Kevin Harvick

How the Chase was won: Looking back at NASCAR champions

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)     —-   As NASCAR prepares to crown its last Sprint Cup champion – the sport will have a new title sponsor starting next season – USA TODAY Sports looks back on how the 12 previous champions in the Chase earned their titles.

The sport’s playoff began in 2004. Last year, Kyle Busch won the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his first championship in NASCAR’s premier series.

The Chase was designed to bring more interest and intensity to the back-end of the season. NASCAR chairman Brian France doubled-down on that sentiment in 2014 with a complete redesign that was formulated to put a premium on wins.

The current format expanded the field to 16 drivers and divided the 10-race Chase into four rounds, with three races apiece in each of the first three rounds. In the third race of every round four drivers were eliminated, leaving four drivers to contend for the championship at Homestead-Miami.

 

A look at all the Chase championships:

2004

Champion: Kurt Busch

Pre-Chase rank: Seventh (two wins)

Chase rank: Seventh, 30 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

PHOTOS: Kurt Busch through the years

How the Chase was won: Busch won the first ever Chase race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to kick off his championship campaign. He went on to finish sixth or better in seven of the next nine races to hold off Jimmie Johnson by eight points, despite the fact that Johnson won four Chase races to Busch’s one.

2005

Champion: Tony Stewart

Pre-Chase rank: First (five wins)

Chase rank: First

PHOTOS: Tony Stewart through the years

How the Chase was won: Even though all of his victories occurred before the start of the Chase, Stewart was still able to earn his second Cup championship in four years. Propelled by runner-up finishes at New Hampshire, Talladega and Martinsville, “Smoke” staved off Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards for the title.

2006

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Second (four wins)

Chase rank: Second, five points behind leader Matt Kenseth

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson got off to a relatively poor start in the first four races, then turned it on at the halfway point, scoring one win and four second-place finishes in the final six races to pull away from runner-up Matt Kenseth.

2007

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Sixth (six wins)

Chase rank: First

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson continued his dominance of the 2007 season, earning another four victories in the Chase — in consecutive races — to wrap up his second Cup championship early in arguably his best season.

2008

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Third (four wins)

Chase rank: Third, 40 points behind leader Kyle Busch

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: A win in the penultimate race at Phoenix clinched Johnson’s third championship in a row. Johnson also won at Kansas and Martinsville to help him build a substantial lead in the standings.

2009

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Third (three wins)

Chase rank: Tied for second, 10 points behind leader Mark Martin

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson didn’t even need his win at Phoenix to clinch title No. 4. Earlier wins at Dover, Fontana and Charlotte helped Johnson build up a huge points lead, and when the final race concluded, Johnson ended the season with a 141-point gap over second-place Mark Martin.

2010

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Seventh (five wins)

Chase rank: Second, 10 points behind leader Denny Hamlin

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Denny Hamlin gave Johnson a run for his money, but in the end, four-time became five-time. Johnson scored just one Chase win at Dover, but it was enough to score his unprecedented fifth consecutive championship.

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2011

Champion: Tony Stewart

Pre-Chase rank: 10th (no wins)

Chase rank: Ninth, 12 points behind leader Kevin Harvick

PHOTOS: Tony Stewart through the years

How the Chase was won: Stewart won the closest championship in Sprint Cup history in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards. “Smoke,” who said he didn’t even deserve to be in the Chase, went on a tear, winning five races, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That final win allowed him to tie Edwards at 2,403 points and earn the tiebreaker by virtue of more wins: five to one.

2012

Champion: Brad Keselowski

Pre-Chase rank: Sixth (three wins)

Chase rank: Third, three points behind leader Denny Hamlin

PHOTOS: Brad Keselowski through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson was on his way to a sixth championship until a poor finish in the penultimate race at Phoenix. That left the door open for Keselowski, who earned wins at Chicagoland and Dover, to score his first career title.

2013

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: First (four wins)

Chase rank: Second, three points behind leader Matt Kenseth

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: After Kenseth jumped out to an early lead — winning the first two races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire — Johnson roared back with a victory in the third race (Dover) and eighth race (Texas) to take a slim seven-points lead on Kenseth into the penultimate race at Phoenix. And that’s where the title fight was essentially decided; Johnson finished third, Kenseth struggled with a 23rd-place finish, and Johnson took a 28-point lead to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

2014

Champion: Kevin Harvick

Pre-Chase rank: Eighth (two wins)

Chase rank: Sixth, six points behind leader Brad Keselowski

PHOTOS: Kevin Harvick through the years

How the Chase was won: Harvick won the season finale at Homestead-Miami, giving him the title in the revised Chase format at 38. He beat fellow Chase contender Ryan Newman by one point — Newman finished second in the race. Denny Hamlin was seventh and Joey Logano 16th. Harvick also won the fifth race of the 10-race Chase at Charlotte Motor Speedway before earning a must-win victory in the penultimate race at Phoenix International Speedway to send him to the championship race.

2015

Champion: Kyle Busch

Pre-Chase rank: 27th

Chase rank: First (tied with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, who also had four regular-season wins)

PHOTOS: Kyle Busch through the years

How the Chase was won: Busch missed the first 11 races of the season while recovering from a broken leg and foot suffered in a crash during the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway. His comeback was something out of a storybook, with four wins in five races including three in a row. He also won his first Brickyard 400. But Busch needed to win the season finale at Homestead-Miami to give him his first Cup title. The 30-year-old held off defending champion Harvick by 1.6 seconds, beating him by one point. Fellow title contenders Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. were sixth and 12th, respectively.

NASCAR: Chase isn’t always fair, that doesn’t make it bad

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When William Byron’s engine exploded less than 10 laps away from his seventh win of the season, his chance to race for the Truck Series championship blew up in a puff of white smoke.

It was one of those bad breaks that happen every week at every level in auto racing. But when it happens to the most dominant driver in a series and ruins his title aspirations, it ignites a debate about the fairness — flaws, maybe? — of the elimination-style playoffs NASCAR now uses in all three of its series.

Brad Keselowski was particularly upset about Byron’s misfortune, even though Keselowski fields rival trucks. He described himself as “mad and disappointed” for Byron, and said the elimination format has effectively “traded excellence for entertainment.”

Keselowski learned how harsh the system can be in 2014, its debut year at the Sprint Cup level. He won six races that year, but one bad day at Martinsville led to his elimination from the playoffs after the third round. Keselowski had been worthy of a spot in the finale, but he didn’t earn one of the slots.

Same goes Jeff Gordon that first year. He won four times in 2014 and should have raced for the title. Like Keselowski, he was bounced out of the third round.

Joey Logano should have made the finale last year but didn’t. Same goes for Matt Kenseth, who was two laps away from victory Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway until a caution created a series of events that caused him to crash. He was all but assured of a slot in this weekend’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway one moment, last in the Chase standings the next.

There have been arguments about the Chase since it was first introduced in 2004. Fans felt it was contrived and that the traditional season-long point champion was the truest way to decide a title. The format has been tinkered with several times since, but its most radical adjustments came three years ago when NASCAR implemented eliminations. That format this year was brought to both the Xfinity Series and Truck Series for the first time.

Every sport has upsets and underdogs. Every sport has a Cinderella story every now and then that drums up interest. NASCAR very much needed that element when it introduced the Chase, and chairman Brian France has long trumpeted the desire to have his sport in a position to create “Game 7 moments.”

The entire country talked for days about the seventh game of the World Series and the Chicago Cubs’ dramatic victory. Any leader in their right mind would want that same nail-biting tension for their sport. They want to see crushing defeats, career-defining victories, magical moments.

So no matter what longtime fans believe, France did the absolute right thing in creating the Chase. Yes, people claim they stopped watching NASCAR because of the Chase. They blame Brian France for turning to gimmicks over tradition, claim the Chase has ruined the sport they once loved.

Well, those people are clinging to a past that is never coming back. NASCAR has plenty of problems and NASCAR does many things incorrectly, but the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is not one of them.

The Chase in its first year had five drivers eligible to win the title. It pitted teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson against each other in one of the fiercest championship battles in NASCAR history. The Chase in 2011 produced a magnificent finale in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the championship tied with Stewart getting the trophy on a tiebreaker.

The elimination element has raised the pressure and forced drivers to answer the call when the season is on the line. Kevin Harvick twice won must-win races in 2014 on his way to the title, Joey Logano has done it twice this year alone, including Sunday when his victory put him in the finale.

It is absolutely true that the final four drivers will not always represent the most deserving teams. Byron learned that the hard way in the Truck Series’ inaugural Chase. The most dominant teams don’t always deliver when the pressure is at its highest; although Harvick had performed time and again when his back was against the wall, Stewart-Haas Racing couldn’t come up with the dominating performance it needed Sunday for him to advance.

That’s called sports, and there’s nothing contrived about it.

It’s not always fair, but sports are the greatest reality programming out there. Anything can happen — and did to Kenseth at Phoenix! — and that’s why we watch.

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NASCAR: Logano wins Phoenix as he and Kyle Busch complete final 4

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Matt Kenseth’s misfortune gave Joey Logano a chance to race for the championship.

In an improbable turn of events, Kenseth came within two laps of a spot in next week in the title-deciding finale to eliminated from NASCAR’s playoffs. Logano was gifted a victory Sunday that put him in the final four after a tense double-overtime event at Phoenix International Raceway.

Kenseth had the win in hand until a late caution sent the race to extra laps. Although he cleared traffic on the restart, his teammate Kyle Busch had contact with Alex Bowman that altered Bowman’s racing line.

Kenseth’s spotter told the driver he was clear, but he actually cut down on Bowman and the contact caused him to crash.

Logano saw the sequence unfolding, let off his gas early, and slid into the lead after the accident. He then held off Busch in the second overtime for the win that qualified him for the championship next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Prior to Kenseth’s accident, Logano was in danger of elimination.

“I’m like ‘Oh, shoot, we’re out,’ and it was going to be so close there at the end to try to get ourselves through, and next thing you know the caution comes out and the whole game changes,” Logano said. “We find ourselves as the leader and we win the race. That’s NASCAR racing at its finest.”

Logano won the race — the second time in this Chase he used a victory in an elimination race to advance — and will race for his first Sprint Cup title next Sunday. He’ll be trying to give Roger Penske a season sweep during its 50th anniversary season. Simon Pagenaud won the IndyCar title in September.

“I’ve never felt this good about a win before,” Logano said. “There was so much on the line and everyone brings their A-game when it comes to winning championships and this team did it.

“I feel like I just won the Daytona 500 again.”

Busch finished second and earned a chance to defend last year’s title. He’ll meet Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who is seeking a record-tying seventh championship, in Homestead.

JGR, which was trying to get all four of its Toyotas into the final , wound up with only two and Busch wasn’t feeling celebratory. He believed his contact with Bowman triggered the accident that wrecked Kenseth’s season.

“It’s really unfortunate and devastating to have the race come down like that,” Busch said. “That’s so frustrating and aggravating, and I feel horrible.”

Eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday were Kevin Harvick, an eight-time winner at Phoenix who had raced in the last two finales, as well as his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Gibbs drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin were also knocked out of the field.

“Disappointing would be the way to put it lightly,” Kenseth said. “Finish that race five minutes before that, looked like we had a chance to go race for a championship. It was a big swing in 10 or 15 minutes.”

Hamlin finished seventh after a bizarre decision not to pit with the rest of the field for track position. Although it gave him a brief lead, he was no match for drivers with fresh tires.

“I knew it was going to be an uphill climb,” Hamlin said.

PIT ROAD PENALTIES: NASCAR picked Sunday to enforce a rule against passing the pace car when a driver dips onto pit road for a stop. Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were both penalized for the infraction, and the punishment was holding the car for a lap on pit road.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were incredulous.

“I don’t understand that in the least little bit,” Johnson said on his radio. “This is absolutely ridiculous, NASCAR. I have no clue what I did wrong.”

Johnson said he’ll ask for clarification this week.

“In 15 years, that has never been a concern, and I was always told that the last thing NASCAR wanted to do would be to penalize the leader,” Johnson said. “I am still baffled, and I don’t know if I will stop being baffled.”

BOWMAN OUT FRONT: Alex Bowman badly wants a job for next year, and his continued strong pace as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is giving him a solid case to present to prospective employers.

Bowman had led just nine laps in his first 79 career Sprint Cup races. Six of those laps were earlier this year driving Earnhardt’s Chevrolet. A pole-winning run for Sunday’s race helped Bowman lead a race-high 194 laps and was attempting to win the race before the late accident. He faded to sixth, and felt bad about his incident with Kenseth.

“I hate it for Matt. I would have raced the hell out of him for the win, but definitely don’t want to do that,” Bowman said. “Hate that, and it ruined our day, too. So it’s unfortunate.”

UP NEXT: The season finale at Homestead, where the championship will be decided. Harvick won the race in 2014 to win his championship, and Kyle Busch won last year to claim the title.

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Can-Am 500

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

1. (4) Joey Logano, Ford, 324 laps, 44 points.

2. (19) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 324, 39.

3. (2) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 324, 38.

4. (6) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 324, 37.

5. (12) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 324, 36.

6. (1) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 324, 0.

7. (5) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 324, 35.

8. (8) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 324, 33.

9. (3) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 324, 32.

10. (20) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 324, 31.

11. (9) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 324, 30.

12. (15) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 324, 29.

13. (13) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 324, 28.

14. (14) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 324, 27.

15. (25) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 324, 26.

16. (24) Greg Biffle, Ford, 324, 25.

17. (18) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 324, 24.

18. (22) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 324, 23.

19. (11) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 324, 22.

20. (28) Landon Cassill, Ford, 324, 21.

21. (10) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 324, 21.

22. (27) Aric Almirola, Ford, 322, 19.

23. (21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 322, 18.

24. (34) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 322, 17.

25. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 322, 16.

26. (36) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 321, 15.

27. (29) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 321, 14.

28. (23) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 321, 13.

29. (16) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 3212.

30. (33) Brian Scott, Ford, 319, 11.

31. (31) David Ragan, Toyota, 319, 10.

32. (30) Chris Buescher, Ford, 318, 9.

33. (35) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ford, 318, 8.

34. (26) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 318, 7.

35. (39) D.J. Kennington, Chevrolet, 316, 0.

36. (38) Reed Sorenson, Ford, 315, 5.

37. (37) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, fuelpump, 296, 4.

38. (17) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 296, 4.

39. (7) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 289, 2.

40. (40) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, accident, 258, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 102.865 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 22 minutes, 25 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.500 seconds.

Caution Flags: 9 for 53 laps.

Lead Changes: 8 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: A.Bowman 1-92; J.Logano 93-119; J.Johnson 120-132; A.Bowman 133; J.Logano 134-156; A.Bowman 157-257; D.Hamlin 258-261; M.Kenseth 262-316; J.Logano 317-324

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): A.Bowman, 3 times for 191 laps; J.Logano, 3 times for 55 laps; M.Kenseth, 1 time for 54 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 12 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 3 laps.

Wins: Ky.Busch, 4; K.Harvick, 4; J.Johnson, 4; B.Keselowski, 4; M.Truex, 4; C.Edwards, 3; D.Hamlin, 3; M.Kenseth, 2; J.Logano, 2; C.Buescher, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; K.Larson, 1; T.Stewart, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. J.Logano, 5000; 2. J.Johnson, 5000; 3. C.Edwards, 5000; 4. Ky.Busch, 5000; 5. M.Kenseth, 2296; 6. D.Hamlin, 2288; 7. Ku.Busch, 2268; 8. M.Truex, 2266; 9. B.Keselowski, 2261; 10. C.Elliott, 2255; 11. K.Harvick, 2250; 12. K.Larson, 2247; 13. J.McMurray, 2195; 14. A.Dillon, 2194; 15. T.Stewart, 2192; 16. C.Buescher, 2152.

NASCAR: Kyle Busch wins Xfinity race as inaugural Chase field is set

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kyle Busch won for the 10th time in the Xfinity Series this season with a victory at Phoenix International Raceway on the night NASCAR’s second-tier series’ set its inaugural championship field.

The final four for next weekend’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be a battle between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joe Gibbs.

Both car owners got two drivers each into the championship field the first year NASCAR rolled out the Chase for its lower two national series. The Chase uses the same elimination format as the Sprint Cup Series, and eight drivers were competing for the final four slots on Saturday night.

Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, both driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, got in. JR Motorsports qualified Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler.

But, after the race, Sadler’s car was being inspected by NASCAR for an apparent loose lug nut on his car. It’s unclear if Sadler could face a points penalty that would knock him out of the championship field.

“I think we might have a loose lug. They’ll look at it. But, hey, we did what we had to do,” Sadler said.

Sadler, a longtime NASCAR veteran, is seeking his first title at the national level and has his best chance this year in this winner-take-all format.

“We’re pumped about it, we really put all our eggs in one basket, and that’s that Homestead car,” he said.

Allgaier had to stretch a drying gas tank over the closing laps to claim his spot and keep Blake Koch out of the field. Koch was keeping an eye post-race on Sadler’s situation, but immediately apologized for an earlier incident with Darrell Wallace Jr. that knocked Wallace out of title contention.

Busch, meanwhile, is racing Sunday for a spot in Cup’s final four. New rules will make him ineligible to race in any Chase races in a lower series next year, so this was his last victory in the fall race at Phoenix.

Busch noted he’d learned something about the tires by running the Xfinity race, and he planned to confer with his Cup team to get better prepared for Sunday’s main event. The reigning Sprint Cup champion had the fastest car in Saturday’s final practice.

“We got a lot better, I feel like we’re at least in the ballpark,” Busch said of Sunday. “We’ve got a top-five race car and we’ll go from there.”

Brendan Gaughan’s championship chances ended when he wrecked with 63 laps remaining. He was in a must-win situation and came to Phoenix last in the eight-driver standings.

Wallace, who was seventh in the standings, was wrecked when Koch ran into Wallace’s lane to cause the accident. Wallace was mourning his grandmother, who died earlier this week, and had trouble controlling his emotions after.

“My grandmother was giving me the ride of my life,” said Wallace, nearly sobbing. “That was the most fun I have had all year. Just circumstances took us out.”

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kevin Harvick has been backed into a corner before in NASCAR’s elimination-style playoffs. Put Harvick in a must-win situation, and he’s proven repeatedly he can deliver.

So here he is, again, at Phoenix International Raceway in need of a victory to continue his bid for a second Sprint Cup championship. If he is stressed, you can’t tell. Harvick sat relaxed on the wall along pit road with the cavalier attitude of a driver who isn’t at all worried about winning Sunday. He’ll start sixth in the field.

“We just have to control the things that we can control, try and put ourselves in position to where we usually do and see where it all falls,” Harvick said. “What I like about it is the sense of the unknown, the competition, the effort, the thought and everything that goes into that is intriguing for me.

“From a team standpoint, to see where everybody is at and how they approach it, is fun to me and I like to see people performing and working at that level.”

Harvick has been in this position before at Phoenix, in 2014 when the elimination format debuted. He deserved to be in the championship race but had to win at Phoenix to qualify.

He did win — he routed the field, actually — then won again the next week to claim his first career Cup title. He’s also been in must-win situations in earlier rounds of the Chase.

Harvick has a stellar record at Phoenix, where he’s an eight-time Cup winner. He’s won five of his last six visits to this desert race track — four since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 — and his only defeat was last November, when he led 143 laps but wound up second in a rain-shortened race.

That defeat, by Mother Nature, has Harvick confident the odds of winning over and over again won’t turn against him Sunday.

“You know, we dominated the end of that race and wound up losing it to rain,” he said. “They are a lot easier to lose than they are to win.”

Although he joked that his success at Phoenix was born after a trip to Disney World: “I have magic … I found this magic wand, and I wave it here,” he finds it “silly” that so many people assume he’s an automatic winner Sunday.

Only the statistics back up the predictions of a Harvick win at Phoenix. He’s won six of the last eight races and has barely been contested. Harvick has led an astounding 1,016 laps in that span and has generally forced drivers to believe they are racing for second before they even arrive at the track.

The only driver Harvick believes is in the same league as he is at Phoenix is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sidelined with a concussion and hasn’t raced since July.

That’s not a slight on his competition, and he knows he’s racing five other drivers Sunday for one of two slots in next weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Of the five Chase contenders in this third round of the playoffs, only Joey Logano has never won at Phoenix.

But only Kurt Busch, Harvick’s teammate at Stewart-Haas, is in the same precarious position. Both of them need to win on Sunday to advance, and if neither gets to victory lane, SHR will not have a car in the finale. And, because of the current points situation, it’s virtually impossible for both SHR drivers to advance.

The rest of the field — Logano, and Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin — are separated by just two points in the standings. As far as Harvick is concerned, the entire Chase field is racing with the same goal on Sunday.

“Everybody is in the same position that we are,” Harvick said. “If somebody (in the Chase) wins, there is only going to be one points guy that goes through, so you need to pretend like you’re in a must-win situation.”

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick locked in for another Phoenix win

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It’s almost always a sucker bet to pick one driver against the field in NASCAR. No matter how good a driver is, no matter his track record or his team’s history, NASCAR is so unpredictable that it’s often a losing proposition to choose one over 39.

But Kevin Harvick at Phoenix International Raceway? That’s as close to a lock as it gets. Add in the element of Harvick being in a must-win position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a situation in which he’s undefeated, and it seems outright foolish to bet against him.

If only it were that easy, though. Even Harvick — the winner of six of the last eight Phoenix races and eight overall — knows anything can happen.

In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver pointed to last year’s Phoenix Chase race as evidence. Harvick was dominating the race but lost when a caution in the middle of pit stops saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. get out front, then hang on when a rare rainstorm shortened the race.

“It doesn’t take any more than that,” Harvick said. “Your race can go south with rain in the desert, it can go south on a restart, you can have a problem of any kind. I wish it was that easy to win.”

The thing is, that sort of fluke scenario might be the only way to stop him. A California native, Harvick has been racing in various events at Phoenix since 1995. He was successful through the years, and when the track was reconfigured in 2011, it seemed to only heighten his talent there.

Yes, the track is different than when he was coming up through the ranks. But the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion said many of the same elements still apply to making a successful lap, and he closes his eyes at different points in the year to visualize Phoenix — when to brake entering the corner, when to turn in, when to get back on the gas.

He loves it, he gets pumped for it and his team provides him with the equipment that matches his capability.

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“It’s in a fortunate spot for us on the schedule,” he said. “This (third) round is really funny for us. I’ve never won at Texas. Martinsville hasn’t been my best track. Then we go to Phoenix, and two of the last three years we’ve been in this (must-win) situation. I wouldn’t want to pick anywhere else to put ourselves in that position.”

It’s not just this round where Harvick has been in a must-win situation (Harvick is 18 points behind the four-driver cutoff entering Sunday’s race). He doesn’t know why it keeps happening this way and acknowledges it would be easier if he didn’t have to win each round, but it’s clear he thrives off the pressure.

He’s come through in situations where he needed to win at Phoenix (2014), Homestead-Miami Speedway (2014) and Dover International Speedway (2015), then won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this year after a bad finish at the Chicagoland Speedway Chase opener and won at Kansas Speedway to erase an engine failure the previous week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which opened the second round.

Harvick is doing it the hard way, but he’s still doing it. He’s never been eliminated from this version of the Chase.

“You could say, ‘Oh, it always happens to them and they always come out on the other side,’” he said. “But I think we’re fortunate we have a good race team and fast cars to put ourselves in position to overcome those things. I think that’s where other people have fallen short.

“It also wouldn’t be as rewarding if it was that easy. Anything you’re going to achieve that has a huge prize at the end of it is going to be hard to get to.”

So now here comes Harvick again, heading to his best track in a must-win situation and openly embracing the pressure. He called it “fun” that everyone is talking about him and everyone is “stirred up.”

The more that happens, the more his team tightens its ranks and focuses on pulling off improbable feats.

“It really is you against the world,” Harvick said. “It’s either survive for yourself, or somebody else is going to take what you want.”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR driver Brian Scott plans to retire after next week’s season finale to spend more time with his family.

Scott is 28 and has been racing at NASCAR’s national level since 2007. He has two young children.

Albertsons Companies, Scott’s longtime sponsor, said it would terminate its NASCAR program after the season. However, Richard Petty Motorsports plans to field the No. 44 that Scott drove with a new sponsor and another driver.

Scott posted a statement about his decision on several social media platforms and explained the Sprint Cup schedule “has taken its toll” and caused him “to re-evaluate what I want in life for myself and for my family.”

Scott raced in the Truck Series through 2009, the Xfinity Series from 2010 until 2015 and joined RPM in the Cup Series this season.

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin ready for the playoff pressure at Phoenix

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It has not been an easy march through NASCAR’s playoffs for Denny Hamlin, who once again must race his way into the next round.

Hamlin was on his own at Talladega Superspeedway, a track that requires help from other drivers to be successful. Hamlin’s teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing had too much to lose that day and rode around in the back of the pack. He needed a strong finish, and had to figure it out alone.

Now he again goes into an elimination race with the pressure on to pull off a big finish. Carl Edwards is the only JGR driver who already has earned a berth in the championship race, and Hamlin is competing with teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch for a spot in the final four.

All three of the JGR drivers are within two points of each other in Chase standings. Busch is tied with Team Penske’s Joey Logano for the lead, with Kenseth one point behind them and Hamlin two behind. Hamlin finished third at Phoenix earlier this year.

“Phoenix was a good track for us in the spring,” Hamlin said. “I look to go back there and have another great run and go out there and try to win. That’s what we’re going to do. Any time I’ve been below (the cut line) in an elimination race, I’ve found a way to get in (to the next round).

“I like our chances. It’s a pressure race and I like pressure.”

CREW CHIEF FINED

Team Penske crew chief Todd Gordon has been fined $10,000 because a lug nut was not properly installed on Joey Logano’s car at Texas.

The penalty was the only monetary fine issued by NASCAR on Wednesday. But, five drivers were docked 15 minutes of practice time for inspection issues at Texas.

Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. all failed the pre-qualifying template inspection three times. AJ Allmendinger failed the laser inspection three times before qualifying. All will miss practice time Friday at Phoenix.

DIBENEDETTO CLEARED

Matt DiBenedetto was cleared to race at Phoenix International Raceway after NASCAR held him out of one event because of a possible concussion.

DiBenedetto missed last Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he was involved in a crash during the Xfinity Series race one day earlier. Jeffrey Earnhardt replaced DiBenedetto for BK Racing and finished 34th.

It was the first Cup race DiBenedetto had not started since early in the 2015 season.

DiBenedetto had said Sunday morning at Texas he felt fine and able to race, but said he had to respect the decision by NASCAR’s doctors.

“They decided they wanted to err on the side of caution, which I understand,” he said. “They’re doing their job.”

DEJORIA-CONCUSSION

Alexis DeJoria has a concussion that will sideline the Funny Car driver from this weekend’s NHRA Finals in Pomona, California.

DeJoria suffered the concussion in a crash during qualifying at the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas, where her head hit the roll cage after the impact. She’ll be replaced this weekend by Jeff Arend. DeJoria is not cleared to race, or even fly in a plane.

“I underwent a series of cognitive tests and the doctors diagnosed me with a full-blown concussion that required me to step away from the seat for the time being,” she said. “It takes two weeks for these symptoms to subside and even then, because of the trauma from the concussion, it would be unsafe for me to race this weekend.”

DeJoria missed two races earlier this season with a fractured pelvis.

MERCEDES-IMSA

Mercedes-Benz USA will race next season in IMSA’s SportsCar Championship as Riley Motorsports will race two Mercedes-AMG GT3 cars in the GT Daytona class. One of the team’s cars will run as AMG-Team Riley Motorsports, and the other as WeatherTech Racing.

The No. 33 AMG-Team Riley Motorsports entry will be co-driven by Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen, and the No. 50 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 will be shared by co-drivers Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette. MacNeil and Jeannette got their first seat time in the car in a late September test at Germany’s Hockenheim circuit.

Other cars announced for the new-look IMSA GT Daytona class next year include the Acura NSX GT3 and the Lexus RC F GT3.

NASCAR: If Harvick wins Phoenix, there’s only 1 spot left in Chase

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Only an amateur would fill out a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship bracket and not mark Kevin Harvick down for a win at Phoenix.

Harvick has proven he’s just about unbeatable in the desert, and when his playoff chances are on the line, he’s delivered time and again. Harvick has won six of the last nine races at Phoenix, finished second in two of his losses and is guaranteed to show up this weekend with a car capable of demoralizing the field.

Assuming it will take nothing short of a freak incident to keep Harvick out of victory lane, there’s essentially only one spot in the finale up for grabs Sunday.

Problem is, there are five drivers jockeying for that last spot.

And only two points separate three of those drivers in the standings.

To say there will be some brokenhearted teams on Sunday is an understatement. This year’s version of the Chase has been anticlimactic, sometimes even boring, but this bottleneck in the standings is something to behold.

Reigning series champion Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are tied in the standings. Busch teammate Matt Kenseth is just one point back, and Denny Hamlin sits two points out.

Only one of them is making it to the final four Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway if Harvick wins, and the chances of Joe Gibbs Racing getting multiple cars into the championship took a hit on Sunday. The team dominated the regular season and had 50 percent of the drivers in this round of eight.

Once a threat to get all four cars into the finale, JGR is only guaranteed to be represented by Carl Edwards, who used a fast pit stop to win a rain-shortened race Sunday night at Texas. It was the least optimal outcome for JGR in terms of getting multiple cars into the finale.

Edwards, you see, was last in the playoff standings and that miracle win gave him an automatic berth. Although the rules show two spots still remaining and three JGR drivers hovering at the top of the standings, the threat of a Harvick win at Phoenix has burst JGR’s hopes.

So here’s the situation:

HARVICK FOR THE WIN: He’s an eight-time winner at Phoenix and has absolutely owned the place since the track was reconfigured in 2011. He’s also in a situation that Harvick handles quite well — he pretty much has to win or won’t make it to the finale for a third straight year.

Harvick is known as a macho driver brimming with confidence, and he didn’t seem concerned about his positioning headed into Phoenix. His warning? He’ll just go to Phoenix and do what he always does there.

JGR: The team had hoped to sweep the finale but can’t because Jimmie Johnson earned one of the spots with a win at Martinsville. Best case scenario is that the team gets two more cars into the final, but that will certainly come with hard internal feelings.

Busch, Kenseth and Hamlin will likely all be racing for themselves on Sunday and teamwork will be an afterthought.

It wouldn’t be a shock if JGR doesn’t get even one more car into the finale because anything can happen on Sunday.

LOGANO: He won at Talladega in the last round to stave off elimination, and he doesn’t need to win at Phoenix to make it to Homestead. He’s essentially racing the Gibbs cars and trying to finish higher than the three Toyotas so he can snatch a spot on points.

It’ll be a tough battle, but Logano likes sticking it to the team that let him go three years ago.

KURT BUSCH: He’s an afterthought right now after iffy performances in the last two races have him ranked last in the standings. He most certainly has to win at Phoenix to advance, and it’s a good track for Busch. He has four consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix and could pull off a miracle.

Should he get the win, it will come at the expense of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick. Based on the standings, they both can’t make the final four.

NASCAR: Edwards wins rain-shortened Texas race for Chase finale spot

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Carl Edwards got some vindication with a rain-shortened victory to earn a championship-contending spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup finale.

A year after his shot at the title came up five points short because of a rain-shortened race, Edwards got the victory he desperately needed this season by winning at Texas in a race cut by 41 laps because of rain after the start was delayed nearly six hours Sunday.

“This is huge. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. That’s all we said was needed, just a shot,” Edwards said. “Now we’re going to go to Homestead, we’re going to do what we need to do. This was a great test. We came here and did what we needed to do, we performed, and I really believe we can do that at Homestead.”

Edwards entered the second-to-last race before the Nov. 20 season finale eighth in points among the drivers still eligible for the championship.

With his fourth career win at Texas, Edwards joined points leader Jimmie Johnson as drivers locked into the championship-contending spots in Homestead. Edwards is seventh in points, but like Johnson advanced by winning.

Joey Logano finished second at Texas and is second in season points, with Kyle Busch third. Matt Kenseth is fourth, ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, with Kurt Busch eighth. If one of those six drivers doesn’t win at Phoenix, the final two championship spots would be determined by points.

Last year’s race at Phoenix was delayed nearly seven hours as a series of storms passed through the area, and then once it started under the lights was called after 218 laps. Edwards finished fifth, leaving him five points out of the final spot for the Chase finale.

“This rain was a lot more welcome than that rain,” Edwards said. “That was frustrating.”

Edwards’ three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates — Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Kenseth — are among the six other drivers still in contention this season, and clearly not all of them can advance.

Light rain had already been falling at Texas, and plenty more was on the radar around the track, when the caution came out with 45 laps remaining of the originally scheduled 334-lap race.

All the cars were brought to pit road four laps later, and it was only a few more minutes before NASCAR declared the race over and official after 293 laps. It could have taken two hours or more to dry to track.

Edwards had taken the lead on lap 258 after beating Martin Truex Jr. off pit road, and led the rest of the way.

“The last pit stop, we had a little bit of an issue,” Truex said, without elaborating. “I guess all in all, happy with third.”

It was Edwards’ first win at Texas in eight years. He swept the two Cup races at the track in 2008, the season he had nine wins overall and finished second in season points. Three years later, Edwards was the season runner-up again even though he matched Tony Stewart for the most points. Stewart won the championship on a tiebreaker (his five wins to Edwards’ one).

Logano led a race-high 178 laps. Truex finished third and Chase Elliott fourth.

“When you’re that close to winning and you lead the most laps, second stings,” Logano said. “But ultimately we did gain some points. We’re in right now. We were out going into this race.”

Harvick got his track-record eighth win at Phoenix in March, and has won six of the last eight races there.

“We’ve done it I don’t know how many times,” Harvick said. “We’ll just go there and do what we always do and race as hard as we can.”

Some other things from Texas:

DRIVE FOR FIVE SHORT: Johnson had won the previous four fall races at Texas, but finished 11th after starting 19th.

TRAILING AFTER GREEN: Polesitter Austin Dillon led only the race’s first six laps, but didn’t lead a green-flag lap. He was passed by Logano for the lead on lap 7, the first lap after the green flag.

BIG BOBBLEHEAD: The first 30,000 fans were given Tony Stewart bobbleheads commemorating the retiring Sprint Cup driver’s final race at Texas. During driver introductions, track president Eddie Gossage presented Stewart with his own bobblehead — a life-sized replica with an oversized head.

HELD OUT: Matt DiBenedetto wasn’t allowed to drive because of NASCAR’s concussion protocol. He was involved in a hard crash in the Xfinity Series race Saturday, and wasn’t cleared by doctors to drive in the Cup race even though he said he felt “perfect” on Sunday.

LOUD POP: A tire specialist for Richard Childress Racing was treated and released from the infield care center after a tire just taken off Paul Menard’s car popped while being checked behind the wall.

UP NEXT: An elimination race Sunday at Phoenix. Assuming Harvick wins again, the playoff picture is realistically five drivers racing for the final slot in the finale.

nascar-chase-110616-v2

AAA Texas 500

Sunday’s results at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (9) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 293 laps, 0 rating, 44 points.

2. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 293, 0, 41.

3. (12) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 293, 0, 39.

4. (11) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 38.

5. (24) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 293, 0, 37.

6. (3) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 35.

7. (7) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 293, 0, 34.

8. (31) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 33.

9. (17) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 293, 0, 33.

10. (18) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 31.

11. (19) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 30.

12. (8) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 293, 0, 29.

13. (16) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 0.

14. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 293, 0, 27.

15. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 26.

16. (20) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 293, 0, 25.

17. (14) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 24.

18. (25) Greg Biffle, Ford, 292, 0, 23.

19. (15) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 292, 0, 22.

20. (10) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 292, 0, 21.

21. (30) Chris Buescher, Ford, 292, 0, 20.

22. (21) Aric Almirola, Ford, 292, 0, 19.

23. (28) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 18.

24. (22) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 17.

25. (27) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 16.

26. (32) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 15.

27. (29) Brian Scott, Ford, 291, 0, 14.

28. (6) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 290, 0, 13.

29. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 290, 0, 12.

30. (26) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 289, 0, 11.

31. (23) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 288, 0, 10.

32. (37) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 287, 0, 9.

33. (36) David Ragan, Toyota, 287, 0, 9.

34. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota, 285, 0, 7.

35. (38) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 285, 0, 6.

36. (39) Joey Gase, Ford, 280, 0, 0.

37. (1) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 262, 0, 5.

38. (35) Ryan Ellis, Toyota, 261, 0, 0.

39. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, accident, 260, 0, 2.

40. (40) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, electrical, 257, 0, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 137.274 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 16 minutes.

Margin of Victory: seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 37 laps.

Lead Changes: 12 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders: A.Dillon 1-5; J.Logano 6-30; D.Ragan 31; J.Logano 32-74; A.Dillon 75; D.Hamlin 76; Ky.Busch 77-78; J.Logano 79-188; M.Truex 189-222; C.Elliott 223-224; M.Truex 225-256; C.Elliott 257; C.Edwards 258-293

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): J.Logano, 3 times for 175 laps; M.Truex, 2 times for 64 laps; C.Edwards, 1 time for 35 laps; A.Dillon, 2 times for 4 laps; C.Elliott, 2 times for 1 lap; Ky.Busch, 1 time for 1 lap; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 0 laps; D.Ragan, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: Ky.Busch, 4; K.Harvick, 4; J.Johnson, 4; B.Keselowski, 4; M.Truex, 4; C.Edwards, 3; D.Hamlin, 3; M.Kenseth, 2; J.Logano, 2; C.Buescher, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; K.Larson, 1; T.Stewart, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. J.Johnson, 4074; 2. J.Logano, 4074; 3. Ky.Busch, 4074; 4. M.Kenseth, 4073; 5. D.Hamlin, 4072; 6. K.Harvick, 4056; 7. C.Edwards, 4049; 8. Ku.Busch, 4040; 9. M.Truex, 2265; 10. B.Keselowski, 2234; 11. C.Elliott, 2223; 12. K.Larson, 2209; 13. A.Dillon, 2192; 14. T.Stewart, 2166; 15. J.McMurray, 2165; 16. C.Buescher, 866.

NASCAR: Larson wins Xfinity in Texas, 4 title-chasing spots open

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FORT WORTH (AP) — With all four spots in the chase for the Xfinity series championship open going into the final elimination race, Erik Jones won’t need a season-best fifth victory to advance.

And he probably won’t be racing for it either, with the focus shifting to points at the top of the standings after Sprint Cup regular Kyle Larson won the Xfinity race at Texas on Saturday.

Jones was tops among the eight Xfinity drivers still in title contention, finishing fourth behind Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. The 20-year-old is third in points, 10 behind Daniel Suarez, who has a one-point lead over Elliott Sadler.

Because none of the Xfinity contenders won, all four spots are open next weekend in Phoenix. For the finale at Homestead, no Cup drivers will be on the grid with the title on the line.

“The toughest part of our chase is racing the Cup guys,” Jones said. “Had there been no Cup guys in the race, we would have won today and advanced. Yeah, we’re still going to chase a win (in Phoenix). You’ve still got to be points racing and thinking about advancing at the same time.”

Larson held off Keselowski for his first Xfinity win in Texas and second of the season despite a brush with the wall with about five laps remaining. He said he should have won the fall Xfinity race in Texas a year ago, but cut a tire late in the race.

“I looked up in the mirror and I was like, ‘Ah, great, here he comes. He’s probably going to have a big run,’” Larson said about Keselowski, who closed within a couple of car lengths on the final lap. “Actually, after that, I thought it tightened my car up and made it easier to drive up there.”

Larson led for the final 30 laps after Keselowski dominated most the race, leading 145.

Suarez finished fifth despite a battery problem that had him worried about finishing the race. A bad alternator forced him to cut power less than halfway through, and he said he managed to keep his main battery alive until about final 40 laps.

“We were a little lucky that we had the issue right in the middle of the race,” Suarez said. “Maybe 20, 30 more laps and who knows if we were going to finish the race or not.”

While Suarez and Sadler are separated by a point at the top, the same is true for the final qualifying spot, barring a win from those with a bigger deficit.

Blake Koch finished 14th — seventh among the eight title contenders — and is fourth in points and 16 behind Suarez. Justin Allgaier, who finished 10th after spinning out 72 laps into the race, is another point back.

Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Brendan Gaughan are all at least five points out of the final qualifying spot. But any of the eight can get into the final four with a win in Phoenix.

“At that point it is your whole season,” Reed said. “There is nothing left to lose there. You aren’t points racing at that per se. You have to go beat those guys by five positions.”

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O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge

Saturday’s results at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200.

2. (1) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 200.

3. (9) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 200.

4. (2) Erik Jones, Toyota, 200.

5. (4) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 200.

6. (8) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 200.

7. (7) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.

8. (10) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 200.

9. (3) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 200.

10. (6) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 200.

11. (18) Darrell Wallace Jr, Ford, 200.

12. (13) Ryan Reed, Ford, 200.

13. (14) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 200.

14. (12) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 200.

15. (16) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 200.

16. (17) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.

17. (20) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 200.

18. (21) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 199.

19. (11) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 199.

20. (19) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 199.

21. (15) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 198.

22. (25) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 197.

23. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 196.

24. (26) David Starr, Chevrolet, 196.

25. (27) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 196.

26. (30) Clint King, Ford, 196.

27. (24) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, 194.

28. (28) BJ McLeod, Ford, 193.

29. (29) Austin Theriault, Chevrolet, 192.

30. (35) Martin Roy, Chevrolet, 190.

31. (34) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 190.

32. (36) Mike Harmon, Dodge, 185.

33. (38) Ryan Ellis, Chevrolet, 185.

34. (40) Matt Waltz, Chevrolet, 184.

35. (37) Brandon Hightower, Dodge, Engine, 130.

36. (22) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, Accident, 129.

37. (32) Dexter Stacey, Chevrolet, Handling, 80.

38. (39) Timmy Hill, Toyota, Suspension, 24.

39. (33) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, Handling, 19.

40. (31) Jeff Green, Toyota, Brakes, 1.

———

Average Speed of Race Winner: 140.992 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 7 minutes, 40 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.385 seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 22 laps.

Lead Changes: 5 among 4 drivers.

Lap Leaders: B. Keselowski 0; E. Jones 1-23; B. Keselowski 24-48; B. Poole 49-50; B. Keselowski 51-170; K. Larson 171-200.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): B. Keselowski 2 times for 145 laps; K. Larson 1 time for 30 laps; E. Jones 1 time for 23 laps; B. Poole 1 time for 2 laps.

Top 10 in Points: D. Suarez – 3,075; E. Sadler – 3,074; E. Jones – 3,065; B. Koch – 3,059; J. Allgaier – 3,058; R. Reed – 3,054; D. Wallace Jr – 3,039; B. Gaughan – 3,036; B. Poole – 2,148; T. Dillon – 2,139

NASCAR: Out of Chase, Dillon on pole for Sprint Cup race in Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Austin Dillon is on the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas two weeks after a heartbreaking finish knocked him out of the championship chase.

“We missed the Chase by just 2 feet. We want to prove that we can win a race by the end of this year,” Dillon said.

Dillon had a fast lap of 192.301 mph in the final round of qualifying Friday to earn his third career pole.

Joey Logano qualified second, and will be the highest starter Sunday in the AAA Texas 500 of the eight drivers still eligible for the season championship. His best lap in the final session was 192.269 mph.

The other Chase contenders to qualify in the top 10 were Kevin Harvick (third), Matt Kenseth (seventh), Carl Edwards (ninth) and Kurt Busch (10th). Denny Hamlin starts 17th.

Jimmie Johnson is the only driver locked into one of the four spots for title-deciding race at Homestead in two weeks. He has also won the last four fall races at 1 1/2-mile, high-banked Texas track, but qualified 19th on Friday.

Defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch had the second-fastest time in the first round of qualifying while in a backup car after wrecking on the first lap of practice earlier in the day. But he will start 24th, the lowest of the Chase contenders, after never taking the lap for the second round of qualifying because of a water leak on pit road.

Adam Stevens, crew chief for the No. 18, said the issue was an aftereffect of the earlier wreck with a radiator hose not getting properly clamped down after an engine switch.

When Hamlin had a frantic ending to finish third at Talladega to end the second round of the playoffs, he tied Dillon for the eighth in season points. Hamlin had the tiebreaker to get the final spot in the round of eight.

Dillon said just being in the Chase this season helped the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team.

“I felt like together as a team, our team is very strong. We’ve just been missing here and there,” he said. “It is going to be good to have another year with this group of guys to see what we can do next year.”

Logano, who is currently fifth in points, qualified on the front row for the second consecutive weekend. It is also the second race in a row at Texas he will start second — he finished third in the April race.

“We are mad about second and that is when you know your team is in a good spot,” Logano said. “We are starting close to the front. That is just too many seconds. Second always stings and we were second here in the spring and here we are again and last week as well.”

______

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Johnny Sauter is still alone in qualifying for the title-deciding race in the first Chase in the NASCAR Truck Series.

Sauter won his second consecutive playoff race Friday night with a late pass of Chase contender Matt Crafton, getting a victory at Texas that prevented anyone else from clinching a spot to contend for the championship in the finale at Homestead in two weeks.

“This is amazing,” Sauter said after climbing out of the No. 21 Chevrolet in Victory Lane. “I feel very lucky to be here. … Matt was content to keep running the bottom, so I’m going to the top.”

Just before reaching the line with two laps remaining, Sauter went high and passed Crafton for the lead.

There were only three yellow flags in the 147-lap race, each after the caution clock had expired. Crafton took the lead after the final restart.

But just like at Texas in June, Crafton got passed on the high side late and finished second. Rookie driver William Byron, another Chase contender, beat him five months ago after his winning pass with five laps remaining.

“It is what it is,” Crafton said. “I’m not worried about the Chase. I’m worried about winning races. The Chase will take care of itself.”

It was Sauter’s third win this season. He won the opener at Daytona and last week at Martinsville to earn the first of four spots available for a chance to win the inaugural Chase championship for trucks.

With only next week’s race at Phoenix before the finale at Homestead, there are still three spots up for grab.

The next four drivers after Sauter in the points — Bryon, Christopher Bell, Crafton and Timothy Peters — are separated by only five points. Ben Kennedy is the sixth driver still in Chase contention.

If Sauter or a non-Chase contender win at Phoenix, the final three spots would be determined by points.

Polesitter Spencer Gallagher, who led three times for 88 laps, was in front with the final caution came out. But he dropped six spots on pit race and restarted seventh on the restart with 18 laps to go, when Sauter and Crafton got out front.

The only 15 laps Sauter led were those right after the final caution. Sauter led twice for only six laps.

“I was able to throw caution to the wind,” Sauter said.

Sauter did offer one apology after the race. That was to the fans for not doing a customary extended burnout on the frontstretch of the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked track.

“I know that was lame,” he said. “I’ve got to have this truck for Homestead.”

This Chase lacks drama, emotion. And that’s a problem for NASCAR.

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Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect year for the Ryan Newman-Kyle Larson incident at Phoenix International Raceway. The year was 2014. 

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The first two years of the Chase for the Sprint Cup 2.0 format – the elimination-style tournament with a one-race championship – was filled with memorable moments, drama, tempers and entertainment.

This year’s version? So far, not so much.

The Chase has been a disappointment compared to the first two editions, mainly because not much has really happened. The traditionally exciting races at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway failed to deliver on their reputations, and there hasn’t been a great race among the other five so far, either.

There’s still time, of course, starting this week at Texas Motor Speedway. The final elimination race at Phoenix International Speedway should then be high drama, and the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway – by design – should be a thriller.

What’s missing to this point? Well, in a format that revolves around eliminations, the cuts have been relatively clean.

Three drivers – Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray – have been eliminated because their engines failed. When that happens, there’s no highlight reel replay; it’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “We’ll get ‘em next year.” The same could be said for how Kyle Larson departed the Chase, with an electrical problem and blown tire.

Three more  – Chase Elliott, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher – were cut because they had two bad races and put themselves in must-win situations for the elimination events. And when that didn’t happen, there was no one to be mad at but themselves.

The one driver whose elimination had some drama was Austin Dillon. He was cut when Denny Hamlin edged Kurt Busch for third place at Talladega. But even that was hard to follow in the moment, because of the way the pack races on a superspeedway. In other words, it wasn’t Ryan Newman putting Larson into the wall in a desperate act to get that one point he needed at Phoenix in 2014.

Fans seem to have noticed that a format specifically created for more entertainment value hasn’t provided it this season. TV ratings have been down double-digit percentages almost every week when compared to last year’s Chase races, continuing a slump in that area. There are a variety of factors in that, but one certainly has to be the lack of compelling storylines.

Jimmie Johnson will race for his record-tying seventh championship at Homestead, which will be a major headline there. But NASCAR needs more, and many of the stars who would drive interest are not in the playoff.

Stewart already is eliminated in his final season, Jeff Gordon is retired and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is done for the season with a concussion. Keselowski would have been a lightning rod and mixed things up, but he’s out – as is Truex, whose story of overcoming adversity could have been a feel-good moment had he won the title. Young drivers like Larson and Elliott didn’t make the final eight, either.

So NASCAR is left to hope the remaining drivers can create a spark at Texas and Phoenix, revitalizing a playoff and reminding everyone how enjoyable this format can be to watch.

But there’s a growing possibility that might not happen, because drivers have figured out the best way to make it through the playoff is to avoid bad finishes. They don’t want any rivalries or drama, because that only hampers their chances. Consistency – also known as points racing – still is the best way to go.

If that remains the case, NASCAR will have to take a serious look at whether the Chase is working as intended.

NASCAR: Sprint Cup story lines to watch at Texas

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-   Jimmie Johnson already has secured a billet in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship after winning Sunday at Martinsville.

Now he returns to Texas Motor Speedway, where he has won the fall race four consecutive years.

Will this be another momentum-building exercise as he attempts to win a record-tying seventh championship, or a chance for one of the other seven title-eligibles to earn a pass to the final at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

Three story lines to watch on Sunday:

But first, more Jimmie Johnson

A winner of five of the last eight races on the 1.5-mile Texas oval, the Hendrick Motorsports driver can frenzy the pursuit of the final three Homestead spots by continuing his domineering ways outside Fort Worth.

Having advanced to the third round of this Chase iteration — unbelievably — for the first time since its inception in 2014, the six-time champion looks very much like a title favorite despite his reluctance to accept the designation.

Either way, he has two races for he and crew chief Chad Knaus to hone before the final on the last 1.5-miler of the season, at Homestead.

Creative tension

Fast cars and a dwindling number of races made for inevitable conflict among Joe Gibbs Racing drivers at Martinsville.

Defending series champion Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth each expressed some degree of displeasure with the tactics of teammate Denny Hamlin as they failed in attempting to intercept Johnson in the late stages of the race. No one was going to catch Johnson anyway, Hamlin said after the race.

After winning 11 of 26 regular-season races, the Toyota standard-bearer now faces the vision of the metaphorical roulette ball as it reveals the holders of the scant few slots left in the championship.

It could be worse for JGR, as Hamlin, Kenseth and Busch control points positions two through four. The fourth member of the team, Carl Edwards, sustained a tire failure Sunday that relegated him to a 36th-place finish. He is last of the remaining eight Chase drivers in the points (32 behind Kyle Busch, who currently holds the fourth and final transfer slot).

Expect the quips to become more barbed as those Gibbs drivers continue to contest the same valuable spaces.

Oh, no, Kevin Harvick is in trouble again

There will come a time, crew chief Rodney Childers said after their Chase win at Kansas, that Harvick will fail to produce in a potentially terminal postseason spot. Their streak of advancing through each elimination will end.

And yet again, after the first race of a round, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet is submerged in the standings, sixth (16 points behind Busch) after a sluggish 20th-place finish at Martinsville. Harvick has won six of eight at Phoenix, so Texas could be undersold as an afterthought.

But Childers is right, of course. Just as Harvick’s Chase run eventually will end, even if they take another great car to the desert, the Phoenix dominance — or at least the victory lane visits — are going to end, too. So here’s thinking that a points bounty at Texas really matters for Harvick this time.

And that’s not a terrible prospect either. In his last four, Harvick has two second-place finishes, a third and a 10th this spring.

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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NASCAR: Johnson wins Martinsville to gain spot in NASCAR’s finale

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — There was a time this summer when a seventh championship seemed out of reach for Jimmie Johnson.

Hendrick Motorsports was struggling and Johnson wasn’t at the top of many lists to contend for the title.

Then the Hendrick organization flipped a switch, built better, faster cars, and Johnson turned it up a notch. Now, that slot in NASCAR’s record books is absolutely within reach.

Johnson earned one of four spots in next month’s title-deciding season finale Sunday with his ninth career victory at Martinsville Speedway . The six-time NASCAR champion will race for his seventh championship, which would tie him for the record with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

“I’ve been trying to ignore this conversation about seven, and now I can’t,” said Johnson, who doesn’t particularly want to start thinking about the stakes just yet.

“I’ll probably lie to all of you guys and say I’m not going to think about it at all. But it’s inevitable. Fortunately, I don’t have to think about it for three weeks. But we’re going to enjoy this and savor it. We’re going to get our ducks in a row for Homestead.”

The victory blocked Joe Gibbs Racing from placing all four of Toyota drivers in the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup title . There are only three spots still open in the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and JGR’s hope of sweeping the final four ended Sunday.

Most likely to miss the final? Carl Edwards, who had a tire problem and finished 36th at Martinsville — lowest of the eight Chase drivers. Also in trouble: Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, who finished 20th and 22nd.

Brad Keselowski, eliminated from the Chase last week , finished second and was irritated by a lengthy caution earlier in the race when NASCAR struggled to figure out the running order. Had those laps not been wasted under yellow, Keselowski absolutely believed he could have beat Johnson.

“We don’t need to run 100 laps under yellow with the field, not trying to figure out where they’re at, and it probably cost us the race,” Keselowski said.

The caution took 29 laps, and left some grumbling the order still wasn’t correct when the race restarted.

“I think the stakes are so high, I really wish we would have red flagged the race, gone, reviewed it and gotten it right,” said third-place finisher Denny Hamlin. “There’s a 100 percent chance it was not right at the end. It changed the running order.

“Hopefully, that doesn’t change what happens going into Homestead. I know that NASCAR is doing everything they can with the scoring they have and things like that. But you have to get it right. It definitely was not right.”

JGR finished third, fourth and fifth as Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are inside the top-four as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway. But all was not well in the Gibbs camp after the race.

Busch felt Hamlin — finished the highest by holding up Kenseth and Busch in the waning laps. Although the teammates worked well together on restarts, Busch felt that Hamlin not getting out of the way allowed Johnson to win and Keselowski to finish second.

“We work so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson). So, JGR all the way,” Busch said. “At the end, you had the slowest Gibbs car holding up the rest of the line, and all we did was let somebody else from another organization pass us and go up there and chase down (Johnson).”

Hamlin disputed Busch’s view.

“I may have held those guys up for a little bit of that final run, but definitely don’t think I was holding anyone up at the end, for sure,” Hamlin said.

Jeff Gordon finished sixth in his final scheduled race as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. It is presumably the final race of Gordon’s career. He retired last season, but was pressed into eight races when Earnhardt suffered a concussion.

Martin Truex Jr. finished seventh and was followed by Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano, winner last week at Talladega but now the first driver below the cutline in the Chase.

It was an unusually fast race for Martinsville standards, and the five cautions were the fewest since April of 1989.

SCARY SCENE: Track officials said 22 pedestrians were struck by a motorist in a parking lot outside the speedway after the race.

A track official said there were no life-threatening injuries, although seven were transported to Memorial Hospital in Martinsville, Virginia, and two more were transported to Morehead Memorial Hospital in Eden.

One person was taken into custody after the incident for questioning.

JOHNSON VS. HAMLIN: There was mid-race aggression between Johnson and Hamlin , as Hamlin moved Johnson out of his way for a pass for position.

“He thinks he’s a (expletive) king, doesn’t do anything wrong,” Hamlin radioed.

Johnson didn’t understand Hamlin’s lack of patience, and Hamlin said it stems from incidents in the first two rounds of the Chase.

DEHYDRATED DRIVERS: It was the warmest fall race at Martinsville since 1999 and temperatures in the mid-80s caused overheating for at least two drivers.

AJ Allmendinger and Michael McDowell had to be treated for dehydration after the race, and both were released from the care center.

Michael Annett also was treated after the race, but NASCAR did not disclose his symptoms.

UP NEXT: A Sunday stop at Texas Motor Speedway, where Johnson has won the last four November races.

Goody’s Fast Relief 500

Sunday’s results from the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (3) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 500 laps, 115.7 rating, 44 points.

2. (19) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 500, 105.3, 39.

3. (8) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 500, 111.6, 39.

4. (17) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 500, 129.7, 39.

5. (9) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 500, 122.1, 37.

6. (10) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 500, 100.7, 35.

7. (1) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 500, 119.1, 35.

8. (14) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 500, 92.9, 33.

9. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 500, 104.2, 33.

10. (4) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 500, 102.7, 32.

11. (22) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 499, 79.3, 30.

12. (5) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 499, 82.1, 29.

13. (25) Greg Biffle, Ford, 499, 68.6, 28.

14. (11) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 499, 89.4, 28.

15. (16) Aric Almirola, Ford, 499, 71.7, 26.

16. (13) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 499, 81.7, 25.

17. (32) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 499, 78.8, 24.

18. (30) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 498, 58.0, 23.

19. (15) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 498, 64.8, 22.

20. (20) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 498, 76.0, 21.

21. (26) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 497, 69.7, 20.

22. (23) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 497, 65.7, 19.

23. (31) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 497, 52.5, 18.

24. (24) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 497, 53.2, 17.

25. (18) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 496, 55.5, 16.

26. (6) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 496, 55.7, 15.

27. (29) Chris Buescher, Ford, 495, 46.2, 14.

28. (28) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 495, 57.8, 13.

29. (33) Landon Cassill, Ford, 494, 46.4, 12.

30. (21) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 494, 45.4, 12.

31. (37) Dylan Lupton, Toyota, 490, 32.0, 0.

32. (27) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 489, 41.2, 9.

33. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ford, 486, 28.5, 8.

34. (35) Brian Scott, Ford, 484, 35.8, 7.

35. (40) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 479, 32.5, 6.

36. (7) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 477, 64.0, 5.

37. (12) David Ragan, Toyota, 424, 43.1, 4.

38. (34) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 407, 31.5, 3.

39. (36) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, reargear, 360, 27.8, 2.

40. (39) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, accident, 21, 24.0, 1.

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Race Statstics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 78.537 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 20 minutes, 55 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.291 seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 54 laps.

Lead Changes: 15 among 9 drivers.

Lap Leaders: M.Truex 1-24; J.Logano 25-45; M.Truex 46-62; R.Smith 63-64; M.Truex 65-73; K.Larson 74-79; M.Truex 80-110; Ky.Busch 111-113; M.Truex 114-150; M.Kenseth 151; M.Truex 152-180; M.Kenseth 181-355; D.Hamlin 356; A.Allmendinger 357-361; D.Hamlin 362-408; J.Johnson 409-500

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): M.Kenseth, 2 times for 174 laps; M.Truex, 6 times for 141 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 91 laps; D.Hamlin, 2 times for 46 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 20 laps; K.Larson, 1 time for 5 laps; A.Allmendinger, 1 time for 4 laps; Ky.Busch, 1 time for 2 laps; R.Smith, 1 time for 1 lap.

Wins: Ky.Busch, 4; K.Harvick, 4; J.Johnson, 4; B.Keselowski, 4; M.Truex, 4; D.Hamlin, 3; C.Edwards, 2; M.Kenseth, 2; J.Logano, 2; C.Buescher, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; K.Larson, 1; T.Stewart, 1.

Top 16 in Points: J. Johnson, 4,044; D. Hamlin, 4,039; M. Kenseth, 4,039; Kyle Busch, 4,037; J. Logano, 4,033; K. Harvick, 4,021; Kurt Busch, 4,019; C. Edwards, 4,005; M. Truex Jr, 2,226; B. Keselowski, 2,207; A. Dillon, 2,187; C. Elliott, 2,185; K. Larson, 2,183; T. Stewart, 2,156; J. McMurray, 2,143; C. Buescher, 2,123.

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NASCAR: Logano back at Martinsville aware of mistakes of last year

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Joey Logano was initially unrepentant, insistent he had done nothing wrong in a feud with Matt Kenseth that ultimately cost Logano a chance to win his first Cup championship.

A year later, Logano has a new perspective about the soap opera that fueled the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He returns to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday with a maturity about him that could put Logano in position to win that elusive title.

“I learned some valuable lessons last year,” Logano said. “I learned a whole new level I didn’t even know I had. Now I know how to reach that level mentally inside a racecar to make things happen and be a great leader for my team.”

Logano was en route to NASCAR’s championship race last year as perhaps the driver to beat for the title. He’d swept the three-race segment of the second round of the Chase, and was dominating at Martinsville, headed toward a win that would have advanced him to the season finale.

Then Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano as payback for a spat that started during the second round of the playoffs. Logano had already won at Charlotte to secure his spot in the third round, and Kenseth was closing in on a must-win victory at Kansas that would have extended his playoffs.

But Logano, who only had a trophy on the line that day at Kansas, raced Kenseth hard in the closing laps and spun his rival. Kenseth was livid at how hard Logano had raced him. Logano didn’t care.

The hard feelings simmered for two more weeks, then with Kenseth out of the playoffs, he exacted his revenge.

Looking back, Logano knows now his shoulder-shrug attitude toward Kenseth flamed the fire. Had he picked up the phone, called Kenseth or sent him a text, it might have changed the entire season. Kenseth might have let it go, Logano would have won at Martinsville, maybe would already have a Cup championship.

That’s all in the past as the third round of the playoffs begins Sunday at Martinsville, and Logano and Kenseth are both still in play. Logano scored a must-win victory last week at Talladega to advance, while Kenseth used consistency and a play-it-safe strategy at Talladega to ensure Joe Gibbs Racing got all four of its Toyotas into the round of eight.

Logano is the only Ford driver still in the playoffs. He’s got to face the entire JGR organization — the team he raced for before they let him go and he was scooped up by Roger Penske — as well as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who leads 2014 winner Kevin Harvick and a trio of Chevrolets.

Penske believes Sunday is a critical race, for his driver and his team, in this Chase.

“It’s a level playing field. We’re satisfied where we are,” he said. “I think we need to get through what happened last year at Martinsville and get some good success there so we can move on hopefully to the next round.”

Logano, who starts second Sunday, very much wants this do-over. He had a bull’s-eye on his back last year, in part because of that three-race sweep in the playoffs, in part because of his supreme confidence. But he had to deliver last week to get to this round, and he’s not yet stamped himself as a favorite in this Chase.

“I think we’re a little bit more under the radar than we were last year,” he said. “We’ve just got to go out there and fight, do what we know how to do. Don’t need to change anything. We’ve just got to keep the intensity up, keep realizing we like the pressure; I think we’re better under pressure. That’s kind of our motto this year. I look forward to those moments. I looked forward to this weekend.”

Other drivers to watch:

JOHNSON: His quest to win a record-tying seventh championship begins in earnest at Martinsville. An eight-time Martinsville winner, Johnson failed to make it to the third round of the Chase in the first two years of this format. This is a good round of track for Johnson, who has 23 career top-10s at Martinsville and has won the last four Chase races at Texas.

DENNY HAMLIN: He squeezed into this round of the Chase on a tiebreaker, but he’s a five-time Martinsville winner and feels like his shot at the championship race comes Sunday. “I think every time I come here that anything less than a victory is a disappointment,” Hamlin said.

HARVICK: A poor qualifying effort has Harvick starting 20th on Sunday. But he has the best average finish among drivers on short tracks this year at 7.0, and he led 72 laps at Martinsville in the spring. No one is very concerned with how Harvick runs on Sunday, though, because he owns Phoenix, where the final four will be decided.

JEFF GORDON: Martinsville is his eighth and final scheduled race as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and it’s presumably the last of his career. He’s the defending race winner, and he’s been to victory lane at Martinsville nine times in his career. Last year’s win was one of the biggest of his career, and Gordon would love one last victory celebration.

MARTIN TRUEX JR: He was the Chase favorite just a few weeks ago after winning two races in the first round of the Chase. Then a blown engine knocked him out of Talladega, and out of the playoffs. Truex responded with a pole-winning run for Martinsville, and he’s determined to close out the season with a string of wins to replace his championship disappointment.

NASCAR Chase rankings: Who will make the championship race at Homestead

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)     —-     As NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup shifts to Round 3, USA TODAY Sports’ ranks the remaining eight drivers and their chances of making it to the four-driver final at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

1. Jimmie Johnson: The six-time series champion has won eight times at Martinsville Speedway (most recently in 2013), six times at Texas Motor Speedway (including four in a row in the fall race) and four times at Phoenix International Raceway (last in 2009), but this Jimmie-proofed Chase cannot contain the Hendrick Motorsports driver now that he’s finally made the third round. He’s simply too solid on the impending raft of tracks not to earn a win or enough points to slot himself into the championship race.

2. Kevin Harvick: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the 2014 champion has never failed to reach the final in this version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With Phoenix as a fire wall (six wins in his last eight at the one-mile oval) he doesn’t figure to miss out this time, either.

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3. Denny Hamlin: The top-rated Joe Gibbs Racing driver with a pulsating asterisk. If the Virginia native can win for the sixth time at Martinsville, Va., this week, his heart will swell and he will power into Homestead. If not, the light goes out.

4. Kyle Busch: It’s been a relatively sedate title defense for Busch, even with a co-series-leading four wins. And that makes the JGR driver a sneaky pick to meander through the round for a chance to become the first to repeat in this unforgiving tournament where the larger body of work is meaningless.

5. Joey Logano: He was going to win at Martinsville last year but then Matt Kenseth happened — slamming into Logano in retaliation for an incident at Kansas Speedway. Apparently nemesis-less entering the final elimination round, the winner at Talladega is perhaps positioned better than when he swept the middle round last season but dragged baggage full of acrimony with him. The Team Penske driver is ready to pounce if Hamlin falters.

6. Matt Kenseth: Reeling off good finishes — the JGR Talladega draft-to-safety plan notwithstanding — but not indicating he’s ready to produce the win or big finish needed to squeeze into the final four. Little ‘f’, little ‘f’.

7. Carl Edwards: He was within .010 of beating Harvick at Phoenix this spring. So there’s a chance for Gibbs fourth hopeful.

8. Kurt Busch: Advanced to the third round with another resilient segment. Unless the speed to threaten for a win appears, though, the end is nigh.

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NASCAR: Logano wins Talladega to advance in NASCAR’s playoffs

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TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — When an engine failure knocked title favorite Martin Truex Jr. from NASCAR’s playoffs, the rest of the top contenders got a little bit of breathing room.

Then Brad Keselowski suffered the same cruel elimination when his engine failed Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

There was suddenly a wide-open competition to earn the final transfer spots into the third round of the Chase, and Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon raced a tense final two laps in overtime to fill the bracket. With each pushing for every last point, it was Hamlin who advanced into the round of eight on a tiebreaker over Dillon.

Joey Logano won at Talladega Superspeedway, and Hamlin edged Kurt Busch by .006 seconds for third place and the one point he needed to tie Dillon in the standings.

Dillon was ninth, but lost the right to move into the next round based on average finish over the last three races.

Hamlin had told his Joe Gibbs Racing team not to give him points updates, and that lack of knowledge forced him to scramble through the final turn as he was undecided on how aggressive he needed to be.

“I wasn’t sure whether I needed to finish third,” he said. “I told them I didn’t want points updates. But that’s almost when I probably should have got one to figure out what I was going to do. (Dillon) is in the middle of the pack. He’s fighting and getting positions. He could change two positions in the last hundred yards.

“So you can’t really predict it. I knew I just had to try to finish as good as I could.”

With Truex and Keselowski out of the playoffs before the checkered flag, the suspense came down to final finishing order. Logano was not in a must-win situation, but the victory sure didn’t hurt.

Dillon, on a frantic dash over two overtime laps to gain as many spots as possible, called the outcome “heartbreaking.”

“It sure stinks to lose it on a tiebreaker,” Dillon said.

Also eliminated Sunday was Chase Elliott. Advancing are: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Logano and Hamlin. There are four Toyotas remaining in the field, all from Joe Gibbs Racing. Stewart-Haas Racing has Kurt Busch and Harvick — but the two had a heated exchange after the race over alleged contact on the last lap — while Hendrick Motorsports has Johnson for three Chevrolets in the field. Logano is the only Ford driver.

“Feels good to win on a clutch moment like that with the pressure on,” Logano said. “I think we ran like a champ.”

The race was stark difference from the spring stop in Alabama, when 35 cars were involved in at least one accident and two cars went airborne . And last year, it appeared that Kevin Harvick intentionally caused an accident on an overtime restart to help his championship chances.

But for mile after mile Sunday, the drivers behaved.

The only glitches came in a harried sequence early in the race in which three championship contenders had uncharacteristic gaffes within minutes of each other. First Logano left pit road with a jack wedged under his Ford, and he had to return to pit road to have it removed. Then Hamlin was flagged for speeding, then Truex lost an engine .

Keselowski’s engine went with 43 laps remaining after he’d battled climbing temperatures on his car because of debris on his front grille.

“It is unfortunate for Brad,” Logano said. “It happens as a leader picking some (debris up). We picked it up just not as much.”

Keselowski was dominant for a huge chunk of the race, even as he battled climbing temperatures on his Ford. Then, with 43 laps remaining, his engine blew and Keselowski was sent to the garage.

Kasey Kahne spun with six laps remaining to bring out the caution for a heart-pounding final restart.

The caution had terrible timing for Hamlin, and was a gift for Dillon. Hamlin was trying to hold off Dillon for the last transfer position and the Kahne spin gave Dillon another chance to gain points that would keep him in contention and bump Hamlin from the playoffs.

The restart was with three laps remaining.

The push was intense for a lap, then a spin by Alex Bowman brought out the caution for an overtime finish.

Over the team radio, Dillon was told to concentrate.

“Focus forward, man. Focus forward on what we’ve gotta do. That’s what matters, OK?” Dillon was told by a team member.

Dillon gained two spots in overtime, but it wasn’t enough to pass Hamlin in the standings.

TREUX MAKES EARLY EXIT: His engine failure ended his title chances — one round after he’d moved to the top of the list of favorites.

Truex won a pair of races in the opening round of the Chase, and was above the elimination line Sunday and only needed a decent day to advance into the third round. He appeared to be in good shape after winning the pole — overcoming a qualifying day distraction when his team had trouble in inspection — but the engine blowing on his Toyota sent him to a last-place finish.

“We had a team capable of competing for the championship, and unfortunately we’re not going to be able to show that,” he said.

KESELOWSKI ELIMINATED: Faced with a must-win situation at Talladega two years ago, Keselowski stepped up and grabbed a monumental victory.

He was certain he could do the same on Sunday and after leading 90 laps, Keselowski was definitely in play for the win.

When his engine failed, his championship chances were done .

“A lot of fun to be leading at Talladega,” he said. “We were doing the best we could to have some fun and lead some laps.”

OH WHAT A FEELING: Toyota celebrated its 1,000th race at the Cup level by advancing a manufacturer-high four cars into the round of eight.

All four Joe Gibbs Racing entries moved into the third round, with Truex’s blown engine the only hiccup on the day.

Having four drivers, from the same team, still in the playoffs led winning car owner Roger Penske to poke the Toyota camp on the stakes.

“They’ve got more to lose than I do, I guess,” Penske said. “They’ve got four.”

UP NEXT: The opening race of the third round of the Chase on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Logano swept the second round last year and seemed headed to the win at Martinsville until he was intentionally wrecked as payback by Matt Kenseth. The feud between the two ultimately cost Logano a spot in the championship round.

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HELLMANN’S 500

Sunday’s results from the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (16) Joey Logano, Ford, 192 laps, 0 rating, 44 points.

2. (25) Brian Scott, Ford, 192, 0, 39.

3. (8) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 192, 0, 39.

4. (7) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 37.

5. (6) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 192, 0, 37.

6. (24) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 35.

7. (22) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 34.

8. (26) Aric Almirola, Ford, 192, 0, 33.

9. (9) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 33.

10. (32) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 31.

11. (15) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 192, 0, 31.

12. (4) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 30.

13. (10) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 28.

14. (20) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 27.

15. (5) Greg Biffle, Ford, 192, 0, 27.

16. (34) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 25.

17. (11) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 192, 0, 24.

18. (36) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 23.

19. (23) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 22.

20. (30) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 21.

21. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 192, 0, 20.

22. (33) Chris Buescher, Ford, 192, 0, 19.

23. (17) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 18.

24. (40) David Ragan, Toyota, 192, 0, 17.

25. (29) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 16.

26. (18) Ryan Reed, Ford, 192, 0, 0.

27. (35) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 192, 0, 14.

28. (3) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 192, 0, 14.

29. (13) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 192, 0, 13.

30. (14) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 192, 0, 12.

31. (38) Bobby Labonte, Ford, 192, 0, 10.

32. (21) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 10.

33. (37) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 192, 0, 9.

34. (39) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota, 192, 0, 7.

35. (27) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 191, 0, 6.

36. (19) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 191, 0, 0.

37. (12) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 179, 0, 4.

38. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, engine, 144, 0, 5.

39. (28) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, accident, 113, 0, 2.

40. (1) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, engine, 41, 0, 2.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 159.907 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 11 minutes, 38 seconds.

Margin of Victory: seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 25 laps.

Lead Changes: 31 among 14 drivers.

Lap Leaders: M.Truex 0; B.Keselowski 1-11; M.Truex 12-13; B.Keselowski 14-25; C.Elliott 26-27; B.Keselowski 28; C.Elliott 29-31; B.Keselowski 32-37; D.Hamlin 38; M.Kenseth 39; Ky.Busch 40; B.Keselowski 41; R.Stenhouse 42-47; B.Keselowski 48-62; C.Elliott 63; G.Biffle 64-76; C.Elliott 77-78; B.Keselowski 79; C.Elliott 80; D.Hamlin 81; C.Edwards 82; M.Annett 83-88; B.Keselowski 89-110; R.Blaney 111; D.Hamlin 112-116; A.Dillon 117; D.Hamlin 118-122; B.Keselowski 123-143; R.Blaney 144-145; T.Stewart 146; Ky.Busch 147; J.Logano 148-192

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): B.Keselowski, 9 times for 81 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 44 laps; G.Biffle, 1 time for 12 laps; D.Hamlin, 4 times for 8 laps; M.Annett, 1 time for 5 laps; R.Stenhouse, 1 time for 5 laps; C.Elliott, 5 times for 4 laps; R.Blaney, 2 times for 1 lap; M.Truex, 2 times for 1 lap; Ky.Busch, 2 times for 0 laps; A.Dillon, 1 time for 0 laps; C.Edwards, 1 time for 0 laps; M.Kenseth, 1 time for 0 laps; T.Stewart, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: Ky.Busch, 4; K.Harvick, 4; B.Keselowski, 4; M.Truex, 4; D.Hamlin, 3; J.Johnson, 3; C.Edwards, 2; M.Kenseth, 2; C.Buescher, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; K.Larson, 1; J.Logano, 1; T.Stewart, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. J.Logano, 4000; 2. J.Johnson, 4000; 3. K.Harvick, 4000; 4. M.Kenseth, 4000; 5. C.Edwards, 4000; 6. D.Hamlin, 4000; 7. Ku.Busch, 4000; 8. Ky.Busch, 4000; 4. 9. M.Truex, 2191; 10. B.Keselowski, 2168; 11. A.Dillon, 2163; 12. C.Elliott, 2156; 13. K.Larson, 2155; 14. T.Stewart, 2141; 15. J.McMurray, 2110; 16. C.Buescher, 2190.

NASCAR: Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch have advantage at Talladega

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —   TALLADEGA, Ala. – Chase Elliott is in a horrible predicament. Kurt Busch is in a better situation, but hardly secure heading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup second-round elimination race Sunday. Because it’s at Talladega Superspeedway.

But oddly, they also might be the most advantaged of the 10 drivers still groping for six available transfer spots into the penultimate round.

In a sport and a playoff system where creative selfishness is a job necessity for the individual and a benefit to their teams, both Elliott and Busch are uniquely situated in having a teammate already through to the next round. That’s not to suggest that Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate (Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson) or Busch’s Stewart-Haas Racing comrade (Kansas victor Kevin Harvick) won’t absolutely seize upon a chance to win again Sunday. But with the four Toyota drivers of Joe Gibbs Racing plus one from affiliate Furniture Row Racing attempting to wedge themselves in a half-dozen slots, and two Ford drivers of Team Penske doing the same, it won’t hurt to have a draft buddy with a punched pass to the next round and a common boss to please.

Although it’s unlikely that Johnson will be the Bandit to rookie Elliott’s Snowman all afternoon, or Harvick the Goose to Busch’s Maverick, it stands to reason they would be less inclined to forsake them in the fickle and cunning diplomacy of restrictor-plate racing. And that can’t hurt, when, in Elliott’s case, you’re attempting to come from last of 12 eligibles on the Chase grid, 25 points from eighth place, which is currently shared by Joey Logano and Austin Dillon. Busch enters sixth, 17 points ahead of the cut.

Brad Keselowski managed his must-win for advancement at Talladega in 2014 with help from Team Penske’s Logano, who nudged him to the front on a first green/white/checker attempt and allowed him to control his situation as much as possible on a decisive second.

Another seeming advantage for Elliott and Busch would be racing for four-car teams where their title-contending teammate already is secure. While the Toyota drivers joust with each other, Elliott has Johnson, Alex Bowman and Kasey Kahne in league. Busch has Harvick, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick, who already has demonstrated a knack for the concept. Harvick lauded Patrick for her esprit de corps last fall at Talladega, helping him maintain his position near the front with drafting help as his engine spasmed in the waning laps. Harvick went on to veer into Trevor Bayne to prompt a wreck that ended the race under caution and helped him nab a 15th-place finish that advanced him to Round 3.

Still, restrictor-plate racing has a way of jumbling team dynamics, whether by design or unfortunate by-product. In trying to help or not. Brian Vickers’ attempt to push Johnson by leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap of the 2006 Talladega fall race hooked his then-Hendrick teammate into a collision and off the track with Earnhardt. Vickers was credited for his first Cup win in his final season before changing teams. Johnson was displeased.

Johnson claimed he was attempting to link up for a draft when he sliced in front of the No. 24 Chevrolet as it charged forward in the 2010 spring race. Instead, he muted teammate Jeff Gordon’s momentum, sending him back into the mass and in position to be swallowed by a multi-car incident.

With five races left in the season, driver agendas are about to focus and intentions become self-serving. Talladega will be the dry run for the rest of the season. And this Sunday, it won’t hurt to have a wingman.

NASCAR: Forget about points, Logano racing to win at Talladega

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Joey Logano knows he is in the most precarious of positions heading to the Chase elimination race at Talladega, tied for the eighth and final spot for advancing to the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

There are two clear strategies his Penske Racing team could employ.

The first is the relatively low-risk option: They could spend the entire race at the unpredictable superspeedway spying on Austin Dillon, who is even with him in points, and Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, who are also within striking distance, and ensure they get through on points.

The riskier option? Race to win, points be damned.

“That’s the way I race. I don’t know a different way,” said Logano, whose third-place finish behind Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards on Sunday at Kansas at least made the points route possible.

“I’m sure we’ll talk about it this week,” Logano added, “but I’m a racer.”

At least three Chase contenders don’t have the same dilemma. Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are already locked into the next round by virtue of their wins in the first two stops of the round, and Chase Elliott’s trouble for the second straight week left him in a must-win situation.

The other nine drivers are much like Logano, racing to win but keeping a wary eye on points.

“The big thing that swung everything around was Kevin winning. We would have been in pretty good shape if he had finished second,” Logano said. “It isn’t disappointing because we still should be proud of the effort we had, but it would have meant a lot if he finished second.”

That’s because Harvick had problems of his own in the round at Charlotte, which means even second place at Kansas would have put him squarely on the bubble heading to Talladega.

Logano should at least have some confidence heading to the volatile restrictor-plate track. After years of mostly terrible results, he won there to complete a sweep of the entire round last fall.

Meanwhile, Dillon was third there earlier this year, Hamlin won there a couple of years ago and Keselowski won for the fourth time there earlier this year.

“I don’t think it’s a must-win situation,” said Keselowski, who spun into the grass and tore up his car before finishing 38th at Kansas. “I’m not worried about it. I’m going to go there and bust my butt to try to win, but I don’t think it’s a must-win yet.”

Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Edwards and Kurt Busch are relatively safe after steering clear of major trouble the last two rounds, and Martin Truex Jr. has a 13-point cushion over eighth place.

For each of them, winning at Talladega would be great. But they also know that simply by staying out of trouble, their spot in the next round is virtually assured.

“It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport and to a huge extreme with the Chase now with this format,” Truex said. “You’ve got to perform every single week. You’ve got a bad week, it could ruin your whole season. … We’ve just got to go to Talladega and hope that nothing crazy happens.”

MAKE YOUR PICK

NASCAR could take steps soon to limit Sprint Cup driver participation in lower series, a point driven home after Kyle Busch won his ninth Xfinity Series race of the year at Kansas. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell was asked about the dominance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week and said something could change in the rules by next year.

“We’ve heard the fans. It’s interesting, it’s been a balance throughout the years,” he said. “We have always had Sprint Cup drivers come into the Xfinity Series and sometimes dominate.

“As the sport has evolved, one of the great things is we’ve got more of a fan following in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series. They like seeing those drivers come up through the ranks and it’s our job to make sure that Xfinity is where names are made.”

NASCAR is already prohibiting any Sprint Cup driver who was in last year’s Chase from competing in this year’s season finale for the Xfinity and Truck Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Of the 30 Xfinity races this season, 19 have been won by Sprint Cup regulars.

TAKING A BREAK

The Xfinity Series is on a two-week break after Kyle Busch trumped the eight Chase contenders at Kansas on Saturday. Justin Allgaier plans to do some endurance racing in Brazil, and Daniel Suarez will squeeze in a trip to Mexico before racing trucks at Martinsville.

“It’s been a while since the last time I went to Mexico to visit my family, my mom, my sisters and my dad,” he said. “We’re going to do something fun with the people from NASCAR.”

SKIPPING THE SUN

Truex’s team decided not to take part in this week’s testing at Homestead, even though it’s the site of the season-ending race next month. One reason is that it’s far from Denver, where his Furniture Row Racing team is based, and another is that he isn’t convinced it does any good.

“Every time we’ve tested this year, we’ve gone to the race track and spent the first day-and-a-half trying to regroup,” he said. “It seems like it’s probably hurt us more than helped us.”

HAAS F1 DECISIONS

Formula 1 team owner Gene Haas said Sunday that he wants to see how Esteban Gutierrez fares the rest of the season before deciding on a second driver for his team. Romain Grosjean has been solid in the team’s debut, and his spot for next year is secure. But while Gutierrez has been improving in recent races, he still has not earned a championship point.

“We haven’t definitively said whether Esteban is the driver for next year or not,” said Haas, whose Sprint Cup team won at Kansas. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t be, either.”

NASCAR: Talladega could eliminate some of NASCAR’s top names

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Brad Keselowski thought playing it safe over two races would slide him into the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

Then he wrecked at Kansas Speedway and plummeted to the bottom of the Chase standings.

Now Keselowski is facing elimination at Talladega Superspeedway. Also in trouble? Joey Logano, his Team Penske teammate, and at least one driver from Joe Gibbs Racing.

It’s hardly the scenario Keselowski predicted a week ago when he sat in the middle of the Chase standings with five drivers clumped together facing elimination. By his estimation, the four drivers knocked from the Chase field would come from that group. He figured the fifth would win a race to advance into the round of eight.

Keselowski got that part correct: Kevin Harvick’s win on Sunday took him from last in the Chase standings into the third round. What he didn’t predict: Contact that led to a 38th-place finish at Kansas.

Now Keselowski is 11th in the standings headed to Talladega Superspeedway, where the field will be cut from 12 to eight. Although he’s suddenly in very dangerous territory, he didn’t seem overly worried and doesn’t consider this week’s race a must win.

Keselowski is a four-time winner at Talladega, including a 2014 must-win victory that pushed him from the brink of elimination into the third round. He’s also the winner of the last two restrictor-plate races this year, at Daytona in July and Talladega in May.

“I am not worried about it,” he said. “Talladega has been good to me and I am going to drive my butt off and at the end of the day I have faith that if it is meant to be, it is meant to be. We can’t get down. There is a long way to go still.”

What a bizarre second round this has been, beginning with the opener at Charlotte, where five Chase drivers finished 30th or worse. That included Denny Hamlin, one of the mighty Toyota drivers from JGR, who had an engine failure while running second. He needed a strong recovery at Kansas, but instead had a self-described “terrible” race in which “everything went wrong.” Hamlin sounded like a driver frustrated with errors that were out of his control and led to him falling to 10th in the standings.

But he’s a past winner at Talladega — if JGR and Toyota can give him the equipment he needs.

“I’ve got confidence I can win every single week on the race track,” he said. “It’s just, this is a team sport, and you’ve got to have every facet of the car and the team all put together and we’ve just got to execute.”

Hamlin of all drivers understands the complexity of Sunday’s race at Talladega. Only Jimmie Johnson and Harvick, winners of the first two races in the second round, are safe and breathing easy.

Even though the standings show only seven points separate Logano and Autin Dillon, tied for eighth, from Keselowski in 11th, anyone in the field can be kicked out after Talladega. Hamlin was second in the standings at Talladega last year, but finished 37th and was eliminated.

That means none of the Gibbs drivers are guaranteed anything, and odds are at least one of them will be knocked out on Sunday. Same goes for the two Penske drivers. Considering where they are in the standings, it will be difficult for both Keselowski and Logano to advance out of Talladega.

So the stage is set for a walk-off home run that could save the season for the winner at Talladega.

Among those who will be swinging the fences is Chase Elliott, the rookie who has found himself in the second round of the Chase but last in the standings. Elliott is 25 points behind the cutoff, and almost certainly must win at Talladega to remain in the playoff field.

Should he pull it off, it would be the first Sprint Cup win of his career. He won the pole at Talladega earlier this year and finished fifth, so anything is possible.

“I will go there and race our hearts out and try to win, I guess,” Elliott said. “That’s about all we can do.”

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NASCAR: Harvick advances in Chase as others struggle at Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — After departing the celebration in victory lane at Kansas on Sunday, Kevin Harvick reflected on how his Stewart-Haas Racing team always seems to rally when its back is against the wall.

Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski just may need to follow suit.

Harvick dealt with a mechanical issue a week ago at Charlotte that put him in a big hole heading to the second stop in the Chase’s round of 12. But he rebounded by winning the Sprint Cup race at Kansas, not only locking up his spot in the next round but taking the pressure out of Talladega.

“Things are going to happen,” said Harvick, who also rebounded from a poor Chase opener to win at New Hampshire. “Things can break and you just have to be able to rebound from them.”

Elliott and Keselowski are in precisely that situation.

While several contenders were busy wrapping up top-10 finishes — Carl Edwards was second, followed by Joey Logano, Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson , Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon — Elliott and Keselowski had been snared by late-race trouble that leaves them in desperation mode.

Elliott was running near the front when his left rear tire began rubbing on his fender, forcing a stop that left him a lap down. He managed to get back on the lead lap, only to have the same issue with another set of tires that forced him into another unscheduled stop.

“I don’t know if we got the left rear getting up on the track or something, and it got into the fender and it cut it down. I don’t know,” Elliott said. “We had such a good car today.”

He wound up finishing 31st and is now 25 points out of the eighth and final spot in the next round, which basically turns the unpredictable race at Talladega into a must-win scenario.

“Race our hearts out and try to win, I guess,” he said. “That’s about all we can do.”

Keselowski had a similarly dreadful day. He began wiggling with 78 laps left and Denny Hamlin was unable to check up in time, the gentle tap sending the No. 2 car shooting down the track. He slammed into the grassy turf and tore up the front of his car.

Keselowski wound up 38th, putting him seven points out of the final Chase spot.

“I like Talladega. Talladega has been good to me,” said Keselowski, who has won four times there, including earlier this year. “I’m going to drive my butt off and at the end of the day I have faith that if it is meant to be, it is meant to be. We can’t get down. There is a long way to go still.”

Things are more comfortable for other Chase contenders.

Edwards ran up front all day and thought he had the car to beat at Kansas before Harvick pulled away from him on a late restart. He still finished second to move up two spots in the points race and now has a 24-point buffer between himself Logano in eighth place.

Of course, that was of little solace to the Missouri native. He considers the speedway just across the Kansas border his home track and always has thousands of fans in the stands. He’s wanted to win at Kansas more than anywhere else on the circuit but has yet to reach victory lane.

“There’s so many people that come to this track that support me,” he said. “Maybe a day or two will pass and I’ll be more excited about the points situation going to Talladega.”

Martin Truex Jr. had issues with the refueling mechanism that forced him to pit out of sequence and wound up 11th. Kurt Busch finished two spots back in 13th after having to go to his backup car following a spin in practice. Hamlin dealt with an issue with the front splitter and was 15th.

As a result, Logano sits in the tenuous eighth spot in points — tied with Dillon and six ahead of Hamlin — as the Chase heads to the elimination race at Talladega.

“We came out swinging. That’s what we had to do. We did everything we were supposed to do,” Logano said. “It’s not comfortable being tied with Austin going into next week but that’ll be fun.”

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick wins at Kansas to reach next round of Chase

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — No matter what kind of misfortune befalls Kevin Harvick in the early rounds of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, his team always seems to get things together when it matters.

The No. 4 crew did it again Sunday.

One week after a mechanical issue doomed him to a lousy finish at Charlotte, and put his hopes of advancing to the round of eight in jeopardy, Harvick roared to the front on the final restart to win at Kansas Speedway and take all of the pressure off next week’s elimination race at Talladega.

“These races are hard to win and these guys are so good at the details,” said Harvick, the 2014 champion, “and when you put their backs against the wall they’re even better. I’m so proud of them.”

Harvick was among the fastest in the final qualifying session, and hung around the front all day while other Chase contenders faltered. He was still at the front when Regan Smith brought out the final caution, and was able to keep Carl Edwards at bay over the final 30 laps.

“I was pretty sure we were in control of the race,” said Edwards, a Missouri native who has yet to win at what he considers his home track. “As much fun as I had running up front, it stings. There’s negative emotions tied up with not winning here with that fast of a car.”

It was the fourth win of the season for Harvick, and his second of the Chase — he rebounded from a poor performance at Chicago to win at New Hampshire and advance from the round of 16.

He joined Jimmie Johnson, the winner at Charlotte , in securing a spot in the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs, while also ramping up the pressure on the other 10 contenders fighting for points.

“They usually when it comes to this situation find a little more speed in their cars,” said Joey Logano, who finished third and now sits in the precarious eighth spot in points. “I don’t know how, but it seems like in must-win situations they always find a little more speed.”

Johnson was fourth, followed by fellow Chase drivers Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon. Matt Kenseth was ninth after dominating the first half of the race from the pole, giving him a nice points cushion as the series heads to the unpredictable pressure-cooker at Talladega.

Other drivers competing for the championship dealt with trouble all afternoon.

Martin Truex Jr. again found himself at the front at Kansas, only to have issues with the refueling mechanism that forced him to pit out of sequence. He wound up 11th and now sits seventh in points.

Kurt Busch finished two spots back in 13th after having to go to his backup car. He spun into the grass on the front stretch with seconds to go in the final practice session Saturday, tearing up the front of his car and forcing him to start from the back of the field.

Denny Hamlin had an issue with the front splitter that creates downforce on his car, sending him to the pits for repairs. He was also penalized for a loose tire but rallied to finish 15th.

The biggest losers on the day were Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott.

Keselowski began wiggling with 78 laps remaining, and Hamlin came up behind him and a tap sent the No. 2 car shooting down the track. He slammed into the grassy turf, tore up the front of his car and wound up 38th, putting him seven points out of the eighth and final spot in the Chase.

“It’s an automotive war zone here. There’s parts, there’s pieces, they were working under it, there was oil, there was fire at one point,” said Keselowski, who briefly got back on the track before retiring for the day. “If my guys keep putting in this effort, I’m not worried about.”

Elliott was near the front when his left rear tire began rubbing on his fender, forcing a stop that left him a lap down. He managed to get back on the lead lap, only to have the same issue with another set of tires that forced him into another unscheduled stop.

He wound up finishing 31st and is now 25 points out of the final spot in the round of eight, which essentially makes Talladega a must-win situation for the Hendrick Motorsports rookie.

In other words, all the pressure that Harvick avoided with his win.

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SUNDAY’S RESULTS

Lap length: 1.5 miles

(Starting position in parentheses)

1. (11) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 267.

2. (3) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 267.

3. (6) Joey Logano, Ford, 267.

4. (21) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267.

5. (2) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267.

6. (12) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267.

7. (5) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 267.

8. (10) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 267.

9. (1) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267.

10. (20) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267.

11. (4) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 267.

12. (9) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267.

13. (15) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 267.

14. (17) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 267.

15. (7) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267.

16. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 267.

17. (25) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267.

18. (19) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 267.

19. (18) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 267.

20. (16) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267.

21. (30) Chris Buescher, Ford, 267.

22. (33) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 267.

23. (29) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 267.

24. (27) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 267.

25. (22) Greg Biffle, Ford, 266.

26. (31) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 266.

27. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 266.

28. (32) Brian Scott, Ford, 265.

29. (26) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 265.

30. (24) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 265.

31. (13) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 264.

32. (37) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 264.

33. (36) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 262.

34. (39) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 261.

35. (38) Joey Gase, Ford, 260.

36. (28) David Ragan, Toyota, 258.

37. (23) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 233.

38. (8) Brad Keselowski, Ford, Accident, 190.

39. (40) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, Accident, 108.

40. (35) Aric Almirola, Ford, Accident, 36.

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 133.155 mph.

Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 00 Mins, 28 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.183 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 38 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 10 drivers.

Lap Leaders: M. Kenseth 1-27; Kurt Busch 28; M. Kenseth 29-86; J. Logano 87; B. Keselowski 88; D. Hamlin 89; C. Mears 90-94; M. Kenseth 95-125; K. Harvick 126-168; C. Elliott 169-172; C. Edwards 173; J. Logano 174; C. Edwards 175-221; K. Harvick 222; A. Dillon 223-224; C. Edwards 225-237; K. Harvick 238-267.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): M. Kenseth 3 times for 116 laps; K. Harvick 3 times for 74 laps; C. Edwards 3 times for 61 laps; C. Mears 1 time for 5 laps; C. Elliott 1 time for 4 laps; A. Dillon 1 time for 2 laps; J. Logano 2 times for 2 laps; D. Hamlin 1 time for 1 lap; B. Keselowski 1 time for 1 lap; Kurt Busch 1 time for 1 lap.

Top 16 in Points: J. Johnson – 3,082; M. Kenseth – 3,074; Kyle Busch – 3,072; C. Edwards – 3,069; Kurt Busch – 3,062; M. Truex Jr. – 3,058; K. Harvick – 3,048; J. Logano – 3,045; A. Dillon – 3,045; D. Hamlin – 3,039; B. Keselowski – 3,038; C. Elliott – 3,020; T. Stewart – 2,131; K. Larson – 2,120; C. Buescher – 2,090; J. Mcmurray – 2,088.

NASCAR: Lacking speed, Kurt Busch aims for consistency in Chase

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Kurt Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson would have preferred a swift Chevrolet and a wonderfully uneventful cruise to victory lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Not even close.

But a plucky eighth-place finish in a dinged and sluggish No. 41 Chevy was close enough, especially considering the predicament several other title-eligibles found themselves in after the second-round opener of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

At fifth in the standings entering Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, the 2004 series champion has a reset opportunity while contenders such as Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick and Team Penske’s Joey Logano need a recoup of points.

Considering the handling of his car at the beginning of the race and his involvement in a late restart incident that claimed title contenders Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon and damaged the cars of others like Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, Busch was in a conciliatory mood on pit road at Charlotte.

“We went through a lot today,” he said. “The restart, I guess we survived it better than most when everybody had that trouble. We just missed on the setup on the first five laps, and then after 30 laps, man, she would just go away, so we got what we could out of it and all in all an eighth-place finish …

“Guys had trouble. It’s one of those days when you just go, ‘All right, we’ll take it.’ You know, it’s not the best, but that’s a finish we need to advance though this Chase.”

Staying out of the way might be enough for Busch for the remainder of this round, as he has a 21-point edge on the eighth and final transfer spot currently held by Denny Hamlin, who had a strong run fouled by a blown engine at Charlotte.

But even though Busch finished second in the Kansas fall race in 2013, was third this spring and is arguably the best restrictor-plate racer in the sport without a points win at Talladega Superspeedway or Daytona International Speedway, Gibson asserts how quickly points and positions become vapor. He’d rather remain inconspicuous and workmanlike.

“Talladega is always going to be the key race no matter where you’re at unless you win or have a race lead,” Gibson said. “You’re going to be nervous going in there. You just try to build as much points as you can going into that race and hope you don’t have to race for the win, because if you do, it means you’ve got to put yourself in dangerous situations that you don’t want to be in.

“Hopefully we can go to Kansas and have another solid top-10 day and run good and have somewhat of a cushion going into Talladega. So that’s our plan. But plans don’t always go the way they’re supposed to in this business.”

They certainly didn’t at Charlotte. Pitting next to Danica Patrick, Busch found himself dealing with his Stewart-Haas teammate numerous times as she ran inside the top 15 throughout the afternoon. The restart crash created body damage, Gibson said, that skewed the No. 41 Chevrolet’s handling and spiked concerns over tire failures in a race in which Logano suffered two and Alex Bowman another.

“I think it (was a good finish) considering we had damage and we had to fix our car and it was beat up pretty good,” Gibson noted. “We were really tight after that. So at that point, yeah, it’s just OK. We don’t want to put ourselves where those guys are at: in trouble. It was maintaining.”

The team will lose its pit stall selection at Kansas because it received a fourth written warning after failing a laser inspection station test twice at Charlotte.

While Busch was content with the finish, he’s not comfortable with his position in the standings, admitting, “It’s all wide-open, still.”

Busch, who finished eighth in the final points standing last season, and Gibson would likely feel better if their car was yielding the type of speed it was demonstrating at this point in the 2015 season — when Busch finished fifth, sixth and 10th in the second round to advance to the third round. That will apparently be a key part of maintaining title hopes with six races and two eliminations left in the season. That, Gibson said, should help his team focus where it should, inward.

“We still just worry about us, man,” he said. “We need more speed. We really don’t have speed right now to win with. So we’re working on it and trying to find out where we can get some speed. But until we do, we take what the car can give us. If it’s 12th, it’s 12th. If it’s 10th, it’s 10th. If it’s fifth, it’s fifth. If you can win, win.

“That’s been our mentality just like it was last year. Last year we had more speed at this point, but it’s days like today where you never give up and you keep plugging, because you never know what can happen.”

NASCAR: Keselowski says dynamic has changed for Chase points leaders

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The excitement level over the next two Chase races could very well vary from fan to fan.

As teams have adjusted to the elimination format of NASCAR’s playoffs, the goals now differ depending on where each driver sits in the standings .

Because five Chase drivers had trouble at Charlotte, Brad Keselowski believes the dynamic has changed for the rest of the field.

“The reality is, if you have a pretty good gap, you’re probably going to take a log off the fire,” Keselowski said.

The opening race of the second round of the Chase saw five drivers finish 30th or worse , and now only eight points separates Denny Hamlin in eight place from Kevin Harvick in 12th. Four drivers will be eliminated after Talladega next week, and Keselowski believes the paring will “absolutely” be four of the five currently sitting at the bottom of the standings.

Under his theory, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are racing each other Sunday at Kansas Speedway and next week at Talladega. The rest of the field is simply trying to “live to fight another day.”

What exactly does that mean? Well, the remaining drivers in the field may not take many risks because there’s no need to put it all on the line. They have breathing room from the bottom of the field right now, and aren’t desperate for victories or track position.

A year ago, Logano opened the second round of the Chase with a win at Charlotte that earned him an automatic berth in the third round. The next week, he raced Matt Kenseth very hard in the closing laps at Kansas to snatch away a win that Kenseth needed to get into the third round.

The victory was nothing more than a trophy for Logano and had far more meaning to Kenseth’s playoff hopes. It ignited a feud that ultimately knocked Logano out of the playoffs in the next round.

“Everyone saw what happened with Joey, and they’re not going to do that to themselves,” Keselowski said of his teammate. “It’s like basketball: you want to make sure you don’t have a bunch of fouls and aren’t worn out when the fourth quarter comes, because it seems like those are always five-point games in the fourth quarter. So don’t be in a spot to foul out. Make sure you’ve got your legs beneath you.”

Now that the current Chase format is two years old, he also believes teams will race to do whatever is needed to make it into the next round. As an example, he used the 2014 race at Texas Motor Speedway, where Keselowski went three-wide on a late restart to make contact with Jeff Gordon. It led to a cut tire for Gordon that cost him a shot at the win, and Gordon punched Keselowski on pit road after the race.

“That was a race I had to win and I knew he didn’t have to win it,” Keselowski said. “All he had to do was run like fourth or even 10th. In the moment when I made the move and we got together and he ended up blowing a tire, I was shocked that he didn’t know the situation.

“Like, how do you not know the situation? I’m behind you with newer tires, you’re not getting a good restart, all you need to do is run fifth. Know the situation.”

Asked if all of this “hurts” the excitement level, Keselowski said it will be in the eye of the beholder.

“How do you define hurt? If you’re a fan of mine or anyone who has the ability to (advance) through consistency? If you’re a fan of someone who is out and has to dig real deep to make it through? I think it could be very exciting,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of perspective.”

MARTINSVILLE LIGHTS

Martinsville Speedway will become the first major race track with LED lights when it installs them for next season. Speedway President Clay Campbell called the lights an “insurance policy.” During last year’s race, it was nearly dark when Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line.

“If we would have had one more delay, we wouldn’t have finished that race,” Campbell said.

International Speedway Corp., which owns Martinsville, will pay for the lights. Martinsville will not have a night race in 2017 because the schedule has already been set. The spring race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. ET and the fall race is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET.

TRUEX-REDEMPTION

Matin Truex Jr. is looking for some redemption when he makes his 400th career start Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

Truex won the pole at the track in May and led a race-high 172 laps. But a loose wheel forced a late pit stop and Truex finished 14th.

Although he’s won four races since that Kansas disappointment, he’d like a chance to get that victory back.

“We were dominant, but didn’t close the deal,” Truex said. “I am happy we’re headed to Kansas, this is a race we feel we can run up front and possibly win. When we left Kansas in May, I said, ‘If we keep on bringing cars like we had tonight we’re going to win.’ Since Kansas, we have done that.”

In Truex’s 399 starts, he has seven wins — five with Furniture Row Racing — 47 top-five finishes, 132 top-10s and 10 poles.

He is currently in the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

NEWMAN-EXTENSION

Richard Childress Racing gave Ryan Newman a multi-year contract extension this week to continue driving the No. 31 Chevrolet.

“Ryan’s consistency on the track has been a benefit to our organization and this extension solidifies the future of our racing program,” said Richard Childress.

Newman was in the final year of a three-year contract with RCR. He made the Chase each of the last two seasons — advancing to the final round in 2014 — but missed a spot in the playoffs this season.

“Our goal to win a championship all but turned into a reality during our first year together,” Newman said. “I feel like since then, we have some unfinished business to complete.”

Newman was fourth in Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was his second top-five finish this season.

NASCAR catches break with Chase race at Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When it’s all said and done at the end of this season, NASCAR just might have to thank Hurricane Matthew for saving its Chase.

It sure didn’t seem like that when rain was trying to swamp the weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. No track activity Friday, nothing again on Saturday and no buzz about the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Forced to run two races on Sunday, both NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway somehow managed to pull off a miracle. They got a pair of decent races on a perfect North Carolina fall afternoon — not great races, but good enough that the Chase now warrants some chatter .

Even better, conversation will be about drivers and the standings and how teams are going to react after a race of attrition at Charlotte caused five championship drivers to finish 30th or worse. Now, only eight points separate Denny Hamlin in the transfer position from last-place Kevin Harvick.

Do you know what that means? A reprieve from talking about laser inspection, changing rules and encumbered finishes.

Finally, a chance to focus on what should really matter: the racing!

The word “drama” was bandied about often Sunday as contender after contender went to the garage. First up was Joey Logano , who had a wrecked car because of a tire issue. Then Harvick pulled into his stall with a mechanical problem. Austin Dillon was spun by Martin Truex Jr. on a restart. Chase Elliott was collected in that accident. Then Hamlin had an engine failure while running second late in the race.

None of that is the kind of “drama” that has driven the Chase the last two years. That excitement centered around Brad Keselowski getting tackled, Keselowski getting punched and Matt Kenseth’s running feud with Logano. Yes, those are the instances that make NASCAR a watercooler conversation on Monday mornings, but the drivers absolutely abhor the sensationalism and scrutiny that comes with such displays of emotion or personality.

So now they’ve provided an opportunity to really look at the racing and wonder how each team will react in this suddenly intense Chase.

The first round didn’t knock anyone’s socks off — two Truex wins and a Harvick victory — and no shocking elimination. Everyone probably wanted Tony Stewart to make it out of the first round, but nobody thought he was running well enough to do it. Stewart getting knocked out was hardly the same level of stunner as Jimmie Johnson’s first-round elimination a year ago.

But after Sunday’s opener , this round has the potential for some serious nail-biting over the next two weeks. Some really big names are going to be eliminated at Talladega Superspeedway, where the Chase field will be trimmed from 12 to eight drivers.

Free from worry is Johnson, the somewhat surprise winner on Sunday. It was his eighth victory at the Hendrick Motorsports home track, but Johnson has been a bit overlooked the last three years. He’d failed in the first two years of the elimination format to get past the second round, and there’s been no reason to think that Hendrick Motorsports can compete with the four Toyota drivers or Harvick.

But a summer of hard work has suddenly put Hendrick on the radar , and both Johnson and teammate Elliott have turned it up in the Chase. Now, Johnson has a spot in the round of eight, and his sights squarely on a seventh championship.

History has shown that Johnson dominance does little for the NASCAR fan base, and there’s been a total lack of appreciation for his five consecutive championships and six overall. But his win at Charlotte felt different. There was a sense that seven might actually be doable, and Johnson’s pursuit of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in the record books could be embraced this year.

Whether Johnson moves your meter, his hunt for that seventh title is surely more entertaining that which driver fails the laser inspection each week.

So thank you, NASCAR. Thank you, Chase teams. Thank you, Charlotte Motor Speedway. Thank you, Jimmie Johnson.

Finally, there’s something to talk about in NASCAR.

NASCAR: Topsy-turvy day at Charlotte tightens NASCAR playoffs

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CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — It should have been catastrophic nearly any way Joey Logano looked at his situation. His wrecked race car was in the garage during the opening race of the second round of the playoffs, his crew frantically trying to get him back on track.

At the moment, Logano’s only saving grace was that Kevin Harvick had his own disabled vehicle and was stuck watching Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway roll on without them.

Then Austin Dillon wrecked, Chase Elliott, too. Denny Hamlin lost an engine and Martin Truex Jr. had a pit road miscue.

In all, five drivers finished 30th or worse Sunday, meaning the field remained bunched enough that everyone has an equal shot to recover.

There are two more races, at Kansas and Talladega, before this field of 12 is whittled to eight, and only eight points separate Hamlin, in the cutoff position, from Harvick, who is last in the standings. Logano, who got back on track to finish 36th, is two points ahead of Harvick and only six behind Hamlin.

“I feel better about it,” Logano said of the standings. “My team did a good job fighting to get back out there and I think we gained two points by doing that, and that could be the difference when it’s all said and done.”

No one was immune Sunday, not Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota. The longshots Dillon and Elliott were wrecked, the favorites Harvick and Logano fallen by broken parts or tire issues.

The big winner? Why, Jimmie Johnson, who suddenly has a record-tying seventh championship in reach.

Hendrick Motorsports has been underwhelming this year, Johnson stuck in a 24-race losing streak. This Chase so far had been a Truex and Harvick show, Johnson just the driver of a car that seemed to have some speed but was no ultimate match with the others.

His win Sunday showed otherwise, and he stamped his name into the third round of the playoffs. Johnson had failed to advance to the round of eight each of the last two years, but he’s got his slot now, and that’s the first step in winning that elusive seventh title.

He sounded hungry after the race, his eighth win at Charlotte and 78th of his career.

“We can’t sit back and celebrate too much,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to buckle down and get to work and keep advancing our race cars.”

DOUBLE-HEADER: The race was originally scheduled to run Saturday night, but Hurricane Matthew washed out almost the entire weekend. So all racing was pushed to Sunday, which turned into an 800-mile doubleheader with the Xfinity Series.

Logano went on to win the Xfinity Series race, which was the eliminating event in the inaugural Chase for that series. Ty Dillon was knocked out by Bubba Wallace by one point, and Brennan Poole, Ryan Sieg and Brandon Jones were also eliminated.

The second round of the Chase is a reprieve for Erik Jones, the pre-playoff favorite who fell into a deep hole in the opening race and is now back to even.

KENSETH TO KANSAS: Matt Kenseth left Charlotte on solid footing for the first time in the elimination system via a second-place finish to Johnson.

The stop in Charlotte had been his downfall the last two years. He tackled Brad Keselowski in the garage following a disappointing finish in 2014, and was second-to-last a year ago.

So to leave in decent shape, with the pressure not nearly as high this weekend at Kansas, Kenseth felt OK.

“Honestly, last two years in a row, pretty much Charlotte has kind of taken us out of the Chase – mostly my doing,” he said.

HENDRICK RETURNS : This had been a miserable season for Hendrick Motorsports, by its own standards. Only two of its four drivers made the Chase this year and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sidelined with a concussion.

Johnson has the only wins for the organization, but Elliott had been sniffing victory lane all season.

On Sunday, the two combined to lead 258 of the 334 laps, and Johnson and Elliott ran 1-2 for a huge chunk of the race.

Elliott was involved in an accident with 75 laps remaining and could not hide his disappointment.

“We had such a good car,” he said. “I’m devastated that we didn’t get the result that my guys deserve.”

Despite Elliott’s finish, it was a good organizational day for Hendrick: Kasey Kahne finished third and Alex Bowman showed early speed before a tire issue caused him to wreck.

_____

Standings: NASCAR Sprint Cup

As of: Oct. 11
 
Rank Driver PV Rank
1 Jimmie Johnson 10
2 Matt Kenseth 9
3 Kyle Busch 4
4 Brad Keselowski 1
5 Kurt Busch 3
6 Carl Edwards 5
7 Martin Truex Jr.
8 Denny Hamlin
9 Austin Dillon 13
10 Chase Elliott 12
11 Joey Logano 6
12 Kevin Harvick 2

 

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