, I’m retiring to coaching and to my kids.”

2. What might have been

Jimmie Johnson has witnessed how fine a line it is between winning and finishing in the pack the past two weeks.

At Indianapolis and Las Vegas, Johnson ran with Brad Keselowski during parts of those races only to see Keselowski win both and Johnson finish far behind.

After the end of stage 2 at Indianapolis, Keselowski was 16th and Johnson was 17th. About 30 laps later, Keselowski was third and Johnson fifth. Keselowski went on to win and Johnson finished 16th.

At Las Vegas, Keselowski was sixth and Johnson seventh with just over 100 laps left. Keselowski won. Johnson was headed for a top-five finish before contact late in the race with Kurt Busch’s car cut a tire and forced Johnson to pit. Johnson finished 22nd.

Keselowski has said that he has not had the fastest car in each of the three races he’s won heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team seek to perform the way Keselowski’s team has.

“Drivers make mistakes,” Johnson said. “Pit stops can go wrong. Unfortunate racing luck can happen. To get all of that to rise together, it takes a little bit of time. We have made a nice jump in speed. I still think we have some room to go there, but now we need to execute on all levels and take advantages of those opportunities that (Keselowski) has.”

While the team seeks to find that speed and execute, Johnson has gone winless in a career-long 50 races.

“I’ve been in a deeper hole before, my own personal experiences in motorsports,” Johnson said, referring to early in his career in off-road racing and then in NASCAR when he “risked it all” and moved to North Carolina to pursue a career in stock car racing.

“I didn’t have as big a spotlight on me and wasn’t a seven-time champion, so nobody really remembers those except me. So I know I will get through this. I’ve been through worse.

“We are moving the right direction. I believe we have hit the valley and are climbing back out.”

He’ll need to do so to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Johnson enters Richmond six points behind teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to the second round.

3. Cole Custer’s self-assessment

With no driver announced for the No. 41 Cup car next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, it was easy for some to think that Cole Custer could move up to that ride.

Car owner Gene Haas seemed to quell such talk last weekend at Las Vegas. While saying he believes Custer “is a good talent,” Haas said of the young driver: “He needs to prove that he can win consistently in Xfinity before I think we’ll consider him for a Cup ride.”

Custer has one Xfinity victory in 64 career series starts. He’s placed second or third in five races this season.

So where does Custer believe he needs to improve?

“I think there are little things that I can do better,” he said. “Having the Cup experience this year has helped me with what happens in that series.

“I think for the most part I have speed every single weekend (in Xfinity). It’s just a matter getting the restarts right and working traffic better and controlling the race when you have the fastest car.”

Custer, who is in the Xfinity playoffs, also will run in Saturday’s Cup race. He’ll drive the No. 51 for Rick Ware Racing. It will be Custer’s third career Cup start.

4. Going for 4 in a row

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the only drivers to win four consecutive Cup races in the last 20 years. That’s the feat Brad Keselowski will seek to equal Saturday night at Richmond.

Since NSACAR’s modern era (1972), eight drivers have won four consecutive races: Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).

5. NASCAR’s 5th President

Steve Phelps will become the fifth president in NASCAR’s history on Oct. 1.

Bill France Sr. held the position from 1948-72. Bill France Jr. took over from his father until 2000. Mike Helton was in that role from 2000-2015 before he was promoted to Vice Chairman of NASCAR.

The president’s position was not filled after Helton’s promotion until Brent Dewar took over that role July 13, 2017. Phelps is replacing Dewar, who will remain with NASCAR through the end of the season and transition to a senior consulting and advisory role in 2019.

Phelps will oversee all competition and business operations for the sanctioning body in his new role.

He has been more visible at races lately and presented Kyle Busch the regular-season champion’s trophy at two weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In January, Phelps, as NASCAR’s chief global sales and marketing officer at the time, was thrust into the controversy about how NASCAR marketed younger drivers after Busch complained about the tactics and Clint Bowyer raised questions about the sanctioning body’s actions.

In July, Phelps defended the sport’s ability to attract sponsors.

“I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” he said at Pocono Raceway during an announcement that Gander Mountain will sponsor the Truck Series beginning in 2019. “We have more sponsors in this sport today than we’ve ever had. We’ve got almost half the Fortune 100, almost a third of the Fortune 500. It’s a lot of large companies who are in the sport not because it would be really cool to go racing. It’s because it works.

“So people tend to focus on, ‘Oh, my gosh, sponsor A left and sponsor B left,’ and for us, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, C, D, E and F also came on board as brand new sponsors.’ And then a plethora of others have renewed or extended for a period of time.

“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative. I’m not really sure why.”

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Who is hot and cold entering Richmond

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The Cup playoffs continue this weekend with the second race of the first round, Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It’s the first of two short tracks the series will visit during the playoffs, the second being Martinsville Speedway.

After a crash fest in the opener at Las Vegas impacted more than half of the playoff field, here’s who is hot and cold entering Richmond.

Who is Hot

Brad Keselowski
• Won at Las Vegas (13th in Stage 1, 1st in Stage 2, 75 laps led)
• Won three straight races for 1st time in career
• Finished in top 2 in 4 of last 5 races
• Advanced to Round of 12 for 5th consecutive season
• Finished 8th or better in 6 of last 9 Richmond races, 8th in April
• Started 15th, 21st stage 1, 5th stage 2. Finished 11th in this race one year ago
• Three top 10s in the last five short track races

Kyle Busch
• Finished 7th at Las Vegas (6th in Stage 1, 15th in Stage 2, 1 lap led); pit for a 2nd time on Lap 113 due to missing lugs on right-front tire; spun off Turn 4 on Lap 233 while running 18th and went through the grass
• Finished 8th or better in 3 straight races and 8 of last 9 races
• Won 6 of last 21 races
• Finished in top 5 in 10 of last 15 races
• Finished in the top 10 in 14 of last 16 races
• Finished in the top 5 in 17 of 27 races this season
• Finished top 10 in 6 of last 8 Richmond races, including win in April
• Started 7th, 1st in Stage 1, 10th in Stage 2, 38 laps led, finished 9th in this race one year ago
• Won 4 of last 7 short track races
• Top 10 six of the last seven short track races

Paul Menard
• Finished 10th at Las Vegas (22nd in Stage 1, 27th in Stage 2)
• Finished in Top 10 in the last two races, his first back-to-back top 10s this season
• Finished 15th or worse in 9 straight Richmond races, including 24th in April
• Started 26th, 22nd in Stage 1, 19th in Stage 2, finished 28th in this race one year ago
• No top 10s in the last 15 short track races, his last top 10 was at Martinsville in April 2016

Ryan Newman
• Finished 9th at Las Vegas (10th in Stage 1, 11th in Stage 2)
• Finished in top 10 in the last two races
• Top 10 in two of the last three Richmond races but finished outside the top 10 in five of the last seven
• Finished 3rd in this race one year ago
• One top 10 in the last five short track races

Who is Cold

Austin Dillon
• Finished 11th at Las Vegas (18th in Stage 1, 13th in Stage 2); started in the rear due to illegal body modifications
• Finished outside the top 10 in 8 of last 9 races
• Finished 12th or worse in 19 of last 22 races
• Finished outside top 10 in 23 of 26 races since Daytona 500 win
• Never finished better than 13th in 9 career Richmond starts, including 15th in April
• Started 31st, 16th in Stage 1, 21st in Stage 2, finished 21st in this race one year ago
• No top 10s in the last nine short track races, his last top 10 on a short track was at Martinsville in April of 2017

Chase Elliott
• Finished 36th at Las Vegas (5th in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2); DNF – collected in wreck with Jamie McMurray on Lap 212 while running 6th.
• Finished 15th or worse in the last two races
• Finished in top 10 in 6 of last 8 races
• Top 10s in last 2 Richmond races, including 2nd in April
• Started 9th, 9th in Stage 1, 12th in Stage 2, finished 10th in this race one year ago
• Finished top 10 in 3 of last 4 short track races

Jimmie Johnson
• Finished 22nd at Las Vegas (17th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2); hit the wall on Lap 256 while running 7th
• Finished 16th or worse in six of the last seven races
• Finished outside the top 10 in 11 of last 13 races
• Currently on a 50-race winless streak (longest of career)
• Top 10 in six of the last eight Richmond races
• Started 20th, 15th in Stage 1, 13th in Stage 2, finished 8th in this race one year ago
• Top 10 in the last three short track races

Alex Bowman
• Finished 19th at Las Vegas (3rd in Stage 1, 9th in Stage 2); penalized for uncontrolled tire on Lap 162 while running 9th; hit the wall on lap 256 while running 9th
• Finished 19th or worse in 3 straight races and 14th or worse in 5 of last 6
• Never finished better than 18th in 5 career Richmond starts (18th in April)
• Finished top 10 in 3 of last 4 short track races

Hendrick Motorsports duo battling for last playoff spot but encouraged by run

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LAS VEGAS — Jimmie Johnson was headed for his best finish in months before contact late in Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway left him with a result outside the top 20.

Johnson, in position to score his first top-five finish since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, made contact with Kurt Busch’s car and cut a tire with less than 20 laps left. Johnson finished 22nd.

The result left him six points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to the second round with two races left. Bowman hit the wall earlier in the race and finished 19th.

Johnson entered the playoffs as the 15th seed and Bowman was the last seed among the 16 playoff contenders. Neither had scored any bonus playoff points this season.

Without those bonus points, both needed to avoid problems.

Johnson couldn’t as he raced Busch.

“Off of Turn 2, was racing hard, got loose and I touched (Busch’s car),” Johnson said after the race. “I didn’t think much of it and got halfway down the back straightaway and I could tell I had a right front flat. It was just racing hard off Turn 2 and I cut a right front down.”

Despite the disappointing finish, Johnson left Las Vegas encouraged.

“We were doing well, that was the thing that was most encouraging today,” Johnson said. “I think on a long run we probably had a second-place car. On the short run, (Martin Truex Jr.) seemed to have everyone covered for a large part of the race, but outside of that I think we were a top-five car easily. Very, very excited about that. Obviously disappointed we didn’t close and didn’t finish where we needed to, but it was nice to have speed in the car.”

Bowman also was excited about the speed in his car.

“That is the most speed we have had on a 1.5-mile all year,” he said. “I was running 50 percent … maybe 60 percent that first run towards the end and just mowing guys down. Our long run speed was so good. We were too tight to restart, but our long run speed was really good. So, that is super encouraging, unfortunately we don’t have another 1.5-mile for a while, but we can turn it around at Richmond too.”