Ryan: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick could be turning playoff race into mad scramble

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Halfway to the playoffs, and two stories are emerging in NASCAR’s premier series with one common theme: Points.

There are the playoff points that Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are accumulating at a rate quick enough that half of this year’s championship field might be sewed up by September.

And then there are the “regular” points that will become even more of a scramble over the next 13 races to snatch whatever berths remain in the 16-driver playoff field.

There have been six winners through the first 13 races, mostly because of Busch (four victories) and Harvick (five). If the two hottest drivers in NASCAR’s premier series can maintain their torrid pace, and if some combination of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon also can repeat (which seems likely), there probably will be more spots available on points than ever in the five seasons the playoffs were reconfigured in 2014.

The playoff lineup is filled first by winners, and if there are fewer than 16, the remaining slots are awarded on points. The record for most points-eligible qualifiers was five in 2015 (Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Bowyer), and there seems a good chance for at least as many or more this year.

As NASCAR grinds through the grueling summer stretch with slick racetracks and oppressive heat, the tension could ratchet up against the backdrop of a points race – particularly with a fresh 2018 schedule that includes another 1.5-mile track (Chicagoland) and a new cutoff race.

In the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR seems to be learning toward using the All-Star Race rules package that mixes restrictor plates and aero ducts to bunch the field.

The current championship standings should make it a no-brainer, given there is virtually no chance of having 16 playoff berths for 16 winners.

If there is a points battle of, say, more than a dozen drivers vying for the last six or seven playoff berths, it could turn the Brickyard into the free-for-all that the 2.5-mile track desperately needs to help reinvigorate dwindling crowds.

Though last year’s race was among the most memorable because of the three-wide battles for the lead at the front, it could be even more captivating to watch several drivers duel for positions within the pack in the waning laps if the racing resembles the action produced in the All-Star Race.

Thus, Busch and Harvick inadvertently could make the Brickyard a must-watch event this season – while simultaneously turning the playoffs into a frenzied scrum of 14 drivers for two spots in Miami.

While it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they will be in the championship finale, Busch (25 playoff points) and Harvick (24) are tracking ahead of where defending series champion Truex was last season (16 after 13 races). At this rate, both will claim mega-bonuses from their regular-season standings and would enter the playoffs as co-favorites.


Kyle Busch has won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which means he has won at every track on the Cup circuit.

This STILL will be true Sept. 30 when the first race is run on Charlotte’s road course. Yes, the track will carry a “Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval” designation on the schedule, and its debut will mean that he won’t have won at every Cup layout.

But Busch still will have won at every track for several reasons.

Start with the fact that the “Roval” course will use all but 400 feet of the 1.5-mile oval that Busch finally conquered Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600.

And let’s remember that many famous ovals also have road courses that hold races, and there is little distinction made in designating them.

Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher are both five-time winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Will Power became a first-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 but is a four-time winner at IMS. Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Jamie McMurray have multiple signature victories at Daytona International Speedway – in the Daytona 500 and Rolex 24.

NASCAR apparently will be recognizing the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval as a “new” track, which opens a Pandora’s box of questions about retrofitting its record books.

Tracks rarely are given such reclassifications after repaves or reconfigurations that change the complexions of their races. The Roval layout might be on a different level, but so is Richmond Raceway’s 65-year evolution.

It started as a half-mile dirt track before being paved in 1968. Two decades later, it was torn down and rebuilt as the current 0.75-mile track.

None of this is abundantly obvious (unless you have an eagle eye for varying distances) on Racing-Reference.info, the deservedly respected bible of NASCAR historical information. Richard Petty has 13 wins at Richmond – not 10 on pavement and three on dirt (which should count as much as a “new” track as turning a 1.5-mile oval into a road course).

Busch apparently was told less than an hour after becoming the first driver of the modern era to win at every track that (because NASCAR is counting the Charlotte roval as a “new” track) the record would last for four months .

How about letting him enjoy it for much longer than that? As in, until the next time a new track actually is added to the schedule?


There’s always annual talk about which NASCAR driver might be the next to attempt the Indianapolis 500-Coca-Cola 600 doubleheader.

But how about IndyCar drivers coming the other direction?

Power’s Indy 500 win, coupled with his 2014 championship, should allow him to write his own ticket with team owner Roger Penske, who has IndyCar and NASCAR teams under the same roof in Mooresville, North Carolina. Power has expressed a desire to race a stock car, as have teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josesf Newgarden (who also have IndyCar titles).

“Hell, yes,” Newgarden said last week. “I love NASCAR. I think it’s awesome. Open wheel cars captured me as a kid. That doesn’t mean I don’t like stock cars. But I also like this resurgence of drivers who say they want to do everything. I think there’s a lot of guys who do want to do everything and always have.

Joked Pagenaud: “I’m very French but could do it. I can drink coffee while I drive, no problem. I can do it.”

Newgarden is frustrated by how segmented racing has become for drivers in the 21st century. “You have to have a side,” he said. “You have to choose one. I think it’s so stupid. I like it all. I watch everything. I watch NASCAR stuff. We all do. We all follow that stuff. We’d all love to try it.

“When you drive for Roger, you have to first focus on what you’re hired for, and you’re hired to win the Indianapolis 500 and the championship, and if you do a great job at that, maybe one day you’ll get an opportunity to try a stock car. I hope that happens.”

The growth of road courses in both the Xfinity (Road America is a longtime IndyCar venue) and Cup series also could offer more opportunities. James Hinchcliffe is among the IndyCar drivers who reportedly has been exploring one-off road-course rides in NASCAR.

And based how he handled single-file restarts Sunday in Indy, we wouldn’t mind seeing Alexander Rossi getting a shot, too.


For the second time this season, four Chevrolet drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman) finished in the top 10 at Charlotte. It also happened at Bristol Motor Speedway, but accomplishing the feat at a 1.5-mile track is an encouraging sign for a new Camaro that has seemed to lack the aerodynamic advantage of Ford and Toyota.

The impact of NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station certainly seems to have helped Ford drivers, who have been hinting since the preseason that the new inspection system would benefit their Fusions with more rear downforce.

But the OSS also might have had an opposite effect on the Camaro, whose design and development was initiated before teams saw the system in action for the first time last fall (in demonstration mode during the playoffs).

Hendrick Motorsports recently acquired an OSS for its shop, joining several powerhouse teams that purchased theirs before the season. NASCAR managing director of competition and innovation John Probst said as many as 10 teams have OSS systems.

That isn’t unusual given that teams would have their own sets of templates when NASCAR used the metal silhouettes for measurements, but Probst said the efficiency and accuracy of the OSS (which relies on two dozen high-definition cameras and projectors) makes it a more attractive option for teams.

Though NASCAR offers an OSS for teams’ use at its R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, many rely on OSS in their shops because they take measurements throughout the car-building process.

“I think we anticipated teams would buy this,” Probst said on last week’s episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Teams measuring (cars) multiple times as it goes throughout the shop, that’s a very reasonable thing to do.

“There are a lot of reasons to buy the technology. It’s relatively simple, the results are fairly quick and accurate. It’s relatively cheaper compared to many other solutions. It’s a more efficient system in general.”

Listen to Probst on the podcast via the embed below or on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.


Erik Jones had a miserable night in the pits with a magnificent car Sunday at Charlotte, and it was the pit stop between Stages 3 and 4 that really had to hurt.

Jones’ No. 20 Toyota entered in second place but left in 19th because of a stop that went several seconds longer because his front tire changer switched to a backup pit gun.

The reason? Kasey Kahne ran over the primary gun’s hose while entering his stall just ahead, ripping it from changer Houston Stamper’s hands.

It would seem unfair to suffer because of the actions of a rival driver who faces no repercussions at all. But there are two important rules of thumb to consider.

–A driver entering his stall has every right to enter as sharply and swiftly as desired (without intentionally and blatantly violating the boundaries of another car’s pit box).

–Each pit crew is responsible for keeping its equipment out of harm’s way.

The only feasible way that NASCAR could have penalized Kahne would be if he’d gone out of his way to affect Jones’ stop.


In two of the past three seasons, the Coca-Cola 600 has been a runaway in which the winner has led at least 94 percent of the laps.

The record for highest percentage of laps led in the previous 55 years of NASCAR’s longest race was 83 percent (Jim Paschal in 1967).

How is this dominance possible in a race that historically has demanded constant adjustments to keep up with a temperature-sensitive surface that can vary wildly over the course of four hours in the transition from blazing hot sun to a cool evening?

The simplest explanation might be that the Charlotte reigns of Truex in 2016 and Busch this year underscore the importance of being in clean air on an aerodynamic superspeedway.

Crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Adam Stevens can tune the car better with their championship-caliber stars able to provide the best feedback in static conditions. And with teams running high-fidelity simulations nonstop, there is more information on making strong setup calls than ever.


Sunday’s race sadly marked the third time in four years that a fan has climbed a catchfence during a Cup race. While it thankfully didn’t necessitate a race stoppage at Charlotte (unlike an infamous incident at Richmond and similar to one at Dover last year) because it was defused so quickly, it still begs the question: Why is this still happening?

We’ve written this before, but having a fan fall onto a hot track on national TV would be a really bad thing, not just for the event but racing in general. Whatever tracks have to spend to rectify this so that fans stay off the chain link in the future, it’s worth it.

Two Xfinity crew chiefs suspended one race for Charlotte penalties

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NASCAR has issued suspensions to two Xfinity Series crew chiefs for infractions following last Saturday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on Christopher Bell‘s No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, was suspended one race after the car failed front and rear body heights in post qualifying and post-race inspection.

The L1 penalty includes a $10,000 fine for Ratcliff, a 10-point deduction of driver and owner points and Bell’s third-place result won’t go toward tiebreakers in points for the playoffs.

Bell now has 385 points but remains second in the standings, 48 points behind Elliott Sadler.

Joe Gibbs Racing told NBC Sports on Wednesday that it will not appeal the penalty. Wesley Sherill will serve as the team’s crew chief this weekend at Pocono.

Keith Wolfe, crew chief on B.J. McLeod Motorsports No. 8 Chevrolet, is suspended for one race for having two lug nuts unsecured. Tommy Joe Martins finished 24th in the race.

B.J. McLeod Motorsports told NBC Sports it will not appeal the suspension and is working on a replacement crew chief.

NASCAR also fined Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., $10,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

 

 

Martin Truex Jr. charges to second place in Coke 600 despite pit issues

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CONCORD, N.C. — The only reason Martin Truex Jr. didn’t get a shot at celebrating his second Coca-Cola 600 win was because the guy who finished in front of him – Kyle Busch – was “flawless.”

That’s how Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, described Busch’s night.

Truex’s 600 miles were anything but.

The No. 78 Toyota finished second in Sunday night’s race despite qualifying 15th and suffering consecutive pit road penalties, for speeding on Lap 203 and an uncontrolled tire on Lap 227.

The speeding penalty came after Truex entered and exited the pits in second.

Then there was the pit guns.

Pearn told NBC Sports the team went through three pit guns during the 400-lap race. One mishap resulted in the second penalty.

“The gun screwed up on the right rear and the front (tire) changer left and left the tire sitting there, cause usually the rear carrier comes to get it,” Pearn said. “But we went through three guns tonight … The whole reason we got the uncontrolled tire was cause the gun screwed up.”

Truex said the pit gun problem was “one of those freak things” where it reversed on the changer as he was hitting the fifth lug nut and he had to manually switch it back.

The No. 78 also had one unsecured lug nut following the race.

Even with the issues, Truex said it was a “solid day overall” for his team, which earned its third consecutive top five.

As for the speeding penalty?

“I can’t wait to see the time,” Truex said. “It couldn’t have been much. But I just hit some of those bumps a little bit wrong and got going a little too fast and tapped the brake just a split second too late. I typically don’t get a lot of speeding penalties, so Cole won’t ride my butt too hard this week about it.”

Truex said his team “cleaned it up well” after that.

The final restart came with 93 laps to go and Truex restarting eighth. With 55 to go he was in second, but lost multiple spots during green flag stops.

But he was back in second with 34 to go.

That’s when Pearn and his team started “praying” for a restart.

“I thought we were really equal to them the last few runs of the race,” Pearn said. “It was just a matter of track position and chasing from behind.”

Two years after Truex led 392 laps to capture his Coke 600 win, Busch led 377 while sweeping all four stages.

It was also the first time Truex hadn’t led a lap in the race since 2014.

“At the end of the day, we ran second,” Truex said. “He kicked everybody’s tail. That’s just the way it goes.”

Denny Hamlin blasts pit guns, calls for NASCAR to make changes now

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Denny Hamlin says that if NASCAR continues to require teams to use standardized pit guns, “it’s going to cost somebody a race or the championship by the end of the year.’’

Hamlin is the latest driver to express his frustration with the pit guns all teams are required to use after he suffered a loose wheel and had to pit from the lead on Lap 266 of Monday’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway. He finished 14th, one lap down.

Hamlin was upset with the inconsistency of the pit gun, an issue others have expressed this season. Hamlin told NBC Sports that the team’s pit guns were at 12,000 RPMs on previous stops but at 8,000 RPMs on the stop where he had a loose wheel. Less RPMs can make it more likely that not all the lug nuts are tight and result in a loose wheel.

“It’s just inconsistencies,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports after the race. “My frustration is that in absolutely no other professional sport does the league give you faulty equipment to play with and that’s what we have here.’’

A NASCAR spokesperson said the sanctioning body had no comment.

“The solution is to let the teams do what they are good at and that is providing reliable equipment,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports. “It’s going to cost somebody a race or the championship by the end of the year. There’s no question, no doubt it’s going to cost somebody from making another round or something. NASCAR doesn’t have to answer to that. It’s the teams that have to answer to the sponsors when they don’t make the next round.’’

Hamlin said changes could be made.

“Teams have all the equipment ready to go,’’ he told NBC Sports. “JGR has said if you think our stuff is better we’ll supply it for everybody. I can assure it’s better than the junk we’re running.’’

Car owner Joe Gibbs wasn’t quite ready to offer to build pit guns for every team Monday but shared Hamlin’s concerns for what is taking place on pit road.

“We had two loose wheels today that put us down multiple laps,’’ Gibbs said, referring to Hamlin and Erik Jones. “For our sponsors and everybody, I’m calling trying to explain it and it’s hard to explain.

“We all work together. Our teams. NASCAR has been very good about working with us, and when we come up with a problem, we’ve been good at working hard to solve it.

“I think we have a number of meetings this week with NASCAR, and I think we’ll be working on this and hopefully work toward a solution. I think it would be hard for us to build the guns for everybody, that would be tough, but I think we need to come up with a solution for sure.’’

Asked if he agreed with Hamlin that pit guns could cost someone a race or even the championship, Gibbs said:

“I think when you get something like this going on and it’s happened to multiple teams each week, I think you’ve got to find a way to fix it, to address it. I think that’s what we’ll be talking about this week. I feel good that NASCAR is on board. Obviously, they don’t want issues. I think we’ll all work together and come up with a solution.’’

Last week, Kevin Harvick said the inconsistent pit guns were “creating “a safety issue,” blaming the number of loose wheels on that.

Last week, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, responded to Harvick’s comments, telling NBC Sports:

“I think you’ve got to take a step back and look at safety as part of the narrative in NASCAR. I would say if you put us up against any motorsport, we feel pretty good there. When you start looking at pit stops in general, are pit guns part of that? Absolutely, but it’s the entire pit stop. To put something all on a gun, I think, is a bit premature without the facts.

“So our job is to look at each stop and look at each race, what happens with those races and put all those facts together and then make changes if necessary. I’m confident in the partner that we have and the work that we’re doing in the industry that directionally we’re in the right spot. Certainly some improvements we can make … but we feel like we’re in a good spot in continuing to work through this to get to the best place.’’

Complaints about the pit gun have been made public since early in the season. Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn were both upset with the pit guns at Atlanta in the season’s second race.

Truex forewarned in February what could happen if problems with the pit guns persisted.

“We have no control over it, so if it costs you a race win or it costs you a spot in the playoffs or a spot in the championship four or something like that, somebody’s going to be really, really, really upset, and there’s nothing you can do about it because you can’t go home and say, ‘Well, it’s your fault,’ Truex said. “We need to tighten it up here and figure it out and make sure it doesn’t happen again.’’

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Long: NASCAR-related tweets did not reflect positively on sport after Texas race

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As if DeLana Harvick had enough to do. The wife to Kevin Harvick and mother of two children, including a daughter born in December, had to be the voice of reason Sunday night for a sport filled with snipes, swipes and other barbs toward one another after the Texas race.

The back-and-forth carried over to social media and included everyone from a senior NASCAR executive to a team co-owner, crew chiefs and more.

Just as a mother does when she tells a child to stop misbehaving, DeLana Harvick put her foot down on social media with a tweet at 10:38 p.m. ET. It was not addressed to anybody in particular but to anyone watching Twitter after the race — which proved to be as drama-filled as the 500-mile event — it was a good reminder for many on social media.

Until that point, Twitter had been quite interesting for a NASCAR fan if you knew where to look.

NASCAR President Brent Dewar engaged with fans as he often does, but his tone was a bit more aggressive than the other times he’s conversed with fans.

Admittedly, some fans were upset that NASCAR didn’t penalize Harvick’s team for an uncontrolled tire late in the race. NASCAR admitted after the race it made a mistake. Then Monday morning, Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, called the non-call a “close call.’’

Dewar engaged with a fan who was upset about the non-call Sunday night.

Obviously, race control is a secure area and where NASCAR’s officials call the race. To suggest a fan could visit race control seems over the top. While Dewar sought to maintain a sense of levity in the response with the emojis, some could view his comments more harshly than intended.

But it wasn’t just Dewar on social media that stirred debate and discussion on matters. Pit guns were another key point after Sunday’s race, triggered by Harvick’s comments after the race. He expressed his frustration after pit gun issues potentially cost him a chance to win Saturday’s Xfinity and Sunday’s Cup races at Texas.

Harvick said the pit guns “have been absolutely horrible all year, and our guys do a great job on pit road, and the pathetic part about it is the fact you get handed something that doesn’t work correctly, and those guys are just doing everything that they can to try to make it right.”

He isn’t the only one to be upset about the pit guns this year. Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., expressed his displeasure with the pit guns at Atlanta. Pearn let his voice be heard again Sunday after the race, commenting on an article that noted Harvick’s frustration with the pit guns.

Pearn referenced the Race Team Alliance, which features most of the Cup teams. Pearn’s team, Furniture Row Racing, is not a member. Pearn’s tweet earned a response from Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance and a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Car owner Joe Gibbs said after Kyle Busch‘s win that he’s not a fan of the NASCAR-mandated pit guns.

“I don’t like things not in our hands,” Gibbs said. “So, you know, be quite truthful, I’ve taken a stand on that. That’s something that I hope we continue to really evaluate, continue to evaluate that.”

There was more Sunday.

Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers responded to a tweet from Ty Gibbs that has since been deleted. Gibbs, the 15-year-old grandson of Joe Gibbs and a part of the JGR driver development program, referenced Ford in his tweet after Kyle Busch’s JGR Toyota car won at Texas.

Regardless of whom DeLana Harvick targeted in her tweet Sunday night, NASCAR Twitterverse calmed down. How long remains to be seen.

The stretch of short tracks continues this weekend with Bristol and next weekend with Richmond.

One can only imagine what will be on social media after those races.

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