Daytona 500

NASCAR: Earnhardt long ago outgrew his father’s shadow

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — He was so shy, so skinny, not yet somebody.

It was around 1997 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was testing at Talladega Superspeedway, wearing an all-white firesuit. Bobby Labonte was the star at the Alabama test that day, and all the media crammed into Talladega’s wood-paneled press room to talk to Labonte.

I’m not sure anyone talked to the Earnhardt kid that day. Why would they? Nobody had any idea what he was about to become.

In that moment at Talladega, he was just the son of NASCAR’s greatest hero, a rich kid getting a chance to shake down a car because of his last name. Earnhardt hadn’t accomplished anything and NASCAR had no idea it had a future rock star in its midst.

Earnhardt, it turned out, was not just a kid getting a break because his father owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. The Hall of Famer was tough on his kid, made him work hard, kept him honest — two traits Junior has carried with him all the way until now, his final week as a full-time driver in NASCAR. Retirement awaits, and so does fatherhood.

Earnhardt started small, worked his way through the Xfinity Series and became a two-time champion. Then Earnhardt graduated to the Cup level in 2000 in a seat owned by his dad with splashy sponsor Budweiser and an expensive marketing campaign. Earnhardt Jr. dyed his hair blonde, threw raucous parties at the Club E he’d built on his property, and Bud got him into the hottest parties and sporting events all over the country.

Behind the wheel, he was a winner. The DEI cars were good back then, and Earnhardt made it to victory lane in just his seventh start. As his fan base began to grow, he became a cult hero to the NASCAR fan and recognizable to the casual sports observer.

When his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500 the next season, Earnhardt’s world changed in every way. Now the spotlight was on him all the time, and without his father around to cast a disapproving glare, Earnhardt struggled. He was still shy, still had some insecurities, and wasn’t comfortable being the guy forced to carry his father’s legacy.

Fast-forward to 2007 and Earnhardt and his sister, Kelley, were in a strained relationship with their father’s wife. They didn’t like the direction Teresa Earnhardt was taking DEI, and he wanted 51 percent control of the team in his contract negotiations. Teresa Earnhardt had also publicly questioned her stepson’s commitment, and Earnhardt painfully admitted in a preseason news conference that their relationship “ain’t a bed of roses.”

Four months later, he’d made his decision to leave DEI. Earnhardt took people who had covered the bulk of his career into his office and explained to them, personally, why he was leaving. He feared what people would think of him, and he’d been raised to be honest and behave professionally. Earnhardt didn’t want anyone to think he was abandoning his father’s team.

Off to Hendrick Motorsports he went, and that wasn’t what anyone hoped. Racing wasn’t fun, he was no longer getting along with the family members who had always been part of his career and his performance was awful.

It was Steve Letarte who took over as crew chief and rebuilt Earnhardt. He held him accountable with a strict schedule, demanded Earnhardt be present for debriefs and team meetings, and he coached him back into a winning race car driver.

Earnhardt will retire after Sunday’s season finale having never won a championship. He never filled his father’s shoes on the race track. But he won two Daytona 500s and built an army of loyal fans.

He also settled into his own skin, found his voice on social media and became the social conscience of NASCAR simply by stating his beliefs and being honest, as his father had taught him to be.

He took NASCAR to events and appearances the sport had never accessed before, and he settled into a life with wife Amy, who brought him out his shell. She was by his side during a grueling recovery last season from concussions, and the couple will become first-time parents next year.

Earnhardt is nothing at all like the kid trying to wedge his way into NASCAR two decades ago. But in many ways, the money and the fame and lifetime of experiences hasn’t changed him at all.

All the adulation and the accomplishments are because of who Earnhardt is, not because of his lineage.

“I read something on Twitter the other day about my brother, he said he has always lived under Dad’s shadow and that is not such a bad thing,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know that you are always out from under it, but it didn’t bother me, but I was always compared to him and compared to his success, the person he was, people either liked I was different or didn’t like that I was different and wanted me to be just like him or whatever.

“It was often in conversation or part of the topic of conversation in articles and so forth. I really don’t know when that started to happen.”

And now, with one week left in his retirement tour, the emotions and the reality are very real for Earnhardt. Although he has three cars running for the Xfinity Series championship on Saturday, a future career in broadcasting with NBC, a baby girl on the way, there’s something missing this week.

“I just miss him so bad and wish he were here today to see all this happening,” Earnhardt said of his father.

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Jenna Fryer began covering NASCAR in 1997 at Talladega Superspeedway, before Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his Cup debut. She can be followed via https://twitter.com/jennafryer

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More AP auto racing coverage: http://racing.ap.org/

 

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney wins pole in critical playoff race at Phoenix / Truck Finals

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Ryan Blaney probably needs to win at Phoenix Raceway to earn a shot at NASCAR’s championship.

He’ll at least start up front Sunday in his bid to put The Wood Brothers in the final four contenders next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Blaney won the pole in his final chance to qualify for NASCAR’s championship race with a lap at 137.942 mph around Phoenix in a Ford.

It gave Blaney the top starting spot for Sunday’s penultimate race of the playoffs. There is one slot available in the field of four that will race for the championship next week, and Blaney is one of five drivers chasing that spot.

“Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole. My mindset doesn’t change,” Blaney said. “I still want to go try to win the race, so that’s the mindset we’ve had all week and hopefully we can keep that and I think that’s our goal.”

Blaney bested Denny Hamlin in Friday qualifying. Both playoff drivers need to win to grab the final spot in the finale, and Hamlin waited until the third and final round to cut a corner on the track in an attempt to better his time.

Hamlin’s lap at 137.936 briefly put his Toyota on top of the leaderboard, but Blaney bumped him moments later.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have already locked up spots in the finale. Busch and Truex are in Toyotas, while Harvick drives a Ford. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott are the only two Chevrolet drivers with a shot to make the finale.

Kyle Larson, who has been eliminated from the playoffs, qualified third.

He was followed in qualifying by playoff drivers Elliott, Truex and Harvick.

With Elliott due to start right behind Hamlin, there was brief speculation that Elliott could seek revenge from an incident two weeks ago at Martinsville. Elliott was on his way to a victory that would have clinched his spot in the finale when Hamlin wrecked him out of the lead.

Hamlin said the two raced professionally last weekend at Texas and he had no concern for Sunday.

“Was I worried last weekend? No and I’m not worried this weekend,” he said. “Everyone up front is professionals and we all have one job to do and that’s to win. Our objective is the same objective as his — it’s to go out there and win on Sunday. You really can’t worry about other guys. If you’ve got that in front of you and you’re thinking about that, your chances of winning are slim to none.”

Busch was eighth and Johnson qualified 12th, but felt his Chevy was far faster.

“We made it to the third round and I just got really aggressive in that round trying to run a flat,” he said. “Just got in the corner too hard on both ends and I kind of pushed up. So, could have been better but I don’t know if we could have had the pole. I think we would have only been about fifth or sixth if I had got it right.”

Brad Keselowski was the lowest-qualifying playoff driver at 16th. He starts Sunday’s race with an advantage in the point standings over the other four drivers trying to make it into the championship, but he has very little breathing room and a victory is his only sure bet to make the finale.

But, Keselowski found solace in the speed that teammate Blaney showed, and is hopeful he’s got something for Sunday.

“It’s not where we want to start, but when the track gets hot and slick we seem to run better here,” Keselowski said. “My teammate Blaney is real fast, so I know we’re all real similar and we’ll have a little confidence in that.”

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NASCAR TRUCK SERIES: Sauter wins and Cindric moves on to final amid controversy

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — NASCAR’s Truck Series has itself a spicy championship fight, with teenager Austin Cindric smack in the middle of the controversy, after a heated Friday night race at Phoenix Raceway.

The race was stopped three times in the final 20 laps for accident cleanup, including the mess created when Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Noah Gragson and Christopher Bell wrecked each other racing for the lead. The night went so long, a football game between Stanford and Washington had to be moved to another network, so defending series champion Johnny’s Sauter victory celebration was abbreviated.

Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton and Cindric advanced to next week’s championship race — Sauter had already qualified — with their finishes at Phoenix. Cindric’s spot was contested because he wrecked the competition to earn his berth in next Friday night’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bell clinched his on points by winning the first two stages. Then two-time series champion Crafton locked up his spot on points in the second stage at Phoenix.

With Sauter already in, it put just one slot in the championship on the line during the final stage at Phoenix. That turned it into a race between Ben Rhodes and Cindric for the right to race for the championship.

A caution sent both drivers to pit road with 25 laps remaining, and Cindric was slowed by a second consecutive troubled stop. But it was a questionable call to pit in hindsight because Rhodes also lost track position when other drivers didn’t follow him.

Rhodes had been fourth but restarted ninth. Cindric was 12th with 21 laps remaining and the season on the line.

That’s where the race for the final championship spot all but ended. John Hunter Nemechek made a late bid to bump Cindric, but had to win the race to advance and wound up second.

But it was that restart with 21 laps remaining that set the championship field. As Rhodes and Cindric battled for position on the restart, the two trucks made contact that led to a race-ending wreck for Rhodes. Cindric went low on the restart to gain momentum for a potential pass and Rhodes briefly dipped down in an apparent attempt to block him.

The two made contact that caused Rhodes to spin

“I was there and he blocked, that’s his fault,” Cindric radioed.

Rhodes’ crew chief saw it far differently and felt Cindric used a dirty move to collect his spot at Homestead. Eddie Troconis also warned that Cindric will have a rough race ahead of him in the championship.

The race was stopped and Cindric said during the pause it was a racing incident.

“I had a good run, Ben went to block, and I was there,” Cindric said. “I can’t get pushed around because that was my chance and he was better than we were all night. Nothing intentional there. I tried to get a run and held my ground.”

Rhodes called it a “desperation” move by Cindric and said he was driving “over his head.”

“There’s definitely a time and place to go three-wide, that wasn’t it,” said Rhodes. “He put me in a bad place. I am not sure that was the right move on his part.”

Crafton was also in the wreck and will race against Cindric next week for the title. He sided with Rhodes.

“I told Ben, the 19 (Cindric) better not finish Homestead,” Crafton said in encouraging Rhodes to retaliate next week when Cindric has so much on the line.

Brad Keselowski owns the truck that Cindric is racing, and is shutting down the team after next week’s race. He tweeted after watching a replay during the red flag that he didn’t believe either driver was at fault.

“Tough deal. I’m not sure either driver could or should have done anything different,” he wrote. “Sometimes things happen when you go fast for a living …”

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NASCAR PLAYOFFS FINALS

Friday’s qualifying; race Sunday

At Phoenix RacewayAvondale, Ariz.

(Car number in parentheses)

1. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 137.942 mph.

2. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 137.936.

3. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 137.926.

4. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 137.641.

5. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 137.583.

6. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 137.247.

7. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 137.190.

8. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 137.075.

9. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 136.711.

10. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 136.467.

11. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 136.374.

12. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 136.224.

13. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 136.841.

14. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 136.322.

15. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 136.307.

16. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 136.302.

17. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 136.281.

18. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 136.044.

19. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 135.864.

20. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 135.670.

21. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 135.588.

22. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 135.308.

23. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 135.227.

24. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 134.862.

25. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 135.634.

26. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 135.354.

27. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 135.318.

28. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 135.293.

29. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 135.014.

30. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 134.847.

31. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 134.695.

32. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 134.519.

33. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 133.551.

34. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 133.546.

35. (7) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 133.482.

36. (66) David Starr, Toyota, 132.558.

37. (15) DJ Kennington, Chevrolet, 132.251.

38. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 131.617.

39. (51) Kyle Weatherman, Chevrolet, 127.042.

40. (00) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 0.000.

NASCAR: Chevy needs a win Sunday at Phoenix to join Toyota and Ford in Final Four

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    Chevrolet drivers have won seven of the last eight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races at Phoenix Raceway.

Chevy teams will need help from that history in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) as five drivers wrestle for the last spot in the Final Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have qualified for the Homestead championship run along with Ford’s Kevin Harvick. Chevrolet’s only remaining playoff drivers are Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson, and they are at the bottom of the playoff standings entering Sunday’s 312-mile race, the final event in the third round.

Elliott trails points leader Truex by 49 points, and Johnson, clinging to hope that he can win a record eighth championship, is 51 points behind. Both Chevrolet drivers almost certainly need a win to advance to the Homestead playoff group.

“I know we’re building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix, and we’ll go there and fight as hard as we can,” Johnson said. “That is one thing this team will never do — give up.”

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Johnson has won four times at Phoenix, but his playoff experience this year has been very non-Johnson-like. He was a tepid 27th last week at Texas.

Elliott, still seeking his first series win after a string of good runs but no victory lanes, has finishes of eighth, ninth and 12th at Phoenix.

 Ford driver Brad Keselowski has a leg up in the competition for the fourth playoff spot. He is 19 points above fifth-place driver Denny Hamlin. Keselowski has not won at Phoenix but has eight top-10 finishes in 16 races.

A win by any of the playoff drivers advances that driver to the Homestead finale. If someone other than a playoff candidate wins, the leader in points advances. That is likely to be Keselowski unless the finish order is seriously scrambled.

Busch and Harvick earned Homestead spots with race wins, while Truex, the dominant driver much of the season, locked in a slot via points.

Keselowski won the Cup championship in 2012 before the Final Four format was introduced. Busch and Harvick also have won titles.

Ryan Blaney, in his second season driving for the Wood Brothers, is 22 points behind Truex.

Harvick’s Homestead spot is locked in, but he is expected to be a threat at Phoenix regardless. He owns eight wins at the track.

Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series playoff drivers also will race for Final Four positions at Phoenix this weekend. All three NASCAR national series titles will be determined at Homestead.

NASCAR: As sponsorship dollars dwindle, NASCAR’s stars fade

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Matt Kenseth, a future Hall of Famer, likely has two races left in his life as a famous NASCAR driver.

The final seat in the carousel of job options will be filled Wednesday when Stewart-Haas Racing is expected to announce Aric Almirola as its new driver.

Yes, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and former series champion was passed over for a driver with one victory in 242 career starts. It is yet another seat that didn’t go to Kenseth, who embarrassingly has become the odd man out in a free agency period that has focused far more on salaries and sponsorship than talent.

Kenseth, who told reporters over the weekend that he will take time off in 2018 , is hardly alone in his plight. Danica Patrick has nothing lined up for next year , same for reigning Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch. Greg Biffle quietly went away at the end of last season, and Carl Edwards announced his retirement after coming 10 laps shy of winning the championship a year ago.

All but Patrick started in a robust economic period for NASCAR, where teams were flush with sponsor dollars and could basically hire any driver they wanted. Jack Roush was the fat cat in the early 2000s, and he’d hold gong-show style auditions for drivers to see who got paired with his newest open seat.

Kenseth, Busch, Biffle and Edwards all went on to become stars in Roush’s system while launching lucrative and lengthy careers.

But the math has changed considerably. Sponsors are paying far less for the right to advertise on a car during a NASCAR race, and they are increasingly difficult to get. In the days of exploding popularity, a top team might spend $30 million to run a race car. Most of that money came from sponsorship, and top drivers were making $10 million per year.

Now owners are running teams for half of what they did 15 years ago, and driver salaries are slowly being adjusted accordingly. If a team owner can’t get a driver that financially matches the sponsorship level, then the owner has to pay expenses out of pocket.

Brad Keselowski is widely regarded as the driver of the Miller Lite car, but Team Penske last week revealed its sponsorship program for the No. 2 car in pieces, and it only includes 11 races with Miller Lite as the primary sponsor. Discount Tire was sold the rights to be on Keselowski’s car in next year’s season-opening Daytona 500 and season finale at Homestead, as well as eight other events. The Würth Group was announced as a three-race sponsor.

Still, Penske was able to do what few others can manage right now: Put together a sponsorship package that is valuable enough for him to afford a high-priced driver.

Kenseth struck out time and again in a search that began when Joe Gibbs Racing unexpectedly told him it was bringing development driver Erik Jones in-house next season, a decision that cost the 45-year-old Kenseth a spot in the lineup.

The 19-year Cup veteran didn’t get rides at Hendrick Motorsports, which will see Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne depart after the season. Alex Bowman and William Byron will allegedly drive next year for something like $500,000 in salary.

It is clear that sponsorship budgets have been decreased, reflecting in many ways television viewership for NASCAR races and attendance at various tracks. With fewer dollars coming in, car owners have to be careful to avoid paying too many expenses out of pocket. Driver salaries don’t seem to be a priority right now, and a guy like Kenseth would lose money on travel for himself, his wife and four children to some or all of the 38 races on the Cup schedule.

Earnhardt warned earlier this year that NASCAR’s financial system was in for a major reset, and it has happened faster than anyone expected.

“On a big scheme of things, I feel like things have happened quickly, but yet on the other hand, it kind of does surprise me how, you know, the reset, hasn’t been totally linear,” Kenseth recently said. “Some people have been able to make it work, some people haven’t. Certainly right now is a very interesting time.

“I think it’s a very tough time for car owners to find the money that they need to field competitive race cars with competitive personnel. I think it’s probably harder than at least it’s been since I’ve been around. And the cost is higher than when I started, as well. Certainly a challenging environment.”

Tony Stewart had been exposed to the changing NASCAR sponsorship landscape once he joined Gene Haas as co-owner of their four-car team, but even he’s been surprised at the difficulties in finding funding.

The team had a massive stock of open inventory on Clint Bowyer’s car this year, ran into a sponsorship dispute with Patrick’s backers right before the start of the season and Haas has been primarily funding Busch’s car out of pocket. For Busch to return to the team, he is likely going to accept a significant pay cut.

SHR now has Smithfield Foods coming aboard, and Almirola seems pegged to continue a driver-sponsorship relationship he began at Richard Petty Motorsports. SHR could have Kenseth or even Brickyard 400 winner Kahne, but instead is going with the driver the sponsor is already comfortable with.

Stewart is careful to note it’s not a sponsor-driven decision, though.

“I’m not hiring drivers that have money. I’ve been the route that in the dirt-track stuff. I’ve seen it, it’s not the way to run a race team,” Stewart told The Associated Press last month. “I know there’s people that have to do that to survive, but if that’s what I had to do to survive, I wouldn’t do it, it’s not worth it to me.

“I want to hire drivers that I feel like can go out and run well and win races, and if I can’t hire them on their talent, I don’t want to do it all.”

Stewart said he’d dump a car before he’d hire a driver bringing in sponsorship money. However, that’s essentially what Patrick did when she came to NASCAR with her GoDaddy Funding . When that ran out, SHR did find her new sponsorship.

Stewart believes the model needs a ton of work and the project begins with increased viewership. If ratings and attendance improve, the sponsorship dollars grow again.

Until then, NASCAR is in a cycle where drivers such as Kenseth will be sidelined next year. He finished fourth at Texas on Sunday. He’s ninth in the standings.

“You do this because you want to compete and you want to go out and try to contend for races and championships, and if you’re having to do it just to get by, there’s no fun in that,” Stewart said.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

 

NASCAR: Truex fastest for playoff elimination race at Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. had already locked up his spot in the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

Now, he’ll have the prime pit position for its first race.

Truex won the pole for this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway on Friday night, and with that prize came the chance to have pit choice at Martinsville. The paper clip-like geometry of that track makes stall selection arguably the biggest advantage of any track all season.

“We race one week at a time, try to do the best job we can, but we knew this was a big one tonight,” said Truex, whose victory at Charlotte punched his ticket to the round of eight. “Just proud of everybody for making the right adjustments, the right calls.”

Truex has dominated at Kansas Speedway for years, only for bad luck to conspire against him. But he broke through with a victory in May, and that’s kicked off a dominant stretch at intermediate tracks that has included a run of three consecutive wins at mile-and-a-half ovals.

“It’s been pretty terrible lately,” he said, sarcastically. “This stuff is so difficult and all these teams out here work so hard, trying to be better than we’ve been.

“If you’re not getting better you’re going backward.”

Truex was followed by playoff contenders Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin for Sunday’s race at Kansas. But Blaney’s car failed post-qualifying inspection when the package tray did not maintain its original shape, which means he will start 40th.

Kyle Busch will roll off eighth after barely escaping the first round of qualifying, while Jamie McMurray will start ninth and Brad Keselowski will start 11th after winning last week at Talladega to punch his ticket to the next round.

Jimmie Johnson, who is seven points ahead of Busch for the final spot in the next round, will start 13th after a solid run by his standards. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott were right behind him, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will start 25th after failing to advance from the first round.

“The thing I’m looking at is progression through the rounds, what we picked up from practice, and that was trending the right way,” said Johnson, who missed the final qualifying round by a mere two-hundredths of a second. “We’re starting closer to the front than we have in quite a few weeks. Qualifying we know isn’t my sweet spot and I’m trying so hard to get better at that.”

Several drivers were white-knuckling it around Kansas Speedway with wind whipping up to 35 mph, and Harvick said a bobble caused by a bad gust may have cost him the pole.

“That thing was different every time we went into the corner, probably because of the wind,” he said. “The back stepped out and next thing I knew I was up a lane, but good knowing what’s on the line with pit selection (at Martinsville) and what we have to do this week.”

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The sometimes bizarre nature of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff structure was fully illustrated last week at Talladega Superspeedway with the case of Ryan Blaney.

Blaney entered the Talladega weekend in 11th place in the 12-driver playoff grid. What did he do at Talladega? He crashed — didn’t almost everybody? — and finished 18th, 11 laps behind the leaders.

Yet Blaney jumped from 11th to seventh — safe, for the time being — in the playoff standings. This happened because Blaney won one Talladega stage and finished third in another and because several other drivers in the playoff group wrecked during Sunday’s wild race.

Playoff drivers can’t depend on such wacky activity in the final race of the second round Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where the racing typically is a bit more subdued than at Talladega.

Although stage results at Kansas could change matters considerably, the six drivers on edge entering the Hollywood Casino 400 are Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Blaney. Three of the six — Johnson, Busch and Kenseth — are former series champions.

Stenhouse (22 points below the eighth-place cutoff line) and McMurray (29 points) probably need wins at Kansas to advance to the third round. Kyle Busch is seven points below the line, and Matt Kenseth is eight behind.

Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, sits in the first slot below the cutoff line after finishes of 29th at Charlotte Motor Speedway and 27th at Talladega.

“We’ve obviously had a terrible round, and we are still within striking distance,” said Busch, who has five consecutive top-fives — including one win — at Kansas. “If we didn’t have those bonus points, we wouldn’t have much shot going into this weekend. So I’m thankful that the system is in place that rewards the good runs we had during the regular season.”

Blaney, in seventh, is nine points above the cutoff, and Johnson, in eighth place, is seven points to the good. Johnson, the seven-time and reigning series champion, has won three times at Kansas, most recently in the spring of 2015.

“Obviously we are in a tight spot in the playoffs after last weekend at Talladega,” Johnson said. “We know what we need to do in Kansas.”

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Of course, a win at Kansas by any playoff driver advances him to the Round of 8.

Brad Keselowski won at Talladega with a last-lap pass of non-playoff driver Ryan Newman, securing the Ford driver a spot in the next round along with Charlotte winner Martin Truex Jr. Keselowski’s win also boosted him from 10th in the playoff standings to second, behind Truex.

Five of Truex’s six victories this season have come at 1.5-mile tracks, including Kansas in May. Kenseth and Kevin Harvick — fourth in the standings — own two victories each. Harvick won at Kansas a year ago when it was the middle race of the second round.

Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, is the all-time leader in laps led at Kansas with 774, Truex has led 622, Johnson 601 and Harvick, the 2014 champion, 559. No other driver has led more than 300 laps at the Kansas City track, which underwent a repave in 2012.

“The repave is definitely what changed and turned things around for us at Kansas,” said Harvick, who earned only one career top-five at Kansas before the repave but six afterwards. “Once the repave happened, we were able to really hit on some things and, for whatever reason, it kind of fits my driving style and we have gotten some good results out of it.”

After Kansas, the playoffs move to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway. Following Phoenix, the playoff field will be trimmed to four drivers for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Follow Mike Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree

NASCAR: Who has the edge in playoff elimination race at Kansas?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   Sunday is cutdown day in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as the 12-driver playoff field will be reduced to eight following the Hollywood Casino 400.

Only two drivers — Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski — can rest easy this weekend with their berths in the third round already secured after victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, respectively.

The weekend won’t be quite so chill for the other 10 drivers — even ones like third-ranked Kyle Larson, who have built up a plethora of points — because one crash or mechanical issue can see championship hopes go up in smoke.

Expect the the 267 scheduled laps around the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway to be a fierce contest of wills, handling and strategy calls, as drivers battle their competitors on track as well as their nerves.

How the playoff drivers have fared at Kansas, and what to watch for Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network):

1. Martin Truex Jr. (3,120 points)

Car: No. 78 Toyota

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2017)

Notable: The points leader has dominated on tracks like Kansas this season, with five of his six wins coming on 1.5-mile ovals. Expect him to be near the front of the pack all day, like he was in May when he led 104 laps.

2. Brad Keselowski (3,101)

Car: No. 2 Ford

Team: Team Penske

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2011)

Notable: His brilliant race and last-lap pass for the win last weekend provided a shot in the arm to a driver that before Talladega hadn’t won since April. Now the 2012 champion and crew chief Paul Wolfe have the opportunity to take chances that other playoff drivers cannot in an effort to rack up playoff bonus points before the round of eight.

3. Kyle Larson (3,096)

Car: No. 42 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Kansas finish: Second (fall 2014)

Notable: Larson is in the most enviable position among the rest of the playoff field, sitting 22 points above the cutline. And while none of four 2017 wins have come on 1.5-mile tracks, he’s finished second on intermediate ovals four times. A clean and consistent race is likely all he needs.

4. Kevin Harvick (3,089)

Car: No. 4 Ford

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (fall 2013, 2016)

Notable: Harvick said this week that Kansas “fits his driving style,” and recent results bear him out. Since the track was repaved in the summer of 2012, the 2014 series champion has been a master at the Kansas City oval with six top-three finishes in 10 races, including the victory in last year’s playoff.

 

5. Denny Hamlin (3,088)

Car: No. 11 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2012)

Notable: His top-six finishes at Charlotte and Talladega could go a long way in providing insurance because Kansas has not been one of Hamlin’s stronger tracks, with an average finish of 17.0. But Hamlin finished second in this race two years ago, and the Toyota contingent has been especially strong on intermediate tracks, which could give him a boost.

6. Chase Elliott (3,087)

Car: No. 24 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Kansas finish: Ninth ( 2016)

Notable: He’s the least experienced driver at Kansas with only three races under his belt, but his runner-up finishes in the playoff races at Chicagoland Speedway and Charlotte prove that he can contend for the win on 1.5-mile ovals. He’ll have to run much better than his 29th-place finish in May, however.

7. Ryan Blaney (3,076)

Car: No. 21 Ford

Team: Wood Brothers Racing

Best Kansas finish: Fourth (spring 2017)

Notable: Blaney may have circled this race on his calendar because statistically Kansas stacks up as one of his best tracks. He has three top-seven finishes in five races and an average finish of 11.4, ranking as his third-best. He has no margin for error, though, so he’ll need to come through like he did in May to keep himself among the top eight.

8. Jimmie Johnson (3,074)

Car: No. 48 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Kansas finish: First (fall 2008, 2011; spring 2015)

Notable: The seven-time and reigning series champion is right on the brink and can’t afford the sub-par 24th-place finish he turned in this spring. Fans of the 48 team can take comfort in Johnson’s strong career results at Kansas, however. He’s finished in the top 10 in 17 of 22 races there and came home third and fourth, respectively, in the last two playoff races at the track.

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9. Kyle Busch (3,067)

Car: No. 18 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2016)

Notable: After a dominating first round in which he won two of three races, no one’s fortunes have turned more after Busch’s disastrous results at both Charlotte and Talladega. He may not technically be in must-win territory, but expect him to race like he is. The 2015 series champion has become quite proficient at Kansas lately with five straight top-five finishes, and he’ll need another sterling result to advance.

10. Matt Kenseth (3,066)

Car: No. 20 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (fall 2012, spring 2013)

Notable: No playoff driver has more experience or has led more laps at Kansas than Kenseth’s 774, and he’s going to need every bit of that quality experience Sunday if he hopes to advance in what could be his last season in the Cup Series. Like his teammate Busch, he may not necessarily have to win to advance, but he cannot rely on points either. He will need to be aggressive and hope Toyota’s advantage on intermediate tracks holds up.

11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,052)

Car: No. 17 Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Best Kansas finish: 11th (spring 2008, 2017)

Notable: Talladega, where he won earlier this season, likely was Stenhouse’s best opportunity for a playoff win, so Kansas appears to be the end of the road. His car has not been particularly fast or competitive on 1.5-mile tracks, and it’s hard to imagine that changes Sunday.

12. Jamie McMurray (3,045)

Car: No. 1 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Kansas finish: Seventh (fall 2004, spring 2013)

Notable: Disaster struck McMurray early at Talladega and put him in a hole he probably cannot get out of. Like Stenhouse, he almost certainly needs to win — something he hasn’t done in four years.

Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow

4 NASCAR playoff drivers who could advance to the next round at Kansa

(PhatzRadio Sports / FTW)   —-   As the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway for the final playoff race in the Round of 12 this weekend, history points to Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson and being likely drivers to win the Hollywood Casino 400.

Truex is coming off a win at Kansas in the spring and, let’s face it, his No. 78 Toyota’s speed makes him a reasonable contender every race. Seven-time Cup Series champ Johnson is the all-time winningest driver at Kansas with three trips to Victory Lane since taking the checkered flag at this race in 2008.

These two drivers are solid bets for not only winning the Hollywood Casino 500 but also for surviving the next elimination and advancing to the Round of 8 in the playoffs. Truex leads the playoff standings while Johnson is eighth.

But as the championship contenders shrink from 12 to eight after Sunday’s race, there are four drivers who could quietly advance to the next round, thanks to their consistently playoff performances.

1. Ryan Blaney

Through the first five playoff races, Blaney has two top-10 finishes, and his 18th-place spot would have been higher Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, had he not wrecked with just 11 laps to go. Despite crashing, he reminded everyone of his talent and how fast his No. 21 Ford is by winning his first playoff stage win.

Outside of Sunday, he hasn’t led any playoff races. But he’s still seventh in the standings and nine points ahead of the cutoff. Going into the Hollywood Casino 400, he averages the best starting position among playoff drivers, according to NASCAR, which includes winning the pole at the May race. So he’s got a great shot at starting up front this time and earning at least another stage win – if not his first playoff win, which would lock him into the next round.

2. Kyle Larson

The No. 42 Chevrolet driver enters the Kansas race third in the playoff standings with a 29-point cushion above the cutoff line. But he hasn’t done anything particularly spectacular in the playoffs, including win. Unlike his four regular season victories – plus a handful of others – that “Holy cow! Look at him go!” moment has been absent through five playoff races. Yet, his seventh-place average finish in five playoff races has propelled him toward the top.

However, Kansas is not his best track. Larson has never won a race there, and he’s had just two single-digit finishes in seven Cup Series starts, including placing sixth in the spring race. But he’s an excellent racer who has consistently been a car to beat this season, along with Truex. So he might not get his first playoff win Sunday, but even just a decent performance could help him quietly sneak into the Round of 8.

3. Matt Kenseth

If the Round of 12 elimination was today, the No. 20 Toyota driver wouldn’t advance. Through five playoff races, he finished ninth, third, 11th twice and 14th most recently. Winless in 2017, he’s currently eight points behind the cutoff mark, although a good race (or obviously a win) could change all that.

Kenseth is one of three drivers with two wins at Kansas – behind Johnson’s all-time best of three – winning back-to-back races across the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Experience is clearly on his side with 23 starts and three top-10 finishes in his last five races there. If the nine drivers ahead of him in the playoff standings race better than him Sunday, his championship run will be over. But points have gotten him this far, so maybe they’ll carry him a little farther.

4. Denny Hamlin

The No. 11 Toyota driver is still searching for a lot: his first playoff victory, his first playoff stage win and his first unencumbered win since July. But he must be doing something right because he’s currently fifth in the playoff standings and 21 points above the cutoff.

Without a playoff win to lock him in the next round, there’s always a chance he could be bounced. But three of his five playoff races have resulted in top-6 finishes, and he has experience to fall back on with one win and five career top-10s at Kansas. Hamlin doesn’t need his first playoff win to advance. He just needs a strong finish Sunday and maybe a stage win or two to give him an added boost.

Here’s a look at the complete playoff standings going into the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

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NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes pole for final Talladega Cup race

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the pole for his final scheduled Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Earnhardt is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the season, and the Alabama crowd has always embraced NASCAR’s most popular driver. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has declared race day “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day” across the state.

The field will be led to green by Donnie Allison, a two-time Talladega winner and original member of the Alabama Gang, while driving the late Dale Earnhardt’s No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Talladega officials presented Earnhardt Jr. with the car , which his father raced during his 1979 rookie season, as well as some races during his 1980 championship season, as a retirement gift.

Now, with the pole — the first of his career at Talladega — it has turned into quite the special weekend for Earnhardt.

“This place has meant a lot to me,” he said. “It’s awesome to hear those fans happy for us and hopefully we’re going to give them a lot more to cheer about before this weekend is over.”

Could he add a seventh victory?

“Certainly,” he grinned. “You think about that every time you suit up and get in the car, you imagine if that’s going to be the day you get a win. But, this would be a real important one if we could win for all the fans, all year long, we certainly owe them a win.”

Earnhardt is winless this season and didn’t make the playoffs. He’s got just six races left before he turns over his No. 88 Chevrolet to Hendrick Motorsports and replacement driver Alex Bowman.

On Saturday, Earnhardt turned a lap at 190.544 mph to knock teammate Chase Elliott from the top starting spot. Elliott wound up second with a lap at 190.412 mph in a Hendrick Motorsports sweep of the front row.

“We’ve been fighting our teammate Chase and his group for poles at these tracks for a long time and it’s been a lot of fun to be honest with you, how these two teams have pushed and elevated each other,” Earnhardt said. “Really, all the credit for getting a pole at a place like this goes to the team. … I just hold the wheel straight and try not to bounce into the apron. There ain’t much to it as a driver.”

Joey Logano was third in a Team Penske Ford, followed by Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Ford drivers took positions third through seventh.

Stenhouse knocked Earnhardt from the pole in May , and then went on to win his first career Cup race at Talladega. Stenhouse added a victory at Daytona in July, making him the winner of the last two restrictor-plate races. Busch’s victory in the Daytona 500 has made the Ford engines built by Doug Yates 3 for 3 so far this year in plate races.

So Stenhouse wasn’t thrilled to qualify fifth.

“That was a bummer,” he said. “I was hoping we’d get another pole and I think it would have been cool to knock (Earnhardt) off the pole again. But obviously this shows our Ford is still fast. We’ve got speed.”

It was a rough qualifying effort for Toyota, with none of its playoff contenders advancing to the final 12. That’s an odd development considering Toyota drivers have won the first four playoff races.

Eliminated in the first round were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, as well as points leader Martin Truex Jr. Starting position doesn’t mean much at Talladega, and Truex won at Charlotte last weekend so he’s already in the third round of the playoffs.

“You know it is superspeedway qualifying — just been a little bit off on superspeedway qualifying,” Hamlin said. “We obviously race pretty decent. It looks like the Fords are pretty strong, so we’ll have to race those guys tomorrow and we’ll just kind of see how we all stack up.”

___

It’s NASCAR race day at Talladega Superspeedway, and we’ve got some essential information you need to get ready for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500:

START TIME: Kay Ivery, the 54th Governor of Alabama, will instruct drivers to start their engines at 2:07 p.m. ET. (1:07 local), followed by the green flag at 2:19 p.m. (1:19 p.m. Central Daylight Time).

RACE DISTANCE: The Alabama 500 is 188 laps around the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. That’s 500.08 miles.

SEGMENTS: Beginning this season, NASCAR is dividing every race into segments and awarding one bonus point to the winner of each stage. Segment lengths will be different for every race. Also, the top 10 finishers of segments 1 and 2 will be awarded regular-season points in descending order from 10 to 1. Here are the segments for the Apache Warrior 400: Stage 1: 55 laps; Stage 2: 55 laps; Stage 3: 78 laps.

NATIONAL ANTHEM/FLYOVER: The 313th United States Army Band out of Birmingham, Ala., will perform the national anthem at 2:01 p.m. ET, followed by a USAF Heritage Flyover, featuring an F-16 Fighting Falcon and a P-51 Mustang.

TV/RADIO SCHEDULE: NBC will broadcast the race on TV and has a pre-race show beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET. Motor Racing Network and Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio will call the race on the radio.

LIVE STREAMING: NBCSports.com will live-stream the race for those who sign in with their cable/satellite provider’s credentials.

WEATHER: The National Weather Service is calling for partly sunny skies and a high near 83 degrees. There is a chance of showers in the morning, then a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms after the green flag.

JUNIOR WATCH: Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns for his final race at his most successful track before retiring from Cup racing at the end of the season. Earnhardt has won six times (most recently in 2015) in 34 races at Talladega, with 12 top-five and 16-top 10 finishes. Talladega is clearly Earnhardt territory as it is also the track where Dale Earnhardt Sr. earned the most wins of his career (10).

LAST TIME: Rick Stenhouse Jr. started on the pole in the spring race then earned his first career Cup Series win after taking the lead on an overtime restart to book a spot in the playoffs. And one year ago, Joey Logano led the final 45 laps in last year’s second-round elimination race to advance in the playoffs.

STARTING LINEUP: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first career pole at Talladega, his second of the season and the 15th of his career. He will start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, who qualified second.

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ALABAMA 500 LINEUP

Saturday’s qualifying results from the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway (car number in parentheses):

1. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 190.544 mph.

2. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 190.412.

3. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 190.374.

4. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 190.268.

5. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 190.170.

6. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 190.151.

7. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 189.778.

8. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 189.774.

9. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 189.669.

10. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 189.658.

11. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 189.620.

12. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 189.242.

13. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 189.100.

14. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 188.958.

15. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 188.820.

16. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 188.783.

17. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 188.783.

18. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 188.705.

19. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 188.664.

20. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 188.626.

21. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 188.548.

22. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 188.400.

23. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 188.270.

24. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 188.226.

25. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 188.219.

26. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 188.015.

27. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 187.923.

28. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 187.890.

29. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 187.618.

30. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 187.405.

31. (7) Justin Marks, Chevrolet, 187.394.

32. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 187.148.

33. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 186.590.

34. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 186.180.

35. (75) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 185.395.

36. (15) Mark Thompson, Chevrolet, 184.911.

37. (23) Joey Gase, Toyota, 184.409.

38. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 184.384.

39. (83) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 182.821.

40. (55) DJ Kennington, Toyota, 182.456.

Possible 5 NASCAR drivers to win at Talladega

(PhatzRadio Sports / FTW)    —-   As the pool of NASCAR drivers in the Cup Series playoffs continues to shrink, betting fans and fantasy NASCAR players will need to look beyond the championship contenders for potential picks.

Even though the 12 drivers still in the playoffs are among the best, it’s realistic to imagine one of the other 28 cars on the track winning at some point. That’s especially true this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where literally anything could happen – including, hypothetically, “the big one” knocking all 12 playoff drivers out of the race.

So who are the safe drivers to bet on or pick for fantasy NASCAR in the Alabama 500? According to VegasInsider.com, of the five drivers with the best odds of winning this weekend, three of them are in the playoffs, and none of them are named Martin Truex Jr.

Let’s break it down.

5. Denny Hamlin, 11-to-1 odds

As the No. 11 Toyota driver explained to FTW this week, the best way to succeed at this crazy race track is to stay near the front and hope for the best. He’s one of six drivers with one win at Talladega – which came back in 2014 – and he needs a third victory this season to lock himself into the Round of 8 in the playoffs.

Through 23 starts at the 2.66-mile track, he’s had plenty of ups and downs, but earlier this season, he qualified and finished 11th in the GEICO 500. If he can stay out of trouble, there’s a great chance he’ll be fighting for the stage wins as well as the checkered flag.

4. Joey Logano, 10-to-1 odds

If there is any driver out there who is long overdue for a win – a real win – it’s Logano. Disappointment is all over the No. 22 Ford driver’s face nowadays after missing the playoffs with his lone race win being encumbered.

But he’s ultra-competitive and enters the weekend with a Talladega streak he’d like to extend, winning this race in both 2015 and 2016. He also crashed and didn’t finish in the spring race, so he’ll likely be aggressive to make up for that.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 10-to-1 odds

You can’t ever discount Dale Jr. at Talladega – a track nicknamed Earnhardt Country. He followed in his father’s footsteps winning at the track, and his six victories are the most among active drivers and second to his dad’s 10 on the all-time list. He knows how to win at this track – he once took four consecutive checkered flags – and, as NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip told FTW, Junior has “a real knack for figuring out what to do and when to do it.”

Unfortunately, the No. 88 Chevrolet driver’s most recent win at the track was in 2015, and he came in 22nd in the GEICO 500 earlier this year. He’s also not in the playoffs. But Earnhardt is hungry and doesn’t want to retire at the end of the year without one last trip to Victory Lane. Of the six race tracks left on the schedule, Junior will never have better odds to win than this weekend.

2. Kyle Busch, 9-to-1 odds

This guy is having a stellar second half to his season and an impressive yet not unexpected playoff run. He already won two playoff races in the Round of 16, and his No. 18 Toyota – along with Truex’s No. 78 Toyota – is always among the cars to beat.

Although Busch finished third in the GEICO 500 earlier this season, he only has one win at Talladega on his resume, and that was back in 2008. But his car this season is exceptionally fast, and if he can stay away from chaos and wrecks, he’ll easily be able to maintain his speed through the stages and as those 188 laps wind down.

1. Brad Keselowski, 7-to-1 odds

This makes perfect sense. Among active drivers, Keselowski has the second-most wins at the 2.66-mile track with four – most recently in 2016 – along with 10 career top-10 finishes.

Also, even though Keselowski’s two 2017 wins seem wildly overshadowed by Truex’s six or Busch’s four, his No. 2 Ford has been consistently fast this year. He’s earned 12 top-5 finishes this season, and nearly 60 percent of the time, he’s been in the top-10 – including this year’s spring race where he came in seventh. Get in a strong qualifying round, and there’s a great chance Keselowski is looking at his seventh Talladega win and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs’ Round of 8.

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Talladega: NASCAR playoff drivers prepare for white-knuckle ride

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —    The return to a track drivers fear and fans love is here. That’s right, Talladega Superspeedway is the site of this Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race.

In a twist this year, the sanctioning body moved the track’s date up a week, taking it out of the second-round elimination slot. While all 12 drivers will have a chance to advance to the third round at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 22, many of their hopes may get dashed this weekend.

NASCAR’s largest circuit, at 2.66 miles, offers high-speed, breathtaking racing that sees the cars draft in clumps thanks to restrictor plates. When physics comes into play, the result can be white-knuckle wrecks and airborne cars.

How the playoff drivers have fared at Talladega, and what to watch for Sunday (Alabama 500, 2 p.m. ET, NBC):

PHOTOS: 2017 NASCAR PLAYOFF DRIVERS

1. Martin Truex Jr. (3,106 points)

Car: No. 78 Toyota

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Best Talladega finish: Fifth (fall 2006, spring 2015)

Notable: The points leader and title favorite is a definitive 0-for-25 at Talladega and 0-for-50 at restrictor-plate tracks. Fortunately for him, that doesn’t matter, because Truex can enjoy a Sunday drive after his win last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway secured his spot in the next round.

2. Kyle Larson (3,072)

Car: No. 42 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Talladega finish: Sixth (fall 2016)

Notable: Look for Larson to be in the lead pack in the closing laps and pushing for a win. He has a penchant for putting the squeeze on in plate racing, which can be good and bad.

3. Kevin Harvick (3,069)

Car: No. 4 Ford

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2010)

Notable: Two years ago, Harvick was at the center of controversy after his wreck on a green-white-checkered finish with his motor expiring froze the field and preserved his spot in the next round. After finishes of of 36th and 17th to wrap the first round this season, he got back on track last week with a third-place result. Look for him to be in the mix Sunday.

4. Chase Elliott (3,059)

Car: No. 24 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Talladega finish: Fifth (spring 2015)

Notable: His Hall of Fame father Bill scored two wins and 22 top-10s here. Chase is just 21, but already has shown a penchant for plate racing. In just three Cup races at Talladega, he has started first, fourth and eighth. If he can avoid trouble, he’ll score a top-10 finish. He’s been on the brink of his first career Cup win several times this season, and if he scores it here, he’ll bring the house down.

5. Denny Hamlin (3,056)

Car: No. 11 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2014)

Notable: Look for Hamlin and teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to work some draft magic behind that Toyota power.

6. Kyle Busch (3,055)

Car: No. 18 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2008)

Notable: While Busch dropped in the standings after his disastrous day at Charlotte, which ended with him needing medical attention for heat exhaustion after the race, he remains a strong contender for the crown with two wins in the first four playoff races. But Talladega has doomed his playoff hopes more often then he’d care to talk about.

7. Jimmie Johnson (3,051)

Car: No. 48 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2009, 2011)

Notable: He and crew chief Chad Knaus have proven they can work through almost any situation and score a great finish. Johnson, the reigning champion who is seeking a record eighth title, will take care of his equipment and drive a smart race. But what about those around him?

8. Jamie McMurray (3,044)

Car: No. 1 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (fall 2009, 2013)

Notable: McMurray has an average start of 9.5 and average finish of 13.0 this season. He’d probably be pretty happy with that Sunday.

9. Matt Kenseth (3,043)

Car: No. 20 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (fall 2012)

Notable: Kenseth hasn’t finished better than 23rd in his past five starts here. That’s no bueno. While the veteran watches his final season at JGR – and perhaps in the series – come to a close, it doesn’t seem as if he has the momentum to reach the next round.

10. Brad Keselowski (3,042)

Car: No. 2 Ford

Team: Team Penske

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2009, 2012, 2016; fall 2014)

Notable: He has more wins than any other playoff driver here. So, his confidence is high and that should carry some weight Sunday. But his title hopes ended here last year when his engine expired, sending him to a 38th-place finish.

11. Ryan Blaney (3,039)

Car: No. 21 Ford

Team: Wood Brothers Racing

Best Talladega finish: Fourth (spring 2015)

Notable: He has two top-10s in six starts at Talladega and has shown acumen early in his career at restrictor-plate racing. While Fords haven’t shown they have the power to match the Toyotas of Truex and the Gibbs drivers, plate racing could change the game. If Blaney can work with fellow Ford drivers, look for him to get a strong finish.

12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,034)

Car: No. 17 Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2017)

Notable: With two wins in three restrictor-plate races this year, Stenhouse finally has broken through and become a contender in his fifth full-time year. Expect another stellar performance from him to help propel him into the third round.

***

Follow Tucker on Twitter @HeatherR_Tucker

Denny Hamlin tries to explain Martin Truex Jr.’s 2017 dominance: ‘They have no weaknesses’

(PhatzRadio Sports / FTW)    —-    Since the beginning of the NASCAR Cup Series season, everyone has been trying to figure out how to chase down Martin Truex Jr. – or at least keep him from winning all seven of the playoff points up for grabs each race.

The No. 78 Toyota driver has been dominant all season, winning four regular-season races and enough stages to give himself a 20-point lead going into the playoffs. To compare, the difference between second and third place was four points.

Four races into the playoffs, Truex claimed two checkered flags – most recently in Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway – while Kyle Busch earned the other two in his No. 18 Toyota. Through 30 of the 36 total races this season, teams still haven’t figured out how to catch the 78 team.

“They’ve just got things clicking on all types of race tracks,” Hamlin told For The Win while promoting the No. 11 FedEx at Walgreens Toyota he’ll drive at Martinsville Speedway later this month.

Hamlin literally chasing Truex during the ISM Connect 300 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

“They’re running well, they have no weaknesses, so it’s tough for me to say what exactly it is. They’re winning on all kinds of tracks from superspeedways to road courses. So it’s not one thing in particular. It’s just they’ve got it all clicking, and everyone else is chasing them.”

But Truex and Busch – along with Joe Gibbs Racing’s other drivers drivers, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suárez – are almost teammates because JGR has a technical partnership with Truex’s Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team. That means JGR supplies FRR with its cars.

So equipment wise, JGR and FRR teams – including rookie Erik Jones’ No. 77 Toyota – should theoretically be equally competitive. Yet Truex by himself has the same number of wins as all four JGR drivers combined. Even for Busch, who has four wins, and Hamlin, who has the other two, the No. 78 Toyota is the car to beat every single weekend.

The next Cup Series playoff race is Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Truex’s win at Charlotte was in the first of three races in the Round of 12, and he’s now automatically qualified for the Round of 8.

Hamlin explained that while he’s not surprised Truex has racked up so many race wins, he was a little caught off guard by all of Truex’s stage wins throughout the season, which further demonstrate his consistency and dominance over the field. Truex has won 19 stages so far, while Busch is second with 13.

So what’s the difference between Truex’s Toyota and JGR’s Toyotas if they use the same equipment? Hamlin suggested it might be as simple as a fresh pair of eyes.

“They take the best of the best equipment we have, and they make it better, somehow, some way,” Hamlin said. “They do things out in Denver, and they are a very tight-knit group that works hard on their equipment and works hard on their cars.

“And sometimes when you take off the shelf the best of what Joe Gibbs Racing has, you can make it better if you just have a different set of eyes on it. So they perform extremely well, and we look at them every single week as the standard for performance, and we try to learn from them and make ourselves better.”

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NASCAR: Truex appreciates every aspect of his time on top

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — As Martin Truex Jr. leads lap after lap, week after week, in this season of rare dominance, it is easy to forget that he was once a journeyman driver in fear of losing his job in NASCAR.

That was just four years ago.

Truex was an unwitting participant in one of the biggest cheating scandals in NASCAR history. His Michael Waltrip Racing team deliberately caused a caution that set in motion Truex winning a race that would have put him in the playoffs. As the deception unraveled, Truex was kicked out of the playoffs and MWR received crippling sanctions. Truex’s team was shut down by the end of the year, one-third of the MWR organization was laid off and the team was out of business two years later.

“When all that first happened, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to race in the series again competitively,” Truex said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance at winning again.”

Look at him now, fresh off a series-best sixth win of the season and the unquestioned favorite to win the Cup title next month. His victory Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway was the second out of four playoff races, and it automatically earned him a slot in the next round.

Truex leads the series in victories, top-five finishes, top-10s, laps led, stages won and playoff points. Not a race goes by in which Truex can’t figure out a way to get his No. 78 Toyota to the front of the field.

By his estimation, had cautions not fallen the way they did or had luck been on his side, Truex believes he should have at least 10 victories this season.

That’s hardly what anyone envisioned for him as MWR fell apart and Truex, who had nothing to do with the scandal, found himself out of a job.

He was lucky that Furniture Row Racing had an opening. The one-car team based in Denver had made significant progress with driver Kurt Busch, and team owner Barney Visser wanted to continue that upward trajectory after Busch moved on.

Truex, a two-time Xfinity Series champion who had never found the same success at the Cup level, was the best of the available drivers. Furniture Row, what little anyone knew about the organization, was the best of the open seats.

“I felt like it was a good opportunity at the time,” Truex said. “It was not a consistent winner at the time, but it was a good opportunity and I didn’t feel like I was taking a step backwards, so that was good. That felt OK to me.”

It was not easy at first.

He led just one lap all of 2014, he had just one top-five finish and was 24th in the points. At the end of the year, crew chief Todd Berrier said he wanted to go back home to North Carolina, where nearly every other top NASCAR team is based.

Visser remained committed, though, backing the car out of his own pocket and rubber stamping anything that could help his team grow.

“It was a struggle for a while, for sure, but I think the commitment from Barney and the family feel and the drive to want to be better and be a player in this sport is really what caught my attention in 2014 when we were struggling,” Truex said. “It would have been easy for him to give up on me and give up on all the guys. Essentially, we changed a crew chief because Berrier wanted to move back to North Carolina, and that’s all we changed. We went from a team that could barely run 15th to 20th.”

Moving Cole Pearn to crew chief and switching to Toyota in an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing has made all the difference. Truex made the championship race the next year and was a favorite for the title last year but was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round. Now, it would be an upset if Truex isn’t in the final four drivers in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He choked back tears in victory lane at Charlotte. He knows how fleeting success can be, and how hard it is to get to the top. Truex understands exactly how fortunate he is right now.

“We’re in a really great position right now, and a lot of that’s because of Barney, his vision of the team and just his determination to want to be one of the top guys,” Truex said. “It’s amazing to be a part of it. I’m thankful for it every single day. But I damn sure didn’t see it coming the way it is right now.”

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— Does experience or youth matter more in NASCAR’s current playoff format?

The age range of the drivers competing for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship is large.

Chase Elliott, the youngest, is 21. Matt Kenseth, the graybeard of the group, is 45.

Four of the 12 remaining playoff drivers are in their 40s; three are younger than 30.

It’s worth noting that experience often trumps youth in the race for NASCAR’s top prize. Since the championship format underwent drastic changes in 2004, only two drivers in their 20s (Kurt Busch, 26, in 2004 and Brad Keselowski, 28, in 2012) have won the crown.

Since the elimination piece was added to the playoffs in 2014, there have been two very experienced champions in Kevin Harvick (38) and Jimmie Johnson (41) and a 30-year-old in Kyle Busch with more laps on his resume than most drivers with more years in the sport.

With Race Two of the playoffs’ second round scheduled Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the three drivers in their 20s are scattered across the standings – Kyle Larson second, Chase Elliott fourth and Ryan Blaney 11th.

“If you’re racing in the Cup Series, I think you’ve been racing long enough where you either know how to get things done, you know how to do things the right way or you don’t,” said Elliott, a second-generation driver in his second playoff.

“I’m a pretty big believer in that regardless of your age. I’m not saying that because I’m early on at it. I feel that way about other sports. College football, NFL. If a guy comes in, knows how to do his job, I think he can play for whoever and do a good job at it.”

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Blaney, who put the Wood Brothers team in the playoffs for the first time, said youth can be a positive despite the general consensus that older drivers have an advantage.

“I think having youth on your side, you’re always just kind of on ‘kill’ all the time, and I think that’s what these playoffs are about,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing to be. … They do have experience on their side, and that might benefit them, for sure, but I think expectation is just really not there for us.

“We just have curiosity and excitement to be here, and I think that’s a really big asset, too.”

Blaney also said the presence in the playoffs of drivers such as seven-time champion Johnson and other seasoned veterans who know the playoff ropes isn’t intimidating.

“These drivers are people just like us,” he said. “I’ve watched them when I was younger. I’ve been big fans of a lot of them when I was younger growing up in this sport, and I just think it’s really neat. I don’t really feel any pressure or (that) I’m intimidated by anybody.”

Playoff wins to date have been scored by veterans – Truex (37) and Kyle Busch (32) have two each.

Austin Dillon, 27, was eliminated in the playoffs’ first round. He said the age gap isn’t necessarily important because “there are young guys that drive like older guys. Then there are older guys that drive like younger guys.

“It’s hard for me to say if the experience of the older guys plays to their advantage. I think it’s who is the smartest, and then there are guys that drive a little more aggressively that put themselves in good position.”

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Follow Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree

Denny Hamlin takes pole for NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Denny Hamlin’s streak is alive.

Hamlin topped qualifying Friday night for the NASCAR Cup playoff race Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, marking the 13th straight year he has captured a pole on the top circuit.

“I knew the time was running out to get a pole because I hadn’t won one this year,” said Hamlin about his 25th career pole. “I wanted to keep the streak of winning one every year alive.”

Hamlin turned a lap at 191.598 mph in the No. 11 Toyota on the 1 1/2-mile oval for his first pole of the season. He’ll share the front row with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

Hamlin has wins at New Hampshire and Darlington this year, but has never won at Charlotte. However, he has always run well here with 15 top 10s and seven top 5s at CMS. He attributes that success to things he’s learned from teammates Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

“I love coming to this track because we do run really, really well here, so I’m glad to see it’s in the sweet spot of the playoffs where we can really make some hay,” Hamlin said.

Kevin Harvick was third, followed by Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is racing for the final time at Charlotte, qualified 23rd in a backup car after he crashed just moments into practice .

Kurt Busch will start eighth.

Busch wore a “VegasStrong” t-shirt under his fire suit to honor the victims of the mass shooting earlier this week in the racing brothers’ hometown.

Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR champion with eight victories at Charlotte, did not advance out of the first round and will start 25th. Johnson was considered a strong contender to win this race given his given his history, but the poor qualifying may have dealt him a tough blow.

Johnson said it will be difficult to fight his way up through the field.

“I am disappointed with tonight and I am disappointed with how we are qualifying right now,” Johnson said. “We just haven’t put our finger on it. But we are working hard at it.”

Earnhardt Jr.’s final weekend as a full-time driver at his home track got off to a bad start after crashing on a slick surface in practice.

Track officials added a substance — called PJ11 — to the high line of the track to improve grip. Earnhardt drove his car high early in the afternoon practice session, slipped and hit the wall, prompting his Hendrick Motorsports team to pull out his backup car.

Earnhardt thought the track was too slick.

“I’m avoiding it until somebody can go up there and shows me there is a lap up there,” said Earnhardt. “I ain’t going near it, on purpose. Might end up it accidentally a few times, but I don’t think anybody is willing to go up there without seeing somebody do it first. It’s obviously very slick. It’s like ice.”

None of the drivers crashed during qualifying.

Martin Truex Jr. said he thinks the track surface will get better and better as the weekend progresses.

“I think we just need some cars to run on that stuff and wear it in and get the track kind of prepped,” Truex said. “Certainly I don’t think anyone expected it to be as challenging as it was. Maybe for the future we definitely need to look at a different way to prep the track so when we go out there guys aren’t running into the wall.”

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR is deep into its 2017 playoffs, but talk at Charlotte Motor Speedway this week has steered to 2018 and the dramatic changes on tap for next year’s championship run.

The schedule will be significantly different. Las Vegas Motor Speedway will open the 10-race run, taking the spot that has been held by Chicagoland Speedway, and Richmond Raceway, previously the last stop of the regular season, will become the second race in the playoffs.

The biggest change, however, will be at one of the sport’s oldest tracks – CMS. Next year’s Charlotte playoff race, scheduled Sept. 30, will be run on the track’s road course (or, more accurately, a modified version of the course) instead of the traditional 1.5-mile oval.

The change puts a new spin on competing at CMS and adds a road course event to the playoffs, a decision supported by many fans.

The details of the 2.42-mile “roval,” a term increasingly in use for road courses that include portions of oval tracks, were unveiled this week, with the most important aspects being the addition of chicanes on the frontstretch and backstretch of the oval course to slow the cars.

“I know NASCAR is always wanting to change things, and the track here at Charlotte was wanting to do something,” driver Ryan Blaney said. “My thoughts about it is that we’ll adapt to it, whatever it is. It being a playoff race, it’s a little bit wacky. … I think it will be pretty neat. The fans will hopefully like it. Something new, and that’s never a bad thing.”

Goodyear, which supplies all of NASCAR’s tires, has scheduled a tire test on the road course Oct. 17-18.

The speedway added artificial turf to the apron inside the oval course’s fourth turn in an attempt to prevent cars from receiving front-end damage when they go off course. The turf is adjacent to the fourth-turn chicane of the road course.

“I’m not sure what to expect,” Blaney said. “I don’t think anybody does, really. It will be different. I guess they put some turf down, and that’s a little bit different from what it’s been to separate it.”

The “different” seems to be the major part of the attraction.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a good race, a bad race, an embarrassing race or what, but it’s going to be exciting nonetheless,” said Kyle Larson. “I think the fans will enjoy it. I don’t know how the drivers will feel about it until we actually get to make some laps and compete.”

FANTASY FOOTBALL: First-place Eagles, Rams, Bills? Who knew?

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —-  Chew on this: First-place Eagles. First-place Rams. First-place Bills.

Throw in the Redskins and — sit down for this one — the Jets, and maybe these teams are a lot better than prognosticated when the season kicked off.

One month into the schedule, NFL teams usually have found their identity. Not so for most of the league in 2017, with the specific exceptions of the Chiefs at the top, the Browns, 49ers and Chargers at the bottom.

There are only eight clubs with losing records through one-quarter of the season, and a gaggle of 13 at 2-2 — including three in the AFC South. The break-even teams include the Patriots, Cowboys, Raiders and Seahawks.

All of them were considered, and probably still should be, as playoff favorites.

The fascinating stuff, though, focuses on those surprises, including that first-place trio not even their staunchest fans could have predicted would be up front at this point.

EAGLES (3-1)

Philadelphia bolted from the gate last season, winning three straight before stumbling to 7-9. This quick start has a different feel.

For one, Carson Wentz looks to have taken a major step in maturity as a quarterback. He doesn’t try to force things, in part because of his comfort level with coach Doug Pederson’s system. He also has more talent around him.

And more leadership with such veterans as Chris Long, LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery on board.

“Those are very helpful, beneficial, because they’re a big impact to what we’re doing and the success we’ve had this early part of the season,” Pederson says.

“And the other thing, too, is these are veteran players who have been on, in Chris’s case (and Blount’s), on championship teams. They know how to work. They know how to practice. They know how to prepare. And that’s what you want. You want those types of guys in and around your football team.”

Philly has some defensive issues to settle, with a series of injuries in the secondary and to star DT Fletcher Cox. The Eagles have allowed 52 points in the fourth quarter.

RAMS (3-1)

While most of Los Angeles concentrates on the Dodgers or USC or UCLA, the Rams quietly have put together an offense that is outperforming its purported strength, the defense. LA’s 142 points easily lead the NFL, and Jared Goff has been a revelation in his first full season as a starter. He leads the league in four key passing categories.

Yes, the revitalization of 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley has been huge — Gurley is second rushing with 362 yards and has scored seven touchdowns (four rushing, three receiving). There’s also been an influx of veteran talent here: T Andrew Whitworth, LB Connor Barwin and WR Sammy Watkins.

New coach Sean McVay, at 31 the youngest in NFL history, has energized the offense with his schemes and aggressiveness, while passing on the praise.

“I think what good coaches do is they put their players in situations to have success, but ultimately, those players are the ones that are making those plays,” McVay says.

“You feel fortunate to be a part of that and I think the players have done a good job, but I also can’t say enough about our coaching staff. Everybody talks about Jared and what he’s done, and he’s done an excellent job.

“But I also think it’s important to know how heavily involved (offensive coordinator) Matt LaFleur and (QBs coach) Greg Olson are in his development and those day-to-day things where he’s got an ownership on what we’re trying to get done.”

BILLS (3-1)

The previous time the Bills made the playoffs, America was worrying about the Y2K virus. It’s the NFL’s longest postseason drought.

To say right now that Buffalo is on the verge of ending that streak is foolish. It’s the third time since 2000 the team has been 3-1 or better. The Bills finished with losing records the previous two times.

Still, with a defense that has allowed the NFL’s fewest points (54), and consecutive defensive masterpieces against Denver and Atlanta, the Bills shouldn’t be dismissed.

If QB Tyrod Taylor remains efficient, outstanding running back LeSean McCoy stays healthy and productive, and the D continues to be dynamic, the Bills could have staying power.

REDSKINS (2-2)

Their performance in a loss at Kansas City was almost as impressive as their throttling of Oakland the previous week.

Undermanned and facing the league’s only undefeated team, the Redskins were the better squad for much of the night.

Kirk Cousins, franchise-tag-be-damned, has elevated his game; he’s been the NFC East’s best QB so far. He’s doing it with a so-so group of wideouts and a shuffling deck at running back.

Washington’s defense has been the real discovery, though. A sieve for portions of last season, it has found a pass rush and, while not dominant, has been effective overall. But it’s banged-up now, with top cornerback Josh Norman sidelined.

JETS (2-2)

The Jets made regular appearances in late-night monologues and prognostications of 0-16 seemed not that farfetched.

Well, they’ve won their past two games, both at home, and head to 0-4 Cleveland with a shot at a winning record.

Their offense has been much more capable than anyone imagined, and they appear to have two studs at safety in rookies Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye.

If they manage to win six times with this roster — other than a matchup with the Chargers, the schedule is rugged — Todd Bowles should be coach of the year.

Even if Andy Reid goes 16-0.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NASCAR drivers seek daylight in playoff’s second round at Charlotte

Fifteen years have passed since Charlotte Motor Speedway last scheduled an afternoon race at the 1.5-mile track.

That was in 2002, but the weather gods had other plans. The race was delayed because of rain and culminaed with a finish under the lights. The fall 2002 race also featured a surprise winner, when Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag in just his second career Cup start.

Sunday, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series once again will attempt to race in the daylight at Charlotte, and once again, McMurray will be part of the action. He is one of 12 playoff drivers seeking to jump-start the second round with a victory and automatic advancement into the elite eight.

Here is a look at how the 12 remaining playoffs drivers stand heading into the Bank of America 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC):

1. Martin Truex Jr.

Car: No. 78 Toyota

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Best Charlotte finish: Won, spring 2016.

Notable: Bringing a surplus of playoff bonus points — 59 — into the second round, Truex sits in as comfortable a position as possible. But don’t expect the most successful driver this season to rest on his laurels. Truex has been dominant at Charlotte recently, leading a combined 756 of 1,868 laps in the last five races.

2. Kyle Busch

Car: No. 18 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Charlotte finish: Second, fall 2010 and 2011; spring, 2017.

Notable: The hottest driver in the first three playoff races with two consecutive wins, Busch takes momentum and motivation into Sunday’s race. Charlotte is the only current track where the 2015 series champion has yet to win.

3. Kyle Larson

Car: No. 42 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Charlotte finish: Fifth, fall 2016.

Notable: Larson is on a run of four consecutive top-five finishes — beginning with the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway — but Sunday could pose a test for a driver who has won four races this season. His average finish at Charlotte is a paltry 19.8 in eight starts.

4. Brad Keselowski

Car: No. 2 Ford

Team: Team Penske

Best Charlotte finish: Won, fall 2013.

Notable: The 2012 series champion did everything he needed to do in the first round to easily advance, but he’ll be looking for more in this pod of three races. He’ll especially want to avoid the calamity of this year’s Coca-Cola 600, where he crashed after 19 laps and finished second-to-last.

5. Jimmie Johnson

Car: No. 48 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Charlotte finish: Won, spring 2003; spring and fall, 2004 and 2005; fall 2009; spring 2014; fall 2016.

Notable: Another week, another dominant track for the seven-time series champion. Johnson showed his muscle last weekend with a third-place result at Dover International Speedway — a track where he has won a record 11 times. Now he slides into Charlotte — where he has won eight times — as the defending race winner.

6. Kevin Harvick

Car: No. 4 Ford

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Best Charlotte finish: Won, spring 2011 and 2013; fall 2014.

Notable: The first round didn’t go quite the way the 2014 champion expected — with shaky races at both New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover — but Charlotte has been a strong track recently for Harvick. He has finished first or second in five of the last nine races there.

7. Denny Hamlin

Car: No. 11 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Charlotte finish: Second, spring and fall 2012.

Notable: It’s probably not his favorite track, but Hamlin has been a consistent performer at Charlotte throughout his career. He tends to qualify and finish in the top 10, and that may be all he needs Sunday.

8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Car: No. 17 Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Best Charlotte finish: 11th, spring 2011.

Notable: Stenhouse caught a lucky break at Dover with a caution failing at just the right time to turn his race around. He’s been fairly mediocre at Charlotte (20.3 average finish in 11 starts), but a decent finish allows him to take momentum into next weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, where he won earlier this year.

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9. Ryan Blaney

Car: No. 21 Ford

Team: Wood Brothers

Best Charlotte finish: 14th, fall 2015.

Notable: With only five Cup starts at Charlotte, it may be too early in Blaney’s career to judge his prowess there, but none of those five races have been memorable, with four finishes of 20th or worse. He and his team will be looking to dial up more speed and better strategy Sunday.

10. Chase Elliott

Car: No. 24 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Charlotte finish: Eighth, spring 2016.

Notable: Sunday will provide a good mental test for the 21-year-old, who led 59 of the final 61 laps last weekend at Dover only to see Kyle Busch snatch what would have been Elliott’s first Cup victory in the final two laps. But his last two races at Charlotte have not been pretty — with two crashes and two finishes in the 30s.

11. Matt Kenseth

Car: No. 20 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Charlotte finish: Won, spring 2000; fall 2011.

Notable: The veteran free agent still is searching for his first victory in what may be his last Cup season (Erik Jones will take over the No. 20 next year), but Charlotte could provide a good opportunity. Kenseth finished second in this race last season and fourth this spring.

12. Jamie McMurray

Car: No. 1 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Charlotte finish: Won, fall 2002 and 2010.

Notable: McMurray has not been spectacular this season, but he has been consistent — with 15 top-10s and only four finishes of 25th or worse. He now heads to arguably his two best opportunities to claim a win, as he’s won twice each at Charlotte and Talladega.

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Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow

‘NASCAR drivers should be making NBA, NFL money’

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)     —-    As team sponsorship dollars continue to dwindle, NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin said he thinks racecar drivers who risk their lives should be paid on par with NBA and NFL athletes.

“We’re way underpaid as racecar drivers,” Hamlin said, via ESPN and NBC Sports, at a charity event Wednesday in Charlotte. “There’s no doubt, doing what we do, the schedule that we have and the danger that we incur every single week, NASCAR drivers should be making NBA, NFL money.

“I’m sure this will be in some headline somewhere where Denny says drivers aren’t paid enough, but I’m basing it off all other sports. I’m not including myself. I’m including the back half of the field — those drivers are risking the same amount I am and they should be paid a hell of a lot more.”

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who is one of 12 drivers who advanced to the second round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, feels a reliance on corporate sponsorship should be “bonus money” as opposed to a main source of income for drivers. There’s no mandatory pay scale for NASCAR drivers.

Currently, under a consolidated national network television deal, tracks receive 65% of revenue, teams receive 25% and NASCAR receives 10%. NASCAR is in the third year of a 10-year TV deal with NBC and Fox estimated to be worth around $8 billion.

“The pie has to be shifted for sure,” Hamlin said. “The TV dollars coming into NASCAR is higher than it’s ever been, but we’re seeing fewer and fewer (sponsored racing) teams, and it just can’t survive. So it economically doesn’t make sense. The pie, the amount of TV money that the race teams share, has to go up, in my opinion.

“There’s got to be a reset, and it doesn’t come from the drivers. It comes from NASCAR helping the teams survive on a better basis. …There just has to be different revenue-sharing.”

According to Forbes, Hamlin was the third-highest paid driver in 2016. Hamlin, who opened 2016 by winning the Daytona 500 and finished the season ranked sixth in the final standings, earned $15.2 million from salary, bonuses, prize money, endorsements and licensing.  Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson, who won his seventh championship last year, was the top earner with $21.8 million.

Forbes reported that the top 12 highest-paid NASCAR drivers earned $168 million in 2016 from salaries, endorsements and their share of purses and licensing, but that was significant decline from 2013 when the outlet estimated the top 12 at $192 million.

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Dover takeaways: Does NASCAR have new playoff favorite?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-   DOVER, Del. — Four takeaways from Dover International Speedway as the NASCAR playoffs, now trimmed to a dirty dozen drivers, roll on to Charlotte Motor Speedway this week:

A NEW FAVORITE? Based on a sensational regular season and an obnoxious number of stage wins, Martin Truex Jr. entered the opening week of the playoffs as the championship favorite.

Three weeks in, Kyle Busch might be top dog.

Busch has won two straight races in the playoffs and, barring pit-road issues, could have won the opener at Chicagoland Speedway. He has led 302 of the 967 laps raced in the playoffs.

Truex sits atop the playoff standings with an 18-point edge over Busch, but Busch clearly has momentum.

He isn’t buying the idea that he’s the champion-in-waiting, however.

“You know, I don’t know that there’s necessarily a favorite,” said Busch, who won the title in 2015. “Maybe it closes our gap that the 78 (Truex) had on us a little bit to where I still think it’s 78, 18 (Busch), 42 (Kyle Larson), and there’s different distances between us each and every week.

“It’s all about getting the stars to align and doing your job and having everything go your way.”

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SECONDING THAT EMOTION: It only seems as if Chase Elliott has finished second in every Cup race he’s run.

The total actually is five. The misery index, when calculated by Elliott’s superhuman standards, is astronomical.

The hope is that he never got a B in school. If so, he probably ripped his photo from the pages of the yearbook.

Elliott takes failure to win very hard. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. He has performed well in one of racing’s biggest seats – the No. 24 Chevrolet once driven by Jeff Gordon, and, despite his disappointment at finishing second to Busch on Sunday, he rides into the second round of the playoffs as one of only 12 drivers with a shot at winning the championship.

Want some real second-place pain? Imagine the case of Harry Gant, who started Cup racing in 1980 and finished second 10 times – yes, 10 – before finally winning in April 1982 at Martinsville Speedway.

Gant went on to win 18 Cup races and became one of the sport’s most popular drivers.

And then there’s Bill Elliott, Chase’s father and a Cup champion. He finished second eight times before winning.

JOHNSON REBOUNDS: The playoffs – and indeed the second half of the season – haven’t been robust for seven-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

Dover is one of his best tracks, however, and he found speed Sunday, finishing third.

To Johnson’s credit, he was more concerned with consoling Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott, who was distraught after failing to win, than in celebrating a good finish for himself.

Johnson remains very much in the championship hunt, sitting in fifth place, 42 points behind Truex.

He owns eight wins at Charlotte, where Hendrick cars typically excel. If Johnson is to win a record eighth championship, CMS might be the launching point.

More: Dover deals disappointment to Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman in differing ways

More: Kyle Busch edges Chase Elliott at Dover; Kahne, Newman, Dillon and Kurt Busch eliminated

MANUFACTURER TANGLE: Although Toyota has won all three playoff races, the 12 playoff spots are evenly divided – four Toyotas, four Fords and four Chevrolets.

Richard Childress Racing was the team enduring the toughest day at Dover, as Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman dropped out of the championship hunt.

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NASCAR’s first-round playoff eliminations yield no surprises

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   DOVER, Del. — NASCAR elimination playoff system, version 2.0, disgorged four race winners in the first round of the postseason Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

There was Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch.

There was Phoenix spring winner Ryan Newman, who fell two points short of running down Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the 12th and final transfer spot.

There was Austin Dillon, winner of one of NASCAR’s other majors, the Coca-Cola 600.

And then there was Kasey Kahne, victor of another of the series’ albeit faded stalwarts in the Brickyard 400.

Four winners out, three from some of the most coveted races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

Meanwhile three winless drivers advanced: Chase Elliott, who has no victories at NASCAR’s highest level; Jamie McMurray, who hasn’t won since 2013; and Matt Kenseth.

How’s that look?

About right, really.

It took a little bit of the tweaked version of the elimination-style playoffs that debuted in 2014, a little bit of the racing food chain figuring itself out, but the 12-driver field of Cup contenders seems as it should be heading into round two.

DOVER TAKEAWAYS: Does NASCAR have new playoff favorite?

JAMES: Hendrick Motorsports’ Elliott, Johnson hitting gas at right time

MORE: Dover deals disappointment to Elliott, Newman in differing ways

–Busch won the Daytona 500 as Elliott expended his fuel on the white-flag lap and brought only those five playoff points with him to the playoffs. The rest of the season, Busch failed to win a stage and was prone to periods of poor results. He produced three of his five top-5s of the season heading into the playoffs but then finished 19th, 37th and 20th.

–Newman claimed victory at Phoenix Raceway by making a daring late tire gamble work. Impressive, certainly, but he won no stages the entire season, either, and like Busch, brandished just five playoff points when each one was crucial Sunday. Finishes of fourth, sixth, seventh and third in the last four regular-season races gave him a chance, but he couldn’t maintain it in the playoffs and a dearth of insurance via playoff points finished him.

–Dillon won the 600 on a fuel gambit, and while the trophy still is plenty shiny, it provided him his only playoff points of the season. Three top-5s and four top-10s the entire season suggested the team would not sustain a deep run.

–Kahne claimed victory at Indianapolis when many quality cars wrecked and he executed a skillful overtime restart that ended in controversy of the now-defunct backstretch restart line. A big win, his first since 2014, but it didn’t save his job at Hendrick Motorsports. And it wasn’t augmented by any stage wins the rest of the season, so it couldn’t salvage his postseason.

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While the elimination of Newman, who advanced to the championship final winless in 2014 and finished second in the standings, and Dillon can be more directly traced to their failure to exploit NASCAR’s new rewards system for wins and stage victories as postseason insurance, it also had a lot to do with not being among the 12 best weekly competitors.

Beyond the numbers, the three winless drivers who advanced performed better when it mattered.

Kenseth’s performance has flourished in the last half of the season with the Toyota camp and he is a plausible contender most weeks. Elliott, as has been his maddening bent, led almost to the white flag Sunday – one of a race-high 138 – before being overtaken by Kyle Busch, who won for the second straight week. Jamie McMurray, the statistical oddity of the contenders with just two top-5s but a respectable 15 top-10s, always seems to be around.

The new NASCAR points system figured to eliminate some of the ruthlessness of random racing events from the postseason and reward season-long performances at a high level. It likely saved Stenhouse’s season Sunday when a timely caution allowed him to skip a pit stop and earn seven stage points that ultimately proved decisive. But for Newman and the other three drivers cast out, this wasn’t just about a new way of doing the math.

It was about being better when it mattered.

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Busch spoils Elliott’s run at Dover for 2nd straight win

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DOVER, Del. (AP) — Chase Elliott rubbed his head and leaned against his car, crestfallen as he replayed the final laps in his mind. Jimmie Johnson, his champion teammate, walked over to offer some encouragement and let Elliott vent.

“I anticipated them being cuss words,” Johnson said, “and they were.”

Elliott had it, the first win in 70 career Cup starts in his sight, the white flag about to drop.

But the son of a NASCAR Hall of Fame driver simply could not find his way out of a thicket of traffic and Kyle Busch was ready to pounce. Busch spoiled Elliott’s bid at his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, taking the lead with two laps left to win Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

Elliott, largely expected to lead NASCAR’s next generation of stars, was in stunned disbelief that he let the lead slip away.

“I’m just so disappointed in myself,” Elliott said. “Golly. I couldn’t have had it any easier. I gave it away.”

Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, went high on the concrete track and zipped past Elliott to win for the second straight week. He won for the fourth time in the No. 18 Toyota and is streaking at the right time as NASCAR’s playoffs head into the second round.

While Elliott was consoled, Busch took his customary bow.

He injected a ho-hum race with a thrilling finish and perhaps the best two closing laps of the season. Busch is 24 points behind fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. for the points lead and was already safely in the field of 12.

“As far as Chase get out there, I wasn’t sure I’d run him back down,” Busch said. “The only thing Chase could have done differently was just move around and try and to get out of the wave of the cars that were in front of him. I was actually surprised he didn’t.”

Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch and Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne were eliminated as the playoff field was cut from 16 drivers.

Elliott was second, followed by Johnson, Truex and Kyle Larson.

Elliott followed in some superstar footsteps when he made his Cup debut in 2015. Bill Elliott was a two-time Daytona 500 champion and was named NASCAR’s most popular driver a record 16 times. Chase Elliott also took over the No. 24 Chevrolet when four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon retired.

Gordon attended the race and exchanged words with Newman on pit road. Newman, who finished a lap down in 13th, was one of the drivers that held up Elliott down the stretch and contributed to his collapse.

Newman was clearly frustrated after missing the playoff cutoff by just two points.

“You don’t think I was racing for my own position,” Newman asked Gordon.

“I didn’t say you weren’t,” Gordon said.

“Just watch what you say, man,” Newman said.

Elliott was crushed, Newman was irked, Gordon stirred the pot.

About the only one really happy — well, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who clinched the final transfer spot was thrilled — was Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver followed last week’s win at New Hampshire with his 42nd career Cup victory.

Truex won the opener at Chicagoland and followed with a fifth and fourth. With a series-high five wins, he’s still the driver to beat for the championship.

“Maybe this closes the gap that the 78 had on us a little bit,” Busch said.

Elliott finished second at Chicagoland but NASCAR penalized the team for a modification to his Chevrolet and he was stripped of playoff point and his crew chief was suspended. The 24 will get another close look in a thorough inspection this week. But Elliott’s time as a perennial race contender has arrived, even if his checkered flag was denied at Dover.

“I thought if I had a clean track, I could have run as fast as he did, but I didn’t, and I should have done something different,” Elliott said. “So that’s just on me, and he did a better job than I did.”

Here are other items of note from Dover:

YOU’RE IN

Truex, Larson, Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray and Stenhouse are all in the second round.

“The feeling is lucky really,” Stenhouse said.

HOT HENDRICK

Elliott was runner-up and Johnson was third, giving Hendrick Motorsports a sorely needed confidence boost in the second. Johnson had his first top-five finish since he won the first Dover race in June.

“I wished I would have qualified better. I really think we had a shot at winning the race today,” Johnson said.

RED FLAG

The race was stopped for 15 minutes, 9 seconds when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun at the pit road entrance and hit sand barrels.

QUIET TRACK

NASCAR again stood in unison for the national anthem, a week after a pair of team owners said they would fire anyone who took a knee.

UP NEXT

The first race of the second playoff round takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Dillon won his first career Cup race there in May and Johnson won at the track in October 2016.

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Wrap Up:

Four drivers were eliminated as the first round came to a close: Kurt Busch, who opened the season with a win at the Daytona 500; Kasey Kahne, who has seven races left before departing Hendrick Motorsports; and Richard Childress Racing drivers Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon.

Twelve drivers advanced to the second round that begins next weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. will take an 18-point lead over Kyle Busch into the second round, followed Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson. Also advancing (in order): Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray.

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APACHE WARRIOR 400

Sunday’s results from the 1-mile Dover International Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (2) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 400 laps, 0 rating, 56 points.

2. (12) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 400, 0, 47.

3. (17) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 400, 0, 40.

4. (1) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 400, 0, 50.

5. (3) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 400, 0, 47.

6. (19) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 400, 0, 32.

7. (7) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 400, 0, 34.

8. (5) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 400, 0, 29.

9. (26) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 400, 0, 30.

10. (16) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 400, 0, 40.

11. (4) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 400, 0, 26.

12. (10) Erik Jones, Toyota, 400, 0, 25.

13. (8) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 399, 0, 24.

14. (21) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 399, 0, 23.

15. (18) Joey Logano, Ford, 399, 0, 22.

16. (23) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 399, 0, 21.

17. (9) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 399, 0, 23.

18. (24) Danica Patrick, Ford, 399, 0, 25.

19. (15) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 399, 0, 25.

20. (13) Kurt Busch, Ford, 398, 0, 17.

21. (28) David Ragan, Ford, 397, 0, 18.

22. (29) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 397, 0, 15.

23. (11) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 397, 0, 14.

24. (20) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 396, 0, 13.

25. (14) Aric Almirola, Ford, 396, 0, 12.

26. (25) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 396, 0, 11.

27. (30) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 396, 0, 10.

28. (27) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 395, 0, 9.

29. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 394, 0, 8.

30. (22) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 394, 0, 7.

31. (40) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 393, 0, 6.

32. (33) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 392, 0, 5.

33. (34) Brett Moffitt, Toyota, 391, 0, 0.

34. (37) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 389, 0, 3.

35. (6) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, axle, 374, 0, 8.

36. (36) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 372, 0, 0.

37. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 368, 0, 1.

38. (32) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 348, 0, 0.

39. (39) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, engine, 162, 0, 1.

40. (35) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, electrical, 39, 0, 0.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 129.175 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 5 minutes, 48 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.357 seconds.

Caution Flags: 4 for 24 laps.

Lead Changes: 15 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders: M.Truex 1-25; K.Larson 26-60; M.Truex 61-82; C.Elliott 83; Ky.Busch 84-89; B.Keselowski 90-122; Ky.Busch 123-140; K.Larson 141-169; M.Truex 170-173; K.Larson 174-246; C.Elliott 247-324; Ky.Busch 325-328; J.Johnson 329-333; B.Keselowski 334-339; C.Elliott 340-398; Ky.Busch 399-400

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): C.Elliott, 3 times for 135 laps; K.Larson, 3 times for 134 laps; M.Truex, 3 times for 48 laps; B.Keselowski, 2 times for 37 laps; Ky.Busch, 4 times for 26 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 4 laps.

Wins: M.Truex, 5; Ky.Busch, 4; K.Larson, 4; J.Johnson, 3; D.Hamlin, 2; B.Keselowski, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Harvick, 1; K.Kahne, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. M.Truex, 3059; 2. Ky.Busch, 3041; 3. K.Larson, 3034; 4. B.Keselowski, 3020; 5. J.Johnson, 3017; 6. K.Harvick, 3015; 7. D.Hamlin, 3013; 8. R.Stenhouse, 3010; 9. R.Blaney, 3008; 10. C.Elliott, 3006; 11. M.Kenseth, 3005; 12. J.McMurray, 3003; 13. R.Newman, 2067; 14. A.Dillon, 2065; 15. K.Kahne, 2046; 16. Ku.Busch, 2044.

Ben Rhodes moves into 2nd round of NASCAR playoffs with win

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The first career victory for Ben Rhodes kept his championship chances intact in NASCAR’s Truck Series.

Rhodes earned the first national series victory of his NASCAR career Saturday night by holding off Christopher Bell in the closing laps at Las Vegas. The win earned Rhodes an automatic berth into the second round of the playoffs.

The win came in Rhodes’ 45th series start and continued a run of consistency he’s shown of late in his Toyota. He’s finished in the top-10 a career-best five straight races and has finished an average of sixth in the last seven Truck Series races.

“This is the biggest high of my life,” he said. “I never thought it would come.”

Bell, who finished second, was the winner a week ago at New Hampshire and is already locked into the next round of the playoffs.

Rhodes was the winner of the second stage but didn’t get a chance to race for the win until John Hunter Nemechek ran out of fuel under caution with 14 laps remaining. He headed to pit road from the lead for a disastrous stop — Nemechek stalled leaving pit road, and his crew had to push his truck back to his pit stall before Nemechek could pull away.

Although Nemechek stayed on the lead lap, he was 10th on the restart with seven laps remaining. It set up a frantic dash to the finish, there were four trucks racing side-by-side for position, and Rhodes couldn’t shake Bell.

Rhodes had to use a late block on Bell to save the victory.

“I used every play in my playbook,” Rhodes said. “I knew if I could keep him close to me, he couldn’t break the bubble. Every time I tried to gap him, and use a trick to get him far away, he would suck right up to my bumper. I had to keep him in distance, and that was the most nervous thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”

Chase Briscoe finished third and was followed by Austin Cindric and Kaz Grala — all championship contenders. There are four spots remaining in the next round of the playoffs, with one race to determine the field, at Talladega Superspeedway in two weeks.

Cindric and Grala are essentially tied for the sixth and final spot in the next round, while Nemechek is six points behind them.

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DOVER, Del. (AP) — With a checkered flag missing and no highlight reel burnout to be found, Ryan Blaney may at least want to keep the race trophy as a keepsake to prove he won at Dover.

Blaney crashed the Xfinity Series playoffs and the Cup regular dominated Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

“It’s really hard to get a car like that,” he said.

NASCAR imposed limits this season on how many times the elite Cup drivers can race in NASCAR’s second-tier series. But no rule could stop Blaney from reaching victory lane. Blaney made the Cup playoffs with a win at Pocono and played spoiler at Dover in the second race of the Xfinity playoffs.

Blaney, a social media darling in NASCAR, took his checkered flag and slipped it through a fence to give to a young fan. Blaney recalled he was once that same excited kid when he tagged along at the track as the son of former NASCAR driver Dave Blaney and grandson of dirt track star Lou Blaney.

“He seemed really pumped up to be at the race,” Blaney said. “There was a lot of kids here today, which is really cool. I kind of saw a little bit of myself. I was a little kid coming here and watching races. Anything we can to do to try to keep them coming back and show them a pretty great experience at the track. He looked like he wanted it and he was pretty happy when he got it.”

Almost as happy as Blaney was to win it.

Blaney, who usually gives a checkered flag to a team member, also skipped the traditional winner’s burnout.

“It’s not really my thing,” he said.

Xfinity playoff drivers took the second through six spots and nine of the top 11. Justin Allgaier was second, followed by William Byron, Daniel Hemric and Brennan Poole.

The 23-year-old Blaney won for the second time in nine Xfinity races driving the No. 22 Ford for team owner Roger Penske. He led 136 of 200 laps and won his sixth career Xfinity race.

Allgaier leads the standings by three points over JR Motorsports teammate Byron. The series moves to Charlotte Motor Speedway where the field of 12 drivers will be cut to eight.

Blaney will drive a third entry for Team Penske in NASCAR’s top Cup series next year. Blaney will drive the No. 12 Ford and join Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski in team owner Roger Penske’s NASCAR lineup. Blaney was signed to Penske in 2012 and farmed out to race for Wood Brothers Racing. Blaney won his first career NASCAR Cup race this season for the Wood brothers at Pocono .

Blaney starts 11th in Sunday’s Cup race at Dover.

RESULTS

Lap length: 1 mile(Car number in parentheses)

1. (9) William Byron, Chevrolet, 156.209 mph.

2. (18) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 155.952.

3. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota, 155.434.

4. (7) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 155.373.

5. (42) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 155.233.

6. (00) Cole Custer, Ford, 155.126.

7. (48) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 154.912.

8. (22) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 154.865.

9. (21) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 154.440.

10. (1) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 153.984.

11. (3) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 153.833.

12. (4) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 153.224.

13. (62) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 153.899.

14. (24) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 153.472.

15. (33) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 153.309.

16. (5) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 152.977.

17. (16) Ryan Reed, Ford, 152.724.

18. (98) Casey Mears, Ford, 152.691.

19. (11) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 152.433.

20. (23) Spencer Gallagher Jr., Chevrolet, 152.021.

21. (39) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 151.502.

22. (51) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 150.943.

23. (19) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 153.571.

24. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 152.433.

25. (14) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 151.407.

26. (2) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 151.318.

27. (07) Ray Black II, Chevrolet, 150.659.

28. (8) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 150.584.

29. (90) Brandon Brown, Chevrolet, 150.207.

30. (0) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 149.800.

31. (01) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 149.334.

32. (99) David Starr, Chevrolet, 148.625.

33. (93) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, 148.356.

34. (40) Chad Finchum, Chevrolet, owner points

35. (52) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, owner points

36. (89) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, owner points

37. (74) Mike Harmon, Dodge, owner points

38. (13) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, owner points

39. (78) Josh Bilicki, Chevrolet, owner points

40. (38) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, 144.869.

NASCAR: Speedy Martin Truex Jr. wins pole for NASCAR playoff race at Dover

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. has tried to enjoy his career year as much as he can. The veteran driver says he never knows when the run might end.

He kept on rolling at Dover.

Truex will try to win his sixth race of the season from the pole at Dover International Speedway in NASCAR’s third playoff race. Truex has been the driver to beat all season and he proved it again Friday, when he turned a lap of 160.664 mph to win his second pole of the season.

Truex had clinched a berth in the second round of the playoffs when he won at Chicagoland Speedway. He had the dominant car last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway until he was caught up in a wreck and finished fifth.

Truex has nine wins in the No. 77 Toyota at Furniture Row Racing over the last two years after winning just three times in his first 10 years. Oh, and Truex won this race last year.

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DRIVERS: Seek to move on from national anthem debate at Dover

“It takes so many things to come together to be in a position that I’ve been the last few years, really,” he said. “I’m very thankful, I’m definitely enjoying it. At the same time, there’s that chance of a championship out there. You can’t lose focus and say, this is going great, we’re going to show up to the track and everything’s going to be fine. You still have to work hard.”

Truex ended Kyle Busch’s bid at three straight poles. Busch started first in the first two playoff races and will start second on Sunday for the all-Toyota front row. He advanced to the second round when he won at New Hampshire.

“I’m glad for once we’re first and he’s not,” Truex said. “I’ve been second to him a lot, so it’s cool for us to get a pole.”

Playoff drivers Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth start third and fourth. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson starts his run at his 12th Dover victory back in 17th.

“I know when it comes to race time, we will be fine here,” Johnson said.

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Dover marks the first cutoff race and the playoff field will be sliced from 16 drivers to 12. Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne are the bottom four drivers in the playoff standings. Dillon starts 23rd, Newman is eighth, Busch, the Daytona 500 champion, starts 13th and Kahne is 21st.

“It’s going to be a race within the race,” Dillon said. “You’ve got to be smart throughout and make sure you’re there at the end and put yourself in good positions. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Other playoff drivers and starting spots are: Denny Hamlin starts sixth, Kevin Harvick ninth, Ryan Blaney 11th, Chase Elliott 12th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 15th, Brad Keselowski 16th, and Jamie McMurray is 26th.

Larson and Keselowski also earned automatic spots in the second round on points.

Stenhouse holds the final transfer spot to the second round and McMurray is 11th.

“You are going to be dependent on the team to kind of fill you in like if you have to have another position or if someone is pressuring you that you can maybe give up that position and not get wrecked,” McMurray said.

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XFINITY SERIES NEWS

DOVER, Del. (AP) — The driver who will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. next season in the NASCAR Cup series will race in the Xfinity Series for the first time this year.

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 42 Chevrolet in two Xfinity Series races for Chip Ganassi Racing. Bowman will drive at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.

Bowman is set to replace Earnhardt next season in the No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman subbed last season in the 88 when Earnhardt sat out with a concussion. Hendrick Automotive Group’s HendrickCars.com will sponsor Bowman at Charlotte. No sponsor was named for Phoenix.

Bowman has never won a race in 133 NASCAR starts over Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series. He has one Truck start this season and raced in the non-points Clash to open the season at Daytona.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

NASCAR set to kick off playoff opener at Chicagoland

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JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson has NASCAR history in sight. Martin Truex Jr. wants to become more than a mere footnote as the regular season champion. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch each hope to add a second championship trophy to the collection.

Some drivers would just be happy advancing to the second round.

The Chase is out.

The playoffs are in.

Whatever NASCAR decides to call the final 10 races of the season, the final format remains the same: The last four drivers standing after three rounds will race for the best finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19 to be crowned the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion.

Up first, the opener Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Let’s look at the contenders:

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No. 1: Martin Truex Jr.

Why He’ll Win: Truex won the regular season title with four wins, 10 top-five finishes and had 18 stage wins for 53 playoff points that he can keep through the first three playoff rounds. Truex has eight wins over the last two seasons and has dominated at times for Furniture Row Racing.

Why He Won’t: He’s had some bad luck and a case could be made he should have at least four more wins. Will a late caution come back to bite him when it matters most?

No. 2: Kyle Larson

Why He’ll Win: Larson has two wins over the last four races and is the hottest driver in NASCAR. Larson proved he was worth the hype that followed him into the sport as one of the top young drivers of a generation and won four times. He’s one of many drivers facing sponsor woes — Target is leaving at the end of the season — but a championship could make him attractive to a Fortune 500 company.

Why He Won’t: Larson knows how easily a strong season can slip away early in the playoffs. He suffered tire and mechanical woes in the first two Chase races last season and was never a factor.

No. 3: Kyle Busch

Why He’ll Win: Count out Busch? No thanks. Busch was in the final four last season and the 2015 series champion won twice and rolls into Chicagoland with six straight top-10 finishes.

Why He Won’t: Joe Gibbs Racing was solid but hardly spectacular and Toyota’ magic horsepower was found instead in Truex’s car.

No. 4: Brad Keselowski

Why He’ll Win: The 2012 series champion won twice, secured a new contract with team owner Roger Penske and is always a threat.

Why He Won’t: The Fords haven’t shown the reliable speed needed to win a championship and Keselowski stumbles into Chicagoland without a finish better than 11th in his last five races.

No. 5: Jimmie Johnson

Why He’ll Win: Because he’s Jimmie Johnson. Johnson won three times in a bit of a down year for Hendrick Motorsports. But no driver dominated the Chase era like Johnson. With an eighth championship, he would snap a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most in NASCAR history.

Why He Won’t: You can’t win ’em all.

No. 6 Kevin Harvick

Why He’ll Win: Stewart-Haas Racing is facing lineup upheaval in 2018 with Danica Patrick out the door and maybe even Kurt Busch. But Harvick just keeps rolling along as the star at SHR and the 2014 champ is one of the sport’s best Game 7 racers. He won at Homestead in ’14 to clinch the title.

Why He Won’t: Harvick has just one win and his SHR team has been hit-or-miss for most of the season.

No. 7 Denny Hamlin

Why He’ll Win: Hamlin has two wins and says he’s as mentally tough as he’s ever been after a series of near-misses in his bid for his first Cup championship. The 2016 Daytona 500 winner should have at least one or two championships by now and is running out of time at JGR to get one.

Why He Won’t: Hamlin is tight with Michael Jordan. But in crunch time at Homestead, Hamlin has been more like Jordan with the Washington Wizards than the Chicago Bulls.

No. 8: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Why He’ll Win: Stenhouse posted his first two career Cup victories. He gave team owner Jack Roush the lift the team had needed for years and could be a threat to advance a couple of rounds.

Why He Won’t: Hasn’t finished better than 14th in his last nine races.

THE REST

No. 9 Ryan Blaney (one win); No. 10 Chase Elliott; No. 11 Ryan Newman (one win); No. 12 Kurt Busch (Daytona 500 winner; 2004 series champ); No. 13 Kasey Kahne (one win); No. 14 Austin Dillon (one win); No. 15 Matt Kenseth (2003 champ); No. 16 Jamie McMurray.

Kenseth and Kahne have yet to land rides for 2018. Busch still needs to lock up sponsorship for a guaranteed return to Stewart-Haas. Elliott could match his dad, Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, as a NASCAR champion.

Everyone loves an underdog — heck, Newman once made it to NASCAR’s final four with a winless season — but it’s hard to imagine a champion emerging out of the bottom of the playoff pack.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

NASCAR: Danica Patrick done at Stewart-Haas after ’17, future unsure

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Danica Patrick, the only female driver at NASCAR’s top level, is likely at the end of her driving career after a sponsorship shake-up left her without a ride at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Patrick posted a statement on her Facebook page Tuesday saying her time with Stewart-Haas “had come to an end” due to a new sponsorship arrangement for the team next season. The statement came shortly after Smithfield Foods said it will leave Richard Petty Motorsports to become a primary sponsor at Stewart-Haas next year.

The news is a blow to RPM, which is also losing driver Aric Almirola. But it also forced changes at Stewart-Haas, which has struggled with sponsorship for three of its four cars, including the No. 10 Ford driven by Patrick.

“It has been my honor to drive for Tony Stewart, Gene Haas and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing for the past six seasons,” Patrick wrote. “Sponsorship plays a vital role in our sport, and I have been very fortunate over the course of my career, but this year threw us for a curve.”

Patrick, whose participation in NASCAR has always been polarizing given the attention she receives despite her lack of success, closed the post by writing: “I have the utmost faith in myself and those around me, and feel confident about my future.”

Patrick has launched a clothing line, has a book coming out next year and has made a huge transition into promoting a healthy and fit lifestyle. It has her positioned for a second career at the age of 35 if she chooses. She’s also in a long-term relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who will make his debut in the playoffs this weekend.

Sponsorship dollars have been hard to come by for a number of drivers and teams. Smithfield’s decision leaves Petty’s team in need of a sponsor, and Almirola is looking for a ride.

But the bigger changes are clearly underway at SHR, which didn’t reveal where Smithfield will be in the organization in 2018.

“Details of the agreement, including the driver who will be added to SHR’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lineup in 2018, will be provided at a later date,” SHR said in a statement.

That means Smithfield could end up on the car Patrick has driven. Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch both need sponsorship on their cars, too. Busch, the Daytona 500 winner, does not have a deal with SHR for next season.

Both Harvick and Busch will represent SHR in the 10-race playoffs that begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Now that Patrick has confirmed she’s out at SHR, the team could choose to downsize to three cars, or pursue Almirola, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne or any other available driver. The team could be in the market to replace just Patrick, or both Patrick and Busch.

Patrick has driven for Stewart-Haas Racing her entire Cup career. She has seven top-10 finishes in 180 career starts and is currently 28th in the standings, the lowest in her Cup career.

Still, she won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, won an IndyCar race in 2008, is the highest finishing female driver in Indianapolis 500 history with a third-place run in 2009 and is the only woman to lead laps in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. Patrick is the only woman to win a Cup pole and those top-10 finishes are the most of any female Cup driver.

“She will go down as the best female NASCAR driver of all time. Will likely take decades to see anyone even challenge her legacy,” Brad Keselowski posted on Twitter. He later added in a second post: “Have come to accept that mankind never knows or appreciates what it has until its gone. NASCAR fans will miss her badly in time.”

Patrick’s contract with SHR ran through 2018, but the team has been searching for sponsorship since Nature’s Bakery abruptly ended its three-year deal after one season.

RPM is now in a similar bind because it lost Smithfield, which has been associated with Petty the last six years. RPM this year downsized to one Cup car because of sponsorship reasons, and talks on a contract extension with Almirola stalled when Smithfield began looking at other options.

Petty ripped the company and suggested he was blindsided.

“Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship,” Petty said. “I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake. I’m sad to see this is where we are now. This decision is very unexpected, and we are extremely disappointed in this late and abrupt change of direction.”

Smithfield CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan called Petty’s claim of a handshake deal “unequivocally and patently false,” and accused the team of not delivering on “tens of millions of dollars of unwavering financial support.”

“Smithfield’s numerous discussions with RPM over the past several months focused exclusively around one issue: RPM’s inability to deliver on the track and the organization’s repeated failure to present a plan to address its lack of competitiveness,” Sullivan said in a statement. “It is very unfortunate and disheartening that RPM has chosen to disseminate false statements regarding our communications to NASCAR fans who we have supported wholeheartedly with more than a $100 million investment in the sport over the last several years.”

Almirola was 20th in the standings when he broke his back in May. It caused him to miss seven races, and the team is currently 25th in the standings. He did make NASCAR’s playoffs, in 2014, after he won at Daytona in July.

Petty, the Hall of Fame driver and seven-time NASCAR champion, is no longer the primary owner of his race team. Andrew Murstein of Medallion Financial Corp. is the majority owner of the team.

Petty said he and Murstein were committed to “moving forward” with the No. 43 team.

“Losing a sponsor of this magnitude in September is a significant set-back to Richard Petty Motorsports,” Petty said. “We’ve been around since 1949, and we’ll be around a lot longer.”

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Xfinity Series debut could be rainy, but he has edge

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – To prepare for his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut Sunday at Road America, Austin Cindric will drive a little extra.

Cindric will race in the ARCA Series’ 100-mile race before the Xfinity green flag (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC).

A little experience wheeling a heavy stock car around a challenging 4-mile, 14-turn layout can only help, right?

“It looks like it’s got a 90% chance of raining all day on Sunday, so I feel like it’s going to be more valuable than I thought,” Cindric said between ARCA testing sessions Friday.

“I’ve got plenty of experience racing in the rain, but it adds too many variables especially going into a debut with Team Penske in the Xfinity Series. I’d rather have a smooth day for that. But either way, I’ll take what’s given to me.”

Cindric, the 18-year-old son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, has more experience at Road America than much of the ARCA or Xfinity fields. He has three race weekends’ experience — two in a Ford Mustang in the IMSA Continental Tire Series and one in a McLaren in Pirelli World Challenge — totaling upward of four hours on track.

More: Unlikely NASCAR duo Daniel Hemric, Matt Tifft take to road racing

More: William Byron, 19, working to master ‘consequences’ of racing in real life

Cindric’s road-course schedule has been limited this season by a full-time run in the Camping World Truck Series. The Xfinity Series first hits the track Saturday, which made the extra half-day of ARCA track time Friday all the more beneficial.

“I love driving stock cars on road courses,” Cindric said. “Skinny little tires, not much grip, lots of horsepower, an H-pattern gearbox, so you’re having to drive the thing every single lap. Getting used to curbs, jumping around, picking up wheels … it’s a good time.”

NASCAR: What to watch for at Pocono

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    Joe Gibbs Racing on Wednesday suspended two crewmen from Martin Truex Jr.’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team who were involved in an incident with Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens.

Rear tire changer Lee Cunningham and front tire changer Chris Taylor were each sanctioned for three races, JGR spokesman Chris Helein confirmed to USA TODAY Sports. The incident stemmed from a crash with 50 laps left in the Brickyard 400 on Sunday in which points leader Truex made contact with race-leader Busch on a restart, wrecking both. Busch had led 87 laps hunting a first victory of the season.

Fox Sports 1 replays showed Cunningham clapping and shouting “Tell Kyle ‘way to go’,” as Stevens walked past Truex’s Furniture Row Racing pit box afterward. Stevens approached and began an aggressive verbal exchange before Taylor entered and pushed the crew chief away, saying, “I don’t care who you are. I don’t give a [expletive] who you are. Get out of my box.”

This situation was more complicated than the usual racing disagreement in that FRR is an affiliate of JGR and leases pit crews from its fellow Toyota team.

FRR owner Barney Visser said in a release: “Our No. 78 pit crew is hired, trained and managed by Joe Gibbs Racing. They are one of the best pit crews on the circuit and have kept us up front all season. … We admire the talent and dedication of our pit crew and support all of the decisions and actions taken by Joe Gibbs Racing.”

Kip Wolfmeier and John Royer will replace the suspended crewmen.

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William Byron is cognizant of the speculation. He seems appreciative of the energy being generated on his behalf from beyond the perimeter of Hendrick Motorsports. And the occasional calls he receives from owner Rick Hendrick encourage the 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver about his future.

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network), Byron returns to Iowa Speedway (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC) after winning the first Xfinity race of the season there.

He knows he won’t be elevated to Cup next season as a replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet. In-house product Alex Bowman was officially awarded that promotion last week. So Byron can focus on what has enabled a stretch where he has won three times in the past five races.

But all that success keeps outside chatter a daily part of his existence, because although Kasey Kahne won the Brickyard 400 last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — breaking a 102-race winless streak — Hendrick was vague on the future of the No. 5 Chevrolet or Kahne as its pilot for 2018.

Having heard nothing about his possible relevance to that matter, Byron told USA Today Sports, he will continue to concentrate on an Iowa sweep. But if Hendrick or anyone else is asking, he said, he’s ready for the next step.

“I think I’m ready for anything,” Byron told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “I’ve raced against the Cup guys the last few weeks and shown that I can beat them. That’s what it takes. You have to do that to get the opportunity. But right now, I’m focused on this year.”

Byron said he was pleased to learn of Bowman’s new deal, particularly because the 24-year-old’s promotion represented an opportunity for a young driver. They are friends and chat amid their simulator work at the shop in Concord, N.C.

Byron said handling speculation about his possible ascent has “not been too bad,” and he projects confidence that his time is coming. As was the case with Bowman, Hendrick would have to consider driver readiness and sponsor reaction to promoting Byron, who has 42 starts combined in Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series and won the 2015  K&N Pro Series East championship.

Kahne’s program faces sponsor shortfalls for next season with Farmers Insurance and Great Clips departing.

“I’m just focused on what we’re doing and trying to do the best job I can,” Byron said. “I know that opportunity will come sooner rather than later. I know down the road I want to be with Hendrick Motorsports and they’ve been supporting me a lot … I know I’m ready for anything, so I’m excited.”

Hendrick signed Byron — at the time in the process of setting a rookie record with seven wins for Kyle Busch’s truck series team — to a developmental deal in August of 2016 and assigned him to affiliate JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series for this season. After finishing second at Michigan by .012 seconds — to a car driven by Cup regular Denny Hamlin that failed post-race inspection — Byron won consecutively at Iowa and Daytona International Speedway, and held off Cup veteran Paul Menard by .108 at Indianapolis last week.

He’s currently second in points, 40 behind JR Motorsports teammate and mentor Elliott Sadler, and hoping for more calls from Hendrick, for multiple reasons. Hendrick has deflected questions on Byron’s future with a wry grin and a proclamation of his pupil’s “great job.”

“Right now, I’m just kind of focused on this year,” Byron said. “Right now, honestly I don’t know anything … I know that I’m racing this car this year and trying to do the best job I can this year.

“It’s very cool to have the relationship I do with Mr. Hendrick and for him to take a chance on me this year after racing in the truck series and moving me up to this team and everything like that. It’s been great to hear his reaction, to hear him on the phone when we’ve won races and hopefully that continues this year and I can get a few more phone calls from him.”

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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