Kyle Busch

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NASCAR finale a respite from exodus of stars

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — As Kyle Busch walked off the stage following the final race of the year, a NASCAR official told the driver he would see him next season.

“If I don’t retire,” Busch said.

Ummm, what?

“Wouldn’t be the first guy,” Busch quipped.

Busch was probably just making a joke about Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s championship then abruptly retired right before the start of this season. His decision sparked a radical makeover in which NASCAR’s longtime stars are being replaced by fresh-faced newcomers.

The season finale on Sunday brought an end to the full-time racing careers of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth. Tony Stewart retired right before Edwards did. Jeff Gordon walked away after 2015.

The changing of the guard has raised red flags through NASCAR all season long, though championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway briefly calmed any concerns. NASCAR crowned three new champions across its national series and celebrated a pair of first-time race winners.

Christopher Bell opened the weekend by winning the Truck Series championship, while Chase Briscoe went to victory lane for the first time in his career. Both drivers are 22 and headed to the Xfinity Series next year, Bell for Joe Gibbs Racing and Briscoe in a shared ride announced by Roush Fenway Racing. Briscoe will share the seat with 18-year-old Austin Cindric and Ty Majeski, who is 23.

William Byron won the Xfinity championship while Cole Custer won his first series race. Both are 19. Byron is going Cup racing next year for Hendrick Motorsports and Custer has a long future in the Stewart-Haas Racing organization.

Martin Truex Jr., a journeyman in NASCAR, closed the weekend with his first Cup championship . Although he is 37, he beat three former champions, Busch included.

Chairman Brian France wasn’t concerned about not having proper replacements during this exodus of stars.

“Go down the list, we’ve got a loaded group,” France said before Sunday’s finale. “We’re in a transition. But that happens from time to time. Not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens. But we’re excited — we’ve got a great, great bunch of (young drivers) and they’re talented, so we’re in good shape.”

The sentiment was echoed by Roger Penske, who has primed himself for the future with a stout lineup. Although Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are considered series veterans, Logano is only 27 and Keselowski is 33. Added to the mix next year will be 23-year-old Ryan Blaney, rapidly establishing himself as a future star.

His buddies are in the Cup Series, too. Chase Elliott drives for Hendrick Motorsports and narrowly missed a spot in the championship finale, while Darrell Wallace Jr. will drive for Richard Petty Motorsports next season.

Kyle Larson is 24 and the star at Chip Ganassi Racing, while Richard Childress has both of his grandsons to carry the family race team far into the future.

Stewart, co-owner of Custer’s team, has a different view now that he is out of the driver’s seat. He noted that much of the buzz surrounding Homestead was about Earnhardt’s final race, but as he celebrated Custer’s first career Xfinity win, he said the sport is healthy with talent.

“There’s a great crop of young guys coming into the sport,” Stewart said. “The sport is going to be just fine. There’s plenty of good talent that’s coming along that are making names for themselves that will take the places of the guys that are leaving.”

Stewart then told a story straight out of “Days of Thunder,” in which he claimed he was summoned NASCAR’s headquarters in Daytona Beach for a lecture from France.

“He told me something that always stuck with me. He said, ‘This sport has been here long before you got here, and it’ll be here long after you’re gone.’ It really is the truth,” Stewart said. “There were great drivers here before I got here, and there’s great drivers coming behind us.”

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

NASCAR title caps dramatic season for Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   HOMESTEAD, Fla. — A Canadian crew chief led a Toyota driver from New Jersey and a team based in Denver to a championship.

This certainly isn’t your father’s NASCAR.

To say that Martin Truex Jr., crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of the Furniture Row Racing team wrote a spectacular finish to an unlikely story in winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway is to understate the fact.

The team became the first Cup organization based outside North Carolina to win the championship since Bill Elliott’s team, located in the mountains of north Georgia, scored in 1988.

They were the stars of the show virtually all season, winning eight races and often dominating in obnoxious fashion. Then Truex closed it out Sunday night by refusing to wilt under the significant pressure applied by Kyle Busch, the driver you don’t want chasing you in pursuit of a championship in the closing laps.

Now, the celebration. It will culminate Nov. 28-30 in Las Vegas as the sport honors its new champion, a smart driver who graduated from the old Busch North Series to leave behind what might have been a career working on his father’s clam boats on the Atlantic.

There are NASCAR team owners and crew chiefs who will say the 2018 season began Monday, one day after Truex finished off 2017. There are cars to build, mechanics to hire, sponsors to find, plans to make for the long season to come.

Pearn, a champion crew chief for the first time, says bologna to all that.

In past years, championship crew chiefs have said they couldn’t wait to get back to the shop to start work on the next season.

Pearn? Don’t unlock the shop doors.

“We just won a championship in NASCAR,” said Pearn, his Furniture Row T-shirt soaked in champagne. “Are you kidding me? I don’t really give a crap what we do next week.”

Truex and Pearn won eight times across a season of stress and strain. Crewman Jim Watson died of a heart attack at Kansas Speedway. Team owner Barney Visser suffered a heart attack and had surgery, missing the final two races of the year, including Sunday’s rush to glory. Pearn’s best friend died of a bacterial infection. And Truex and his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, suffered a setback — and endured another surgery — in her long fight against ovarian cancer.

If any championship deserves an extended celebration, it’s this one. And Truex promised late Sunday night that part one of the party would last long into Monday morning before he left for New York City for the annual champion’s media blitz.

In quieter moments, team members will reflect on the remarkable thing they accomplished.

It was ludicrous to imagine that a small team based in Denver could win a Cup championship in competition with the bigger, more veteran teams based in and around Charlotte. For example, Furniture Row is a team that uses team owner Visser’s furniture-hauling trucks to transport parts across the country, suspension pieces sharing space with sofas.

Because virtually every other Cup team of significance is headquartered within 50 miles of Charlotte, the top mechanics and engineers tend to live and work in that circle.

None of that mattered to Truex, Pearn and their guys. One thousand and six hundred miles from Charlotte, they became more than a race team — something closer to a close-knit family. In the end, working for a New Jersey driver and a crew chief from, of all places, Canada, they ran past and over the competition and brought a championship home to the Rockies.

“I never would have dreamt that this would have been possible, especially growing up where I did in Canada,” Pearn said. “That’s kind of unheard of to break into a predominantly Southern sport and then to do it as a team in Colorado and win a championship. I’m definitely going to take some time for reflection on that and think about what we’ve accomplished before we worry about 2018.”

In a sweet twist of irony, Truex, whose car number is 78, led 78 laps in winning Sunday’s finale.

The last lap he drove in a fog of emotion.

“I took the checkered flag and I was just junk,” he said. “ Like I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t think. I had no idea what to do. I was bawling like a little kid. It was insane, and I don’t even know why. All the things I’ve been through flashed through my head. All the people that have got me here flashed through my head.

“There’s so many things along the way that led me down this path, that got me here tonight, so many people that sacrificed things to get me here, and all those things flashed through my head. It was just more than I could handle. But it felt pretty damned good. As bad as it hurt, it felt damned good. Crazy.”

Crazy. Perhaps the best adjective for an extraordinary race day. And season.

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR chairman Brian France Sunday acknowledged the impact of the departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other drivers but said the sport is “in good shape” with the arrival of a group of young, talented drivers.

In his annual state-of-the-sport press conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway on the final day of the season, France said NASCAR is reacting to changes in how fans “consume” the sport and the realities of a sponsorship landscape that continues to be difficult.

With Earnhardt Jr. and fellow veteran Matt Kenseth racing for probably the final time Sunday, and with Danica Patrick ending her run as a full-time driver, the transition from this season to 2018 will be dramatic. Young drivers like William Byron, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney will be expected to fill some of the void.

“They (younger drivers) are here, and they’ve got to develop their performance, but they’re doing well,” France said. “You look at Ryan Blaney, you look at Chase almost making the final here in Miami. Go down the list. We’ve got a loaded group.

“We’re in a transition, too, but that happens from time to time – not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens.”

NASCAR President Brent Dewar echoed France’s remarks.

“We feel pretty bullish about the future of the sport for the talent they have,” he said. “They’re embracing this format where every lap matters. It truly matters. I think there was a learning process at the start of the year, and I think they’ll hit Daytona (in February), all of them, with that learned behavior pretty quick.”

France said race attendance is up at “many, many events” and that television ratings don’t reveal how fans watch the sport on other devices.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which operates Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and other tracks, said revenues were down 7.5% and admissions down 4.3% from 2016 to 2017. International Speedway Corp., owner of tracks at Daytona Beach, Homestead and other locations, said in its third-quarter report that television viewership of races is down 10%.

“There’s always a peak and valley with sponsorship,” France said. “We’ll get through it. It’s not an abnormal peak and valley.”

Asked about the possibility of adding more short-track races to the Cup schedule, an idea often supported in fan surveys, France said schedule realignment within current track ownership groups is always a possibility.

“Everyone has got their own favorites, but we love short-track racing,” he said. “We’ll have to see how that goes.”

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. caps career season with 1st NASCAR title

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR’s newest champion wouldn’t take his helmet off.

He couldn’t.

If he did, then everyone would see Martin Truex Jr. cry.

Truex capped the most successful season of his journeyman career as NASCAR’s champion Sunday, then struggled to start the celebration. He was mobbed on the frontstretch by his Furniture Row Racing team, and after his girlfriend pushed through the crowd to get to him, he finally pulled the helmet and black visor off to show his face.

Truex was sobbing.

“I was a mess. I couldn’t even talk,” Truex said. “I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with, the times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me, but the guys, the people who mattered did, my fans, my family.

“Then when I got with this team … they resurrected my career and made me a champion.”

Truex won his first Cup title by winning the finale, beating Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski for the championship. The other three were former champions. Truex was the favorite .

He thrived in that role, didn’t flinch when fellow Toyota driver Busch tried to use a different pit strategy to steal the race and then held off a hard-charging Busch over the final 12 laps to capture the title.

It was the eighth win of the season for Truex and first championship for Denver-based Furniture Row Racing. It was the second title in three years for manufacturer Toyota.

“Just a dream season. I was going to be gutted if we didn’t win,” Truex said. “We gave it our all, and it was enough tonight.”

Busch finished second for Joe Gibbs Racing as Toyota, the most dominant manufacturer this season, went 1-2 in the finale.

Kyle Larson, who was eliminated from the playoffs last month, finished third in a Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. Harvick, seeking his second title, was fourth in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

Keselowski wound up seventh and was stopped short in trying to give Team Penske a season sweep of the two top American racing series. Penske won the IndyCar title in September.

Truex’s victory also denied Ford its third win of the weekend. Ford drivers won the Truck Series race and the Xfinity Series race. The manufacturer has not won a Cup title since 2004.

But it may not have even had a chance Sunday because that’s how strong Truex has been all year . Through his tears, he tried to express what this season — a year in which longtime partner Sherry Pollex suffered a recurrence of ovarian cancer — has meant.

“A lot of it was for (Pollex). A lot of it was for me. A lot of it was for this team,” Truex said. “I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid. Just never give up on your dreams no matter what happens and what kind of crap you go through.”

Missing from the celebration party was Furniture Row team owner Barney Visser. He suffered a heart attack two weeks ago and is sidelined in Colorado. After pouring millions into his race team, Visser watched it win its first championship on television.

Truex led nearly every statistical category this year, including wins, laps led and stage victories. Heading into Homestead, six of Truex’s wins came on 1 1/2-mile tracks, the same layout as Homestead. Now seven of his career-best eight wins are on those sized tracks.

“I mean, yeah, they’ve had the fastest car all year, so it was good to see him win,” said Harvick.

Keselowski reiterated that he believed the redesigned Toyota Camry has had an advantage over the competition since it debuted this season, and Chevrolet will catch up with its new Camaro next year. Ford has no plans for a redesign.

“I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that (Camry) got put on the racetrack and approved,” Keselowski said. “It kind of felt like Formula 1 where you had one car that made it through the gates heads and tails above everyone and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”

It was the final race as full-time drivers for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular in NASCAR , as well as Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt retired after his 25th-place finish.

Patrick blew a tire and wrecked , finishing 37th. The only woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, Patrick said in a tearful news conference this weekend that she would race only in those two events next season and then retire.

Kenseth, who finished 15th, has no ride lined up for next year and said he will take time away from NASCAR.

Earnhardt’s final ride slightly overshadowed the championship race, but he tried to put the focus back on good friend Truex afterward. He drove up alongside Truex, hit his car in celebration and talked after the race about his happiness for Truex. Truex won two Xfinity Series championships driving for Earnhardt early in his career.

With a cooler of beer propped on the trunk of his race car, Earnhardt chugged several then partied with his crew and fans as Truex collected the Cup trophy.

“I was glad to have a hand in getting his career started, I am so proud of him,” Earnhardt said. “This sport needs drivers like Martin Truex Jr., and everything that he went through as a driver, and everything he went through in his personal life, and everything Sherry has gone through, it’s just great. And they (Furniture Row) are the outsiders up there in Colorado, came down here and beat all of us from North Carolina.”

Even with that early success when driving for Earnhardt’s second-tier team, Truex’s career never took off. He had a ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc., which closed and was folded into the Ganassi lineup. He finally found some success after signing with Michael Waltrip Racing, but he got snared in an MWR cheating scandal in 2013 that ultimately cost Truex his job and led to the eventual shutdown of the organization.

He acknowledged earlier this week that he worried he’d never race again at NASCAR’s top level, at least until Visser called.

Pollex reminded Truex of how far they’ve come when she embraced him.

“I told him ‘That’s why you never give up,'” she said. “That’s been our motto all along, ever since I started my cancer battle. We were never going to give up, and we didn’t. Everybody is battling something, everybody is fighting something in their life, not just cancer, but any kind of struggle that they’re going through in their life.

“We always say if you can fight a struggle with a positive attitude and just have a smile on your face and find the good and the silver lining in everything, in the end you’ll come out and karma will pay you back and good things will happen to you.”

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FAREWELL DALE: NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said goodbye to full-time Cup Series racing Sunday with a 25th-place finish in the 2017 season finale. But the result was less important than the tributes to the son of a racing legend who galvanized his own legion of fans. Ford drivers performed a series of burnouts on the backstretch that culminated in an “88” carved onto the track. And the fans got their turn, shouting and cheering their appreciation to Junior during driver introductions and on pre-race laps. Earnhardt retires from the Cup Series after 18+seasons, 26 wins and 260 top-10 finishes in 631 races.

“I didn’t cry until I hugged (team owner) Rick’s (Hendrick) neck,” Earnhardt said. “He’s been like a father to me. He’s really, really helped me more than anyone will know. I will miss trying to make him proud on the racetrack. I’ll miss driving his cars.”

STAGE TWO: Larson made it a sweep of stages one and two by leading Truex to the end of the second stage. Completing the top five were Harvick, Kyle Busch and Keselowski.

PATRICK PARKS: Danica Patrick’s career as a full-time driver ended on lap 142 when her car hit the outside wall in turn two after blowing a right-rear tire. Kasey Kahne ran into the rear of Patrick’s car. The result was the race’s third caution. Patrick, who climbed out of her car as a small fire in the right front caused smoke, plans to compete in only the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next season.

“I hit the wall in three and four and got some fender rub on the tire, and it blew the tire,” Patrick said. “I went a couple of laps and there was smoke in the car, but they thought it was all right, but it wasn’t. … That sucks, but I think that what’s coming ahead is bright for me and for the way it feels, so I’m excited.”

CLOSE CALL: Kyle Busch avoided disaster on lap 122 when he barely missed hitting the sand barrels along pit road as he dropped off the track to pit.

STAGE ONE: Larson dominated the first stage, leading 68 of the 80 laps and winning the stage over Keselowski. The other Final Four contenders also were strong, with Busch finishing third, Harvick fourth and Truex fifth. Truex was the only other driver leading laps (12) in the stage.

 

FORD ECOBOOST 400

Sunday from the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (2) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 267 laps, 40 points.

2. (3) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267, 35.

3. (7) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 267, 54.

4. (9) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 267, 33.

5. (18) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 267, 39.

6. (19) Joey Logano, Ford, 267, 36.

7. (5) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267, 30.

8. (4) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267, 33.

9. (1) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267, 32.

10. (21) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267, 27.

11. (17) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267, 26.

12. (16) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 267, 26.

13. (13) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 266, 24.

14. (26) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 266, 23.

15. (6) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 266, 22.

16. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 265, 21.

17. (30) David Ragan, Ford, 265, 20.

18. (20) Aric Almirola, Ford, 265, 19.

19. (12) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 265, 18.

20. (29) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 265, 17.

21. (14) Erik Jones, Toyota, 265, 16.

22. (8) Kurt Busch, Ford, 265, 24.

23. (28) Landon Cassill, Ford, 265, 14.

24. (23) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 265, 13.

25. (24) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 264, 12.

26. (32) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 264, 11.

27. (22) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 264, 10.

28. (33) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 264, 9.

29. (11) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 264, 8.

30. (31) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 263, 7.

31. (34) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 261, 0.

32. (36) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 259, 5.

33. (27) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, accident, 234, 4.

34. (10) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, brakes, 225, 3.

35. (37) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, engine, 212, 2.

36. (38) David Starr, Chevrolet, brakes, 175, 0.

37. (25) Danica Patrick, Ford, accident, 139, 1.

38. (39) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, garage, 49, 0.

39. (35) Joey Gase, Toyota, accident, 4, 0.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 131.893 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 2 minutes, 11 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.681 seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 26 laps.

Lead Changes: 13 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: D.Hamlin 0; M.Truex 1-12; K.Larson 13-82; B.Keselowski 83; K.Larson 84-121; Ky.Busch 122-123; K.Larson 124-145; Ky.Busch 146; K.Larson 147-161; M.Truex 162-175; Ky.Busch 176; M.Truex 177; Ky.Busch 178-216; M.Truex 217-267

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Larson, 4 times for 141 laps; M.Truex, 4 times for 74 laps; Ky.Busch, 4 times for 39 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 0 laps; B.Keselowski, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: M.Truex, 8; Ky.Busch, 5; K.Larson, 4; J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 3; D.Hamlin, 2; K.Harvick, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Kahne, 1; M.Kenseth, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. M.Truex, 5040; 2. Ky.Busch, 5035; 3. K.Harvick, 5033; 4. B.Keselowski, 5030; 5. C.Elliott, 2377; 6. D.Hamlin, 2353; 7. M.Kenseth, 2344; 8. K.Larson, 2320; 9. R.Blaney, 2305; 10. J.Johnson, 2260; 11. A.Dillon, 2224; 12. J.McMurray, 2224; 13. R.Stenhouse, 2222; 14. Ku.Busch, 2217; 15. K.Kahne, 2198; 16. R.Newman, 2196.

NASCAR closing in on crowning Cup champion

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR’s four championship contenders were seated elbow-to-elbow previewing their upcoming title race when they were asked to give one word to describe the season.

“Amazing,” said Martin Truex Jr.

Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick both said the season was “long,” while Kyle Busch went with “trying.” But Truex? Well, he’s got nothing to complain about after a truly dominating season.

Truex goes into Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the clear favorite to win the title. He has a series best seven wins and six were at 1.5-mile tracks. Homestead is a 1.5-mile track.

He leads the series in nearly every meaningful statistic, and if the points earned all season weren’t reset for Sunday’s finale, he’d have already won his first Cup title.

“If it wasn’t set back at zero, we’d probably all be congratulating Martin right now,” said Keselowski. “But it is.”

So it’s winner-take-all race, and everything Truex has built this season is on the line. He faces three former series champions, each of them looking for their second title.

For Harvick, it would be the first in Stewart-Haas Racing’s new partnership with Ford. If Harvick wins, it will be SHR’s third championship since 2011, second since the elimination format was introduced in 2014 and first for a team in a first-year relationship with a manufacturer since Cale Yarborough in 1978.

Keselowski is seeking a crown to go with his 2012 title, which was not won under this format. He had to beat Jimmie Johnson that day on points, and pulled it off. He will try to give team owner Roger Penske two major championships this year. Penske won the IndyCar title with Josef Newgarden earlier this year.

If either Harvick or Keselowski wins, it would be the first title for Ford since 2004.

They are up against a pair of Toyotas, the dominant manufacturer this season.

Busch is seeking a repeat of his 2015 title, which some have marked with an asterisk. Busch missed the first third of the season with injuries suffered in a season-opening race at Daytona, but still raced himself into title contention on a shortened schedule.

And he’s chasing Truex, who has taken his Furniture Row Racing team to a level beyond the alliance it has with Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch has been good this season, but he’s not had anything close to the year that Truex has put together. With Truex such the clear favorite, it made for quiet media day for the championship competitors. — except when Busch and Keselowski were asked why they have never squashed their rivalry.

Keselowski tried to downplay a feud. Busch didn’t mince words.

“Sometimes you just don’t like a guy, fact of the matter,” Busch said. “I never ran into Matt Kenseth, I don’t think Matt Kenseth ever ran into me, so there is a respect factor out there on the race track and you certainly do a better job sometimes when you’re around some of those guys that you may or may not necessarily like. But as once a wise man told me, I think it was Chase Elliott, I race those like they race me.”

Elliott used that line last week to address his aggressive racing with Denny Hamlin that cost Hamlin a shot at the title. It was retaliation for Hamlin wrecking Elliott out of the lead at Martinsville earlier in the playoffs.

How aggressive can the contenders be Sunday to win the championship?

“I mean, I’m willing to try to go win the race,” said Keselowski. “When it comes down to the end of the race, I don’t think anyone really knows that answer until it’s right in front of them.”

Truex knew what the crowd wanted to hear.

“I’ll wreck any damn one of these three,” he joked.

Then he was serious.

“I’m going to race these guys just like I do every single week,” Truex said. “I have not thought about any desperation moves. I don’t plan on being in that position. I think a perfect scenario is to go out there and race them heads up and beat them fair and square. That’s how I approach racing. That’s how I plan on doing it Sunday.”

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Back in the February chill of Daytona Beach and the optimism-filled days leading to the season-opening Daytona 500, dozens of drivers were eligible for the big trophy that will be in the hands of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Sunday night.

Now, the season in twilight and 35 points races having been contested, that field has been reduced to four — former champions Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski and non-champion (but perhaps favored this time) Martin Truex Jr.

After three rounds of practice, qualifying and endless talk about the championship, the Final Four will race over 267 laps and 400.5 miles Sunday with the top stock car racing title in the world going to the one of the four who finishes highest. Winning isn’t necessary, although it’s been standard in this competition, so drivers and crew chiefs aim for that.

The title will be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a tough 1.5-mile track 300 miles south of Daytona International Speedway, where it all began.

Mayhem might ensue.

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NASCAR: Drivers competing in the NASCAR championship race

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — A glance at the four drivers in the NASCAR championship race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway:

DRIVER: Kyle Busch

TEAM: No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing

BORN: May 2, 1985

HOMETOWN: Las Vegas

CREW CHIEF: Adam Stevens

SPONSOR: M&M’s Caramel/Interstate Batteries

SOCIAL MEDIA: @kylebusch (Twitter), @rowdybusch (Instagram)

NOTES: Busch is racing for his second championship and has been among the top teams all season. He has five wins this season and is perhaps the only one of the championship contenders who stayed close to favorite Martin Truex Jr. at times. He has been the top driver at Gibbs this season, and the only driver so far to give Toyota a Cup title.

___

DRIVER: Kevin Harvick

TEAM: No. 4 Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing

BORN: Dec. 8, 1975

HOMETOWN: Bakersfield, California

CREW CHIEF: Rodney Childers

SPONSOR: Jimmy John’s

SOCIAL MEDIA: @KevinHarvick (Twitter and Instagram)

NOTES: Harvick is seeking his second Cup championship and is far from the favorite, which he was during his 2014 title run. That year, Harvick won in his first season with the team. This year, he is trying to do it in SHR’s first season with Ford. If Harvick wins, SHR would be the first to do so with a new manufacturer since Cale Yarborough did it in 1978.

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DRIVER: Brad Keselowski

TEAM: No. 2 Ford, Team Penske

BORN: Feb. 12, 1984

HOMETOWN: Rochester Hills, Michigan

CREW CHIEF: Paul Wolfe

SPONSOR: Miller Lite

SOCIAL MEDIA: @keselowski (Twitter)

NOTES: Keselowski is the 2012 NASCAR champion and has yet to win a title in this elimination, winner-take-all format. Should Keselowski win, Team Penske would sweep the major American racing series. Penske already celebrated a title this year in IndyCar with Josef Newgarden. Keselowski is also trying to become the first Ford driver to win the title since Kurt Busch in 2004.

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DRIVER: Martin Truex Jr.

TEAM: No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing

BORN: June 29, 1980

HOMETOWN: Mayetta, New Jersey

CREW CHIEF: Cole Pearn

SPONSOR: Furniture Row

SOCIAL MEDIA: @MartinTruex_Jr (Twitter and Instagram)

NOTES: The favorite for the championship and a seven-time winner this year, Truex has led the Cup Series in nearly every measurable category. He is the only the driver in the championship four without a Cup title, but he has raced in this format before. Truex won’t have team owner Barney Visser in attendance because he is recovering from a heart attack and surgery at home in Colorado.

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XFINITY PLAYOFFS

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Justin Allgaier will have a new crew chief in the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend.

Veteran car chief Billy Wilburn will call the shots as Allgaier drives for his first career NASCAR title. Jason Burdett has been suspended for the final race because of an unattached brake cooling hose found during inspection after Phoenix.

Allgaier is one of four drivers competing for the Xfinity title. He’ll race against JR Motorsports teammates William Byron and Elliott Sadler and Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric.

Allgaier has two wins (Phoenix Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway), 10 top-5s and 17 top-10 finishes in 32 starts this season.

“I know that we have an extremely good race team and a lot of depth,” Allgaier said. “When you look at other teams that we run against, I think that would be an area that they probably struggle in. I know for us, we’re making the most of the situation that we’re dealt. I feel like for our race team, that’s when we’ve had the best finishes, best runs and really the most confidence going into a weekend. As much as I’m not looking forward to having Jason not there, I’m looking forward to the weekend because I know how strong this team is.”

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

NASCAR – Takeaways from Phoenix: Harvick plays underdog, Truex embraces being top dog

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   AVONDALE, Ariz. — Four takeaways from Phoenix Raceway and Sunday’s Can-Am 500 as NASCAR prepares to decide its three national-series championships this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida:

TALKING THE TALK – The checkered flag had barely stopping flying over Matt Kenseth’s winning car Sunday when the trash talk for next weekend started.

Kevin Harvick, who considers himself something of a master at head games, began by declaring himself essentially an underdog in the race for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup title.

“The pressure is really on the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and the 18 (Kyle Busch),” Harvick said. “Those guys have dominated the year, and I feel like if they don’t win at this point, they would probably feel like they’ve had a letdown. It’s a lot of fun coming from behind and playing catch‑up, and kind of playing that underdog role is much easier than being expected to go down there and win.”

Truex wasn’t buying it.

“If I’m the favorite, perfect, I like that,” he said. “I think it’s a better position to be in. … So, yeah, bring it on.”

If Harvick’s plan is to bounce around in the heads of Truex, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, hard racers all, he’s likely to find that avenue not very productive.

ALL QUIET ON THE CHEVY FRONT – Chevrolet has won 10 of the last 12 Cup driver championships, but this year’s will be decided between Toyota (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) and Ford (Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick).

Chevrolet didn’t have a horrible year – it won 10 races and put seven drivers into the 16-driver playoff field, but its spotlighted performers – Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson – failed to take General Motors to the finals.

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HAMLIN BUMPED OUT – In 11 full-time seasons in Cup racing, Denny Hamlin has scored nine top-10 finishes in the final point standings – three in the top three. The 2017 season will mark another year in which he failed to win his first title.

Those hopes ended late in Sunday’s race when Chase Elliott bumped Hamlin into the outside wall, eventually forcing Hamlin to park. The encounter was viewed as payback for Hamlin wrecking Elliott two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway.

“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things, and it just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances,” Hamlin said of the meeting with Elliott. “So, I mean, you know, it’s just part of racing. I got into him, and he chose to retaliate, so I’m in the garage, and that’s the way it is.”

TRUEX TOTALS – With seven race wins and a thoroughly consistent season, Martin Truex Jr. will roll into Homestead as the championship favorite, despite the fact that he’s the only driver in the Final Four without a title.

Truex has been a force in the playoffs, winning three times and posting an average finish of 2.37 in eight of the nine races (not including Talladega Superspeedway, where he wrecked).

The downside for Truex and his team is that team owner Barney Visser won’t be at Homestead to experience the finale because of recent heart surgery. Truex said Visser is improving rapidly but won’t be ready to travel by this weekend.

“For a long time he thought he was bad luck because we only won when he was not here,” Truex said. “So if we do win it next weekend and he’s not there, he may never show up again.

“In all honesty, we definitely wish he was there, but he’ll be there in spirit. He’s a huge part of this team, and everybody has got him on their mind as the weekend goes on as we’re doing our jobs, and we know we wouldn’t be here without him. He means a ton to us, and we’re going to try to go get this one for him.”

NASCAR: Matt Kenseth wins and Keselowski earns championship berth

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Matt Kenseth doesn’t get to end his career the way he hoped. He thinks he’s got a handful of good years left in him, and can win races and compete for championships.

But, the economics of the sport have made Kenseth a casualty of NASCAR’s new youth movement. He doesn’t have a job for next year.

So he’s going away. But he’s not going quietly.

Kenseth won for the first time this season, snapping a 51-race winless streak, to earn one final victory celebration.

“Just got one race left and everybody dreams of going out a winner,” a tearful Kenseth said after climbing from his Toyota.

“It’s just been quite a journey, and today was a really special day for me, to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel.”

Kenseth passed Chase Elliott with 10 laps remaining to win Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway and deny Elliott the final berth in next week’s championship race. Had Elliott hung on for the win, he would have qualified for the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elliott finished second for the seventh time in his career.

Brad Keselowski earned the final spot in the championship on points because a playoff-eligible driver did not win the race. Keselowski will race Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick for the championship next Sunday at Homestead. The field, two Toyota drivers and two Ford drivers, includes three former series champions and Truex, the most dominant driver of the season.

Kenseth had already been eliminated from the playoffs, so his victory was purely personal satisfaction. The 2003 NASCAR champion is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and consistent playoff driver, but he’s 45 and being replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing next season by Erik Jones.

Too expensive to land a competitive ride for next season, Kenseth has decided to take time away rather than drive a car that can’t win races.

“He’s been really down and frustrated and trying to figure out this season and what it’s all about, to try to go out there and try to win in his final season, not on his own terms final season,” said teammate Busch, one of many drivers to congratulate Kenseth.

“I think it shows that there’s no reason why he couldn’t have gotten a job anywhere else. It’s just, I guess, the industry didn’t see Matt Kenseth as their driver, and that’s really, really unfortunate because I love the guy and have raced with respect for him for a long, long time and will forever respect him for what he’s done for the sport.”

Kenseth said he’s finally found peace with his future.

“I probably knew around August that it really wasn’t meant for me to be racing anymore at this level, you know, going forward,” Kenseth said. “I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought about doing something different, but then just really embraced it.

“Not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship. It’s really a blessing to be able to go to work every day and work as hard as you can on it, put everything into it that you’ve got and finally get one here.”

The Kenseth win salvaged the day for Gibbs, which had a chance to get Denny Hamlin into the championship until his feud with Elliott cost him the chance.

The two were racing for position and Elliott gave Hamlin several taps as he tried to get past him for position, and when he finally was able to pull alongside Hamlin, the two cars made contact. Hamlin grazed the wall and immediately began losing positions on the track.

Just a few laps later, his tire blew, Hamlin hit the wall and his race was over. Elliott admitted he raced Hamlin aggressively, same as Hamlin did when he wrecked Elliott from the lead at Martinsville.

“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that’s what I did today,” Elliott said. “I raced him how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it. That’s about all I have to say.”

Hamlin was racing to win, but could have beaten Keselowski into the finale on points had he not wrecked. He has maintained that he didn’t mean to wreck Elliott at Martinsville, and the payback Sunday was redemption.

“It just proves to the people who thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances,” Hamlin said. “I got into him and he chose to retaliate.”

Jimmie Johnson also wrecked early in the race , ending his bid to make the championship. The elimination of the seven-time champion means NASCAR will not have a repeat winner.

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LARSON’S WOES: Kyle Larson won the first stage of the race, and then his recent run of bad luck continued. His engine failed early in the second stage and Larson went to the garage with a last-place finish.

It’s the fourth straight race Larson has failed to finish dating to Kansas when an engine failure knocked him out of the playoffs. Larson was considered a strong contender to win the title.

“It’s a crappy way to end the season,” Larson said. “I haven’t blown up an engine since my first two Cup starts in 2013, now I’ve had three this season. It’s a little disappointing and definitely a bad time of year to have that stuff happen.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing team gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports.

BIG HIT: Trevor Bayne had a tire go down in the third stage of the race that caused his car to veer directly into the wall.

“That hurt so bad,” Bayne said on his team radio.

He was able to climb from his car and walk to a waiting ambulance for a mandatory check in the care center.

FIRE BREAK: The race was briefly red-flagged with 58 laps remaining when an accident involving Chris Buescher caused two different fires.

The brake rotor on Buescher’s car exploded and pieces landed inside the energy-absorbing SAFER barrier. The hot parts caused the Styrofoam to catch fire in two different parts of the wall. NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell tweeted during the five-minute stoppage that the red flag was used to “avoid too many lost laps” during the cleanup.

UP NEXT: The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. The highest finishing driver of the four contenders will win the championship.

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CAN-AM 500 RESULTS

Sunday from the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (7) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 312 laps, 0 rating, 56 points.

2. (4) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 312, 0, 45.

3. (5) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 312, 0, 44.

4. (11) Erik Jones, Toyota, 312, 0, 45.

5. (6) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 312, 0, 43.

6. (13) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 312, 0, 35.

7. (8) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 312, 0, 41.

8. (27) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 312, 0, 29.

9. (22) Aric Almirola, Ford, 312, 0, 28.

10. (14) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 312, 0, 27.

11. (29) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 312, 0, 26.

12. (9) Joey Logano, Ford, 312, 0, 25.

13. (20) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 312, 0, 25.

14. (21) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 312, 0, 23.

15. (19) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 312, 0, 22.

16. (16) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 312, 0, 21.

17. (1) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 312, 0, 20.

18. (10) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 312, 0, 19.

19. (17) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 311, 0, 18.

20. (18) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 311, 0, 22.

21. (15) Kurt Busch, Ford, 310, 0, 16.

22. (28) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 309, 0, 15.

23. (23) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 309, 0, 14.

24. (32) Landon Cassill, Ford, 309, 0, 13.

25. (24) Danica Patrick, Ford, 309, 0, 12.

26. (37) D.J. Kennington, Chevrolet, 307, 0, 11.

27. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 306, 0, 10.

28. (36) David Starr, Chevrolet, 306, 0, 0.

29. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 305, 0, 8.

30. (35) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 304, 0, 0.

31. (33) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 303, 0, 6.

32. (40) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 302, 0, 5.

33. (26) David Ragan, Ford, 301, 0, 4.

34. (39) Kyle Weatherman, Chevrolet, 294, 0, 3.

35. (2) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, accident, 275, 0, 21.

36. (34) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, accident, 258, 0, 1.

37. (31) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, accident, 247, 0, 1.

38. (25) Trevor Bayne, Ford, accident, 226, 0, 1.

39. (12) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, accident, 148, 0, 2.

40. (3) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, engine, 104, 0, 11.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 105.538 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 57 minutes, 23 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.207 seconds.

Caution Flags: 7 for 41 laps.

Lead Changes: 9 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: R.Blaney 1-11; C.Elliott 12-25; D.Hamlin 26; C.Elliott 27; D.Hamlin 28-67; K.Larson 68-79; D.Hamlin 80-231; M.Kenseth 232-283; C.Elliott 284-302; M.Kenseth 303-312

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): D.Hamlin, 3 times for 190 laps; M.Kenseth, 2 times for 60 laps; C.Elliott, 3 times for 31 laps; K.Larson, 1 time for 11 laps; R.Blaney, 1 time for 10 laps.

Wins: M.Truex, 7; Ky.Busch, 5; K.Larson, 4; J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 3; D.Hamlin, 2; K.Harvick, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Kahne, 1; M.Kenseth, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

NASCAR Texas takeaways: Kevin Harvick did it his way; Jimmie Johnson on the ropes

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move from the heart of Texas to the desert this weekend for the final elimination race of the season.

Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway will determine the last remaining spot in the final four that will race for the championship on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Kevin Harvick, who took the trophy at Texas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch, who prevailed at Martinsville Speedway, and Martin Truex Jr. have already clinched spots.

Here are five takeaways from the AAA Texas 500, the second race in the round of eight:

Harvick did it his way: Harvick has been something of an afterthought through much of the playoff season and, having never won in Texas, and only once this season, certainly wasn’t looked upon as a driver to watch for the AAA Texas 500. Yet the 41-year-old Californian found a way to drive his No. 4 Ford past the more dominant Toyotas, especially Truex, and win his first race in Fort Worth, clinching a spot in the final four. Harvick did it on his own, having no radio contact with his Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief Rodney Childers during the last crucial laps, as he passed Truex with nine laps remaining and never looked back.

“I don’t talk to him when he’s (locked in) like that,” Childers said. “Honestly, nobody needs to. It’s up to him. Kevin changed some things around there at the end and figured some stuff out. . . . He’s the one that made the difference today.”

Harvick now moves on to Phoenix, his best track, where he has won six of the last 10 races and eight overall, most by any NASCAR driver at that track.

Is it bye-bye Jimmie?: Jimmie Johnson’s shot at defending his Cup title and winning the championship for a record eighth time, surpassing Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, now comes down to this: Win or go home. It is virtually impossible for him to earn enough points to get into the final four given his disastrous result Sunday at Texas, where has won seven times — more than anyone else — and was expected to do well. That didn’t happen. He had car trouble early, pitting off-cycle in Stage 1 due to a vibration in his No. 48 Chevrolet. That put him two laps down, and he finished 27th, three laps back. He has won four times at Phoenix, but the pressure to win will be on Sunday like never before.

Chevy left out in the cold, so far: Two Toyota drivers and one Ford driver are locked into the final four. Of  the remaining five playoff drivers, Chevrolets (Chase Elliott and  Johnson) sit seventh and eighth in the standings, respectively. So there is a very real chance that Chevy could be locked out of the championship hunt. Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney drive for Ford and Truex, Busch and Denny Hamlin for Toyota.

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Taking the high road: The talk among NASCAR scribes and fans coming into the Texas race was whether Elliott, who was deprived of possibly his first career Cup victory after the then-race leader was nudged into the wall by Denny Hamlin during the last crazy laps at Martinsville, would retaliate against Hamlin, with whom he engaged in a heated-face-to-face post-race confrontation, when they got to Texas. But the 21-year-old son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott took the high road and advised reporters not to even ask about it during his press conference last Friday. By all accounts, Elliott ran a clean race after starting from the 34th spot because he failed to qualify. Elliott ended up finishing a respectable eighth, but lost a chance to collect crucial stage points, which puts him in a precarious position in the standings — and like his Chevy teammate Johnson, makes Phoenix a must-win situation to advance to Homestead.

The right call: A post-race tradition was broken at Texas Motor Speedway, and it might have been the best call of the day. The firing of two pistols to celebrate Harvick’s victory lane celebration was canceled in the wake of the worst mass shooting in Texas history earlier that morning that killed 26 people in a church near San Antonio. Track President Eddie Gossage told USA TODAY the decision was “the respectful thing to do.” Actually it was the only thing to do.

NASCAR: Harvick passes Truex for Texas win, both clinch title shots

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The timing was perfect for Kevin Harvick’s first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Texas. So was his winning pass.

Harvick went around the outside of Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 10 laps to go, then stayed in front the rest of the way Sunday to earn his championship shot in NASCAR’s season finale.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Harvick, who had won five Xfinity races and a NASCAR Truck race at Texas in the past. “Great to check that one off.”

Truex led 107 of 334 laps and was still up front until his bobble on the backstretch that allowed Harvick to take the lead. But Truex, with a significant points lead and wins in three of the eight playoff races, also locked into one of the four spots to race for the championship at Homestead in two weeks.

“A little disappointed to come up short, but to clinch a spot in Miami is unbelievable,” Truex said. “Definitely got the job done today, and came here and did what we needed to.”

Kyle Busch had already clinched a championship spot with his win at Martinsville a week ago to start the third round of the playoffs. That leaves only one spot up for grabs among the five remaining playoff contenders next week at Phoenix.

After doing a long burnout along the frontstretch in the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick went to Victory Lane, where the Texas celebration was missing the traditional firing of six-shooters by the winner.

TMS officials bypassed the use of the pistols after a man armed with an assault rifle opened fire earlier Sunday inside a church in the small community of Sutherland Springs, about 300 miles south of the track near San Antonio. The man killed 26 people and wounded about 20 in what Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said was the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history.

Denny Hamlin, another of the playoff contenders, finished third, while Brad Keselowski was fifth and Ryan Blaney sixth. Chase Elliott finished eighth, and his teammate Jimmie Johnson dealt with a loose car all day and finished 27th.

Keselowski dropped from third to fourth in points, 57 behind Truex. Hamlin is fifth in the standings, followed by Ryan Blaney, Elliott and seventh-time Cup champion Johnson.

“I’d feel confident if we were locked in. These races you don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Keselowski said.

Elliott knows that feeling, having been in the lead and two laps shy of the checkered flag at Martinsville before getting wrecked by Hamlin. Instead of the possible win then that would have clinched a championship spot, he now likely has to win at Phoenix to advance.

“Yeah, I guess. … I assume so,” Elliott said. “We’ll just go on to Phoenix. We are going to try our best, try to get a victory and go on to Homestead.”

Harvick felt good about his car all day, but had to earn the victory in Texas. Tony Stewart, the former Cup champion and car owner, liked what he saw in those last 20-25 laps.

“It wasn’t just the fact of winning this race, but it’s just how it was won,” Stewart said. “I know Kevin, and I can tell watching his driving style, there’s something that field and those other three guys that are going to make it to Homestead here in a couple of weeks, they’ve got something to be worried about.”

After several laps chasing down Truex, Harvick was eventually able to get around the No. 78 when he executed on a cue he had taken from watching Kyle Larson driving really deep into turn one earlier in the race.

“I knew I needed to do something different in order to get past Martin. I tried to just start driving it in there and we kept going faster and faster,” Harvick said. “I kept driving it in there and one lap I got close enough to get the air off the back of his car. I actually got to the outside and was able to pass him on the outside.”

Then to Victory Lane and a championship shot.

JIMMIE’S TOUGH DAY: Johnson got to Texas only three points out of the top four, and had won there for the seventh time last spring. But he had to make an early stop because of a vibration issue. “It was just a bad day that kept getting worse,” he said after finishing 27th place, his second-worst finish in his 29 Texas races.

RED FLAG: There was a red flag with 50 laps left after the No. 42 driven by Larson, who won the second stage and led 74 laps Sunday, got loose in Turns 1 and 2 and slammed hard into the wall. There was fire coming out of the rear of the car by time it came to rest on the backstretch.

ANOTHER DNF: It was the third straight race Larson wasn’t able to finish. The first of those DNFs was two weeks ago at Kansas, when an engine issue led to his elimination from championship contention. He had gone into the playoffs second in points.

FINALE WHERE HE GOT FIRST: Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his first Cup Series victory at Texas in 2000, when he was a 25-year-old rookie driver. That is still the only of his 26 career victories that came in Texas. In his 30th start at Texas on Sunday, Earnhardt briefly led near the midpoint of the race during a cycle of green-flag stops. But he finished 35th, 30 laps off the pace, after having to go to the garage with about 90 laps left to replace the front left hub on the No. 88 Chevrolet.

AAA AGAIN: Texas Motor Speedway and AAA announced Sunday that the national insurance company and auto club has signed another multi-year renewal as title sponsor for the track’s fall race that is part of the NASCAR playoffs. The title sponsorship began in 2010.

UP NEXT: The final elimination race at Phoenix, with five playoff contenders left and only one championship spot for the Nov. 19 finale at Homestead.

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AAA TEXAS 500 RESULTS

Sunday from the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (3) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 334 laps, 0 rating, 59 points.

2. (7) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 334, 0, 51.

3. (2) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 334, 0, 47.

4. (35) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 334, 0, 40.

5. (10) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 334, 0, 32.

6. (8) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 334, 0, 42.

7. (36) Joey Logano, Ford, 334, 0, 30.

8. (34) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 35.

9. (1) Kurt Busch, Ford, 334, 0, 38.

10. (4) Erik Jones, Toyota, 334, 0, 34.

11. (19) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 26.

12. (12) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 334, 0, 25.

13. (15) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 27.

14. (6) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 334, 0, 24.

15. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 334, 0, 22.

16. (16) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 21.

17. (14) Danica Patrick, Ford, 333, 0, 20.

18. (13) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 333, 0, 19.

19. (5) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 333, 0, 18.

20. (25) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 333, 0, 17.

21. (23) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 333, 0, 16.

22. (26) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 333, 0, 15.

23. (21) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 332, 0, 14.

24. (27) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 332, 0, 13.

25. (28) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 332, 0, 12.

26. (22) Landon Cassill, Ford, 331, 0, 11.

27. (9) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 331, 0, 10.

28. (37) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 330, 0, 9.

29. (29) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 330, 0, 8.

30. (24) David Ragan, Ford, 329, 0, 7.

31. (38) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 325, 0, 6.

32. (30) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 322, 0, 0.

33. (32) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 322, 0, 4.

34. (31) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, 305, 0, 0.

35. (17) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 304, 0, 2.

36. (20) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 303, 0, 1.

37. (11) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, accident, 282, 0, 18.

38. (33) David Starr, Chevrolet, accident, 237, 0, 0.

39. (39) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, engine, 227, 0, 1.

40. (40) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, engine, 159, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 143.239 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 29 minutes, 52 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.580 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 40 laps.

Lead Changes: 27 among 14 drivers.

Lap Leaders: Ku.Busch 0; D.Hamlin 1-46; K.Larson 47-53; A.Dillon 54; C.Elliott 55; M.McDowell 56-59; R.Newman 60; K.Larson 61-69; K.Harvick 70-88; D.Hamlin 89-91; K.Harvick 92-97; K.Larson 98-143; M.Kenseth 144-154; D.Earnhardt 155-157; K.Kahne 158-160; K.Larson 161-172; K.Harvick 173; M.Kenseth 174-184; M.Truex 185-225; K.Harvick 226-227; Ky.Busch 228-234; J.Logano 235; M.Truex 236-238; M.Kenseth 239-245; M.Truex 246-271; D.Hamlin 272-287; M.Truex 288-324; K.Harvick 325-334

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): M.Truex, 4 times for 103 laps; K.Larson, 4 times for 70 laps; D.Hamlin, 3 times for 62 laps; K.Harvick, 5 times for 33 laps; M.Kenseth, 3 times for 26 laps; Ky.Busch, 1 time for 6 laps; M.McDowell, 1 time for 3 laps; D.Earnhardt, 1 time for 2 laps; K.Kahne, 1 time for 2 laps; Ku.Busch, 1 time for 0 laps; A.Dillon, 1 time for 0 laps; C.Elliott, 1 time for 0 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 0 laps; R.Newman, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: M.Truex, 7; Ky.Busch, 5; K.Larson, 4; J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 3; D.Hamlin, 2; K.Harvick, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Kahne, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. M.Truex, 4168; 2. Ky.Busch, 4118; 3. K.Harvick, 4112; 4. B.Keselowski, 4111; 5. D.Hamlin, 4092; 6. R.Blaney, 4089; 7. C.Elliott, 4062; 8. J.Johnson, 4060; 9. M.Kenseth, 2255; 10. K.Larson, 2255; 11. Ku.Busch, 2177; 12. K.Kahne, 2176; 13. A.Dillon, 2175; 14. R.Stenhouse, 2171; 15. J.McMurray, 2165; 16. R.Newman, 2147.

Erik Jones completes sweep of Xfinity races at Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Elliott Sadler kept losing ground late while Erik Jones cruised to a Texas season sweep in the NASCAR Xfinity Series on Saturday night.

The veteran driver gained on the competition that mattered most, though.

Jones led 137 of 200 laps for the first Texas sweep of NASCAR’s No. 2 circuit in eight years, and Sadler took the points lead with one race remaining to set the final four in the run for the series championship.

“We were able to do things that we needed to do to get ourselves in pretty decent position going to Phoenix,” Sadler said. “That’s what our goal was as we entered the weekend and we feel like we did that.”

Jones and fellow Cup driver Ryan Blaney pulled away from Sadler over the final 30 laps in Jones’ third Xfinity victory of the season and third in six tries on the 1.5-mile Texas track.

Sadler was the top finisher among the playoff contenders, taking fourth, one spot ahead of fellow playoff driver Cole Custer. Sadler moved up from third in the point standings, five ahead of William Byron, who took ninth.

Justin Allgaier, the points leader coming in, finished 11th and dropped to third in points. Brennan Poole, who took seventh, is fourth in points, 24 back.

The championship field for the finale at Homestead will be set next week in Phoenix.

“Phoenix is a tricky track with the dogleg on the back and people using the apron and cutting across,” Sadler said. “That place can get wild. I don’t think any points is a really safe margin to have.”

Jones qualified on the pole a couple of hours before the race and led the entire first stage, covering 46 laps. He trailed through the middle before taking over again late. Jones and Blaney made late fuel-only pit stops.

The first two Xfinity wins for Jones were back-to-back in the spring at Texas and Bristol, Tennessee. He’s the first with an Xfinity sweep at Texas since Kyle Busch in 2009.

“The first time I came here in a truck, I’ll never forget, I never thought I’d like the place and ever since then it’s just kind of clicked for me,” Jones said.

Matt Tifft, who was sent to the back of the field for a crew member coming over the wall early on a pit stop, recovered the finish eighth and is fifth in points. He’s five points behind Poole, who holds the final qualifying spot at the moment.

Custer bounced back from an early flat tire and moved from eighth to sixth in points. He trails Poole by 13 points.

“I can’t really say I’m too upset or too down going into Phoenix or anything,” Custer said. “It’s just that two weeks in a row just had some bad luck.”

Cup driver Kyle Larson was third.

Christopher Bell, coming off his first Xfinity win in Kansas and competing about 200 miles south of his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, pulled his car out of a spin about halfway through the race and finished sixth.

FULL RESULTS: O’Reilly Auto Parts 300

1. (1) Erik Jones, Toyota, 200.
2. (4) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 200.
3. (10) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200.
4. (5) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 200.
5. (2) Cole Custer, Ford, 200.
6. (8) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 200.
7. (12) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 200.
8. (3) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 200.
9. (9) William Byron, Chevrolet, 200.
10. (7) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.
11. (13) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 200.
12. (18) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 199.
13. (17) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 199.
14. (6) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 199.
15. (16) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 199.
16. (14) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 199.
17. (19) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 199.
18. (21) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 199.
19. (24) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 199.
20. (20) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 199.
21. (23) Dylan Lupton, Toyota, 198.
22. (25) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 198.
23. (15) Ryan Reed, Ford, 198.
24. (26) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 198.
25. (32) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 196.
26. (22) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 196.
27. (28) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 196.
28. (33) Mario Gosselin, Chevrolet, 195.
29. (36) Spencer Boyd, Chevrolet, 191.
30. (34) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 188.
31. (31) David Starr, Chevrolet, 159.
32. (37) Mike Harmon, Dodge, Suspension, 104.
33. (30) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, Vibration, 65.
34. (38) Josh Williams, Chevrolet, Electrical, 62.
35. (11) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, Accident, 60.
36. (29) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, Electrical, 52.
37. (27) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, Vibration, 50.
38. (35) Angela Ruch, Chevrolet, Accident, 47.
39. (39) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, Handling, 25.
40. (40) John Jackson, Dodge, Fuel Pump, 7.

RACE STATISTICS:

Average speed of winner: 133.862 mph.
Time of race: 2 hours, 14 minutes, 28 seconds.
Margin of victory: 1.018 Seconds.
Caution flags: 7 for 33 laps.
Lead changes: 10 among 6 drivers.

Lap leaders: E. Jones(i) 1-48; W. Byron 49-65; E. Jones(i) 66-80; K. Larson(i) 81; E. Jones(i) 82-93; R. Blaney(i) 94-127; E. Jones(i) 128-185; K. Larson(i) 186-188; M. Annett 189; T. Dillon(i) 190-191; E. Jones(i) 192-200.

Leaders summary (driver, times lead, laps led): E. Jones(i) 5 times for 142 laps; R. Blaney(i) 1 time for 34 laps; W. Byron 1 time for 17 laps; K. Larson(i) 2 times for 4 laps; T. Dillon(i) 1 time for 2 laps; M. Annett 1 time for 1 lap.

Kurt Busch sets NASCAR qualifying record to win Texas pole

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Kurt Busch went faster than anyone has ever gone in NASCAR Cup qualifying on a 1½-mile track. While out of championship contention and uncertain who he will drive for next season, he is still trying to win races.

“The sensation of speed is, it’s unbelievable,” Busch said.

Busch averaged a record 200.915 mph on his only lap in the final round of qualifying Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. The Stewart-Haas driver was in one of the five cars that broke the 200-mph mark, with Denny Hamlin qualifying second and the highest of the remaining championship contenders.

“Development, that’s the biggest thing. That’s just the biggest thing,” Hamlin said, when asked about the high qualifying speeds. “And trust me, I don’t know of any driver that is comfortable running at the speed where running right now. Kevin Harvick walked by and as soon as that was over, he said, ‘I’m glad that is over.’ It’s crazy speed.”

The top five all surpassed the previous qualifying record at the track, Tony Stewart’s 200.111 mph before the fall race three years ago.

Hamlin qualified at 200.617 mph, with the others going over 200 mph on the high-banked track being Harvick (200.372 mph), Erik Jones (200.326 mph) and Kyle Busch (200.252 mph). Hamlin, Harvick and Kyle Busch, the only driver locked into a title shot at Homestead, are all championship contenders.

Martin Truex Jr., leading in points, qualified seventh at 199.431 mph, directly ahead of fellow title contenders Ryan Blaney (199.380 mph), Jimmie Johnson (198.727 mph) and Brad Keselowski (198.478 mph) in the eighth through 10th spots.

The only championship contender starting outside the top 10 was Chase Elliott, who was among seven drivers who didn’t make any qualifying laps after not making it through tech inspection in time. He will start 34th on Sunday.

Harvick obviously made it through inspection, though it was a rush to get through the first round of the three-stage qualifying.

“This is a little bit of a nerve-wracking lap because it is so fast,” Harvick said. “For me, my heart rate has been up since I started because of the anxiety of getting in the car late, not having time to prep yourself getting in and calm down and then you get in there and it is just lap after lap, but it worked out fine.”

Kurt Busch said he saw old friend Friday who had his two sons with him. The two boys were in awe of the surroundings on pit road when Busch winked at them and gave a prophetic word.

“I said, ‘It’s going to be over 200 miles per hour today.’ And they were like, ‘Woah,’ and then I was able to back it up,” Busch said. “So I feel impressed.”

TRUCK SERIES:

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Johnny Sauter and wife Cortney welcomed their fourth child, a girl named Alice, on Wednesday morning.

“It was a crazy week,” Sauter said. “But it’s cool. I’m blessed to have the wife that I have I do and having are fourth child into the world was pretty awesome, so I’m a lucky, lucky man.”

On Friday night, Sauter had more to celebrate when he won the NASCAR Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. The defending series champion became the first driver earn a spot in the series championship finale in two weeks.

“Texas is becoming one of my favorite places on earth,” Sauter said. “Just pumped up. I haven’t been pumped up this much in a long, long time. This is a big win, obviously a big week.”

The 39-year-old Sauter held off 19-year-old Austin Cindric for his third victory of the season and fourth in Texas.

“I think it was youth versus experience tonight and experience won in more ways than one,” Cindric said. “Johnny taught me a few things . definitely a few things to keep in the notebook.”

On Friday, the veteran driver may have taught the younger races a thing or two about flexibility and not being married to your pre-race plans.

“Everything we had planned about strategy out there went out the window in the first 20 laps,” Sauter said. “It was pretty much calling an audible every time … usually takes me 10 laps to get going, so I never felt like I was in the track like I wanted to be. But as the night progressed it just got better.”

The top three spots were claimed by drivers still in the chase for the four-man championship showdown at Homestead on Nov. 17. Christopher Bell finished third, and is second behind Sauter in the playoff standings.

Two of the playoff drivers made critical mistakes in the race.

John Hunter Nemecheck was leading with 13 laps to go, but ran out of gas and was required to pit. He was then given a penalty for speeding out of the pit road and ended up finishing 19th.

“We gambled it and it didn’t work out,” Nemecheck said.

Ben Rhodes was in the top 10 for much of the race, but a faulty pit stop with 17 laps to go dropped him into the back of the pack and he finished 18th.

Matt Crafton, another playoff contender, finished ninth.

Chase Briscoe, a rookie out of the playoff hunt, finished fourth.

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

NASCAR playoffs move to Texas for the second Round of 8 race

  (PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    If everything is bigger in Texas, as the old saying claims, it might be advisable to tune in for the finish of Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, the next race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoffs.

         As Cup teams arrive in Fort Worth for the second visit this season to Texas Motor Speedway (NBCSN, 2 p.m. ET), there is enough angst lingering from last Sunday’s finish at Martinsville Speedway to keep a roomful of counselors busy.

         The two most prominent characters from the Martinsville imbroglio are Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. Either could have won last Sunday, locking in a spot in the Final Four playoff driver list at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, they crashed – big. Hamlin nudged Elliott into the outside wall, leading to a tense confrontation between the two after the race.

         Kyle Busch sliced through the Martinsville mayhem – yes, there was more wrecking after Elliott-Hamlin — to win the race and claim the Homestead prize. As a result of their late-race encounter, Hamlin and Elliott arrive in Texas in the bottom two positions in the field of eight playoff drivers.

         Martin Truex Jr., thanks to season-long success and excellent performances in the playoffs (three wins and six top-five finishes in seven races), is a virtual lock for the Homestead Final Four. Truex finished second Sunday at Martinsville but could have bumped Busch from first and nabbed the win. Truex avoided that tactic, he said, to keep from being on someone’s enemies list entering Texas.

Considering all the chaos and resulting hard feelings at Martinsville, the Truex strategy might be a winner.

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With Busch holding a spot in the Homestead group and Truex practically a certainty, only two vacancies remain.

“I think right now you know that Truex is going to be in there,” said Kevin Harvick, fourth in points entering Texas. “Kyle Busch won last weekend at Martinsville, so he’s going to be in Homestead with a shot. But, you look from there down, I think it’s pretty much wide open. I don’t think you can count anyone below those two out of it, or in it, for that matter.”

Following Truex and Busch in the playoff order are Brad Keselowski, Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Hamlin and Elliott.

Only three of the playoff drivers — Johnson with seven victories and Busch and Hamlin with two each — have won at Texas.

Johnson has won three of the last five races at TMS, including the spring event, and has the second-best average finish – 8.2 – of the playoff drivers at the track. He hopes to be in the Homestead Four to have a chance at what would be a record eighth championship.

 Elliott, who probably needs a win at Texas or Phoenix to be in the

With NASCAR championship record in sight, Jimmie Johnson remains ‘regular guy’

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   This all began in 1964.

Richard Petty, stepping with authority outside the considerable shadow of his championship-winning father, Lee, won nine races and the NASCAR Cup Series title, his first.

Six more championships followed, with Petty winning his last in 1979. A year later, the sport’s next king stepped forward in the rangy form of Dale Earnhardt.

In Petty’s last championship year, Earnhardt won the Rookie of the Year title but did so without offering any strong hints that he might surge to his first title the next year. Earnhardt then stacked titles across the ’80s and ’90s, eventually tying Petty at seven in 1994.

The two superstars, both born in North Carolina to race-winning fathers, posed together for photographs as the only two Cup champions with seven trophies.

Jimmie Johnson, the next seven-timer, began his run across the crest of the next century, scoring for the first time in 2006. Four consecutive championships followed as Johnson dominated like no driver before him. He then added titles in 2013 and 2016 to join Petty and Earnhardt at lucky seven.

The gate toward eight swings open again this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway as Johnson looks to lock up a berth as one of four drivers competing for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.

Johnson, 42, hopes to race at least three more seasons, so there could be more opportunities to reach that elite eight.

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But why not now?

Earl Barban agrees. He has been a key figure in Johnson’s money years, working as the driver’s spotter and eye in the sky in 2006 and from 2009 forward, earning five title rings as part of the Hendrick Motorsports army.

“We know he has at least three more attempts at it, plus this year,” Barban told USA TODAY. “I won’t let him down in pursuit of that. And I know he won’t let us down. I know everybody on that team is doing all they can to make that happen.”

Johnson enters Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network) in fifth place among the eight playoff drivers, three points below the current cutoff line. A win at Texas Motor Speedway or at Phoenix Raceway would advance Johnson to Homestead, where he won last year’s race — and thus the championship — despite leading only the final three laps.

Johnson has had a below-average year. He has only three wins, and if he finishes the season with that total it will be his lowest in that category since he won twice in 2011 (a non-championship year).

Illustrative of his issues this year was last week’s race at Martinsville Speedway, won by 2015 series champion Kyle Busch, who clinched a spot in the Homestead championship race. Johnson finished 12th last Sunday at a track where he has won nine times. He led only 24 laps after entering the race with a remarkable 2,838 laps led at Martinsville, his second-best track in that measurement behind the 3,105 he’s led at Dover International Speedway.

“We were just terrible all day,” Johnson said after the race.

Despite the issues, Johnson has history backing him as the playoffs roll into the final weeks. He’s won seven times at Texas and four times at Phoenix. He also could advance into the Final Four via points.

Barban says Johnson is steady and ready and remains much the same guy — except for an enhanced maturity level — who scored that first title in 2006.

“Is he different?” Barban repeated the question. “He just has a grayer beard. And he rides a bicycle now. I truly believe he hasn’t changed in personality. He’s gotten more appreciative of what’s happening. And he has a great life with his wife and kids. He’s done about the best you can in all of the categories.

“His personality is so much bigger than just wanting another championship. He’s such a humble individual that you really can’t tell that that is something on his mind. I’m sure he’s excited about it. He has to be, having been categorized in the group he’s in as being one of the greatest in the sport’s history.

“That’s undeniable, but he still is the most regular guy I’ve ever met.”

 A “regular” guy but one who could be his sport’s most decorated champion.

Five takeaways: Will wild finish at Martinsville lead to retribution in Texas on Sunday?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    Five takeaways from Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway, where there was enough drama and craziness to make one think a World Series game had broken out:

TEXAS TEMPTATIONS – The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoffs move on to Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth this weekend, and track President Eddie Gossage was already stirring the publicity pot Sunday night after tempers flared because of the Martinsville finish.

At Texas, Chase Elliott could be looking for Denny Hamlin. Brad Keselowski could be looking for Kyle Busch and Elliott. Busch and Hamlin, despite late-race contact with the win at stake, likely won’t be looking for each other. After all, they work in the same shop – Joe Gibbs Racing.

The concept of payback is a treasured one in NASCAR circles. “He wrecked me, so I wrecked him,” is the simple explanation.

Scenes change, however. Speeds at TMS are virtually double those at Martinsville, and NASCAR isn’t likely to condone drivers turning their vehicles into weapons of retribution on the high, fast banks. Revenge can be accomplished with a level of subtlety, though.

Stay tuned. It’s Texas. Things are bigger.

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HAMLIN NEEDS A HUG – Virginia native Denny Hamlin, a successful driver over the years at Martinsville Speedway and generally a favorite at the track, left town Sunday night with a wounded ego.

When Hamlin sent leader Chase Elliott sailing into the outside wall as they raced for first place in the concluding laps, many in the stands weren’t happy. Cascades of boos rained down from the grandstand after Hamlin climbed from his car after the race.

Elliott, son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott and already something of a fan favorite, emerged from his tangle with Hamlin as a battered hero. Merchandise handlers might want to deliver more Elliott apparel to Texas this week.

After the race, Hamlin admitted that he hoped to move Elliott to make a winning pass but denied that he meant to wreck him.

 “I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out,” Hamlin tweeted. “But I’m responsible for my own car and take blame. … I hate that I’m now in the discussion as a guilty party but I’ll move on and hope Chase, his team and fans will accept my apology.”

One fan, likely intoxicated, wanted more than an apology from Hamlin. He yelled at Hamlin on pit road after the race and appeared to be looking for a fight before he was restrained by security personnel. He didn’t get close to Hamlin.

TRUEX STILL TICKING – Somewhat lost in the messiness of Sunday night’s finish was the fact that playoff leader Martin Truex Jr. masterfully drove through the melee to finish second. He rolls on, moving ever closer to a shot at the championship in Homestead.

Eliminate the Talladega race, where Truex finished 23rd, and he has a 2.33 average finish through the first seven playoff events.

He probably could have shoved eventual winner Kyle Busch aside in the final mile Sunday night and won at Martinsville, but he chose the safer route and came home second. “We’ll let everybody else fight, and we’ll try to do our own thing,” Truex said.

PENSKE ISSUES – Team Penske, normally solid in decision-making, looked somewhat off-balance over the final laps of Sunday’s race.

With 13 laps to go, Penske driver Joey Logano and Kyle Busch made contact while racing near the front. Logano’s left-rear fender was pushed into his tire, causing a tire rub. Four laps later, the tire blew and sent Logano into a spin, causing a caution and wiping out a relatively comfortable lead held by Keselowski, his Penske teammate.

Logano did not qualify for the playoffs. If he had pitted for fresh tires after the incident with Busch, the race might have had a different outcome.

With four laps to go, Keselowski, still in the lead, chose the outside lane for a restart, a curious decision considering the fact that the inside lane is typically the best at Martinsville. Chase Elliott, starting second, pushed past Keselowski as the Ford driver faded up the track.

After the race, Keselowski tweeted that the outside lane was the better pick late in the race. He finished fourth in a race his team considered a “must-win.” He is third in points entering Texas.

POINT PARADE – With Kyle Busch sitting comfortably in the Final Four at Homestead, three spots remain available.

Truex, in first place in points and 38 ahead of Keselowski in the next point spot, seems virtually certain to make the Final Four on points if he doesn’t win either of the upcoming races at Texas and Phoenix.

Realistically, that leaves two available spots. Following Keselowski in the standings are Kevin Harvick and defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR: Martinsville was the hard racing NASCAR wants

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Denny Hamlin loves Martinsville Speedway, where he has won five times at a place he considers one of his home tracks. Yet when he was shown on the infield big screen after wrecking Chase Elliot, he was roundly booed.

Yes, the guy from Virginia was booed at his own track.

It took seven playoff races, but Martinsville finally delivered some of the “signature Game 7 moments” that NASCAR Chairman Brian France promised under this format.

It was quintessential NASCAR, though that is probably not a popular sentiment a day after a crazy ending to Kyle Busch’s victory in overtime at Martinsville.

Before he collected the checkered flag, Brad Keselowski had been moved out of the lead by Elliott. Then Hamlin wrecked Elliott to send the race into overtime. If that wasn’t enough, Busch had to move teammate Hamlin out of his way to earn the win — and basically half the field, including Hamlin, wrecked as Busch crossed the finish line.

So Busch got his ticket into NASCAR’s version of the Final Four — only four drivers will be eligible to race for the championship Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway — and the Martinsville victory earned Busch one of the slots.

Realizing that a spot in the finale was the prize on the line in those closing laps is critical to understanding why the aggression level was so high. Elliott, increasingly frustrated at falling short of victory lane, used his car to chase Hamlin after the race and give him a hard hit. The two also had a heated exchange on pit road after, and Elliott used his arms to encourage the crowd to unleash its fury on Hamlin.

Hamlin was defensive after the race because, as he noted, a spot in the championship was on the line. After leaving the track, he reconsidered and apologized on social media to Elliott.

“I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out but I am responsible for my own car and take blame. Nothing I say now can turn back the clock,” he wrote in a long Twitter message.

The anger from Elliott overshadowed what could be a simmering issue at Joe Gibbs Racing, too.

Busch won his third race of these playoffs at Hamlin’s expense and Hamlin faded to a seventh-place finish.

“I can’t judge it too much, I spun (Elliott) out,” Hamlin said. “I didn’t think (Busch would) move me, but all’s fair in love and war when it comes to Homestead.”

Then there’s Team Penske, where Keselowski had Martinsville as a must-win race for his championship chances. He might have won, too, and had pulled away from the pack late when teammate Joey Logano developed a tire rub.

Had Logano pitted under green to change the tire, Keselowski might have easily won. Instead, the Penske team didn’t call in Logano, the tire blew, he caused a caution and Elliott took the lead from Keselowski on the restart.

“No team orders, not on with that one,” smiled Busch.

But Logano is not in the playoffs, doesn’t have a championship on the line and there was no reason for the team not to strategize for Keselowski.

Like several other contenders, Busch was surprised that Logano didn’t pit, especially since he could smell Logano’s tire “go from rubber to cords.”

“I think we’ve all got to be smarter for our company, you know?” Busch said. “I think Logano lost his opportunity, lost his chance to win. I think they’re not really racing for anything, if you will … but when you’ve got to look at the greater good of the company. I would like to expect that our guys are smart enough to do that.”

It’s not been much of a playoffs so far for NASCAR: Toyota drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Busch have combined for six of the seven wins, and Truex is so strong, it would be a major upset if he doesn’t claim a slot in Homestead. So it’s a free-for-all out there the next two weeks, and winning is the only thing that matters.

Fans may not have liked the way it went down at Martinsville if the desire was to root for Keselowski or Elliott or Hamlin or someone else, but that’s the kind of racing this system was intended to create. Drivers are supposed to want to win races, not settle for a good points day, and that’s the kind of racing that was displayed at Martinsville.

If you didn’t like it, then what exactly is the point of racing at all?

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NASCAR: Kyle Busch to race for title after Martinsville victory

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — There should be no confusion about the intensity of NASCAR’s playoffs after Sunday’s show at Martinsville Speedway.

Chase Elliott could have won, same for Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin, too.

It was Kyle Busch, though, who punched his ticket into NASCAR’s championship race with a victory in overtime of a race that turned wild very, very quickly and ended with a multicar accident after Busch took the checkered flag.

Busch moved Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin out of his way to earn a spot in next month’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the third consecutive year. He won the series title in 2015.

“We weren’t the best all day, but we put ourselves in the right spots there at the end,” Busch said. “There was kind of chaos ensuing and none of it was our fault, we just came out on the right end of the stick.”

Keselowski was in position to win when Joey Logano developed a tire problem with about 10 laps remaining in regulation. Had his Team Penske teammate pitted under green to fix the tire, Keselowski likely would have coasted to the win and earned the spot in the finale.

Instead, Logano spun and brought out a caution.

Keselowski was moved out of the way by Elliott after a restart, and Hamlin then spun Elliott out of the lead with two laps remaining in regulation. Elliott wrecked, chased Hamlin down on the cool-down lap to show his displeasure, and the drivers had a heated exchange after they climbed from their cars.

It was a tough result for Elliott — from potential race winner to 27th, lowest of the eight remaining playoff drivers.

“My mom always said if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” Elliott said. “He’s not worth my time. I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race. I don’t know what his problem was. It was unnecessary and I hadn’t raced him dirty all day long.

“We had the best car I’ve ever had here at Martinsville, and had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead and because of him we don’t.”

Elliott could repeatedly be seen saying ‘You wrecked me,’ to Hamlin as the crowd roared its approval over the tension. Hamlin at first defended his actions because of the stakes, but later apologized to Elliott on social media.

“I’ve raced nearly 10,000 races since I was 7. Today was the first time I ever spun out the leader,” Hamlin wrote on Twitter. “I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out but I am responsible for my own car and take blame. Nothing I say now can turn back the clock.”

Hamlin faded to seventh after Busch bumped him for the win.

“That was our chance to move to Homestead,” Busch shrugged.

Keselowski wound up fourth in a race his team believed he had to win.

Instead, he was simply darting his way around a huge pileup on the final lap that ended an emotional opening race of the third round of the playoffs.

“Yeah, everybody is just desperate,” Keselowski said.

Martin Truex Jr. wound up second in a 1-2 sweep for Toyota, which has won six of the seven playoff races. Truex and Busch have won three playoff races each, while Keselowski won in the second round.

The favorite to win the title, Truex said he is confident enough he will make it to next month’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway without having to bump Busch out of his way to grab the automatic berth.

“I don’t know that I would have done anything differently,” Truex said. “I think we can get to Homestead without making too many enemies. We’ll let everybody else fight and we’ll try to do our own thing.”

Clint Bowyer, not eligible for the playoffs, finished third.

Kevin Harvick was fifth in a Ford, Ryan Blaney eighth for the Wood Brothers of nearby Stuart, Virginia, and the manufacturer placed six drivers in the top 10.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the highest-finishing Chevrolet driver in 11th and was dumbfounded by the last-lap chaos.

“Man, I can’t believe how everybody crossed the finish line. I ain’t seen nothing like that, I ain’t seen it, I don’t know if I ever have seen it,” Earnhardt said. “There was a wreck one time at Richmond before they ever reconfigured it in the Xfinity race on the front straightaway in like 1982 — that is the only thing I ever seen like it. Crazy finish.”

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson finished 12th.

That was a near victory for Johnson, who spun in Sunday morning qualifying and needed to make repairs to his Chevrolet that forced him to start last. A nine-time Martinsville winner, he used this race last year to vault him toward his record-tying seventh championship.

At one point late in Sunday’s race, Johnson was put a lap down by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott.

“We were just terrible all day,” Johnson said. “Oh, what a bummer. We had high hopes for this weekend.”

WOMP, WOMP: Kyle Larson had been considered a strong championship contender until his engine blew in last week’s elimination race at Kansas. Now out of the playoffs, he wasn’t competitive Sunday, crashed and finished 37th.

“Another Martinsville for us. I’ve got to figure out how to get around this place,” Larson said. He has one career top-10 finish at the track.

SQUEEZED SCHEDULE: NASCAR experimented with a condensed two-day show at Martinsville, where qualifying was held a little more than three hours before the start of the race. Although roughly two hours of practice time was lost by dumping the third on-track day, fans did get an autograph session and Fan Fest after Saturday’s two practice sessions.

LIGHTS: The long race day gave Martinsville the opportunity to make the NASCAR debut of its new $5 million LED lighting system.

NASCAR’s oldest track completed the project in February and used it once, last month in a lower-level event. Because of Sunday’s late afternoon start time, the lights — enough to brighten eight football fields with one of 15 different lighting scenes — were flipped on roughly two hours into the race.

“Why we don’t race at night is beyond me here,” Bowyer said. “We should definitely utilize those lights for something other than (overtime) because it’s pretty damned cool under the lights.”

UP NEXT: The middle race of this playoff round, Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Carl Edwards is the defending race winner, but now retired. Johnson won at Texas in the spring.

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FIRST DATA 500 RESULTS

Sunday from the 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (14) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 505 laps, 0 rating, 58 points.

2. (2) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 505, 0, 48.

3. (5) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 505, 0, 36.

4. (7) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 505, 0, 53.

5. (13) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 505, 0, 36.

6. (34) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 505, 0, 31.

7. (6) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 505, 0, 31.

8. (4) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 505, 0, 38.

9. (17) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 505, 0, 31.

10. (22) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 505, 0, 27.

11. (21) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 26.

12. (24) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 33.

13. (25) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 26.

14. (18) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 23.

15. (15) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 505, 0, 22.

16. (12) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 24.

17. (23) Danica Patrick, Ford, 505, 0, 20.

18. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 505, 0, 19.

19. (20) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 18.

20. (19) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 17.

21. (29) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 505, 0, 16.

22. (11) Kurt Busch, Ford, 505, 0, 15.

23. (33) Landon Cassill, Ford, 505, 0, 14.

24. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 504, 0, 29.

25. (30) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 504, 0, 12.

26. (8) Erik Jones, Toyota, 504, 0, 11.

27. (3) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 504, 0, 21.

28. (31) David Ragan, Ford, 503, 0, 9.

29. (16) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 503, 0, 8.

30. (26) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 501, 0, 7.

31. (35) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 501, 0, 6.

32. (32) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 5.

33. (36) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 500, 0, 4.

34. (40) Hermie Sadler, Chevrolet, 494, 0, 3.

35. (38) Kyle Weatherman, Chevrolet, 488, 0, 2.

36. (39) Carl Long, Chevrolet, accident, 444, 0, 0.

37. (9) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, accident, 300, 0, 1.

38. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, reargear, 274, 0, 1.

39. (28) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, electrical, 187, 0, 1.

40. (27) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, accident, 94, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 74.901 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 32 minutes, 47 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.141 seconds.

Caution Flags: 11 for 74 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J.Logano 1-48; B.Keselowski 49-78; J.Logano 79-89; J.Johnson 90-113; B.Keselowski 114-134; Ky.Busch 135-257; B.Keselowski 258-265; Ky.Busch 266-324; C.Elliott 325-362; B.Keselowski 363-385; C.Elliott 386-458; Ky.Busch 459; C.Elliott 460-470; B.Keselowski 471-496; C.Elliott 497; D.Hamlin 498-504; Ky.Busch 505

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): Ky.Busch, 4 times for 180 laps; C.Elliott, 4 times for 119 laps; B.Keselowski, 5 times for 103 laps; J.Logano, 2 times for 57 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 23 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 6 laps.

Wins: M.Truex, 7; Ky.Busch, 5; K.Larson, 4; J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 3; D.Hamlin, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Harvick, 1; K.Kahne, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. M.Truex, 4117; 2. Ky.Busch, 4100; 3. B.Keselowski, 4079; 4. K.Harvick, 4053; 5. J.Johnson, 4050; 6. R.Blaney, 4047; 7. D.Hamlin, 4045; 8. C.Elliott, 4027; 9. K.Larson, 2237; 10. M.Kenseth, 2215; 11. K.Kahne, 2150; 12. A.Dillon, 2148; 13. J.McMurray, 2146; 14. R.Stenhouse, 2146; 15. Ku.Busch, 2139; 16. R.Newman, 2130.

NASCAR: Elliott fastest playoff driver in Martinsville practice

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Chase Elliott was fastest of the playoff contenders in the final practice before Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

The playoff field has been cut in half to eight drivers, and they have the next three races to earn one of the final four spots in next month’s championship race. A victory earns an automatic berth to the championship race.

Championship favorite Martin Truex Jr. was third fastest in practice, which was led by non-playoff driver Joey Logano. Truex has a series-best seven wins this season and has won three of the six playoff races to date.

Martinsville Speedway has a condensed two-day schedule this weekend in which Saturday had just two hour-long practice sessions. Qualifying is scheduled for Sunday, hours before the race.

The compacted schedule replaced on-track Cup activity Friday with fan fests and autograph sessions. It’s a cost-cutting move for teams, who pay less in travel with a shorter at-track schedule.

But it puts a strain on the playoff teams that have little preparation time to get ready for Sunday’s critical race.

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Gragson wins 1st Truck Series race with Martinsville victory

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Noah Gragson celebrated his first Truck Series victory by impersonating Helio Castroneves and climbing the fence at Martinsville Speedway.

Then he took it a step further and did pullups while dangling from the fence.

It was a bit too much for the 19-year-old.

He vomited over the side of the racetrack wall after his climb.

That wasn’t Gragson’s only gaffe. He referred to Martinsville’s signature grandfather clock trophy as a “granddaddy watch,” then struggled later to discuss the historic piece.

“What the hell do you do with that thing, honestly? They don’t teach kids anymore how to tell time like that,” he said.

Gragson, who is from Las Vegas, won for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Busch, who also is from Las Vegas, uses that team to groom young talent.

That youthfulness was on full display as Gragson recalled how he started in racing.

“I was playing ‘NASCAR Inside Line’ the video game, around this place and it’s a lot of fun to play that game,” Gragson said. “I kind of had playbacks in my head those last couple laps. I was praying for no caution … I was thinking about making laps on that video game. Started off there and then to be actually racing here in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, it’s a great privilege and it’s awesome.”

Gragson is the 10th first-time Truck Series winner at Martinsville, and his victory denied a driver from earning an automatic berth in the championship race of the playoffs. He passed Crafton on the outside on a restart with 10 laps remaining, and it denied Crafton the ticket to the finale.

Busch praised his newest winner.

“It just goes to show you that these guys, given the opportunities that they have in KBM stuff, can do a good job,” Busch said. “Noah driving the thing to his first win was pretty cool.”

Crafton finished second after leading a race-high 102 laps.

The race at Martinsville was the first in the round of six for the series. Two drivers will be eliminated from the field, and Gragson is not championship-eligible.

Johnny Sauter was third. Both he and Crafton won a stage of Saturday’s race.

Harrison Burton was fourth and followed by Todd Gilliland.

Playoff-bound driver John Hunter Nemechek had a brake issue that caused his truck to slide into the outside wall early in the first stage. Nemechek immediately drove the truck behind the wall and he’s now 62 points behind playoffs leader Christopher Bell.

Bell spun in the third segment on Lap 122 after contact with Crafton. Bell recovered to finish eighth.

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ROADHOUSE 200 RESULTS

Saturday from the 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (5) Noah Gragson, Toyota, 200 laps.

2. (2) Matt Crafton, Toyota, 200.

3. (4) Johnny Sauter, Chevrolet, 200.

4. (10) Harrison Burton, Toyota, 200.

5. (13) Todd Gilliland, Toyota, 200.

6. (11) Stewart Friesen, Chevrolet, 200.

7. (8) Kaz Grala, Chevrolet, 200.

8. (15) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 200.

9. (3) Ben Rhodes, Toyota, 200.

10. (6) Austin Cindric, Ford, 200.

11. (19) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 200.

12. (16) Grant Enfinger, Toyota, 200.

13. (7) Ryan Truex, Toyota, 200.

14. (22) Regan Smith, Ford, 200.

15. (18) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.

16. (23) Austin Hill, Ford, 200.

17. (24) Landon Huffman, Chevrolet, 200.

18. (14) Cale Gale, Chevrolet, 200.

19. (1) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 199.

20. (20) Cody Coughlin, Toyota, 199.

21. (29) Wendell Chavous, Chevrolet, 199.

22. (26) Jeffrey Abbey, Chevrolet, 199.

23. (9) Mason Diaz, Chevrolet, 198.

24. (28) Jordan Anderson, Chevrolet, 198.

25. (27) Bayley Currey, Chevrolet, 196.

26. (21) Jeb Burton, Chevrolet, rear gear, 174.

27. (31) Norm Benning, Chevrolet, brakes, 153.

28. (30) Jennifer Jo Cobb, Chevrolet, oil line, 108.

29. (25) Austin Wayne Self, Chevrolet, engine, 61.

30. (17) John H. Nemechek, Chevrolet, accident, 37.

31. (12) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, electrical, 26.

32. (32) Chris Windom, Chevrolet, engine, 0.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 67.932 mph.

Time of Race: 1 hour, 32 minutes, 55 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.486 seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 45 laps.

Lead Changes: 6 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: C. Briscoe 1-39; M. Crafton 40-71; J. Sauter 72-104; M. Crafton 105; C. Bell 106-121; M. Crafton 122-190; N. Gragson 191-200.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): M. Crafton 3 times for 102 laps; C. Briscoe 1 time for 39 laps; J. Sauter 1 time for 33 laps; C. Bell 1 time for 16 laps; N. Gragson 1 time for 10 laps.

NASCAR: Larson’s bad break changes NASCAR’s playoff picture

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson felt a cylinder drop, and then his engine failed. With a puff of smoke, his season was essentially ended and the playoffs took on a completely different look.

Martin Truex Jr. is the favorite to win NASCAR’s championship, but if one driver had shown this season that he can beat Truex, it was Larson. He has been the best of the non-Toyota drivers this season, and if he could have made it to NASCAR’s finale, he’d have had a head-to-head shot at stopping Truex.

But making it through NASCAR’s elimination rounds is a whole lot harder than it looks on paper, and Larson was the surprise victim Sunday at Kansas Speedway. He was at a loss for words after the engine failure.

“I keep saying everything sucks. I don’t really know how to answer these (questions) because it’s the same answer for every question,” he said. “Either way you go about it, it stinks. A part of me, I guess, will maybe be thankful that it wasn’t on my doing.”

No, it wasn’t his doing, it was a broken part that changed these playoffs. Just one of them racing deals.

It was heartbreaking for the entire Chip Ganassi Racing organization, which landed both of its cars in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Both Larson and Jamie McMurray were eliminated in the first round last season, but this season the team had every reason to believe Larson would be racing for the title at Homestead next month.

His four victories are tied with Kyle Busch (like Truex, a Toyota driver) for second in the Cup Series. But now Larson is out of the picture — McMurray was eliminated Sunday, too — and Truex’s path got a little easier.

Truex’s coronation is not automatic, but here’s what he’s up against:

— Jimmie Johnson: The reigning champion slid into the third round of the playoffs despite a pair of spins at Kansas. He also brought along teammate Chase Elliott, who was fast the entire second round. That could mean that Hendrick Motorsports has locked in on something much the way it did this time last season. The series races Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is a nine-time winner and his victory there last October put him into the finale. Once he had his spot, that seventh championship became inevitable. As Truex racks up win after win, the Hendrick gang might quietly be moving Johnson closer to a record eighth title.

— Kyle Busch: The Toyotas are better than the Fords and the Chevrolets, and that’s just fact. Truex and Busch have combined to win five of the six playoff races so far, but Busch has not been dominant the way Truex has been with his Furniture Row Racing team. Although Joe Gibbs Racing is aligned with Furniture Row, the Colorado-based team has clearly outperformed the Gibbs camp. Matt Kenseth was eliminated at Kansas, so Gibbs only has Busch and Denny Hamlin still in the game. Of the two, Busch seems better positioned to compete with Truex.

— Brad Keselowski: He had very little time to celebrate his victory at Talladega, which moved him into the third round. That’s because the plan Paul Wolfe had mapped for these playoffs required Keselowski to win at Talladega as well as Martinsville. The Team Penske crew firmly believes they need this weekend to get them to Homestead, and if Keselowski can make the final four, then he’s got a shot.

Right now, this is Truex’s title to lose. His win Sunday was his seventh of the season and he leads nearly every statistical category. But, as Larson learned the hard way, bad breaks and bad luck can ruin an entire season.

“Freak things happen in every sport,” Larson said. “In the new playoff format era, not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. We have been consistent and just now got bit.”

That bite knocked off a true title contender and opened the door for others. If someone can take down Truex, they earned it, too.

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DALE JR. PREDICTIONS: The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 8 is here, starting with the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday. So that means the NASCAR world will spend the next three weeks trying to predict which drivers will advance to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no exception.

After Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, four playoff drivers were eliminated, dropping the number of contenders down to eight from 12. In playoff standings order, the drivers who advanced are Sunday’s race winner Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott.

Following his seventh-place finish, Earnhardt threw out his final four prediction, differentiating between who he’s pulling for and who he actually thinks will make it.

He’s predicting Harvick, Busch, Truex and Johnson will be the final contenders, but he’s actually hoping Elliott and Blaney – two of NASCAR’s “young guns” – will make it instead of Harvick and Busch, two former champions.

Surprisingly, his friend and 2012 Cup Series champ Brad Keselowski isn’t included in either of his scenarios. But as expected, he’s rooting for his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Elliott and Johnson.

Earnhardt also expressed his disappointment with Kyle Larson, one of the favorites this season, not making the cut after a failed engine kept him from finishing Sunday’s race. He then shared his championship thoughts at the request of a fan.

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

 

Five takeaways: Johnson survives, heads to tracks where defending champ has ruled in past

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are down to eight drivers who will begin the next round of three races next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

Here are five takeaways from the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday, a race won by Martin Truex Jr., eliminated four drivers and saw four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick advance — along with Truex, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin.

 IT’S HARD TO DETHRONE THE CHAMP:  Johnson, in pursuit of a record eighth championship, began the race in the eighth position, just seven points ahead of the cutoff line and was in serious peril of elimination. Johnson survived a harrowing day in which he twice hit the wall and went careening across the track and grass infield.

   But Johnson managed an 11th place finish and moved to a tie for fourth in points, heading into two tracks where he rules — Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

   Johnson won last fall’s playoff race on Martinsville’s paper-clip shaped oval, and his nine Grandfather Clocks are more than any other driver.  Johnson has won a track-record seven times on the 1.5 mile Texas Motor Speedway, including six of the last 10 races there.

“It’s not a bad track for us,” Johnson said of Martinsville. “So, hopefully we can repeat last year’s performance there. And then we have Texas coming up. We’re not where we want to be. There’s no doubt about it. But we’re staying alive and I know this team so well, we can find something and we’re going to sure as hell try to get it.

“It’s not back to zero with all those stage points.  For us to advance moving forward we’ve got to win.  We’ve got to win one of these next few races coming up.  It’s really simple from our standpoint.  We’ve got to get some speed in our cars and we’ve got to win a race.”

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   TRUEX DOMINANCE: Truex has yet to win a career race at Martinsville or Texas, but he’ll have some advantages in the next two weeks, besides his 52 points above the cutoff line shared by Johnson and Harvick.

   Truex’s winning the pole at Kansas already has guaranteed the pole position at Martinsville, where track position on the .526 mile layout is so important.

  “I would say (pit position) is probably the biggest advantage of any track we go to,” Truex said of Martinsville. “We’ve already been working hard on Martinsville, and that’s certainly going to help us.”

  And Truex may prove to be unbeatable in Texas. He’s won a NASCAR record six times on 1.5 mile tracks this season, including a record four in a row — at Kentucky, Chicago, Charlotte and Kansas.

Truex also became the 12th driver in NASCAR’s modern era (1972 to present) to lead 2,000 or more laps in a single season. The other 11 drivers who accomplished this feat are: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Harvick. Truex has led 2,068 laps with four races remaining in the season.

KIDS ARE STILL IN: Youngsters Ryan Blaney, 23, and Chase Elliott, 21, are still alive in the playoffs after impressive finishes at Kansas.

   Blaney, who qualified third but was sent to the rear of the field when his No. 21 Ford failed post-qualifying inspection, worked his way to a third-place finish and is seventh in the points standings; Elliott, still looking for his first career win, recorded a strong fourth-place finish and holds down the eighth spot, 13 points behind cutoff.

 HAMLIN’S HOME:  Denny Hamlin, of Chesterfield, Va., loves racing at his home at Martinsville, where he has won five times, including spring 2015. Hamlin, 36, still in pursuit of his first championship, finished fifth at Kansas and knows what it will take to win again at Martinsville.

 “The biggest thing we need to work on is short-run speed,” Hamlin said. “If we can do that, then we could contend, but we’re heading to a mighty good race track for us next week that hopefully we’re able to capitalize.”

   LARSON’S LAMENT: Kyle Larson was the biggest loser at Kansas. Larson, a four-time winner this season, entered the race 29 points above the cutoff line but was eliminated after a blown engine consigned him to a 39th-place finish.

   Had Larson, reached the Championship Four, winner-take-all finale at Homestead, he might have been the one to beat, considering he finished second to Johnson there a year ago and fifth as a non-playoff driver in 2015.

NASCAR: Truex wins with heavy heart in Kansas elimination race

This gallery contains 2 photos.

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. didn’t feel a sense of urgency to win Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway because of its playoff implications, not with his spot in the next round safe following a victory at Charlotte.

No, the sense of urgency was much more personal.

Truex learned overnight that one of the Furniture Row Racing team’s crew members, Jim Watson, died of a heart attack while in town for the race. So with a heavy heart, Truex climbed into his No. 78 Toyota and overcame two early mistakes to win a wild playoff elimination race.

“We were racing for Jim today,” Truex said after emerging from his car. “He was a heck of a guy.”

Kurt Busch finished second before a wave of playoff contenders headed by Ryan Blaney, whose car failed post-qualifying inspection and was sent to the back. He quickly worked his way through the field and finished third, easily making it within the cutoff line.

Chase Elliott was fourth and Denny Hamlin fifth to punch their tickets to the next round. Kevin Harvick finished eighth to stay alive heading to Martinsville, while Kyle Busch finished 10th and Jimmie Johnson 11th — both of them also making the cutoff line.

Brad Keselowski was 13th after his win last week at Talladega sent him to the next round.

Kyle Larson blew his engine to spoil his chances of advancing, while a penalty on Matt Kenseth for having too many crew members over the pit wall following a wreck ended his championship hopes.

Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also were eliminated from the playoffs.

“It’s a disappointing way to finish our race and probably our season,” said Larson, who had a 33-point buffer coming into the race. “I guess it’s sinking in as the second pass.”

Truex had dominated at Kansas for years before finally breaking through with a victory in the spring. And while he had nothing to lose Sunday, there was still a sense that Truex wanted to win his seventh race this season for his late crew member and the rest of their team.

“Still pretty surreal at this point,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “We were all focused on what we had to do today. That was the best we could do for Jim. He was a true racer in the purest form.”

Truex is the first driver in series history with four straight wins on 1 1/2-mile tracks.

“I can’t say enough about all these guys,” he said. “Just really proud of them, and definitely we were racing with a heavy heart. Jim was a great worker and put a lot of speed in these Toyotas.”

Larson was the first of the 12 remaining playoff contenders whose chances were scuttled when he dropped a cylinder early in the race. He tried to limp on, but his engine finally let go.

Still, Larson held a fleeting hope of advancing when Erik Jones triggered a multi-car wreck on a restart with 70 laps to go, collecting McMurray and causing damage to Kenseth. The former champion thought he would be able to continue when he reached pit road, but seven crew members hopped over the wall for repairs — one more than is allowed under NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy.

The penalty for the violation is an immediate parking.

Day done, playoffs over.

“I don’t know what the rules are. It seems like we have a lot of stuff that is changed so often I can’t keep up with it,” Kenseth said. “You’re not able to race anymore? I just don’t get it.”

Larson still had to hope Johnson, who began the day on the bubble, would falter down the stretch. But despite two early spins, the seven-time champion managed to come home 11th to ease into the round of eight by nine points over a driver many pegged as a favorite should he get to Homestead.

“Freak things happen in every sport,” Larson said. “I’m not stunned, because it’s a long 10-race playoff season. Anything can happen. But we’ve had a solid playoffs.”

WIN OR ELSE: Stenhouse and McMurray, who both needed to win to advance, were involved in wrecks that ended their hopes. Stenhouse cut a tire and hit the wall with 93 laps left, while McMurray was near the front all afternoon before getting involved in the wreck that knocked Kenseth out.

“If we ever got to the lead,” McMurray said, “we could have led the race for a while.”

PLAYOFF OUTSIDERS: Chris Buescher finished sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., racing at the track for the final time, was seventh. Kansas native Clint Bowyer spent much of the day in the top 10 before he was involved in the crash with 70 laps to go.

UP NEXT: The three-race round of eight begins next Sunday at Martinsville. Johnson won last year’s race to punch his ticket to the finale at Homestead, where he won his seventh championship.

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HOLLYWOOD CASINO 400 RESULTS

Saturday from the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (1) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 267 laps, 0 rating, 43 points.

2. (15) Kurt Busch, Ford, 267, 0, 35.

3. (40) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 267, 0, 44.

4. (14) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 39.

5. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267, 0, 50.

6. (20) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 31.

7. (19) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 30.

8. (2) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 267, 0, 47.

9. (25) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267, 0, 28.

10. (7) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267, 0, 43.

11. (12) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 32.

12. (23) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 25.

13. (10) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267, 0, 32.

14. (11) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 23.

15. (21) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 22.

16. (29) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 21.

17. (27) David Ragan, Ford, 267, 0, 20.

18. (16) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 19.

19. (9) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 267, 0, 18.

20. (28) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267, 0, 17.

21. (17) Joey Logano, Ford, 267, 0, 16.

22. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 267, 0, 15.

23. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 265, 0, 14.

24. (35) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 263, 0, 13.

25. (37) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 263, 0, 12.

26. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 261, 0, 11.

27. (34) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 261, 0, 10.

28. (33) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, 259, 0, 9.

29. (24) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, accident, 256, 0, 8.

30. (36) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 254, 0, 0.

31. (32) Brett Moffitt, Toyota, 238, 0, 0.

32. (26) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, accident, 232, 0, 5.

33. (18) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, accident, 203, 0, 4.

34. (8) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, accident, 198, 0, 13.

35. (6) Erik Jones, Toyota, accident, 197, 0, 8.

36. (5) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, accident, 197, 0, 1.

37. (3) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, accident, 197, 0, 10.

38. (22) Danica Patrick, Ford, accident, 197, 0, 1.

39. (13) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, engine, 73, 0, 1.

40. (39) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, handling, 35, 0, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 125.193 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 11 minutes, 57 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 2.284 seconds.

Caution Flags: 10 for 49 laps.

Lead Changes: 14 among 7 drivers.

Lap Leaders: M.Truex 1-34; Ky.Busch 35-47; B.Keselowski 48-50; R.Blaney 51-53; Ky.Busch 54-81; K.Harvick 82; Ky.Busch 83-128; J.McMurray 129; B.Keselowski 130-144; Ky.Busch 145-156; K.Harvick 157; D.Hamlin 158-162; K.Harvick 163-197; Ky.Busch 198-210; M.Truex 211-267

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): Ky.Busch, 5 times for 107 laps; M.Truex, 2 times for 89 laps; K.Harvick, 3 times for 34 laps; B.Keselowski, 2 times for 16 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 4 laps; R.Blaney, 1 time for 2 laps; J.McMurray, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: M.Truex, 7; Ky.Busch, 4; K.Larson, 4; J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 3; D.Hamlin, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Harvick, 1; K.Kahne, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. M.Truex, 4069; 2. Ky.Busch, 4042; 3. B.Keselowski, 4026; 4. K.Harvick, 4017; 5. J.Johnson, 4017; 6. D.Hamlin, 4014; 7. R.Blaney, 4009; 8. C.Elliott, 4006; 9. K.Larson, 2236; 10. M.Kenseth, 2184; 11. J.McMurray, 2138; 12. K.Kahne, 2126; 13. Ku.Busch, 2124; 14. A.Dillon, 2122; 15. R.Stenhouse, 2119; 16. R.Newman, 2107.

NASCAR: Truex fastest for playoff elimination race at Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Mike Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Martin Truex Jr. (3,120 points)

Car: No. 78 Toyota

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2017)

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

2. Brad Keselowski (3,101)

Car: No. 2 Ford

Team: Team Penske

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2011)

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

3. Kyle Larson (3,096)

Car: No. 42 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Kansas finish: Second (fall 2014)

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

4. Kevin Harvick (3,089)

Car: No. 4 Ford

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (fall 2013, 2016)

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

 

5. Denny Hamlin (3,088)

Car: No. 11 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2012)

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

6. Chase Elliott (3,087)

Car: No. 24 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Kansas finish: Ninth ( 2016)

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

7. Ryan Blaney (3,076)

Car: No. 21 Ford

Team: Wood Brothers Racing

Best Kansas finish: Fourth (spring 2017)

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

8. Jimmie Johnson (3,074)

Car: No. 48 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

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

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

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9. Kyle Busch (3,067)

Car: No. 18 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2016)

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

10. Matt Kenseth (3,066)

Car: No. 20 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

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

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

11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,052)

Car: No. 17 Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

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

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

12. Jamie McMurray (3,045)

Car: No. 1 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

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

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

Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow

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

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

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

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

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

1. Ryan Blaney

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

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

2. Kyle Larson

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

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

3. Matt Kenseth

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

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

4. Denny Hamlin

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

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

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

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NASCAR: Keselowski races way into 3rd round of NASCAR’s playoffs

This gallery contains 2 photos.

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — To win the championship this year, Team Penske told Brad Keselowski he had to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

So he did.

Again.

Keselowski earned an automatic berth into the third round of the playoffs with a victory Sunday at Talladega, where he considered himself lucky to finish after a sloppy day for NASCAR.

“I survived,” Keselowski said. “I feel like only eight cars finished the race. It was one of those crazy days … a lot of attrition.”

There were just 14 cars running at the conclusion, and only four were playoff drivers. The race was red-flagged three times for nearly 35 minutes.

By avoiding the carnage, Keselowski won for the fifth time at Talladega and gave Ford a season sweep of the four restrictor-plate races.

Most important, though, is that he knows he’s still in the hunt for his second Cup title. The victory vaulted him from 10th to second in the playoff standings.

“You’d love to be able to pat yourself on the back and say it’s all skill, but there is some luck that’s involved in this,” Keselowski said. “When you come here, probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck. But the races where you have the good fortune, where you don’t get caught up in a wreck or you don’t have something break or any of those things, you have to take those races, run up front and win them.

“That’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Talladega was the perfect place for Keselowski to take the stress off before next week’s elimination race at Kansas. Crew chief Paul Wolfe told Keselowski he was going to need to win Sunday because the Fords haven’t run as well as the other playoff contenders on intermediate tracks, so this was his shot.

Wolfe didn’t doubt the driver could deliver. When the elimination format was rolled out in 2014, Keselowski had to win Talladega to advance. The race this year was moved to the middle event of the second round, so eliminations weren’t at stake, but Keselowski needed a big day.

“As we tried to understand what we need to do in each round and look at our strengths and weaknesses … I looked at Talladega and this round as an opportunity,” Wolfe said. “This was going to be our path to make it to Homestead, and that was going to be winning Talladega.

“When he gets in these situations, you’re going to get the most out of him. You’ve got to have a little bit of help, lucky breaks, whatever you want to call them, along the way, but I knew if we had that, our cars have been fast enough, and he’s talented enough at these tracks that I knew we could get it done.”

Keselowski was the leader when the race resumed with three laps remaining, but was passed by Ryan Newman, who stayed out front until the final lap. Then Keselowski made his move around Newman on the high side of the track to take the lead, and a crossover move held off both Newman and Penske teammate Joey Logano.

Keselowski then collected the American flag for the victory lap on his 24th career Cup win, which came in his 300th start. His first career Cup win was at Talladega in 2009.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh in his final race at Talladega, where he and his late father combined to win 16 Cup races. Alabama declared Sunday “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day.”

“This has been a hell of a weekend for me, and I’m glad to be able to finish and finish well. That means a lot to me,” Earnhardt said. “I know a lot of folks came and traveled here to see us run, so I know they’re disappointed we didn’t win, but I’m glad they got to see us run the whole event, and hopefully they enjoyed it.”

Newman finished second in a Chevrolet and was followed by Trevor Bayne, Logano and Aric Almirola — all non-playoff drivers.

“Brad and I work really well together on these speedways,” Logano said. “I was able to push him up to the lead and I thought, ‘Alright, now I got you to the lead. It’s my turn to get up there and try to win this thing.’ Our never-quit-attitude got us a top-five out of a day that looked like we may not even finish. I’m proud of that.”

Denny Hamlin finished sixth, the best of the Toyota drivers. But the manufacturer’s playoff streak came to an end after Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch gave Toyota wins in the first four playoff races.

Of the top 10 finishers, only Keselowski and Hamlin were playoff drivers.

The rest of the 12-driver playoff field had a rough afternoon.

McMURRAY’s BAD DAY: Jamie McMurray’s championship chances took a huge hit when he misfired on his attempt to pit early in the race. He was too high on the track when he tried to dart low to make the entrance to pit road, and forcing the issue in traffic caused him to wreck.

He entered the day in the transfer position for the playoffs, but he finished 37th on Sunday and is now last in the 12-driver field.

“There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s part of Talladega,” he said. “We know you can come out of here with a lot of points and be a winner or you can be in the position we are right now. We’ll go to Kansas and do our best. I’m sure I won’t be the only playoff driver disappointed today.”

HE WAS RIGHT: All the accidents Sunday gave the playoff standings a different look. Truex still leads, but the bottom four drivers are Kyle Busch — who has been in back-to-back wrecks — Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and McMurray. On the cut line? Defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.

UP NEXT: The final race in the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs is next Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Four drivers will be cut from the playoff field.

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___

ALABAMA 500 RESULTS

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

1. (6) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 188 laps, 0 rating, 59 points.

2. (27) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 188, 0, 35.

3. (10) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 188, 0, 36.

4. (3) Joey Logano, Ford, 188, 0, 42.

5. (26) Aric Almirola, Ford, 188, 0, 32.

6. (15) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 188, 0, 32.

7. (1) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 188, 0, 30.

8. (11) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 188, 0, 30.

9. (39) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 188, 0, 28.

10. (33) David Ragan, Ford, 188, 0, 27.

11. (25) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 188, 0, 26.

12. (20) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 188, 0, 25.

13. (12) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 188, 0, 24.

14. (19) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 187, 0, 23.

15. (14) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, accident, 184, 0, 22.

16. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, accident, 182, 0, 28.

17. (28) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, accident, 182, 0, 20.

18. (9) Ryan Blaney, Ford, accident, 177, 0, 37.

19. (35) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, accident, 177, 0, 0.

20. (22) Kevin Harvick, Ford, accident, 176, 0, 20.

21. (13) Danica Patrick, Ford, accident, 175, 0, 16.

22. (24) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, accident, 172, 0, 15.

23. (21) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, accident, 171, 0, 14.

24. (8) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, garage, 171, 0, 23.

25. (4) Kurt Busch, Ford, accident, 171, 0, 21.

26. (5) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, accident, 171, 0, 18.

27. (16) Kyle Busch, Toyota, accident, 171, 0, 12.

28. (30) Landon Cassill, Ford, accident, 171, 0, 9.

29. (18) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 171, 0, 13.

30. (29) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, accident, 171, 0, 11.

31. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, garage, 171, 0, 6.

32. (37) Joey Gase, Toyota, accident, 164, 0, 0.

33. (40) D.J. Kennington, Chevrolet, accident, 164, 0, 4.

34. (38) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, accident, 155, 0, 3.

35. (7) Clint Bowyer, Ford, accident, 155, 0, 15.

36. (23) Erik Jones, Toyota, accident, 26, 0, 1.

37. (17) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, accident, 25, 0, 1.

38. (34) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, accident, 25, 0, 1.

39. (36) Mark Thompson, Chevrolet, accident, 25, 0, 0.

40. (31) Justin Marks, Chevrolet, accident, 16, 0, 0.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 131.661 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 47 minutes, 52 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.210 seconds.

Caution Flags: 11 for 47 laps.

Lead Changes: 30 among 16 drivers.

Lap Leaders: D.Earnhardt 0; J.Logano 1-13; D.Earnhardt 14-20; C.Elliott 21-25; M.Kenseth 26-29; A.Allmendinger 30; J.Logano 31-54; B.Keselowski 55-57; K.Kahne 58-61; M.Kenseth 62-63; D.Hamlin 64-66; M.Kenseth 67; K.Kahne 68; B.Gaughan 69-70; M.DiBenedetto 71-82; R.Stenhouse 83-88; Ku.Busch 89-91; R.Blaney 92-111; R.Newman 112; B.Gaughan 113-116; D.Hamlin 117; R.Blaney 118-124; C.Elliott 125-144; Ky.Busch 145-148; J.Logano 149-170; D.Suarez 171-176; C.Elliott 177; D.Suarez 178-182; B.Keselowski 183-185; R.Newman 186-187; B.Keselowski 188

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): J.Logano, 3 times for 56 laps; R.Blaney, 2 times for 25 laps; C.Elliott, 3 times for 23 laps; M.DiBenedetto, 1 time for 11 laps; D.Suarez, 2 times for 9 laps; D.Earnhardt, 2 times for 6 laps; R.Stenhouse, 1 time for 5 laps; M.Kenseth, 3 times for 4 laps; B.Keselowski, 3 times for 4 laps; B.Gaughan, 2 times for 4 laps; K.Kahne, 2 times for 3 laps; Ky.Busch, 1 time for 3 laps; D.Hamlin, 2 times for 2 laps; Ku.Busch, 1 time for 2 laps; R.Newman, 2 times for 1 lap; A.Allmendinger, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: M.Truex, 6; Ky.Busch, 4; K.Larson, 4; J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 3; D.Hamlin, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Harvick, 1; K.Kahne, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. M.Truex, 3120; 2. B.Keselowski, 3101; 3. K.Larson, 3096; 4. K.Harvick, 3089; 5. D.Hamlin, 3088; 6. C.Elliott, 3087; 7. R.Blaney, 3076; 8. J.Johnson, 3074; 9. Ky.Busch, 3067; 10. M.Kenseth, 3066; 11. R.Stenhouse, 3052; 12. J.McMurray, 3045; 13. K.Kahne, 2104; 14. R.Newman, 2103; 15. A.Dillon, 2099; 16. Ku.Busch, 2089.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could he add a seventh victory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Stenhouse wasn’t thrilled to qualify fifth.

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-nascar-chase-100817

ALABAMA 500 LINEUP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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