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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Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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Even after Kevin Harvick’s first Kentucky top five, team might ‘ramp it back up’

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Kevin Harvick, who entered Saturday’s Quaker Stage 400 with three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season, placed fifth at a track he admitted is “definitely not my favorite place.”

Harvick, who started third, earned his 14th top five through 19 races and his first at Kentucky in eight starts.

But Harvick failed to lead a lap for the second time this season in seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. Both instances have been since his last points win in May at Kansas Speedway.

“We just never got all the way to the front and on the last run we got too loose and that was our worst run of the night and I hit the wall and that pretty much ended it,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’ve never dominated here, so I don’t pay much attention to this place.”

Harvick said “it’s hard to make anything happen” at the track passing wise.

Though Harvick has only placed outside the top five once this year at mile-and-a-half tracks (Charlotte, wreck) crew chief Rodney Childers said his team “might have to ramp it back up” with increased performances recently from race-winner Martin Truex Jr, Team Penske and Kyle Larson.

Childers told NBC Sports the No. 4 team has been as “safe as we can with everything right now” in terms of car preparation.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has been cautious after a 20-point penalty for a failed window brace following its Las Vegas win. The penalty also cost Harvick seven playoff points.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said. “We’re trying to be smart with our racing, but still trying to be competitive and run up front.”

Harvick remains tied with Kyle Busch for wins at five. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just four times.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, the 42 (Kyle Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been. It’s all part of that thing and people figuring it out. The thing I see with the (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build the best stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

What drivers said after Kentucky

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Martin Truex Jr. — Winner: “It feels good, you know? You never know how these races are going to play out. You never know quite what is going to happen and we had such a strong Toyota tonight they weren’t going to beat us. You never know how they’re going to turn out, so we just keep our heads down. We don’t get too excited. We keep working on the race car and trying to stay calm and not get ahead of ourselves, so we had to make a lot of adjustments tonight on the car and had to battle back a from a few times getting passed for the lead and coming out of the pits second or third, but this Auto-Owners Toyota was amazing tonight, so just thanks to everybody for their support and making all this possible.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 2nd: “It’s not a win. It’s a positive, that’s for sure. I hate it. I thought we were in a good spot there restarting fourth and Martin struggled a little bit the first couple laps and I thought I could get by him, but just couldn’t quite get a run on him. His car came in and mine kind of faded a little bit and he won the race. That stunk. I thought we had a shot at it tonight, but I’m really proud of the gains we made all race though, to be honest with you. I didn’t think we were a second-place car at the beginning of the race, and we got a lot better throughout the night so Jeremy Bullins and everybody did a great job. I can’t thank DEX Imaging and Ford and Menards enough for what they do. You said it, after the last few weeks we’ve had this is a very good positive for us. Hopefully, we can keep it going in the right direction.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 3rd: “It was a good call from my crew chief, Paul Wolfe. We had better speed than we’ve had at the mile-and-a-halves, but not enough to run with the 78. He eventually got by us there and I thought we might have had a shot at it if we could have restarted fourth there, but we kind of cycled back to sixth and it wasn’t enough to be able to make something happen there. All in all, a decent day. I hate that I kind of dug a hole early in the race with the speeding on pit road. We were just racing the 18 off pit road and tried to get a little bit too much, but we’ll take this and hopefully build off of it for the mile-and-a-halves in the Playoffs. It’s gonna be really important and I’m looking forward to next week in Loudon. I think we’ll be really good there.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 4th: “We look at the same sheet of paper the 78 (Truex) does every week, and we just didn’t have anything for them tonight. I don’t know what we were missing, but the SNICKERS Intense Flavors Camry was good, it was a top-five car. I thought it was a top-two car there for awhile, but the 12 (Blaney) was really strong. It kind of depended where people lined up on a restart. But overall a decent night for us; we made a few points on the 4 (Harvick) and lost some of our lead to the 78. We’ll just keep plugging along and try to hold onto this points lead.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 5th: “It’s just hard to pass. It’s hard to make anything happen. I think for us we got worse the last run and got loose into three and that really just killed everything, and then I hit the wall with 15 laps to go and that pretty much ended everything we had.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 6th: “I really enjoyed the way Billy Scott called the race because our lap times were really strong on the super-long runs, and that’s why he left me out there in Stage 1. We didn’t get points, but it put us in good position for Stage 2 and then we were ahead of the game to make a call again. It just kept us ahead the whole night. Even though we didn’t have the fastest car, we led a lot of laps tonight and it was fun to have the Monster Energy Ford out front. We probably would have ended up seventh and we finished sixth. It was a good battle.”

Erik Jones — Finished 7th: “Kind of a long day. Got our Freightliner Camry better pretty much every adjustment, so that was a positive. We moved our way forward and got a solid finish out of it.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 8th: “We had a good car. I messed up in qualifying, got greedy and tried to go for the pole and qualified 12th. This place is so track position dependent that we ran eighth to 12th all night. We just kind of got stuck in that area of track position and we just never could jump ahead. I’m mad at myself really for not executing qualifying better because we had a really fast car. We could have run top five easily.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 9th: “It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win. I drove by the No. 78 and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run and it drove okay, just built being back really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Joey Logano — Finished 10th: “Honestly, I thought at the beginning of the race we were probably better than we thought we’d be and were able to gain quite a few spots, and then the track was wider than we expected it to be. It rubbered out and the track was wide so it was harder to hold everybody off on the older tires. We tried. I don’t think we got the best gain out of it. We didn’t lose any, so it was kind of a wash, and then after that it seemed we just kind of lost the handle the last run. … We’ve got to keep pushing hard. We’re close in the points and we’re hanging in on that part of it, but we’ve got to figure out how to get more speed in our race cars.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 13th: “We were better than we started the day, but when the sun went down the track started gaining grip – everybody moved to the bottom and we needed more front turn.”

David Ragan — Finished 18th: “Our MDS team did a nice job on pit road and we made the car a little bit better throughout the night, so that’s important on these 400-mile races. You can’t get behind much and I felt like we were decent when they dropped the green flag and as the track changed Seth and Angela made good calls. We would have liked to finish in the top 15, but there were a few cars that were just a little better than us at the end, but I’m encouraged by the effort on the mile-and-a-half track to see some improvement and that will be good for later on in the year.”

William Byron — Finished 20th: “I felt like at certain times we would gain a little bit on adjustments, but just didn’t have a lot of potential to run any higher than really where we were. I felt like if other guys made mistakes we could run a couple of positions better than where we were, but we were just kind of right around that 15th to 20th range and it seems kind of like when the other guys hit their adjustments right we were already kind of maxed out to where we could adjust. I felt like we fought really hard and had some good pit stops that got us some track position. I felt like we were always gaining spots on restarts, we just couldn’t hold that.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 21st: “Track position was the name of the game tonight. We started off with a really bad vibration. Fortunately, it worked itself out after we bolted on new Goodyear tires. From there, we focused on improving our handling. My biggest issue all night was Turns 1 and 2. Everyone talks about Turn 3, but it was neutral for us.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 22nd: “I hate that we had problems early. We had a vibration as soon as we started the race and we had no option but to pit for four tires on the AAA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. I actually started feeling it during the pace laps at the start of the race, but I thought it was just a cold set of tires. It must have been a bad set of tires. As soon as we pitted the vibration was gone and we were one of the fastest cars on the track. From there, it was a battle to earn the Lucky Dog, and then to keep up with changing track conditions with chassis adjustments during scheduled pit stops. Every position was hard-fought tonight. We have a lot of work to do.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 39th: “We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this, this will hurt us quite a bit. It’s a big bummer for my guys and for Axalta and Nationwide and everybody that makes this deal happen. Really unfortunate, but it’s not something that we could prevent it’s nothing that we caused and there is not much you can do about it. You pop a right front and have a long time to star at the wall and then you hit it and then you’ve got to move on.”

MORE: Alex Bowman out of Kentucky race after Stage 2 incident

Results, stats for Quaker State 400 at Kentucky

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Martin Truex Jr. swept both stages of the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway and the race to record his fourth  victory of the season. With this win, he is the first driver to beat Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on a 1.5-mile track in 2018.

Ryan Blaney finished second. He had one of the quickest cars in practice in terms of average speeds. Blaney challenged Truex in the closing laps, but crossed under the checkered flag two seconds behind Truex.

Brad Keselowski overcame a pit road penalty for speeding in Stage 1 to finish third.

Busch in fourth and Harvick in fifth rounded out the top five.

Click here the complete results.