NBC Power Rankings heading to Martinsville

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For the third time in the last four weeks Kyle Busch is the unanimous No. 1 pick in the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Busch made history last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, earning the 200th win of his NASCAR career across all three major series. With the three-race West Coast swing now in its rearview mirror, NASCAR heads to the series’ shortest track, the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway.

Making the biggest jump in this week’s rankings were Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski (seventh to fourth) and Ryan Blaney (ninth to sixth). The biggest drop was Martin Truex Jr., who fell to seventh from second.

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look:

1. Kyle Busch (40 points): The King of the sport at this point. In 10 national series starts this year, he has six wins and two runner-up finishes and has not finished lower than sixth in any race. Last week: 1st.

2. Joey Logano (35 points): Two top-two finishes during West Coast swing plus a 10th at Phoenix. Only Kyle Busch scored more points than Logano during the three-race swing. Last week: 3rd.

3. Kevin Harvick (30 points): Hasn’t led any laps since Las Vegas, but has finished fourth three times since Daytona. Last week: 5th.

4. Brad Keselowski (29 points): Rebounded from a dismal Phoenix race to lead 42 laps and place third at Fontana. His four races since Daytona have included three finishes in top three. Last week: 7th.

5. Kurt Busch (22 points): Four consecutive top 10s but has failed to make the final round of qualifying in the last three races. That’s contributed to him having only four stage points in that time. Last week: 4th.

6. Ryan Blaney (17 points): He is nipping at the heels of his powerhouse Penske teammates. Could he join Logano and Keselowski with a playoff berth with a win at Martinsville? Last week: 9th.

7. Martin Truex Jr. (16 points): Talk about consistency: Truex has finished second, eighth, second and eighth in his last four starts. Last week: 2nd.

8. Denny Hamlin (12 points): Still has not finished worse than 11th this season. Last week: 6th.

9. Aric Almirola (10 points): Just keeps clicking off top 10s. That’s four in a row for him. Now has nine top 10s (including a win last fall at Talladega) in his last 11 starts. Last week: 8th.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (5 points): Even though he finished 14th at Fontana, his second-worst showing of the season, again receives major points for displaying grit and sheer will. Climbs back into the top 10 after dropping out last week.

Others receiving votes: Austin Dillon (2 points), Kyle Larson (1 point), Chase Elliott (1 point).

Bump & Run: Who had best, worst West Coast Swing?

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Who had the best West Coast Swing?

Nate Ryan: Team Penske. Kyle Busch turned in the best individual performance, but the trio of Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney posted the best across-the-board effort by any team.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. Five wins in seven national series races (should have gone seven for seven).

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch easily. Of the seven races he entered, he won five and placed in the top three in the other two.

Jerry Bonkowski: With two wins and a third-place finish in the West Coast swing, there’s no other choice but Kyle Busch. Other drivers that had a good run include Kurt Busch (fifth-seventh-sixth), Joey Logano (one win, one runner-up and one 10th-place finish) and Kevin Harvick (two fourth-place finishes and a ninth-place).

 

Who had the worst West Coast Swing?

Nate Ryan: Ryan Preece. After three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 (while his teammate notched three straight top 20s), the outstanding showing at the Daytona 500 must seem much further away than a month ago.

Dustin Long: Those hoping the rule changes would dramatically alter the racing and alter who the best teams would be.

Daniel McFadin: Has anyone seen Ryan Newman? While his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has shown glimpses of improvement, including at Las Vegas, the No. 6 Ford has been missing in action. Newman’s West Coast Swing was made up of finishes of 24th (Vegas), 12th (Phoenix) and 22nd (Auto Club). He has no top 10s through five races.

Jerry Bonkowski: With finishes of 22nd (Las Vegas), 26th (Phoenix) and 30th (Fontana), Bubba Wallace ranks 30th after the West Coast swing. He’s way behind the eight ball after just five races. About the only chance Wallace has to make the playoffs is to get a win in the next 21 races.

 

If you were seeding the Cup field like the NCAA tournament, who would be your four No. 1 seeds after five races?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch

Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin.

 

Bigger Chevrolet surprise: That Kurt Busch has four consecutive top 10s or Hendrick Motorsports has no top fives this season?

Nate Ryan: Busch seemed reinvigorated toward the end of last season, and Chip Ganassi Racing made the necessary moves to shore up its performance this season, so while the No. 1’s consistency has been unexpectedly stellar, it’s less of a stunner than Hendrick. It’s been 19 years since the team went five races into a season without a top five. Yes, there’ve been flashes of speed by each driver, but the statistics don’t get any plainer than that. Hendrick will need to show it has made progress by Texas Motor Speedway next week.

Dustin Long: Kurt Busch. I like how this team has performed at the beginning of the season but Busch told me after Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway that for all that has gone well for them with finishes, they need to qualify better to gain more stage points. He scored only four stage points during the West Coast races.

Daniel McFadin: Kurt Busch’s remarkable consistency. He entered a car that had just two top fives last year and matched it in the first four races. Last year, Busch didn’t earn his fourth top 10 until he placed second at Talladega in race No. 10. Hendrick is still working itself out of a rut that started two years ago.

Jerry Bonkowski: Tough question. Busch is the most pleasant surprise for Chevy, for sure. But Hendrick Motorsports is the biggest surprise overall – and that’s not a good thing – in the bowtie camp, as all four of its drivers are already more than 100 points behind points leader Kyle Busch after five races and Chase Elliott is the highest-ranked HMS pilot in 12th place.

Wacky final Cup qualifying round at Fontana: No driver makes the time

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In one of the most unusual NASCAR Cup qualifying sessions ever seen, the 12 drivers in the final round of Friday’s qualifying at Auto Club Speedway waited and hesitated in an attempt to try and beat the clock – and all lost as a result.

Not one of the dozen drivers that advanced to the third and final qualifying round managed to cross the finish line at the 2-mile high speed oval in time to make a successful run before time expired. 

As a result, the fastest driver in the second qualifying round, Austin Dillon, earned the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 with his effort of 180.081 mph, his fourth career pole in 198 Cup races — and his second pole in six starts at the Fontana, California, track. Kevin Harvick (179.386 mph) will start alongside Dillon on the front row.

“It was wild,” Dillon told Fox Sports 1. “That was fun. …  It feels good to get that pole because that’s wild there. We just waited and no one wanted to make it, I knew it reverted back to us. That’s a good way to win it (the pole).”

The rest of the top 12 qualifiers were Aric Almirola (179.082 mph) and Kyle Busch (178.895) on Row 2, Joey Logano  (178.891) and Denny Hamlin (178.607) in Row 3, Ryan Newman (178.509) and Chase Elliott (178.412) in Row 4, Clint Bowyer (178.359) and Ryan Blaney (178.315) in Row 5 and Jimmie Johnson (178.306) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (178.196) in Row 6.

Here is the full qualifying speed chart.

NOTES:

* Chase Elliott spun in the first round of qualifying but was able to regroup and finished that round third-fastest.

* Ryan Newman’s car chief, Todd Brewer, was ejected for the remainder of the weekend and the No. 6 team was docked 15 minutes in Saturday’s final practice after the car failed pre-qualifying inspection twice.

* There will be two final Cup practices Saturday from 12:05 – 12:55 p.m. ET, and from 3:30 – 4:20 p.m. ET.

* Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (200 laps/400 miles) will take the green flag at 3:30 p.m. ET (Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NBC Sports Power Rankings heading to Fontana

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For the second time in three weeks, Kyle Busch is the unanimous pick by NBC Sports’ writers for the No. 1 spot atop the weekly Power Rankings.

Busch is coming off a perfect weekend that saw him take the checkered flag in both the Xfinity and NASCAR Cup races.

And for the third consecutive week, Busch remains atop the standings, either all alone (after Atlanta and Phoenix) or tied for first (after Las Vegas).

Making the biggest jump after Phoenix was Martin Truex Jr., who moves into second in the rankings from a tie for seventh after Las Vegas.

On the flip side, Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski suffered the biggest drop, falling from a tie with Busch for first after Las Vegas to seventh after Phoenix.

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look:

1. Kyle Busch (40 points): In a league of his own. With his Phoenix win, he’s the only driver to place in the top six in every Cup race. He’s also won five of the eight races he’s entered in all three national series. Last week: 1st (tie).

2. Martin Truex Jr. (33 points): Has come on strong in the last three races with runner-ups at Atlanta and Phoenix and eighth at Las Vegas. Has only led four laps (all at Atlanta) but he’s going to one of his strengths in Fontana. Last week: 7th (tie)

3. Joey Logano (24 points): Has three consecutive top 10s, including his win at Las Vegas. One of six drivers with three top 10s in four races. He and Denny Hamlin are the only drivers among those six with wins. Last week: 3rd.

4. Kurt Busch (22 points): Placed seventh for his third straight top 10 after earning consecutive top fives. Off to his best start of a season since the impressive 2013 run with Furniture Row Racing. Last week: 5th.

5. Kevin Harvick (21 points): Even with a ninth-place finish at Phoenix, his worst showing since Daytona, he’s still extremely solid; the driver and team are just a few small areas short of winning weekly. Last week: 4th.

6. Denny Hamlin (18 points): Earned his first top five since Daytona. His fifth at Phoenix means he has yet to finish worse than his car number this year. Last week: 6th.

7. Brad Keselowski (16 points): Earned worst finish of year (19th) after a mechanical failure resulted in a wreck early in Phoenix. Last week: 1st (tie).

8. Aric Almirola (15 points): Another strong, steady effort with first top five of the season. He has bettered his finish in every race so far. Last week: 9th.

9. Ryan Blaney (13 points): Strong performance at Phoenix to make up for a disappointing start to the season for the No. 12 team. Finally earned a finish that matched the car he had, finishing third after leading 94 laps and winning Stage 1. Last week: Did not rank.

10. Kyle Larson (10 points): The high way was his way on restarts at Phoenix, leading to a season-best sixth. Last week: 10th.

Others receiving votes: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (8 points. Last week: tied for 7th).

Long: Emotions boil in Phoenix, providing spark for NASCAR

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Michael McDowell’s actions can be questioned, but his explanation for the fight with Daniel Suarez on Friday was what NASCAR fans have waited to hear.

“It’s emotions,” McDowell said.

Amen.

“That’s just the way it is,” McDowell said.

Not exactly.

It was that way in NASCAR all the way to the 1990s before the sport gentrified to placate sponsors. The trade-off for money was losing one’s soul.

The sport seeks to reclaim its spirit and return to those rougher ways. That doesn’t mean going all the way back to the untamed “Wild West” days. But it’s OK for a driver to show their anger. And many have in recent years.

The fight at Phoenix between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell — during qualifying of all things — illustrates the heightened tensions this season.

Joey Logano predicted two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway that the new rules package, which is intended to tighten the field, “is going to cause probably more wrecks and more tempers are going to fly and more drama is going to be there.”

Other than Daytona, there haven’t been the wrecks — last week’s Las Vegas race had cautions only for the two stage breaks — but the tempers are rising.

NASCAR’s season of drama could be beginning. And that could be a good thing for fans, who want to see more emotion on and off the track.

Suarez was upset with McDowell on Friday for getting in his way during the first round of qualifying. That slowed Suarez, who failed to advance. Suarez will start 28th. McDowell starts 27th.

After the round, Suarez went to McDowell’s car to express his displeasure. McDowell, upset because he felt Suarez tried to wreck him, shoved Suarez to trigger the scuffle.

They soon became entangled before Suarez threw McDowell to the ground. McDowell’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, rushed in and shoved Suarez onto the hood of McDowell’s car. Suarez tried to kick McDowell while still on the car.

Suarez said afterward that McDowell’s actions hurt him for the race. Suarez’s team now has a later pick for pit stalls, which are selected in order of starting position. And Suarez will have to start deeper in the field in what is a short race, lasting 312 miles.

Qualifying poorly and having a bad pit stall pick hurt Logano at Atlanta. His stall was between the pit stalls of Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr. Logano lost at least 10 spots on each of the first two pit stops.

In a short race, that could be hard to overcome. Plus, drivers talk about the challenges of the “dirty air” of running behind a competitor. Starting deeper will provide a greater challenge for Suarez.

So it was understandable why he was upset when he headed to McDowell’s car on pit road.

This is what NASCAR has sought and tried to foster since the “Boys, have at it” years to now (NASCAR did not call either driver to the hauler Friday). Fans complain that drivers are too weary of upsetting sponsors by their actions. That mattered little to McDowell or Suarez.

This is the second time this season that McDowell has angered a fellow Ford driver.

Michael McDowell and Joey Logano discuss the end of the Daytona 500. Photo: NBC Sports

Logano was mad at McDowell for pushing the Toyota of Kyle Busch on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of Logano. McDowell, who had not been enamored with how Ford drivers raced him in that event, said after that race that “my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win.”

McDowell isn’t the only driver who has been at the subject of driver frustrations.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has upset a fellow competitor in each of the first three races. Logano was angered by a move Stenhouse made during the Daytona 500 and said on his radio: “Ricky Stanhkouse. God. He sucks.”

Truex was furious with Stenhouse, who was a lap down, for not getting out of his way as Truex attempted to chase down leader (and eventual winner) Brad Keselowski at Atlanta. Truex finished second but left convinced he could have won had he been able to get around Stenhouse sooner. Stenhouse discounted Truex’s argument.

Last week, Stenhouse and Erik Jones raced each other as if they were at Martinsville instead of Las Vegas.

Friday, Truex could enjoy the show. He was a fan as he watched McDowell and Suarez rumble.

Had Truex ever seen a fight on pit road during qualifying?

“I did today,” he said.

“It was awesome.”

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