Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Kentucky in last three seasons

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Fantasy owners will want to take a deep breath this week and shrug off the beating they took at Daytona International Speedway in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Before the race began, Denny Hamlin predicted a crash fest. Last week’s fantasy preview suggested avoiding the Big 3 because of the prevalence of accidents. Players who mostly avoided the marquee drivers are the one who moved up in their league.

Now, it’s time to go back to the drivers who have dominated all season to set this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are all in this week’s top five along with Hamlin and a surprising Jamie McMurray. There are other solid dark horse contenders in the bottom of the top 10.

As it has been all season, the secret to success is going to be selecting the right two drivers to pair with the Big 3 – and of course playing close attention during the race. Follow along with Rotoworld’s twitter account (@Rotoworld_Auto) [https://twitter.com/Rotoworld_Auto] for updates during the race to help decide who to move into or out of the garage.

1. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 6.00)
Busch’s numbers at Kentucky are even better than they would appear at first glance. With a career average of 5.1 in seven races, this is the best track on which he’s competed.

2. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 7.33)
Hamlin has been able to overcome pit road mistakes and he will challenge for wins as soon as those are eliminated. Two of his last three Kentucky attempts ended in top fives. He has also been consistently strong on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks this season with three top fives and a seventh in six races.

3. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 8.67)
While Harvick’s average is great at Kentucky, he has not yet scored a top five on this track. His best effort was a seventh in 2014, but that won’t matter Saturday night – he will still challenge for the win.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 9.33)
Eventually the remainder of the field is going to catch up to the Big 3, but this is not the week to bet against them. Truex’s victory in last year’s Quaker State 400 suggests he could become the first driver other than Busch or Harvick to win on a 1.5-mile track this season.

4. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 9.33)
His track records have not been predictive very many times this season, but that might change for McMurray at Kentucky. He came close to breaking into the top 10 on the most recent 1.5-mile track with a 12th at Chicagoland two weeks ago and enters the weekend with back-to-back seventh-place finishes in the 2016 and 2017 Quaker State 400s.

6. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 10.00)
Given how much the No. 6 has struggled this year, Kenseth cannot be considered a good value in fantasy racing – unless he posts speeds in the top 10 in practice. If that happens, he could be one of the best dark horses available and could help make the difference on the NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster.

7. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 14.67)
Busch lost an engine with 10 laps remaining in this race last year. That snapped a four-race streak of results 12th or better. Given his consistently strong efforts for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, it is likely that he will get back into the top 10 this week.

8. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 15.00)
For Newman, Kentucky has been an all-or-nothing track. In the last four years, he has either finished third or in the 20s in alternating races. If the pattern holds, he should score a top five this week, but that is not something he has done on a similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track in the past two seasons.

9. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 15.33)
Keselowski has won at Kentucky in every even-numbered year since the Cup series began coming to this track. It’s a quirky little stat that doesn’t necessarily predict another win, but top-10s in five of seven races suggest he will at least run well.

10. Aric Almirola (three-year average: 16.00 in two starts)
Almirola missed last year due to injury. That means his latest attempt on this track ended in a 20th in 2016. In five starts at Kentucky, he has scored only two top 15s and no top 10s, so fantasy players are going to want to wait until he gets through practice before deciding whether to roll the dice on the No. 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: The similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks have been egalitarian in regard to who has won poles, but the Busch brothers have managed to grab two apiece. Kurt took the top spot at Michigan and Texas; Kyle led the field to green at Charlotte and Atlanta, so they deserve special attention in the first practice session this week to gauge how fast they are in Q trim. Paul Menard (Chicagoland), Harvick (Kansas), Truex (Auto Club), and Ryan Blaney (Las Vegas) also bear watching.

Segment Winners: The two drivers who have combined to win every 1.5-mile race this year also have the most segment wins. Harvick has five to Busch’s four – and while it is hard to bet against them, four other drivers have been able to challenge them at the end of the stages. Kyle Larson, Keselowski, Blaney, and Almirola each have one segment win. With 65, Kurt Busch has the most segment points on 1.5-mile tracks without winning a stage.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Who’s hot, who’s not in Cup Series heading to Kentucky

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A look at some of the drivers who are streaking or reeling heading into Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

HOT

  • In 18 races in 2018, 14 finishes of 7th or better (including 5 wins) & 4 finishes of 19th or worse
  • Finished in the Top 5 in 18 of the last 25 races, dating back to last season
  • 5 straight Top 10s at Kentucky
  • Never finished worse than 16th in 7 Kentucky starts
  • Won 4 of last 8 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Kyle Busch

  • Won 5 of the last 12 races
  • Finished in the Top 10 in 6 of the last 7 races
  • Finished in the Top 5 in 12 of 18 races this season
  • Finished in Top 10 in 6 of 7 starts at Kentucky, including 2 wins
  • Never finished worse than 12th in 7 Kentucky starts
  • Won 3 of last 4 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Erik Jones

  • Won at Daytona
  • Finished 7th or better in 3 straight races
  • First first-time winner since Ryan Blaney at Pocono in June 2017
  • Led only 2 laps and scored 1 stage point in last 3 races, despite 3 straight Top 10s
  • Top 10 in 4 of last 5 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Finished 2nd at Daytona
  • Finished 4th or better in 3 straight races
  • Finished in the Top 5 in 7 of the last 8 races
  • Won 2 of the last 5 races
  • 4 Top 10s in 7 starts at Kentucky, including win in 2017
  • Won 7 of last 16 races on 1.5-mile tracks (none in 2018)
  • Finished 8th or better in 16 of last 17 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Alex Bowman

  • Finished 10th at Daytona
  • Finished in the Top 10 in 3 straight races and 4 of the last 6
  • Top-10 finishes in the last two races on 1.5 mile tracks

 

NOT

Jamie McMurray

  • Finished 30th at Daytona
  • Finished 15th or worse in 14 of 18 races this season
  • 2 straight finishes of 7th at Kentucky
  • 3 Top 10s in 7 starts at Kentucky, including the last two races
  • Top 10 two of the last four races on 1.5 mile tracks

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

  • Finished 17th at Daytona
  • Finished outside the top-10 in 7 of the last 8 races
  • Finished 14th or worse in 14 of 18 races in 2018
Ryan Blaney
  • Finished 40th at Daytona
  • Finished 18th or worse in last 3 races, including 2 of 34th or worse
  • Finished 35th (2016) and 10th (2017) in 2 career Kentucky starts

Chase Elliott

  • Finished 34th at Daytona
  • Finished 19th or worse in last 2 races
  • Finished outside the top-10 in 5 of last 8 races
  • Finished 11th or worse in 5 straight races on 1.5-mile tracks

Matt Kenseth

  • Finished 8th or better in 6 of 7 starts at Kentucky, including win in 2013
  • Finished 13th or worse in 4 starts in 2018 (last start – 33rd at Michigan)
  • Never finished worse than 17th in 7 starts at Kentucky
  • Average finish of 26.5 in 2 starts on 1.5-mile tracks for Roush in 2018

 

 

Several teams test Charlotte Roval

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Eighteen drivers are expected to test today on Charlotte’s road course, the first time many will run on the 2.28-mile, 17-turn course that will host a playoff race in September.

Scheduled to test are: 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  and BJ McLeod.

The session goes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is open to the public.

NASCAR anticipates lap times of around 78 seconds. Lap times are expected to be about 80 seconds in race conditions. The Sept. 30 race will be 400 kilometers. 

Denny Hamlin will be making his first appearance on the course that incorporates most of the track’s oval, along with an infield section.

“It’s kind of quirky,” Hamlin said of the track Charlotte Motor Speedway is calling a roval. “It’s not your normal cup-of-tea road course. I’m going to try to survive first through the test. That will be the object … and then try to get competitive when we come back for the race.”

Brad Keselowski, who also has not been on the course yet, has a simple goal for the test.

“I’m going to try to go there and not wreck,” he said.

There will be a test July 17 for the other teams not at Tuesday’s session. 

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Second Big One crash erupts 10 laps after first

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On a restart following the lap 54 Big One crash In the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, a second multi-car accident erupted.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got into the left rear quarterpanel of Kyle Busch while racing for the lead and turned him into William Byron. As with the first accident, the trailing field was unable to slow.

“Disappointing to get crashed out by the guy who caused the first the crash,” Busch said outside of the infield care center – placing the blame on Stenhouse.

“The 17 car hooked the 18 into me. Seemed like he was being really aggressive,” Byron added on NBC.

“It’s been crazy partially due to a few of my issues,” Stenhouse said from the cockpit after winning the second stage. “That first one I though us and (Keselowski) were going to have a run on the 24 to the inside, then the 2 had to check up really late into 3 there. Then the other one I just tried to side draft the 18 at the wrong place, got sucked into him and turned him around.”

Jamie McMurray was also involved in the accident.