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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What drivers said after Kentucky

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Martin Truex Jr. — Winner: “It feels good, you know? You never know how these races are going to play out. You never know quite what is going to happen and we had such a strong Toyota tonight they weren’t going to beat us. You never know how they’re going to turn out, so we just keep our heads down. We don’t get too excited. We keep working on the race car and trying to stay calm and not get ahead of ourselves, so we had to make a lot of adjustments tonight on the car and had to battle back a from a few times getting passed for the lead and coming out of the pits second or third, but this Auto-Owners Toyota was amazing tonight, so just thanks to everybody for their support and making all this possible.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 2nd: “It’s not a win. It’s a positive, that’s for sure. I hate it. I thought we were in a good spot there restarting fourth and Martin struggled a little bit the first couple laps and I thought I could get by him, but just couldn’t quite get a run on him. His car came in and mine kind of faded a little bit and he won the race. That stunk. I thought we had a shot at it tonight, but I’m really proud of the gains we made all race though, to be honest with you. I didn’t think we were a second-place car at the beginning of the race, and we got a lot better throughout the night so Jeremy Bullins and everybody did a great job. I can’t thank DEX Imaging and Ford and Menards enough for what they do. You said it, after the last few weeks we’ve had this is a very good positive for us. Hopefully, we can keep it going in the right direction.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 3rd: “It was a good call from my crew chief, Paul Wolfe. We had better speed than we’ve had at the mile-and-a-halves, but not enough to run with the 78. He eventually got by us there and I thought we might have had a shot at it if we could have restarted fourth there, but we kind of cycled back to sixth and it wasn’t enough to be able to make something happen there. All in all, a decent day. I hate that I kind of dug a hole early in the race with the speeding on pit road. We were just racing the 18 off pit road and tried to get a little bit too much, but we’ll take this and hopefully build off of it for the mile-and-a-halves in the Playoffs. It’s gonna be really important and I’m looking forward to next week in Loudon. I think we’ll be really good there.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 4th: “We look at the same sheet of paper the 78 (Truex) does every week, and we just didn’t have anything for them tonight. I don’t know what we were missing, but the SNICKERS Intense Flavors Camry was good, it was a top-five car. I thought it was a top-two car there for awhile, but the 12 (Blaney) was really strong. It kind of depended where people lined up on a restart. But overall a decent night for us; we made a few points on the 4 (Harvick) and lost some of our lead to the 78. We’ll just keep plugging along and try to hold onto this points lead.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 5th: “It’s just hard to pass. It’s hard to make anything happen. I think for us we got worse the last run and got loose into three and that really just killed everything, and then I hit the wall with 15 laps to go and that pretty much ended everything we had.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 6th: “I really enjoyed the way Billy Scott called the race because our lap times were really strong on the super-long runs, and that’s why he left me out there in Stage 1. We didn’t get points, but it put us in good position for Stage 2 and then we were ahead of the game to make a call again. It just kept us ahead the whole night. Even though we didn’t have the fastest car, we led a lot of laps tonight and it was fun to have the Monster Energy Ford out front. We probably would have ended up seventh and we finished sixth. It was a good battle.”

Erik Jones — Finished 7th: “Kind of a long day. Got our Freightliner Camry better pretty much every adjustment, so that was a positive. We moved our way forward and got a solid finish out of it.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 8th: “We had a good car. I messed up in qualifying, got greedy and tried to go for the pole and qualified 12th. This place is so track position dependent that we ran eighth to 12th all night. We just kind of got stuck in that area of track position and we just never could jump ahead. I’m mad at myself really for not executing qualifying better because we had a really fast car. We could have run top five easily.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 9th: “It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win. I drove by the No. 78 and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run and it drove okay, just built being back really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Joey Logano — Finished 10th: “Honestly, I thought at the beginning of the race we were probably better than we thought we’d be and were able to gain quite a few spots, and then the track was wider than we expected it to be. It rubbered out and the track was wide so it was harder to hold everybody off on the older tires. We tried. I don’t think we got the best gain out of it. We didn’t lose any, so it was kind of a wash, and then after that it seemed we just kind of lost the handle the last run. … We’ve got to keep pushing hard. We’re close in the points and we’re hanging in on that part of it, but we’ve got to figure out how to get more speed in our race cars.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 13th: “We were better than we started the day, but when the sun went down the track started gaining grip – everybody moved to the bottom and we needed more front turn.”

David Ragan — Finished 18th: “Our MDS team did a nice job on pit road and we made the car a little bit better throughout the night, so that’s important on these 400-mile races. You can’t get behind much and I felt like we were decent when they dropped the green flag and as the track changed Seth and Angela made good calls. We would have liked to finish in the top 15, but there were a few cars that were just a little better than us at the end, but I’m encouraged by the effort on the mile-and-a-half track to see some improvement and that will be good for later on in the year.”

William Byron — Finished 20th: “I felt like at certain times we would gain a little bit on adjustments, but just didn’t have a lot of potential to run any higher than really where we were. I felt like if other guys made mistakes we could run a couple of positions better than where we were, but we were just kind of right around that 15th to 20th range and it seems kind of like when the other guys hit their adjustments right we were already kind of maxed out to where we could adjust. I felt like we fought really hard and had some good pit stops that got us some track position. I felt like we were always gaining spots on restarts, we just couldn’t hold that.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 21st: “Track position was the name of the game tonight. We started off with a really bad vibration. Fortunately, it worked itself out after we bolted on new Goodyear tires. From there, we focused on improving our handling. My biggest issue all night was Turns 1 and 2. Everyone talks about Turn 3, but it was neutral for us.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 22nd: “I hate that we had problems early. We had a vibration as soon as we started the race and we had no option but to pit for four tires on the AAA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. I actually started feeling it during the pace laps at the start of the race, but I thought it was just a cold set of tires. It must have been a bad set of tires. As soon as we pitted the vibration was gone and we were one of the fastest cars on the track. From there, it was a battle to earn the Lucky Dog, and then to keep up with changing track conditions with chassis adjustments during scheduled pit stops. Every position was hard-fought tonight. We have a lot of work to do.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 39th: “We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this, this will hurt us quite a bit. It’s a big bummer for my guys and for Axalta and Nationwide and everybody that makes this deal happen. Really unfortunate, but it’s not something that we could prevent it’s nothing that we caused and there is not much you can do about it. You pop a right front and have a long time to star at the wall and then you hit it and then you’ve got to move on.”

MORE: Alex Bowman out of Kentucky race after Stage 2 incident

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.

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.

What drivers had to say after first Roval open test

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CONCORD, N.C. — Sixteen Cup teams hit Charlotte Motor Speedway Tuesday for the first open test on the track’s 2.28-mile, 17-turn road course that will host the Sept. 30 Bank of America Roval 400.

From 9 – 6 p.m. ET the teams tried to get familiar with the course that they will visit for the last race in the first round of the playoffs.

Drivers came away with different reactions to the track, which uses most of the 1.5-mile oval.

“You’re not comfortable anywhere,” Jimmie Johnson told NBC Sports and ESPN. “You’re on pins and needles afraid you’re going to bust your butt. There’s not a calm place around here.”

The seven-time champion believes attrition during the 109-lap race is “going to be very high.”

“It’s very easy to make mistakes and have big problems when you make mistakes,” Johnson said. “Race time is going to be a handful.”

Asked where the best place to pass will be, Johnson answered simply, “pit lane.”

MORE: Bubba Wallace wrecks early in Roval test.

Kasey Kahne indicated miscues could be aplenty, saying “Basically if you make a mistake you hit something.”

But the Leavine Family Racing driver enjoyed his marathon experience on the new track.

“I actually kind of like all of it,” Kahne said. “I like all of it and I dislike all of it. It’s very unique and different and interesting to drive. Because of that I think it makes it technical and difficult at the same time.”

Kahne said the road course portion in the infield is a “completely different type of technical” than Sonoma Raceway, the road course the series visited last month.

Paul Menard took that view a step further.

“We can’t look at Sonoma notes, we can’t look at Watkins Glen notes,” Menard told NBC Sports. “We have to create our own, because we’re going 170 (mph) through the banking … We don’t see anything like that at Watkins Glen. And certainly not Sonoma.”

The main road course portion ends in Turn 8, where drivers return to the oval at the entrance of the oval’s Turn 1.

“You’re peddling it to not to run into the wall,” Kahne said. “Because of the lack of turn, the way you pick up the banking. It’s so flat right before that … you rely all on the car and you can only do so much I guess.”

Once on the backstretch, cars go through a chicane to slow them down before entering Turn 3.

The test was stopped for two hours in order to add two more sets of rumble strips to the chicane and a tire barrier at the chicane exit. Before their addition, drivers were blowing over the existing rumble strips as if they weren’t there.

“The changes on the backstretch were just to keep everybody honest, to keep everybody on the line that was defined,” Ryan Newman said. “I don’t know that it’s on its final iteration, but we’re making an attempt for it to be the final iteration.”

When it comes to the course overall, Chase Elliott said the “whole thing” presented problems for him.

“I feel like I struggled the worst leaving (Turn) 8 and then getting back on the frontstretch and entering the infield, that seems to be my bigger issues,” Elliott told NBC Sports.

Similar to Kahne, the Hendrick driver said “it’s all pretty fun, if you don’t crash.”

At the end of the day Elliott wasn’t sure where the best passing zones would materialize.

“I’d say you could pretty much root and gouge somebody out-of-the-way in a bunch of different places if you really wanted to,” Elliott said. “I would say your best opportunities are maybe getting back on the frontstretch there and maybe into Turn 5 (a right-hand turn across from the traditional Turn 2). I don’t know, until everybody kind of gets to racing, it’s hard to say.”

It wasn’t hard for Menard to say what could be in store for fans and drivers come Sept. 30.

“Should be a hell of a show.”