Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Bristol Cup cutoff race results, driver points

Bristol Cup results points
Logan Riely/Getty Images
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Bristol points, results: The first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs ended with a third consecutive victory by a non-playoff driver as Chris Buescher ended a 222-race winless streak Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

It was the first points victory as a team owner for Brad Keselowski, who joined Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing this season. The victory by the No. 17 Ford was the first for the team since July 1, 2017 at Daytona International Speedway with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Buescher, who won for the first time since his Aug. 1, 2016 victory at Pocono Raceway, became the 19th winner in the Cup Series this year, tying a modern-era record set in 2001. The No. 17 Ford driver led a race-high 169 of 500 laps (including the final 61) and won by 0.458 seconds over Chase Elliott.

RESULTS: Click here for where everyone finished l Click here for the race report

William Byron finished third, followed by Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson.

It’s the first time in NASCAR’s playoff era (which began in 2004) that there have been three consecutive victories by non-playoff drivers.

POINTS

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick were eliminated from the playoffs after the first round as the field was narrowed from 16 to 12 drivers.

It’s the first time that Busch and Harvick have been ousted in the first round of the elimination playoff format that started in 2014.

Regular season champion Chase Elliott will enter the second round opener at Texas Motor Speedway with the points lead in the reseeded standings, ahead of Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez and Austin Cindric.

RESEEDED POINTS FOR ROUND 2: Click here for reseeded driver points l Click here for reseeded team owner points

ROUND 1 POINTS: Click here for driver points l Click here for team owner points

Cup driver intro songs at Bristol

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — One of the best parts of pre-race festivities at Bristol Motor Speedway is the drivers having their own song as they are introduced.

Here are the driver selections for Saturday night’s Cup playoff 

AJ Allmendinger — “Victory” by Fire From the Gods

Aric Almirola — “”Without Me” by Eminem

Christopher Bell — “Remember the Name” — by Fort Minor

Ryan Blaney — “Angel Band” by Tyler Childers

Alex Bowman — “Outlawz” by Terror Reid 

Chase Briscoe — “The Boss” by James Brown

Chris Buescher — “Go to War” by Nothing More 

Harrison Burton — “”Bad Boy for Life” by Diddy

Kyle Busch — “Rowdy Song” by Raytona 500

William Byron — “CHANT” by Macklemore

Landon Cassill — “High Hopes” by Panic at the Disco

Ross Chastain — “Watermelon Crawl”

Austin Cindric — “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden

Cole Custer — “Top Gun Anthem” by Harold Faltermeyer 

Austin Dillon — “Narcos” by Timmy Trumpet

Ty Dillon — “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre and Eminem

Chase Elliott — “Ride the Lightning (717 Tapes) by Warren Zeiders

Ty Gibbs — “All In” by Lil Baby

Todd Gilliland — “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” by Ye

Justin Haley — “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts

Denny Hamlin — “Hard Knock Life” by Andrea McArdle 

Kevin Harvick — “The Old Man Down the Road” by John Fogarty

Erik Jones — “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” by Toby Keith

Brad Keselowski — “Rooster” by Alice in Chains

Corey LaJoie — “Highway to the Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins

Kyle Larson — “Dirt Road Anthem” by Jason Aldean

Joey Logano — “Back to the Future Theme”

Michael McDowell — “Coming in Hot” by Lecrae and Andy Mineo

BJ McLeod — “Jiggle Jiggle” by Duke and Jones and Louis Theroux

Tyler Reddick — “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — “Sold Out” by HARDY

Daniel Suarez — “I Feel Good” by PitBull

Martin Truex Jr. — “Need a Boat” by Morgan Wallen 

Bubba Wallace — “Long Violent History” by Tyler Childers 

Cody Ware — “25 Bands and A Geccco” by 100 Gecs

JJ Yeley — “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

Bristol Xfinity starting lineup: Ty Gibbs wins pole

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Ty Gibbs will start on the pole for Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Gibbs earned his sixth pole of the season with a lap of 122.584 mph. He will be joined on the front row by Josh Berry (122.100 mph).

MORE: Bristol Xfinity starting lineup

Justin Allgaier (121.906 mph) qualified third and was followed by AJ Allmendinger (121.852) and Sam Mayer (121.505).

Noah Gragson, who has won the past two races, qualified ninth at 120.984 mph. Landon Cassill, who holds the final transfer spot, qualified 16th. Ryan Sieg, who is 19 points behind Cassill, qualified 10th.

The race airs at 7:30 p.m. ET Friday on USA Network.

Friday 5: What matters most in Cup? Youth or experience

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As a Cup champion will switch teams for the second year in row, a key question becomes what is more valuable in NASCAR’s top series: Youth or experience?

Brad Keselowski moved this year from Team Penske to what is now RFK Racing to be an owner/driver. Kyle Busch moves next year from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing. 

In both instances, the move came near the peak season, statistically, for each as a driver. David Smith — who operated his own analytics website and worked for NBC Sports before joining RFK Racing before this season — noted that the age 39 season was a driver’s peak season. Keselowski turned 38 before this year’s Daytona 500. Busch turns 38 next May.

MORE: Kyle Busch and JGR: A long, sometimes rough road

As the Cup lineup trends younger, what is the place for drivers in their late 30s?

Keselowski was replaced by Austin Cindric, who turned 24 earlier this month. Joe Gibbs Racing is expected to replace Busch with Ty Gibbs, who turns 20 in October.

Cindric is worthy, having nearly won back-to-back Xfinity championships the previous two seasons. Gibbs won in his first Xfinity start last year. He’s won more than 20% of his Xfinity starts. 

“We know Ty Gibbs is ready to race (in Cup),” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development told NBC Sports in July.

Cindric and Gibbs were among eight drivers in last weekend’s Cup playoff race at Kansas Speedway who are age 25 or younger. 

The average age of last weekend’s Cup race — won by 28-year-old Bubba Wallace — was 30.4 years. 

That’s a slightly younger average age than the field for last weekend’s IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca. The average age for that race — won by 25-year-old Alex Palou — was 30.8.

Car owner Rick Hendrick started the change toward younger drivers in Cup, hiring a 21-year-old Jeff Gordon to run the full season in 1993. Two years later, Gordon won the first of his four championships.

It took time for other others to follow, but the sport has gradually looked to younger drivers. That became more important when the economy forced companies to scale back sponsorship of teams. Younger drivers don’t cost as much as veterans. That helped drive some of the sport’s movements in recent years. 

Joe Gibbs Racing planned to keep Busch after Mars, Inc. announced last year that it was not returning to the team and sport after this season. JGR had a company to sponsor Busch’s No. 18 team until the deal fell through because of economic factors. 

Without a sponsor, JGR could not offer Busch what he felt the only active two-time Cup champion deserved, something he alluded to last month at Watkins Glen when he foreshadowed change.

You want to be able to go somewhere that you feel like you have a legit shot to race to win,” Busch said. “You know, trust me, I don’t feel like it’s fair to me or my family or anything else if we’re going to have to spend less time together moving forward because we are going to have to change our lifestyle, no question. 

“There’s a big change coming. And so, is it worth it to go run around and not have an opportunity to win right away versus building something versus jumping in something that can win. All those questions are certainly being weighed out.”

Busch said this week, after announcing he will join RCR, that he was told at one point that returning to the No. 18 car at JGR was no longer an option.

Asked how could a deal not get done with JGR, Busch said: “Only thing I can say to that is it didn’t happen. Apparently, they’ve got other irons in the fire, maybe other sponsors for other drivers and that’s the road they’re going down.”

Asked if he felt JGR was looking at a cheaper option than paying a former champion, Busch paused and said: “Fair assessment.”

For as much as people prefer sports to be about the events, it’s often about business. Without the financial resources, teams can’t compete. Owners such as Roger Penske, Gene Haas and Hendrick can have an advantage because they have other companies and can connect those companies with sponsors, making deals more valuable to companies. 

It’s not surprising that Hendrick (nine titles), Penske (two) and Haas (two) have combined to win 13 of the last 16 Cup championships. Joe Gibbs has two titles and Barney Visser, whose Furniture Row Racing team no longer is in the sport, has the other title in that time. 

This is what teams such as RFK Racing and Richard Childress Racing face to win a championship. 

None of RFK’s cars made the playoffs this year. Both of RCR’s cars made the playoffs. Tyler Reddick enters Saturday night’s elimination race two points above the cutline, while teammate Austin Dillon is three points below. 

Richard Childress Racing seeks to have a driver finish in the top 10 in points for the first time since 2014. Busch is expected to help the organization, which has three wins this year, become even more competitive.

“I know how serious (Busch) is about wanting to win that next championship,” said Childress, who last won a Cup title in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt. “I think with his knowledge of cars and his knowledge as a racer, he’s going to bring some stuff to the table.”

Kevin Harvick said in July he would be for having Busch join Stewart-Haas Racing because of how Busch could help a team.

“I know there’s a lot of things that go on around Kyle, but in the end Kyle is still one of the best that’s ever come through this garage,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of teams that can say that they’ve never had one of those types of drivers. He literally could rebuild an organization if somebody took a chance that hasn’t had one of those types of drivers.”

Harvick, who is 46 years old, has won twice this season. He’ll likely need to win Saturday night to advance to the second round after a fire and crash sidelined him in the first two races of this round.

Hamlin also has shown what an older driver can do. The 41-year-old seeks his fourth consecutive appearance in the title race. 

“I still think that there’s a level of experience that really, really matters in our sport,” said Hamlin, who owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. “I feel as good as I’ve ever been in the car. My craft, I feel as good as ever. 

“I’ve been lightning fast even though the win column hasn’t shown it as much this year. So I’m pretty happy with where I’m at considering my age. When I see Harvick, still being competitive and winning at this age, it just makes me look at my future and say, you know, I’ve got a longer runway than I thought.”

2. Former champs seek to avoid elimination

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both enter Saturday’s playoff elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) outside a transfer spot. 

Busch and Harvick have combined to win three of the last eight titles. Busch’s championships came in 2015 and ’19. Harvick won the 2014 crown. They account for 32% of all Cup title race appearances.

Neither driver has been eliminated in the first round since the playoff format debuted in 2014. Harvick was in a must-win situation in 2015 and won to advance to the second round.

He is in a similar situation after a fire eliminated him at Darlington and a crash ended his race early last week at Kansas. Harvick goes into Bristol 35 points from the transfer spot and all but needs a victory to move on in the postseason.

“It is what it is,” Harvick said last week at Kansas of his deficit. “We were racing to win anyway today, so that is what we will do again next week.”

Busch entered the 2015 first round elimination race outside a transfer spot by one point and finished second to Harvick at Dover to advance. Busch and Harvick took the spots of Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, eliminating them.

Busch is two points out of a transfer spot this time. While he doesn’t need to win, he is winless in his last 17 short track races, dating back to 2019. His longest short track winless drought is 18 races from 2012-15.

Busch has 23 total wins at Bristol. He has eight Cup wins on concrete and won the spring race there on the dirt. He also has nine Xfinity wins and five Truck victories there. 

“If I can have past Bristol results be Bristol results, then, yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” Busch said after the Kansas race of advancing to the next round. “But if I have Bristol results similar to what’s happened this year every week, then no, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

3. What it will take to advance

A look at what it will take for drivers to advance to the second round of the Cup playoffs.

Christopher Bell — Has clinched a spot in the second round. Reached the second round in last year’s playoffs before he was eliminated. 

William Byron (+48 to the cutline) — Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Was eliminated in the first round in 2020, made it to the second round in 2021.

Denny Hamlin (+47 to the cutline)— Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race each of the past three years. 

Joey Logano (+40 to the cutline)— Needs to score 16 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race every even-numbered year of the Cup playoffs: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

Ryan Blaney (+36 to the cutline)— Needs to score 20 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has been eliminated in the first round only once. That was in 2020.

Alex Bowman (+30 to the cutline)— Needs to score 26 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to at least the second round in each of the past four seasons.

Chase Elliott (+28 to the cutline)— Needs to score 28 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons. 

Kyle Larson (+27 to the cutline)— Needs to score 29 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Reigning Cup champion. 

Ross Chastain (+26 to the cutline)— Needs to score 30 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.

Daniel Suarez (+6 to the cutline)— Needs to score 50 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Tyler Reddick (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Eliminated in the first round last year in his first time in the Cup playoffs.

Austin Cindric (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kyle Busch (-2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Two-time Cup champion who has never been eliminated in the first round. 

Austin Dillon (-3 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has twice been eliminated in the first round. 

Chase Briscoe (-9 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kevin Harvick (-35 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). The 2014 Cup champion has never been eliminated in the first round. 

4. Bristol’s questions  

Saturday night’s race at Bristol is a mystery for teams. 

The spring Bristol race was on dirt, so this marks the first time on the track’s concrete surface. Other than wheel-force testing with one car per manufacturer, no teams have been on the track. And the right side tires are different from anywhere else the series runs (the left side tires are the same as those used at Pocono).

“It’s certainly an unknown,” Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, told NBC Sports. “I think it makes for exciting races when you go into an unknown like that. … I think you’ve really got to do your homework, and I think our team strives on that. 

“These tracks that we’ve had a lot of unknowns, I feel like we’ve unloaded well and rose to the challenge. I look forward to these kind of races.”

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, calls Bristol the “the last challenge of the Next Gen car and the last unknown setup-wise of the Next Gen car.”

While the series will race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first time this year later in the playoffs, teams will be able to test there ahead of time. That will give them a better understanding of what is needed there than what teams have going into Bristol.

“I don’t know where you go get notes for Bristol,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s very unique, so I am so thankful to be going into Bristol with a very large (points) cushion. Some of those guys toward the back of the (playoff) standings, having to go to Bristol and run 500 laps with this car, it’s going to be a nail-biter.”

5. Back in the playoffs 

Jeremy Clements said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that an appeal panel rescinding the penalties against his team and putting him back in the Xfinity playoffs this week felt like “we won again. We’re celebrating again.”

Clements won at Daytona last month to earn a spot in the playoffs, but NASCAR penalized the team three days later for an intake manifold infraction found at the NASCAR R&D Center. Among the penalties was that Clements’ victory would not count toward playoff eligibility.

“We ended up noticing that there were other winning engines there and they didn’t have their intakes, and we, unfortunately, brought ours just because we didn’t know and it didn’t need to be,” Clements said on why the team appealed.

Part of the argument from Clements and his team was that other organizations did not have their intake manifolds inspected and that the Clements team shouldn’t be penalized for bringing their intake manifold to the R&D Center.

Clements said the appeal panel “just had common sense and that’s what prevailed. Just so happy to get this victory back and be back in the playoffs.”

With Clements back in the playoffs, it meant one person was dropped. Ryan Sieg, who was holding the final playoff spot after Clements’ penalty, fell out of a playoff spot with Clements back in. 

Landon Cassill holds the final playoff spot going into tonight’s regular season finale for the Xfinity Series at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Cassill leads Sieg by 19 points. Sheldon Creed trails Cassill by 32 points.