Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick soars to No. 1 entering playoffs

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Kevin Harvick’s win in the Brickyard 400 didn’t just give him momentum going into the Cup playoffs, it also rocketed him to the top of this week’s Power Rankings with his unanimous selection by the NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Harvick, who was tied for fourth last week, vaults over Kyle Busch (drops to third this week) and Kyle Larson (plummets to seventh), who were tied for No. 1 last week.

Also of note, Joey Logano finds himself back in the top 10 after falling out last week. Also a surprise entry in this week’s top 10 is Bubba Wallace (ninth). But of course, finishing third at Indianapolis will do that for a guy like Bubba.

Here is how this week’s rankings look:

1. Kevin Harvick (40 points): Starts the year winless in 19 races and now has won three of the last seven races. Nice way to head into the playoffs. He is now a threat to win at every speedway in playoffs. Last week: tied for fourth.

2. Denny Hamlin (34 points): Finished sixth in a backup car at Indy; has just one finish worse than sixth in the last eight races (29th at Darlington), plus two wins in that stretch. He’s still red-hot. Last week: tied for fourth.

3. Kyle Busch (26 points): Don’t be bothered that he is on a 12-race winless streak. He has five top-five finishes and eight top-10 results during his drought. Last week: tied for first.

4. Clint Bowyer (20 points): Starting to put together more solid races. His fifth-place finish at Indy gave him three consecutive top 10s entering the playoffs. If he can get past the first round, could become a real dark horse. Last week: tied for eighth.

5. Joey Logano (19 points): Runner-up finish broke a string of five finishes outside the top 10 for the reigning series champion. Was Indy a sign of things to come? Last week: Unranked.

6. Ryan Blaney (17 points): Five top-10 finishes in the last seven races . Needs to fix execution problems but still strong. Last week: Unranked.

7. Kyle Larson (14 points): Yes, he finished 33rd at Indy but again showed speed and was on pace to score his sixth consecutive top-10 finish. This could be a team to watch in the playoffs. Last week: tied for first.

8. Chase Elliott (13 points): With Jimmie Johnson not in the playoffs, Elliott becomes the torch bearer for Hendrick Motorsports. Is he up to the task? Also, ninth-place finish at Indy gives him four top fives in the last five races. Last week: Unranked.

9. Bubba Wallace (9 points): Earned second career top five and delivered Richard Petty his first Brickyard 400 top five as an owner. Last week: Unranked.

10. Ryan Newman (8 points): He has had to grind things out all season so it only made sense he would have to do the same thing Sunday at Indy to secure the final playoff spot. If he keeps that kind of thing up, has a good chance to reach second round. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: William Byron (7 points), Brad Keselowski (6 points), Chris Buescher (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (2 points), Paul Menard (1 point).

Silly Season scorecard: Matt DiBenedetto finds new ride for 2020

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That didn’t take long.

Less than a month after it became public that Matt DiBenedetto would not return to Leavine Family Racing in 2020, he has a new ride. DiBenedetto will drive the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing in 2020 with Paul Menard stepping back from full-time racing after this season.

So, yes, Denny Hamlin‘s words from Bristol were heard.

“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said after beating DiBenedetto to win the Bristol night race. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”

Here’s a look at where the NASCAR Silly Season stands at this point:

ANNOUNCED OPEN RIDES FOR 2020

No. 8: With Richard Childress Racing announcing that Daniel Hemric won’t return to the team (announcement made Sept. 17) next season, all that is left to be done is for the official announcement that Tyler Reddick will move up to take that ride. Childress spoke July 30 about wanting to keep Reddick.

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

No. 95: The only thing missing is the official announcement that Christopher Bell will drive for Leavine Family Racing next season. Expect that soon.

 

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

 

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

No. 1: Kurt Busch‘s contract expires after this season but all indications are that he’ll return to the Chip Ganassi Racing team with Monster Energy in 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer‘s contract expires after this season but Bowyer stated as recently as at Darlington that things were moving closer to an extension.

No. 41: Daniel Suarez has said that both he and the team have an option on his contract for next year. He has remained confident that he will return to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Ryan: Paul Menard gives NASCAR a happy (and predictably quiet) ending

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The feel-good stunner of Silly Season naturally would involve the most taciturn and tight-lipped of NASCAR drivers pulling the primary levers.

In what can be described only as a Peak Paul Menard power move, Wood Brothers Racing shocked the NASCAR world Tuesday morning with the unexpected announcement that Menard will exit the No. 21 Ford after the 2019 season and hand the keys to Matt DiBenedetto.

Menard essentially ended his full-time career and hand-picked his successor with hardly anyone being that much the wiser ahead of time.

Not that Menard (who had said a few months ago that he planned to return in 2020) even noticed he had kept the biggest secret in NASCAR since Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement (and even that leaked a half-day ahead).

SUNDAY: NASCAR opens playoffs at Las Vegas

“It wasn’t my goal to keep it a huge secret,” Menard said. “It’s just something that I spoke to the people that needed to know.  (Wood Brothers Racing co-owners) Eddie, Len (Wood). The folks at Penske. It is what it is.”

We would expect nothing less from the famously reserved Menard, who was never one to trumpet his personal or professional life during 13 seasons in Cup of mostly remaining private about anything beyond racing.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, he demurred when facing questions about several topics — notably the timeline of his decision and the ages of the young daughter and son whom he cited as the primary reason for his retirement from the rigors of full-time Cup racing.

“Watching them grow and missing out on a couple things they’ve been doing, it’s hard as a father, as a parent,” said Menard, who turned 39 last month and began racing at 8. “This sport takes so much dedication to run at the top level. I want what’s best for the 21 team. I want what’s best for my family.”

Though there are signs he could remain at Team Penske in some sort of executive capacity (his family’s company also sponsors this year’s winning Indianapolis 500 car of Simon Pagenaud and his father, John, is a longtime friend of Roger Penske), Menard declined to get into specifics.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I guess that’s in the future.”

And though he indicated he will continue to race (“it’s not going just to 38 weeks a year, I can tell you that.”), Menard also provided few hints of whether it’ll be in NASCAR.         

“Ice racing,” the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native deadpanned. “I haven’t done that in a few years. We might build a bad-ass ice racing car.”

The answer is revelatory because it’s what often is missed about the quiet scion to a multibillion-dollar home improvement warehouse fortune. Racing never has been about fame or money but his passion for motorsports.

Menard’s father has been a fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 40 years and instilled that love of auto racing in Paul, which is why Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Eddie Wood asked for his input on a replacement.

“Racers know racers,” Wood said. “I value Paul’s opinion. The only answer that came out of his mouth was Matt.  It did come together really, really quickly.  Matt was pretty much ready to go.  Just the way it all unfolded, it was like it was meant to be.”

It would be hard to find someone worthier than DiBenedetto, who is being cut loose by Leavine Family Racing as a team business decision casualty during the best season of his career. After “betting on himself” by walking away from Go Fas Racing with nothing lined up, DiBenedetto’s gamble was punctuated by a runner-up finish last month at Bristol Motor Speedway that is the Cinderella story of 2019.

He has three top five finishes in the past 11 races and is delivering better results under immense pressure than any previous driver at LFR … but it wasn’t enough.

LFR’s No. 95 Camry reportedly will be filled next year by Christopher Bell, whose contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ensures that LFR will be more closely aligned with the Toyota powerhouse than ever before.

Yet DiBenedetto’s move to Wood Brothers Racing, which is just as tightly affiliated with Team Penske, ensures that he will inherit an opportunity that is just as good.

Since forming the alliance with Penske three years ago, Wood Brothers Racing has risen to the fringe of the Cup elite. Ryan Blaney won at Pocono Raceway and took the storied franchise to the third round of the playoffs in 2017. Though Menard missed the playoffs the past two seasons, he has been trending in the direction of speed and performance lately (another reason Tuesday’s news was such a bombshell).

At best, it seemed a lateral or regressive move awaited DiBenedetto if he wanted to stay in Cup.

Instead, he gets the best break of his NASCAR career.

“This is the most incredible opportunity in my whole life,” DiBenedetto said of his one-year deal for 2020. “Not only from a performance standpoint, but from just being able to drive for such a legendary team, a family I’ve had so much respect for (and) has always treated me like gold.”

It’s a neat and unexpected twist that delighted NASCAR Twitter and should please a NASCAR Nation of fans who increasingly have decried drivers who get rides because they bring money instead of merit.

In this case, it’s the guy who broke into NASCAR largely through his sponsor connections choosing the guy who has desperately searched for jobs because of his lack of sponsor connections.

With the support of his family’s successful company, Menard’s racing future rarely has been in doubt, and some detractors have charged that nepotism kept him in Cup for longer than it would have for many drivers.

The criticism isn’t entirely fair to Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 and consistently has finished between 17th and 23rd in points for eight of the past nine seasons (between Wood Brothers Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, which followed earlier stints at Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.).

Yes, his surname undoubtedly has buoyed his career, but his results also have been serviceable and comparable to many journeyman drivers who lasted nearly as long at NASCAR’s premier level.

But while Menard proved worthy of posting workingman’s results in Cup, he also has enjoyed job security and little fear or pressure of losing his ride.

It’s been the opposite for DiBenedetto, who has been forced to openly campaign for employment while “racing for his life” this summer. He still was surprised when the call came from Penske a few days after Bristol.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” DiBenedetto said. “But one thing I’ve always said is a priority of mine has been always gaining respect of other drivers and veterans like Paul because they can be your best allies and huge influence on your entire career.  This is a perfect example.

“Paul is not only making a big decision for his life and career, but he’s impacting my entire life, family, everything I’ve worked for my whole life. A ‘thank you’ for stuff like that can never be enough.”

And it’s even more impactful when it comes just as out of the blue for the rest of the world.

It’s kind of nice this was the Silly Season rumor that no one knew about ahead of time.

As Paul Menard will tell you, silence can be golden.

Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard news lights up social media

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Tuesday morning’s announcement that Paul Menard will retire after this season and Matt DiBenedetto will replace him next season in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford certainly lit up the twitterverse.

MORE: Paul Menard to retire from NASCAR; Matt DiBenedetto will drive No. 21 in 2020

Here’s some of the top posts we found:

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