Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

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With 10 races left in the Cup regular season, the push for stage points is starting to play a key role in strategy and the results are showing in the standings.

Austin Dillon holds what would be the 16th and final playoff heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1). But as Matt Kenseth nearly showed last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a victory by a driver outside the top 16 will take a playoff spot away from one hoping to make it by points.

Teams also are mindful that the regular season finale will be at Daytona International Speedway, which could lead to a surprise winner. Three of the last five Cup points races at Daytona saw a driver score either their first or second career Cup win: Dillon, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Teams already are trying different strategies to get away from 16th in the standings or climb into a potential playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto entered the Pocono doubleheader weekend 15th in the standings. Focusing on stage results, he scored 17 stage points in the two races that weekend and added 11 stage points last weekend at Indy.

Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” DiBenedetto said after the Pocono weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs.”

Those 28 stage points he’s earned the past three races helped DiBenedetto climb to 12th in the standings heading to Kentucky. He’s scored 26 more stage points than Clint Bowyer the past three races. That 26-point advantage helped put DiBenedetto three points ahead of Bowyer in standings.

William Byron‘s stage win at Indy proved key in helping him climb the points standings. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Byron won the first stage last weekend at Indy and collected 10 stage points (and one playoff point) after crew chief Chad Knaus had Byron stay on track under caution when most of the leaders did pit with eight laps left in the stage. Byron restarted in the lead and held that position for the final four laps of the stage under green.

Those 10 points helped Byron pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for 14th in the standings. Byron leads Johnson, who sat out Indy because he had tested positive for COVID-19, by two points. Johnson has since had two negative tests for the coronavirus and been reinstated for this weekend.

Another driver who has benefitted from a strategy focused on stage points is Dillon. He’s scored 18 stage points the past three races to nine stage points by Jones. Dillon holds what would be the final playoff spot by six points on Jones.

2. Will this be Kyle Busch’s weekend?

The reigning series champion has one win in the last 38 races but heads to a Kentucky Speedway that has been good to him, even though Kurt Busch nipped his younger brother for the win in last year’s race.

Kyle Busch has two wins in nine starts at Kentucky and leads all drivers in top-five finishes (seven), top-10 finishes (eight) and laps led (621) at the track.

Busch’s lone victory in the last 38 races came in last year’s championship race in Miami. In that same span, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have combined to win 14 races.

Also during that 38-race stretch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 16 races (42.1%). Each has eight wins in that time.

3. Speeding on pit road

Here’s a look at the number of pit road speeding penalties drivers have had in the first 16 races of the Cup season:

6 – Quin Houff

5 – Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

4 – Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Daniel Suarez

3 – Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JJ Yeley,

2 – Christopher Bell, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Brennan Poole, Ryan Preece.

1 – Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Joey Gase, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick,

0 – Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

4. Streakin’

With Jimmie Johnson missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19, his consecutive starts streak ended at 663, ranking fifth on the all-time list. Johnson has since been cleared to race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick ranks sixth on the list of longest consecutive starts streak with 656 consecutive starts heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here is the top 6 in longest consecutive streaks:

797 — Jeff Gordon

788 — Ricky Rudd

704 — Bobby Labonte

697 — Rusty Wallace

663 — Jimmie Johnson

656 — Kevin Harvick

5. More of the same for Chevy teams?

Chevrolet teams are winless in their last eight Cup races and the manufacturer has one win in nine races at Kentucky. That victory came last year with Kurt Busch beating Kyle Busch at the finish.

Since Chase Elliott won the second Charlotte race in late May, Chevy drivers have not won. Elliott finished second in Miami, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second at Talladega and Matt Kenseth was second at Indianapolis.

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Power Rankings after Indianapolis: Kevin Harvick back to No. 1

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Helped greatly by his win in the Brickyard 400, Kevin Harvick returns to the top spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

Harvick was a unanimous pick of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers, knocking Denny Hamlin off last week’s No. 1 perch.

Making the biggest gain this week is Matt Kenseth, who is ranked fifth after being unranked last week. Chase Elliott suffered the biggest drop, from fourth last week to 10th this week.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Kevin Harvick (30 points): Among his 53 career wins, he has three Brickyard 400s, two Coke 600s, one Southern 500 and one Daytona 500. Last week: second.

2. Aric Almirola (26 points): Keeps churning out top five finishes; goes for a half dozen in a row this weekend at Kentucky. Last week: third.

3. Brad Keselowski (18 points): Placed fourth at Indy, earning his ninth top 10 finish in the last 11 races this season. Last week: fifth.

4. Denny Hamlin (17 points): If it hadn’t of been for his late tire issue and crash, we likely would be talking about the great run and win Hamlin had at Indy. Last week: first.

5. Matt Kenseth (14 points): He may be the oldest active driver on the NASCAR Cup circuit, but Kenseth showed Sunday he still knows how to wheel a race car. Nearly secured a playoff spot at Indy with a win but had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish there. Last week: unranked.

6. Kyle Busch (13 points): Climbs back into the rankings but remains one of the biggest mysteries of the season, namely, how can the defending Cup champion still be winless? Can he finally break through this Sunday at Kentucky? Last week: unranked.

7. Chase Briscoe (12 points): Heck of a finish in the Xfinity race on the Indy road course. All he does is win, win, win. Is now only three wins away from reaching his preseason prediction of eight wins in 2020. Last week: eighth.

8. Michael McDowell (10 points): Two top 10 finishes in the last three races for the Front Row Motorsports driver. Last week: unranked.

9. Cole Custer (8 points): Finished fifth and gave teammate Kevin Harvick the key push on the final restart at Indy. Last week: unranked.

10. Chase Elliott (5 points): Four top 10s in the last seven races. Last week: fourth.

Others receiving votes: Matt DiBenedetto (4 points), Bubba Wallace (3 points), Kurt Busch (2 points), Tyler Reddick (2 points), Austin Dillon (1 point).

Cup Series playoff grid after Brickyard 400

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With Kevin Harvick‘s victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400, no additional drivers locked themselves into the Cup Series playoff field.

But there was some movement at the bottom of the playoff grid as drivers jockey to make the 16-car field.

After he missed the race due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, Jimmie Johnson fell from 12th to 15th on the grid. He’s now 36 points above the cutline.

Matt DiBenedetto earned stage points in each stage before finishing 19th. He moved from 14th to 12th in the standings.

After earning stage points in both stages Sunday, Austin Dillon has cracked the top 16, moving up one spot. He has a six-point advantage over Erik Jones, who crashed out of Sunday’s race and had a 14-point advantage over Dillon entering the weekend.

With his ninth-place finish Sunday, Bubba Wallace is now within reach of the top 16. He sits at 19th, 42 points back from 16th.

Here’s the full playoff grid.

Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis

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The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.

Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.

“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”

Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.

But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.

If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?

Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.

One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).

The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.

Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.

Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.

There’s much to consider for any crew chief.

“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”

But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.

2. Aging like fine wine

Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.

There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.

Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.

The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.

So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?

“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”

Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.

“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.

“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”

3. Location, location, location

A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.

While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.

With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.

It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”

Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.

4. Standout performance

With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.

Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.

Matt DiBenedetto scored 72 points, including 17 stage points, last weekend at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.

With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.

“Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”

Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.

5. Rough going

After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.

Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.

His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.

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Xfinity drivers chase historic checkered flag at Indy

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Chase Briscoe said in February that there was no reason he couldn’t win a quarter of the Xfinity races this year.

Even as he focused on becoming the series’ dominant driver, he concentrated on another goal — winning the inaugural Xfinity race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC).

A win this weekend for the series points leader would compliment the four Xfinity victories he’s scored this year and the six he has in his career, which includes winning the inaugural Charlotte Roval Xfinity race in 2018. 

Briscoe has practiced weekly for the Indy road course race on the Ford simulator since February.

“Every Wednesday I’ve been running at least an hour and a half to two hours at Indy, just trying to get prepared for the racetrack,” the Indiana native said.

“I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of where to make speed. It’s hard to really say how much the simulator will correlate over to the real-life thing, but I feel like I have a really good general idea of what to do, and I’m not going to be lost for those first couple of laps.”

The only NASCAR driver who has tested the road course is Matt DiBenedetto. He drove a Team Penske Xfinity car in a January test, compiling data for all teams. DiBenedetto said he is looking forward to watching Saturday’s race.

“I’m super-jealous of those guys,” he said. “They’re going to have a blast. That course is awesome. It’s so much fun, has really good passing zones, so I’m going to be watching really closely.”

Briscoe’s challenge won’t be just with the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course that winds through Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield and includes the tracks famous frontstretch. Among his key foes are expected to be Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger.

Cindric and Allmendinger combined to win three of the four Xfinity road course races last year. Cindric won at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. Allmendinger won at the Charlotte Roval.

Cindric said that there is extra meaning this weekend because of the uncertainty of the Xfinity schedule beyond this month. All four series road course events last year were held after July. NASCAR has not announced the Xfinity schedule for the rest of the season beyond July.

“It’s no (surprise) that the road courses are … a strong suit for our team, and we don’t know how many of those are left,” he said.

Cindric says that Saturday’s race on the Indy road course will be fun and notes the passing zones.

“I think it’s going to be the best layout as far as passing goes that NASCAR goes to,” he said. “You’ve got two really great passing zones at the end of the both straightaways, that’s something you can’t really say about the Roval and Watkins Glen, those races are better for other reasons.”

Allmendinger should be formidable foe for Cindric, Briscoe and others based on his road course experience. Ross Chastain said Allmendinger has been a key asset for Kaulig Racing as it prepared for this event.

“AJ Allmendinger has definitely led the charge for drivers to drive the simulator and he’s built out our setups and what we should feel on those rigs with Team Chevy and (Richard Childress Racing),” Chastain said.

Allmendinger is more motivated to win at Indy than just to win the inaugural Xfinity race on the road course.

“There are very places … when you go to a racetrack that has so much history behind it, whether it’s IndyCars or stock cars, whatever its may be, you say the word, Indy and people that aren’t in motorsports understand what the history is being that racetrack,” he said.

“I want to be a part of that history. It would be something special to kiss the bricks, even if we had to do it with masks on. I don’t care. I’ll kiss them with the mask on.”

But he’ll first have to get through the two-day weekend for the series. With running on the road course for the first time, teams will have two practices Friday. That will be key for drivers, including Jeremy Clements, who won at Road America in 2017.

“I don’t know anything about (the track),” Clements said. “We don’t have any simulators or any of that stuff. Kind of going in blind. So I’m going to be a little behind there.”

One thing he is certain of, though.

“I think it will be a survival type race,” he said.

Briscoe just hopes he’s first to drive past the checkered flag. He admits, should he do so, it will feel different because fans, including friends and family, will not be allowed at the track this weekend because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hate, first off, that there’s not going to be fans at Indianapolis just because when I go there, there are so many people that come from my hometown (Mitchell, Indiana) and from my area that don’t get to see me race anywhere else. 

“Just feeling the support every time I go there is so special. Last year in driver’s intros when we were riding around in the trucks, I literally had tears in my eyes just the amount of people that were standing up and cheering for me. It wouldn’t suck to win Indy without fans, but it would be bittersweet because none of my family would be there, none of the fans that don’t get to watch me anywhere else (would be there). I’m not going to turn away a win at Indy just because there are no fans, but it is tough to go there and not have fans.”