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Driver lineup set for Charlotte road course tests in July

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Charlotte Motor Speedway announced the driver lineup for the two days of testing that will take place in July on the track’s road course.

NASCAR created two separate test days. Tests will be July 10 and July 17. Both sessions will go from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET with a lunch break from noon to 1 p.m. ET.

The tests are open to the public.

The Cup series races on Charlotte’s road course Sept. 30 in the playoffs.

Scheduled to test on July 10

Martin Truex Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Chase Elliott

Kevin Harvick

Clint Bowyer

Denny Hamlin

Daniel Suarez

Brad Keselowski

Paul Menard

Trevor Bayne

Jamie McMurray

Austin Dillon

Chris Buescher

Kasey Kahne

Michael McDowell

Gray Gaulding

Landon Cassill

B.J. McLeod

Scheduled to test on July 17

Kyle Busch

Erik Jones

Ryan Blaney

Joey Logano

Kyle Larson

Aric Almirola

Kurt Busch

Alex Bowman

William Byron

Bubba Wallace

Ryan Newman

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

AJ Allmendinger

Ty Dillon

Matt DiBenedetto

Corey LaJoie

David Ragan

Reed Sorenson

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Friday 5: How a few laps in March could impact the playoff race

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In a season that stretches from February to November, covers more than 13,000 miles and competes in 20 states, it often can be the moments easily overlooked that prove to be among the most important.

The race for points is becoming increasingly critical with only six winners — the fewest this deep into a season since 1996. If Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer continue to win (they’ve combined to win 13 of the first 15 races), that would mean several of the 16 playoff spots would be set by points.

If so, even the smallest moments could determine who makes the playoffs or how many playoff points, if any, a driver scores for finishing in the top 10 in the regular season, which ends Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott enters this off-weekend 14th in the playoff standings. He has a 31-point lead on what would be the final playoff position, held by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

Even with the dominance of Harvick, Busch, Truex and Bowyer, it seems likely there will be at least two different winners before the postseason, meaning Elliott will need to climb higher in the points — if he’s not one of those winners — to secure a playoff spot.

Recall that he’s already lost 45 points this season because of penalties at Phoenix and Texas this season.

Then look back at the middle of that Phoenix race in March.

Elliott was fourth and in position to score seven points in the second stage until a late caution. He scored none.

Things changed for Elliott when Chris Buescher hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 147. The second stage ended at Lap 150. NASCAR cleared the track in time to run one green-flag lap before the stage ended.

Elliott pitted during that caution with many of the leaders, who were focused on positioning themselves to win the race instead of scoring stage points.

Six cars did not pit. That included Kurt Busch, who was behind Elliott in fifth, and Brad Keselowski, who was sixth.

Elliott restarted outside the top 10 and didn’t make it up there for the end of the stage. So seven points he looked to be in position to gain were gone. Elliott went on to finish third in the race.

Busch won that stage to earn a playoff point but would finish 10th in the race. Keselowski went on to finish 15th after finishing second in that stage.

One who gained points at Phoenix was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He is four points out of what would be the final playoff spot at this moment.

Stenhouse was running 20th before the caution for Buescher’s incident. Stenhouse did not pit and lined up third for the one-lap run to end the stage. He finished third, gaining eight points that he wouldn’t have scored had Buescher’s accident not happened.

It can be simple decisions — pit or not — that can play a big factor in how the season goes for some teams. Lose too many points and one could miss the playoffs. Steal points and that could help a team be eligible for a run to the championship.

That’s why the end of the second stage at Michigan was critical for drivers such as Elliott and Stenhouse, who do not have a win and are battling for a playoff spot.

Had a winless driver remained on track through the caution — Kasey Kahne stayed out but then pitted the lap before the restart when it appeared that rain wouldn’t be arriving soon — then such a driver could have taken a playoff spot. It would have meant one less playoff spot based on points.

That Bowyer, who was already set in the playoffs with his Martinsville win, triumphed at Michigan allowed those racing for a playoff spot to breathe easier.

But with two road courses to go (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), a restrictor-plate race (Daytona) and possibly two races with the All-Star Race rules package (likely Michigan and Indianapolis) left in the regular season, there’s the chance that there could be some different winners taking playoff spots.

That would make the race for points even tighter and every decision more important.

2. Grassroots racing

With the Cup Series off this weekend, some drivers are taking the chance to race at local tracks.

Kyle Busch finished third to Brian Campbell in the Money in the Bank Super Late Model race Monday at Berlin (Michigan) Raceway.

Kyle Larson is set to run in six days of the nine-day Ohio Sprint Speedweek with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, the series owned by Tony Stewart.

Kasey Kahne also is scheduled to run a few of the Ohio Sprint Speedweek races.

Ohio Sprint Speedweek begins tonight at Attica Raceway Park. Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, hosts the second night of the series on Saturday. The series then goes to Waynesfield Raceway on Sunday night before continuing the following week.

3. A new winner?

The Xfinity Series has had 12 different winners in the first 13 races heading into Sunday’s event at Iowa Speedway.

This weekend’s race will have three drivers who have won this year — Tyler Reddick at Daytona, Christopher Bell at Richmond and Justin Allgaier at Dover.

Ryan Preece, who won at Bristol, is not entered. Spencer Gallagher, who won at Talladega, remains under indefinite suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy. The other winners in the series are full-time Cup drivers.

The odds are in favor or another new winner this weekend in the Xfinity Series.

Points leader Elliott Sadler seeks to snap a 52-race winless streak, dating back to Kentucky in September 2016. Cole Custer is second in the points, and goes for his first win since last year’s season finale in Miami. Daniel Hemric, who is third in the points, seeks his first career series wins. Sunday will be his 47th Xfinity start.

4. No Cup drivers

Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race and Sunday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway both will not have any Cup drivers entered.

This will be the fifth Xfinity race without a full-time Cup driver in it. Full-time Cup drivers were barred from the fourth Dash 4 Cash races and Iowa will be run with all the Cup drivers taking the weekend off from NASCAR.

5. Last break until …

After this weekend, Cup teams will have only one weekend off the rest of the season. Cup teams will race 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 19, the weekend between Michigan (Aug. 12) and Bristol (Aug. 26). The season ends Nov. 18 in Miami.

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Cup drivers on the rise

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While much of the talk this week has been about how Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have dominated this season, winning 11 of the first 14 races, they aren’t the only drivers on the rise.

Here’s a look at some drivers who have made gains since earlier in the season:

Kyle Larson

He enters this weekend at Michigan having won the past three Cup races there. He’s been talked about as the driver who could have the best chance of breaking into the club of Harvick, Busch and Truex.

Larson comes into Sunday’s race with four consecutive top-10 finishes, including his runner-up result last weekend at Pocono.

Harvick was complimentary of Larson on Tuesday night on his “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The best young driver in Cup right now is Kyle Larson by a landslide,’’ Harvick said. “He’s carrying a slower car and getting great results with it and he does it by just sheer talent. … He’s the best raw talented driver, and I’ve said this on this show before, that I think has come along since Jeff Gordon.’’

Jimmie Johnson

After scoring one top-10 finish in the season’s first seven races, Johnson has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. Johnson comes to Michigan after back-to-back top 10s at Charlotte and Pocono. He has not had a top 10 in three consecutive races since his 2016 championship season.

Chase Elliott

He had an average finish of 18.1 through the first eight races of the season. In the last six races, his average finish is 8.3. Elliott has finished no worse than 12th in the last six races.

Matt Kenseth

He’ll make his fifth consecutive start in the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing (including his All-Star appearance). Trevor Bayne returns to the car at Sonoma. Bayne and Kenseth will continue to share the car the rest of the season.

Kenseth has made progress since finishing 36th at Kansas. He was 17th in the Coca-Cola 600 and placed 13th at Pocono.

Kenseth told Dale Earnhardt Jr. last month on the Dale Jr. Download that there’s a good bit of work ahead to help the organization be more competitive.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Kenseth said. “I think, the potential is there, but certainly it’s going to take some work and probably a little more patience and a little more time than maybe I originally thought.’’

Chris Buescher

It has been a difficult year for Buescher and JTG Daugherty Racing teammate AJ Allmendinger. They’ve combined for one top-10 finish since the Daytona 500 when both placed in the top 10.

But Buescher enters Michigan having scored three top-20 finishes in the last five races , including a 17th last week at Pocono, for his best stretch of the season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He had an average finish of 21.0 though the first nine races of the season.

He’s scored five consecutive top-15 finishes and has an average finish of 11.0 during that stretch.

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New rules for All-Star Race make this anyone’s event to win

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How will Saturday night’s All-Star Race unfold at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a new rules package virtually untested in the real world?

“We will just have to wait and see,” Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman said, succinctly summarized the thoughts of many.

“The rules package NASCAR is planning to use for the All-Star Race is definitely going to be interesting and something different,” Bowman said in a release this week. “It’s cool that NASCAR is trying to constantly make the racing better.”

This week’s prerace releases have been filled with uncertainty. Martin Truex Jr. hopes to use that to his advantage because the rules won’t carry over to the Coca-Cola 600. He isn’t the only one experiencing a change in attitude this year.

Locked into the All-Star Race because of his 2008 victory in the event, Kasey Kahne has the opportunity to deliver Leavine Family Racing one of its biggest successes. Much like racing on the restrictor-plate superspeedways, conventional wisdom will not apply, and this likely will be a wild-card race.

“With us not having run this rules package, we go into this weekend not exactly sure how the cars are going to feel in general, how they’ll work around other cars, or what the speeds will be like,” Kahne said. “It’s tough to say how it will all work out, but we won’t be learning much from this weekend to carry over into the 600 like we may have in years past. Teams will try to go out and win the All-Star Race with this package, and then next weekend, we’ll go back to racing what we’ve been racing all season long.”

“This package is going to be different, there’s no question about it,” David Ragan said. “Charlotte Motor Speedway is a place where the field tends to get strung out really fast, but these rules will slow everybody down a little, and I think we might see more side-by-side racing. And maybe it can spark some new conversation in the industry on a direction we need to go.”

The teams aren’t exactly working in a vacuum. NASCAR used a version of this rules package at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Xfinity race last year, and the general consensus was that it did, in fact, create more side-by-side racing.

“I think we have to try this new aero package and see where it goes,” Chris Buescher said. “I know the (Xfinity cars) were able to use it at Indy, and I think as far as statistics go, there was a lot of movement in the field and green-flag passing, and I know that’s what NASCAR is after to try and create something different for the All-Star Race.”

Because no one really knows what to expect, a new rules package levels the playing field and may just well give a less experienced driver a chance to shine.

“Hopefully, what I learned with that aero package last year at Indy (in Xfinity) will apply,” William Byron said. “I feel like maybe I’ll have a little bit of the upper hand just knowing what my car needs to do because I think a lot of guys may be up in the air on what to do with their cars (with the new package).”

What will actually happen in the race is anyone’s guess – much the same as on plate tracks.

Without points on the line, there is an incentive to take risks one might not otherwise. This race is already prone to high-risk moves. If the rules package slows the cars arbitrarily and the entirety of the race is run in a pack or multiple packs, the proximity of these enthusiastic drivers to one another could be a recipe for excitement – or disaster.

What other drivers said:

  • “This year’s race in particular will be interesting with the new rules package. I can’t really give any opinion one way or the other until we get on the racetrack around other cars to see what it will be like.” – Jamie McMurray
  • “I’m excited to get on track with the new package we’ll run and see how it feels and how it races.” – Kyle Larson
  • “You never know what is going to happen, especially with the new aero package that we will run. Anyone can win the race.” – Ty Dillon
  • “Obviously, speeds are going to be slower, a lot more downforce, a lot more drag. But it’s still a big question mark. Nobody knows how it’s really going to play out.” – Michael McDowell

What drivers said after Kansas Cup race

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Kevin Harvick – Winner: “Well, I think this weekend shows really how good the race team is. Everything didn’t go exactly smooth, and everybody just kept a good demeanor about things and kept calm and kept working through things. The same thing tonight. Everybody just kept working through trying to make the car better, and we were able to wind up in Victory Lane. Those are the days that you just grind it out.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished 2nd: “I thought we were going to be all right there. Like three or four to go, my car just got real tight, and I chattered the right front off of turn four, and I was like, ‘Oh boy, that’s not good.’ We had been so tight all night and I didn’t know where to go once he was getting there. If I go to the top, he’s just going to catch me on the bottom. I might as well run where I feel I can run the fastest, and I did and it just wasn’t enough. Good strategy call by Cole (Pearn, crew chief) and overall, just a hell of an effort by everybody on our team. We had to fight hard. We were awful at the start of the race. We’re missing something right now, just can’t get the thing turned, so we felt tight all night long. Got better for sure the last three or four runs of the race but still have to find some turns. We’ll get to work on that.”

Joey Logano – Finished 3rd: “I really just had two bad restarts in a row, which is frustrating to me. As the leader, I feel like I probably took the wrong lane, which cost me the lead in the first place and then the last time I was trying to time him on the bottom, and he just read it really well and kind of stopped me, and then I spun the tires after that. The car behind me wasn’t the best of pushers. He wanted to win the race, too, and I don’t blame him. He’s not my teammate. He’s there to win, too. I just hate being that close. It’s a great run for AAA and Team Penske, but when you’re that close to winning it’s pretty frustrating as a driver and probably as a team we’re all probably a little frustrated right now.”

Kyle Larson -Finished 4th: “Yeah, we just had a really good car tonight. Our Clover Chevy was fast. I always run pretty good here at Kansas, so it was nice to lead some laps. I thought we were going to have a really good shot to win there, and Kevin (Harvick) was able to get to my outside. And then, I was tight in traffic there. Yeah, then (Ryan) Blaney was side-drafting really hard and I was as high as I could get and we made contact, whatever, and we had a bunch of damage, so I hate that we didn’t turn today into a win, but it’s satisfying to see how much speed our car had tonight. And, it’s definitely good to show that Chevy has a lot of speed, at least in the No. 42 team; so, we’ll just keep working hard and try to get as fast as the No. 4. I thought, myself, the No. 4 and the No. 12 were all pretty equal tonight. It was kind of just whoever got out in clean air and could get to the top quick enough would be the fastest throughout the run. So, it was a fun race but a little bit disappointing there in the last 20 laps.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 5th: “I thought it was average. It felt balanced on the short run, and I lost the balance there toward the middle and end of the race. We optimized our finish. I certainly don’t think we had a fifth-place car, but we just did a good job with the track position there. Got a good finish out of it.”

Paul Menard – Finished 6th: “We had a good car all weekend. We made some good adjustments coming into tonight and kept working on it all night long. The track changed a lot as the sun went down. We kind of saved our best for last, I guess. We had a couple cars crash in front of us. We avoided it and the further up you can restart the better off you can stay up there and the more likely you are to stay up there, so clean air was everything tonight.”

Erik Jones – Finished 7th: “We had a really good car. Our Reser’s Camry was about a seventh-place car, and that’s where we ended up. We have to keep working. We’re getting close. There are some other teams that have some more speed right now and we’re trying to close the gap on them. We have to keep working on that and hopefully find our way to get there sooner rather than later.”

Kyle Busch – Finished 10th: “We were just a little off all weekend. But even though we were, we were able to run up near the front with our M&M’S Caramel Camry. We just ended up getting back in traffic there on the last couple of restarts and dropped too far down. We’ll go back and hopefully figure out where we are off, learn from it and move onto the next one.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Finished 11th: “Overall, we were pretty much an 18th-place car all day. Our Ford wasn’t affected by any of the adjustments we were making, but with pit strategy and late-race cautions we were able to salvage an 11th-place finish. Not a bad points day. We’ll go back to the shop and keep working on our cars.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 12th: “Yeah, just scratching and clawing to run mediocre. We have a lot of work to do.”

David Ragan – Finished 13th: “We made good adjustments Saturday night to start the race and I felt like our car was OK the first run, and then we made a good improvement that first pit stop, so that really helped us stay on the lead lap a little bit longer, and then we just caught a couple of lucky breaks at the end, but we were just good enough that we could take advantage of those lucky breaks. I feel like we’ve made some more progress with our 1.5-mile cars. It was a fun race. We still have some more improvement we can do, but it was fun to race there with some good cars.”

Clint Bowyer – Finished 15th: “It was a solid run. All weekend long it was just not our weekend. We had tech issues and didn’t get to qualify. We started in the back and got up through there pretty good, but then kind of stalled out. We got wrecked there. I was trying to get us up in the top five and got wrecked there. That’s just part of it I guess.”

AJ Allmendinger – Finished 16th: “It was a hard-fought night for sure. We didn’t have a good Friday, so made kind of wholesale changes on it. Fortunately, Chris (Buescher) was really good all weekend, so we kind used a little bit of his, and that helped. Just kind of all day, I could be loose or tight, just felt like I was at a certain speed, and that was about as good as I was going to go there. The track definitely changed a lot. I thought we fought hard. I did everything I could on the restart there to get all the spots and a little fortunate from a couple of cars falling out. We salvaged a decent night from a tough weekend and hopefully just learn from this and keep going the right direction and try to make it better.”

Austin Dillon – Finished 17th: “We had a challenging night at Kansas Speedway as we battled a lack of grip and handling issues, but I am proud of this Richard Childress Racing team because they never give up. We hit a snag in the race during a green flag pit stop. Our car was gurgling in the middle of three and four and I panicked. I came down pit road too abruptly and earned us a commitment line violation. We could have made it another lap and we ended up multiple laps down. We kept digging and we were able to earn back one of our laps when the caution came out with 30 laps remaining but didn’t have enough laps left in the race to get back on the lead lap.”

Michael McDowell – Finished 20th: “It’s good to get some points and get some momentum back of just finishing races. We just started out really loose and got behind a little bit and made good changes at the end, but by then we were two laps down, and it’s just hard to make up. Everybody fought hard, and it’s still good to get a top 20. I’m really happy for my teammate, David Ragan, top 15. That’s a great run for them, and they’ve been having a good streak. That’s not what we hoped for, but all in all an OK day.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 30th: “We were just an innocent bystander really. They crashed kind of underneath me, in front of me and just got all wadded up. I mean I had no place to go. It’s just unfortunate, kind of a ho-hum race I guess you could say for so long and then to get 14 laps from the end and tear up a bunch of cars like that just kind of sucks.”

William Byron – Finished 33rd: “Yeah, that one hurt really bad. But I’m fine. We took two tires there and couldn’t get it turned on the bottom and then got sucked around at the last minute. It just should have been lower than that. Just couldn’t rotate. Couldn’t cut. I think overall, we were trying to kind of push some things there and it just didn’t work out. But, we’re going to wherever is next and that was definitely the hardest hit I’ve been in. But, I’m thankful to be walking, so that’s good.”

Chris Buescher: – Finished 34th: “It was pushing and shoving (on a) late-race restart, and everybody gets impatient so just wadded up a bunch of cars. I thought we had cleared it, and we were in the grass and just had somebody come from the top and wipe us out. Not what we wanted with our Breyers 2 N 1 Camaro. We had good speed in the sun, and the sun went down, and we lost a little something. We were working hard to get it back and trying to be fighting for the lucky dog there, and we were for a long time. We just got swiped and something that who knows, I haven’t seen a replay. I don’t know. I’m sure just uncalled for.”

Matt Kenseth – Finished 36th: “I expected us to be a little more competitive than that, so it was a really tough weekend all around. We obviously have some work to do. The good news is it’s got to get better.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 37th: “I don’t know. It was hard racing. I definitely take the blame on that one. I was just trying to side draft hard and the car was kind of light down the frontstretch there and it was just hard racing at the end. I got about spun out in one and two on the restart, getting sucked around. We were making some spots back up and just trying to get back up to the front and tried too hard. That stinks. We had a really fast race car and I hate it for REV. The two races they’ve been on our car this year and we’ve led a bunch of laps in both of them and ended up wrecked. I wish we could get over that hump, but I thought we made a good gain tonight and where our cars need to be. Hopefully, we can carry that forward into the next upcoming weeks, but it was definitely my fault just trying too hard. I made contact and it cut my right-front down. I hate I got the 42, but it was just hard racing.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 38th: “This weekend was a rough one for our Twisted Tea team. From the moment we hit the track for practice and throughout the entire race, we struggled with our Camaro ZL1. Then we got caught up in the wreck at the end. I tried to avoid it, but drove in the grass and knocked the radiator out of it. Tough ending for our Germain Racing team, but we will go back to the shop and continue to push to make our cars better.”