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

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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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.

Retro Rundown 2018: Paint schemes for the 69th Southern 500

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The 69th Southern 500 might seem like it’s a long way aways, but you only have to wait 53 days for the Sept. 2 race at Darlington Raceway, which will air on NBCSN.

That night, the latest batch of throwback paint schemes will race for our affections and the win.

Here’s a roundup of the eight paint schemes that have been announced so far.

No. 2 – Brad KeselowskiWill drive Rusty Wallace’s paint scheme from the 1990 Cup season.

Team Penske

No. 4 – Kevin Harvick: Will drive a scheme based on Busch Beer’s can design from 1996.

Stewart-Haas Racing

No. 9 – Chase Elliott: The Hendrick Motorsports driver will have a scheme based on one driven by his late cousin, Casey Elliott. He passed away from cancer in 1996.

Photo: Dustin Long

No. 12 – Ryan Blaney: Will drive a scheme based on the car his father, Dave Blaney, raced in the 2003 Cup season.

No. 21 – Paul Menard: Wood Brothers Racing will pay tribute to Cale Yarborough’s win in the 1968 Southern 500, which was the first for the team and Yarborough.

No. 24 – William Byron: Will drive Jeff Gordon‘s iconic DuPont “Rainbow Warriors” scheme he raced full-time from 1993 -2000.

Hendrick Motorsports

 

No. 32 – Matt DiBenedetto: Will drive Jeff Burton‘s paint scheme from the 2000 Cup season.

 

No. 41 – Kurt BuschWill drive his own paint scheme from the 2003 season when he was part of one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history at Darlington Raceway, losing to Ricky Craven by 0.002 seconds. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the race.

 

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NASCAR using new left-side tire at Kentucky

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All three of NASCAR’s national series will be in action this week at Kentucky Speedway and each will be using the same tire setup.

That includes a new left-side tire. The tire has a construction update and a compound change to give the cars and trucks more grip.

The tire was confirmed by a test in May with Clint Bowyer, William Byron, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

Teams will have the same right-side tire they used last year at Kentucky.

Here’s the tire info for this weekend.

Set limits: Cup: Three sets for practice, one set for qualifying and seven sets for the race

Xfinity: Seven sets for the event

Truck: Six sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4798; Right-side — D-4750

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,224 mm (87.56 in.); Right-side — 2,250 mm (88.58 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front – 22 psi; Left Rear – 22 psi; Right Front – 52 psi; Right Rear — 50 psi

Like on all NASCAR ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run liners in all four tire positions at Kentucky. Air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater  than that of the outer tire.

Wood Brothers Racing honoring Cale Yarborough with Southern 500 scheme

Wood Brothers Racing
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Wood Brothers Racing announced Wednesday it will celebrate Cale Yarborough’s 1968 win in the Southern 500 in this year’s race at Darlington Raceway (Sept. 2 on NBCSN).

The paint scheme on Paul Menard‘s No. 21 Ford will be based on the 1968 Mercury Cyclone Yarborough drove to a win over David Pearson and Buddy Baker.

Yarborough’s win was his first of five in the Southern 500. The three-time Cup champion is from Timmonsville, South Carolina, located just 13 miles south of Darlington.

“He’s one of the original heroes of our sport,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said in a press release. “He got his first Southern 500 victory in our car and had a great career winning 83 races and three championships.”

Yarborough’s victory was the first of eight for the Wood Brothers at Darlington and the first of four in the Southern 500.

Details on the car include “396 Cubic Inches” lettering on the hood. At the time, NASCAR required teams to prominently post the engine size on the car.