NASCAR America: Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among winners, losers at Kentucky

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On Monday’s NASCAR America, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton discussed the winners and losers among drivers in Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Letarte singled out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as one of the losers after he failed to overtake Alex Bowman in the playoff standings. Bowman entered the race as the last driver above the cutoff line for the 16 driver field in the playoffs.

Bowman earned his first DNF after he crashed from a flat tire and finished last.

Meanwhile, Stenhouse finished 26th, one lap down after he had to pit twice early in Stage 1, the first time for a cut tire. He is now nine points behind Bowman for the final playoff spot.

“To only gain 10 points on a driver who finished last in the field is a huge missed opportunity,” Letarte said. “When you look at drivers scoring 30, 40, 50 points each, Paul Menard picked up over 30. So the chance was there to gain (on) that bigger group and he just didn’t do it. So when I look at what Ricky Stenhouse did, he really missed probably 15 or 20 points. I know it was a flat tire, there’s always a reason. But in the end you have to make the playoffs, you have to go out there and take it from Alex Bowman, who has put him in that position.”

Burton picked Menard as a winner. The Wood Brothers Racing driver placed 11th Saturday after finishing fifth in Stage 1 and 10th in Stage 2.

He is now 18th in the standings, 23 points back from Bowman

“They performed well, got good stage finishes and did what they needed to do,” Burton said. “This team is starting to get a little bit better every single week. I find it very interesting that back there for that 16th spot it’s really a fight of mediocrity, to be honest with you, and who is going to not mess up.”

Watch the above video for more.

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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Kyle Petty: NASCAR should ‘step into’ Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. feud

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NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty believes NASCAR should “step into” the Kyle Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. feud before it erupts into a repeat of the Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano feud from 2015.

Petty made his comments Saturday on NASCAR America prior to the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“Where is NASCAR?” Petty said. “They didn’t step in when Logano and Kenseth got in their scrap and we saw how that ended up at Martinsville. We heard Ricky say, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ That seems to be a little bit over the line. NASCAR needs to step into this before it ends up on the race track and these other 36, 37 guys are involved in something that’s not of their making. … I don’t care who it is. NASCAR needs to step into this.”

After Kenseth was spun by Logano in the closing laps of a playoff race at Kansas Speedway, the feud simmered for weeks until Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano in the playoff race at Martinsville Speedway while Logano was leading. Kenseth was punished with a two-race suspension.

Stenhouse and Busch have been at odds since last weekend’s race at Daytona International Speedway.

Busch and Stenhouse were running 2-3 in Stage 2 when Stenhouse attempted to side-draft off Busch’s car. The two made contact, sending Busch into the wall. The resulting incident collected six cars.

That was 10 laps after a 26-car incident that began when Brad Keselowski, who was in second and being pushed by Stenhouse, checked up due to a block from William Byron and spun off Stenhouse’s bumper.

On Friday, Busch said he was “disappointed” Stenhouse hadn’t reached out to apologize.

“He wiped out half the field,” Busch said. “Pretty sure there would be a pretty busy Monday for him but there wasn’t. So, apparently he just doesn’t care.”

Asked if he would race Stenhouse differently, Busch said: “I can’t worry about people that far back in the field.”

During qualifying later in the day, Stenhouse approached and spoke to Busch as he sat in his car.

“I told him that, I was like, ‘Hey, you’re right, you do run a lot further up front, but pick and choose your battles wisely because you will have to deal with me sometime whether you are lapping me or we get our cars better and we are up there racing with you,’” Stenhouse told NBC Sports. “So I told him if you want to keep running his mouth, he can come over and do it around me and I’ll stop it for him myself.”

Busch starts fifth in tonight’s race. Stenhouse starts 14th.

Before the race NBC Sports’ Marty Snider asked Stenhouse if he’ll race Busch differently.

“No, I won’t, unless he gives me another reason to,” Stenhouse said. “I don’t ever plan on getting into anybody on purpose or holding up a leader if they’re lapping me.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tells Kyle Busch to ‘pick and choose your battles wisely’

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said he did not reach out to Kyle Busch after wrecking him last weekend at Daytona International Jr. because Busch “ran his mouth enough on the radio and then after the race.”

Busch said earlier Friday that he was “disappointed” that Stenhouse had not reached out to him about the accident.

Asked if he would race Stenhouse differently, Busch said: “I can’t worry about people that far back in the field.”

Stenhouse walked over to Busch’s car after the second round of qualifying Friday. Stenhouse leaned into the car and had a message for Busch.

“I told him that, I was like, ‘Hey, you’re right, you do run a lot further up front, but pick and choose your battles wisely because you will have to deal with me sometime whether you are lapping me or we get our cars better and we are up there racing with you,’” Stenhouse said. “So I told him if you want to keep running his mouth, he can come over and do it around me and I’ll stop it for him myself.”

Busch’s reaction?

“He said he had things to do,” Stenhouse said. “He plugged his radio back in. I told him he can keep coming over and running his mouth. He kind of stopped after that. I don’t know what his thought is. I just told him what my thought was and the reason why I didn’t reach out to him.”

Busch had to get ready for the final round of qualifying. Busch went on to qualify fifth. Stenhouse will start 14th in Saturday night’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Stenhouse said he intended to contact Busch but then heard Busch’s expletive-laden comments on the radio about Stenhouse.

“He’s such a (expletive),” Busch said on his radio after the crash. “What a (expletive) waste of space.”

Stenhouse said he typically reaches out to drivers when he has incidents with them.

“I’ve crashed people, I’ve crashed myself and I’ve always reached out to people that I made contact with,” Stenhouse said. “Jimmie (Johnson), him and I have talked about things. We’ve had a few run-ins this year, not really running into each other but racing each other hard. We talk about it and move on. Austin Dillon and I have raced each other hard and we’ve talked about it. I don’t mind talking to people.

“But people that just run their mouth all their time, I don’t feel like I need to go talk to them.”

Erik Jones tops final Cup practice at Kentucky Speedway

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Erik Jones, who earned his first Cup win last weekend at Daytona, was fastest in the final practice session at Kentucky Speedway on Friday.

Jones posted a top speed of187.748 mph around the 1.5-mile speedway. He only recorded five laps in the session.

Jones was followed by Ryan Blaney (187.311 mph), Kyle Busch (186.503), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (185.982) and Austin Dillon (185.714).

Kyle Larson, who was fastest in the first practice, was 25th on the speed chart (181.616) and recorded the most laps with 48.

Denny Hamlin had the best 10-lap average at 180.939 mph.

Click here for the speed chart.