For the first time in 139 Cup events with Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson had blown an engine. Sixty laps into Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400, Larson dropped a cylinder in the engine of his No. 42 Chevrolet.
On Lap 65, he brought the car to pit road, where his pit crew raised the hood and tried to diagnose the problem. Larson returned to the track three laps down, but the sour engine exploded on the frontstretch on Lap 77, knocking Larson out of the race in 39th place and out of the Playoff.
Before the final verdict was in, Larson watched the remainder of the race, hoping for a miracle, but Jimmie Johnson salvaged an 11th-place finish after two spins to knock Larson out of the Playoff by nine points.
"I guess I'm not stunned, because freak things happen in every sport," Larson said. "I mean, you look at every year in the past and a lot of times, most every time at least in the new Playoff format era, not always does the best team win.
"Not saying we're the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So I'm not stunned, because it's a long 10-race Playoff so anything can happen, but we have had a solid Playoffs. We've been consistent and just now got bit."
Larson entered Sunday's elimination race third in the standings but will have to wait until next year for another shot at the championship.
"I hate that we blew an engine and blew our shot at the championship, but luck is a big factor of our sport," Larson said.
Johnson survives close calls to advance in Playoff
On Lap 188 of Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Jimmie Johnson’s hopes for a record eighth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship appeared to take a telling blow.
With Kurt Busch's Stewart-Haas Racing Ford tucked close behind him in Turn 4, Johnson spun and slid through the infield grass. He brought the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to pit road, where his crew inspected the suspension and made quick repairs to a hood that was bowed up on the right side.
"Car's fine -- nothing wrong with it," crew chief Chad Knaus radioed to his driver.
In Turn 3 after a restart on Lap 193, however, Johnson spun again. Miraculously, the cars behind him all were able to dodge the out-of-control Chevrolet.
A subsequent 14-car wreck on Lap 198 proved the undoing of Matt Kenseth, Johnson's closest rival for the final Round of 8 spot, and the seven-time champion advanced by nine points after finishing a hard-fought 11th.
"I had one (spin) off of (Turn) 4 and the other in (Turn) 3 on the restart," Johnson said. "The car was extremely loose. We fought the balance throughout the day, and the car would swing so hard. We were trying for short-run speed to free the car up, and we just got too far with it and I spun out twice. Thankfully, I didn't hit anything too hard.
"And when things really changed was down the back straightaway in that wreck. Somehow, I went through there at a high rate of speed and missed everybody. I don't know how, but I made it. And then the No. 1 (Jamie McMurray) car was sitting there, and I thought I had him lined up for a square impact, but fortunately he slid out of the way.
"It wasn't a pretty day, but we got it done."
Kenseth bounced from Playoff after rule violation
Matt Kenseth's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff ended abruptly under a red flag after his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was damaged in a 14-car pileup on the backstretch.
Erik Jones, who will replace Kenseth next year, lost control of his car and ignited the wreck. Kenseth brought his wounded car to pit road, where seven crewmen --one more than the six allowed by rule -- began repairs.
Under NASCAR's damaged vehicle policy, the penalty for that violation is disqualification, and Kenseth was informed by his crew chief that he was out of the race -- and consequently out of the Playoff.
"I don't know a lot about it," Kenseth said of the rule that ousted him. "Honestly, I've never heard of disqualifying somebody from a race if you got one too many guys over the wall, or whatever happened there. I don't really know.
"I really don't have a lot of good things to say at the moment, so I’ll probably try not to say much. Pretty disappointing way to end. Can't even go back on the racetrack because of the error we made. It's just -- couldn’t be any more disappointed."
Kansas City, Kansas
1. (1) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 267.
2. (15) Kurt Busch, Ford, 267.
3. (40) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 267.
4. (14) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 267.
5. (4) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 267.
6. (20) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 267.
7. (19) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 267.
8. (2) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 267.
9. (25) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267.
10. (7) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, 267.
11. (12) Jimmie Johnson (P), Chevrolet, 267.
12. (23) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267.
13. (10) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 267.
14. (11) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267.
15. (21) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267.
16. (29) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 267.
17. (27) David Ragan, Ford, 267.
18. (16) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 267.
19. (9) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 267.
20. (28) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267.
21. (17) Joey Logano, Ford, 267.
22. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 267.
23. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 265.
24. (35) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 263.
25. (37) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 263.
26. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 261.
27. (34) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 261.
28. (33) * Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 259.
29. (24) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P), Ford, Accident, 256.
30. (36) * BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 254.
31. (32) * Brett Moffitt(i), Toyota, 238.
32. (26) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, Accident, 232.
33. (18) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, Accident, 203.
34. (8) Jamie McMurray (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 198.
35. (6) Erik Jones #, Toyota, Accident, 197.
36. (5) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, Accident, 197.
37. (3) Matt Kenseth (P), Toyota, Accident, 197.
38. (22) Danica Patrick, Ford, Accident, 197.
39. (13) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, Engine, 73.
40. (39) * Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, Handling, 35.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 125.189 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 11 Mins, 57 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.284 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 10 for 49 laps.
Lead Changes: 14 among 7 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M. Truex Jr. (P) 1-34; K. Busch (P) 35-47; B. Keselowski (P) 48-50; R. Blaney (P) 51-53; K. Busch (P) 54-81; K. Harvick (P) 82; K. Busch (P) 83-128; J. McMurray (P) 129; B. Keselowski (P) 130-144; K. Busch (P) 145-156; K. Harvick (P) 157; D. Hamlin (P) 158-162; K. Harvick (P) 163-197; K. Busch (P) 198-210; M. Truex Jr. (P) 211-267.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Busch (P) 5 times for 112 laps; M. Truex Jr. (P) 2 times for 91 laps; K. Harvick (P) 3 times for 37 laps; B. Keselowski (P) 2 times for 18 laps; D. Hamlin (P) 1 time for 5 laps; R. Blaney (P) 1 time for 3 laps; J. McMurray (P) 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 18, 4, 11, 21, 1, 48, 24, 78, 20, 77
Stage #2 Top Ten: 11, 4, 2, 20, 18, 77, 1, 21, 24, 48
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't help himself.
When he heard his unborn daughter's heartbeat for the first time, Earnhardt responded with an instinctive, spontaneous laugh of pure joy.
"It's not like a funny 'ha-ha' laugh," Earnhardt said before final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Kansas Speedway. "It's more like something just comes out. I'd play it for you. You just burst out like joy. It wasn't 'ha-ha' funny. It was just a joyful moment.
"Somebody says your wife is pregnant, that registers a little bit. But man, when you hear that heartbeat it's like 'Yep, it's real. This is a real thing in there and it's here. This is happening.' So, just all this emotion just pops out."
Earnhardt learned in August that wife Amy was pregnant with the couple's first child, but didn't make the news public until last Monday. Nevertheless, the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet recalls being consumed with anticipation while waiting for confirmation of the pregnancy.
"We went for a checkup, and Amy took a couple of tests, and the tests were saying she's pregnant," Earnhardt recounted. "We went to the doctor, and I'm still thinking, 'Man, I'm not believing crap until this doctor tells me. So we're sitting in there for like 20 minutes. And they're talking woman language, and I'm not understanding.
"They are just talking about things, and I'm like, 'Well, when is she going to say it?' I want to hear it from the doctor's mouth that she's pregnant, so we can rejoice. It took them a while. I was scared to speak up. Finally, they said something that confirmed it for me and I was like, 'Awesome!'
"And then we had the ultrasound and got to hear the heartbeat and all that right there, and that was great. We go back for another checkup here soon, in a couple of days, and those are awesome. They are so much fun because it's like the closest you can get to it before they're born, and I'm looking forward to each and every one of them."
QUALIFYING PENALTY DOUBLE WHAMMY FOR BLANEY
For Ryan Blaney, the timing couldn't have been worse.
Fighting for a spot in the Round of 8 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff, Blaney qualified third in knockout time trials for Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 (on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET) at Kansas Speedway, only to have his time disallowed when his No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford failed post-qualifying inspection.
According to NASCAR, the package tray on Blaney's Ford -- the shelf-like area between the rear quarter and the C-posts that outline the rear window -- didn't retain its shape after his qualifying runs.
The rule book requires the package tray to remain flat and straight from front to back.
With his time disallowed, Blaney will start from the rear of the field in Sunday's elimination race. That's bad enough. Blaney is currently seventh in the standings, two points ahead of eighth-place Jimmie Johnson and nine clear of ninth-place Kyle Busch, who will start seventh at Kansas.
With each position worth a point, Busch will have a 33-point edge over Blaney at the green flag, as Busch tries to knock Blaney out of the top eight. Starting deep in the field also will make it more difficult for Blaney to accumulate vital stage points in the first two stages of the race.
Blaney also got last pick of pit stalls and ended up with stall No. 12a (actually the 13th stall for those with a superstitious bent), between the Hendrick Motorsports cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in front and Kasey Kahne behind him. The Hendrick drivers have a vested interest in assuring that teammate Johnson, who starts 12th, makes it to the Round of 8.
Blaney will also have last pick of pit stalls next week at Martinsville, whether he remains in the Playoff or not.
"The rules are pushed to the max in every area, and (Friday) the NASCAR officials found something they didn't like about our car," said team co-owner Eddie Wood. "We're not disputing their decision. We'll own it and move on.
"We'll work on our car in Saturday's practice, line up in the back on Sunday and look forward to watching Ryan drive his way to the front."
The good news is that Blaney's Kansas car is fast. Blaney was sixth in Saturday morning's first practice session, and he topped the speed chart in final practice. Even so, he'll likely have to have an exceptional run on Sunday to maintain his spot in the Playoff.
Playoff driver Kyle Larson may have qualified 13th for Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400, but his car is plenty fast in race trim. In Saturday's first practice session, Larson paced the field at 181.671 mph. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was eighth fastest in final practice. ... Near the end of final practice, NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff driver Daniel Hemric ran laps in Paul Menard's No. 27 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Chevrolet. Menard is on baby watch as he and wife Jennifer are expecting their second child, and Hemric is standing by as a relief driver in case the birth takes precedence over Sunday's race.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- You can't blame Martin Truex Jr. for looking ahead.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader didn't need to win the pole position at Kansas Speedway, having already qualified for the Playoff's Round of 8 with a victory two weeks ago at Charlotte.
But by posting the fastest lap in Friday's knockout qualifying session at the 1.5-mile track, Truex got a leg up on a trip to the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, because the time trials at Kansas came with a significant bonus -- first choice of pit stalls for the Oct. 29 Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway.
For the record, Truex ran the fastest lap of the afternoon in the final round of qualifying for Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 (on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET), covering the distance in 28.719 seconds (188.029 mph) to beat Kevin Harvick (187.682 mph) for the top starting spot by .053 seconds.
Truex had to push his car to the limit in the final round to earn his third Coors Light Pole Award of the season, his second at Kansas and the 15th of his career.
"I was shaking a little -- I'm not going to lie," Truex said. "My heart was beating. It gets the adrenaline going so high to put down a lap like that, to go the fastest you've gone all day in that final round.
"We put it all together. We got the balance better, and I stepped up and put it on the line out there, and it stuck. The commitment level was high, and the car handled it well. That's always a good combination."
Ryan Blaney qualified third, Matt Kenseth fourth and Denny Hamlin fifth, as Playoff drivers garnered the top five spots on the grid. Daniel Suarez was sixth, followed by Erik Jones and Kyle Busch, as Toyota drivers claimed six of the top eight starting positions, the only exceptions being the Fords of Harvick and Blaney.
Because qualifying at Martinsville is on the same day as the race, pit selection at the .526-mile short track was tied to qualifying at Kansas, where the No. 1 pit stall gives a driver unfettered egress from pit road.
"It was definitely on our minds," said Truex, who has won a series-best six races in a dream season for the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. "We talked about it. It was like, 'It'd be pretty nice to go to Martinsville and have the No. 1 pit stall.'
"It was definitely on our minds, but I don't know if it really played into how we got the job done or not. But it was definitely good timing, more than anything, because that's going to be huge for us going into the Round of 8 next week."
Harvick, the 2014 series champion, described his qualifying session as "three sketchy laps," but feels he has a competitive car for the race that will trim the Playoff field from 12 drivers to eight.
"I think we have a car that can be capable of staying up there and hopefully having a chance to win the race at the end," Harvick said. "It's a good start to the weekend. That's half the battle when you're trying to collect stage points in the first stage and get pit stall selection and try and gain all the advantages that you can on Friday.
"That's something that our team did a good job at this year. I feel like our cars are a lot faster from the beginning of the year on the mile-and-a-half race tracks, and we're on the game. It's been a fun few weeks."
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who currently leads Kyle Busch by seven points for the final spot in the Round of 8, and will start 13th after missing the final round by .020 seconds. Playoff driver Jamie McMurray qualified ninth in the fastest Chevrolet.
Playoff drivers Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will start 14th and 15th, respectively. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the only Playoff driver who failed to make the second round, will take the green flag from 25th.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying - Hollywood Casino 400
Kansas City, Kansas
1. (78) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 188.029 mph.
2. (4) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 187.682 mph.
3. (21) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 187.617 mph.
4. (20) Matt Kenseth (P), Toyota, 187.604 mph.
5. (11) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 187.461 mph.
6. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 186.909 mph.
7. (77) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 186.716 mph.
8. (18) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, 186.329 mph.
9. (1) Jamie McMurray (P), Chevrolet, 185.637 mph.
10. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 185.599 mph.
11. (2) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 184.849 mph.
12. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 184.093 mph.
13. (48) Jimmie Johnson (P), Chevrolet, 185.957 mph.
14. (42) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 185.880 mph.
15. (24) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 185.765 mph.
16. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 185.274 mph.
17. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 185.185 mph.
18. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 184.976 mph.
19. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 184.970 mph.
20. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 184.824 mph.
21. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 184.679 mph.
22. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 184.533 mph.
23. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 184.496 mph.
24. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 184.212 mph.
25. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P), Ford, 183.542 mph.
26. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 183.492 mph.
27. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 182.723 mph.
28. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 182.088 mph.
29. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 182.063 mph.
30. (13) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 181.928 mph.
31. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 181.830 mph.
32. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 179.146 mph.
33. (83) Brett Moffitt(i), Toyota, 179.110 mph.
34. (55) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 178.660 mph.
35. (23) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 178.601 mph.
36. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 178.542 mph.
37. (51) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 177.667 mph.
38. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 177.369 mph.
39. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 176.875 mph.
40. (00) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
KANSAS CITY, Kansas -- Jimmie Johnson knows he needs to do better at qualifying, but he's not sure how to accomplish that goal.
The numbers don't lie. Johnson's average starting position through 31 races this season is 17.0. His previous low mark was 14.3 in his 2002 rookie year.
The mid-pack starting spots have had dire consequences. The seven-time champion's lackluster efforts in time trials have translated to a career-worst average finish of 15.8. Though Johnson has won three times this season, he has finished in the top five only one other time.
Only one previous time in his career has Johnson failed to crack double digits in top fives. That was 15 years ago, when he posted six top-five results in his rookie season.
But the real negative of mediocrity in time trials manifests itself in stage racing. Starting from an average of 17th on the grid, Johnson has had difficulty accumulating stage points to any significant degree.
As a consequence, he's eighth in the standings, fighting to retain a spot in the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff. It doesn't help that the driver who is seven points behind him -- Kyle Busch -- has eight poles this season and an average starting position of 7.1.
That's an average advantage of 10 spots over Johnson, or 10 points, to start every race. That's why qualifying is number one on Johnson's to-do list of areas to improve.
"It hasn't been a strong suit of mine, and over the last couple of years, it has slipped even more," Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at Kansas Speedway, site of Sunday's Round of 12 elimination race the Hollywood Casino 400 (on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET). "This year, we knew before the season ever started that the importance of qualifying was going to ratchet up and be two to three times more important, essentially.
"Even with all that awareness and the thought process and attempts to raise our qualifying performance, we haven't yet. And we're looking at every option possible. Again, here this weekend, I personally am trying to find the right rhythm that is needed out there on the track to put up that lap time. Through practice and the three rounds of qualifying, at some point I can sneak the speed out of the car and post a good lap, and for whatever reason trying to back that up or do it lap after lap, just haven't been able to pull that off."
It's not that Johnson has neglected qualifying in preparing for each race.
"We've spent a lot of time focusing on it, and we're almost to a point now where we overthought it," he said. "Are we slowing ourselves down from overthinking it in some regards?
"We're aware and trying hard and have been trying hard to get that right. Hopefully, we get it."
As an added incentive, Friday's pole winner at Kansas Speedway will earn the No. 1 pit stall next week at Martinsville, where the stall closest to the exit from pit road is a huge advantage.
But Johnson can't worry about that now. If he doesn't survive Kansas in the top eight, Martinsville won't matter, where a possible record eighth championship is concerned.
KYLE BUSCH FACING FIRST DO-OR-DIE TEST AT KANSAS SPEEDWAY
Three weeks ago, after the Round of 16 elimination race at Dover, Kyle Busch was in a comfort zone.
Then Charlotte and Talladega happened.
In the first event in the Round of 12, Busch hit the wall at Charlotte and finished 29th, six laps down. In last Sunday's thrilling race at Talladega, he crashed out in 27th.
Those two results wiped out the advantage he had built in playoff points and left him ninth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, seven points behind Jimmie Johnson in eighth.
With elimination looming in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, only 10 points separate Ryan Blaney in seventh from Matt Kenseth in 10th, with Johnson and Busch in-between. In all probability, two of those four drivers will advance to the Round of 8, and two won't.
"I feel like I wouldn't be worried about this if I didn't have Charlotte or Talladega happen," Busch said. "But that's not the situation we're in. We've just got to do a good job. This is our first 'Homestead' of this year.
"We've got to come through this race. It's not a must-win, but it is a must-perform. We've got to do everything right in order to go out there and be the top guy all day out of the four legitimate candidates that are fighting for the two spots available. We've just got to concentrate on that and make sure we can get it done."
WILLIAM BYRON IS PREPPING FOR CUP CAREER IN A SIMULATOR
William Byron is right in the middle of a heated battle for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, but that doesn't mean he's not preparing for next year's quantum leap to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Though Byron has yet to run his first Cup race, he has been spending time driving a simulator for Hendrick Motorsports to help Hendrick's current Cup competitors prepare for their events. Alex Bowman, who will take over the No. 88 Chevrolet from Dale Earnhardt Jr. next year, shoulders most of the simulator duty, but Byron also takes advantage of the opportunity.
"I go in there and help them with Cup Series stuff most of the time," said Byron, who is the top seed in the Xfinity standings. "Sometimes they give us stuff from Xfinity, but most of the time it's Cup stuff and seeing what they're going to do for the weekend.
"It's a very helpful tool, and I'm very thankful for Chevy's support to have that there for us. A critical part of the sport right now is doing those things. We're trying to keep developing in it, and I think it's going really well. I just enjoy being in there and being able to use it."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
The four-round elimination-style Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs can chew a driver up and spit him out in no time.
Kyle Busch knows this as well as anyone.
The No. 18 Toyota driver entered the Playoffs third in the points standings and looked like the favorite to take the series crown after winning twice in the Round of 16.
But his situation changed rapidly in the Round of 12. Busch finished 29th at Charlotte, followed by a 27th-place performance at Talladega. Now, he sits on the brink of elimination -- seven points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final Round of 8 transfer spot going into Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
"We are still some points out but we can go out there and try and get as many stage points as possible and, if we get a good run, we still have a shot to make it through," Busch said. "We'll just have to do what we've been doing all year and see where that puts us."
Luckily for Busch, Kansas has treated him well recently. Although struggling at the 1.5-mile track early in his career, Busch has finished no lower than fifth in his last five starts there. His run includes a Kansas win in the spring of 2016.
"We're going to do the same things we've always done -- same preparation, nothing different," Busch said. "I think we need to go in there and do our best to be prepared and when it comes to race time, try to limit our mistakes. I think that helped out there over the years and that has turned our team into a contender every time we race there, now. We'll just do the same things this time around."
The only way Busch can advance to the Round of 12 without the help of other drivers is to win Sunday's race.
Byron leads Xfinity Series into Round of 8
Last season, William Byron led the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series the majority of the season, racking up a rookie-record seven wins. When the Playoffs came around, his engine blew with a late lead in the penultimate race of the year, eliminating him from championship contention.
Byron has carried his success into the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season. He enters the Round of 8 opener -- Saturday's Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m.) -- first on the Playoff Grid. He sits 19 points above Cole Custer on the cutoff line as a result of his three victories, three stage wins and third-place regular-season points finish.
The 19-year-old Charlotte native has never made an Xfinity Series start at Kansas, but won the Camping World Truck Series race there last season.
"Kansas Speedway is a fun race track to go to. The last time I was there, I was fortunate enough to win my first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race and I can't wait to get back and have a good run in the Xfinity Series," Byron said. "It is an important race to start out this round of the playoffs, so we plan on having a strong day and executing well."
Kansas Speedway Race Weekend Guide
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Race: Hollywood Casino 400
Place: Kansas Speedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Oct. 22 at 3 p.m. ET
Tune-In: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 80), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on lap 267)
What To Watch For: Among "Bubble drivers" Jimmie Johnson (eighth), Kyle Busch (ninth) and Matt Kenseth (10th) -- all separated by only eight points -- there are a total of nine Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series titles. ... Kevin Harvick hopes for his second straight fall win at Kansas. ... Martin Truex Jr. tries to follow up his spring Kansas win with another victory at the 1.5-mile track. ... Joey Logano and Ryan Newman are the only non-Playoff-eligible drivers in the field who have won at Kansas in the past.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Race: Kansas Lottery 300
Place: Kansas Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. ET
Tune-In: NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on lap 200)
What To Watch For: Saturday marks the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs Round of 8 opener. William Byron heads the Playoff Grid (19 points above Cole Custer on the cutoff line). He is followed by Justin Allgaier (plus-16), Elliott Sadler (plus-13), Daniel Hemric (plus-2), Cole Custer (two points behind Daniel Hemric on the cutoff line), Brennan Poole (-3), Ryan Reed (-4) and Matt Tifft (-5). The series is guaranteed to crown a first-time champion this season. ... NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings leader Christopher Bell makes his fifth career Xfinity Series start. Last week, Bell announced that he will run a full-time Xfinity Series schedule in 2018 with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Playoff bonus points would be nice for the 10 drivers on Sunday whose fate has yet to be determined. Those are the points that a driver can carry throughout the playoffs and are earned by winning a stage or winning a race. But the first order of business for any of these 10 "undeclared" drivers is getting enough points in all three stages to ensure making it to the Round of 8.
Three of the drivers under the most pressure are Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, who are within eight points of one another. Johnson is just one spot above the cut line in eighth place, Busch trails him by seven points and Kenseth is one point behind Busch. (About the only safe prediction is that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray are not likely to jump ahead of these three due to being mired 22 and 29 points, respectively, out of eighth place.)
It's rarely been a matter of luck when a driver wins a championship in NASCAR's premier Cup series. But stuck at the playoffs cut line, these former champions may need some at the Kansas Speedway to keep their title hopes afloat. Even if mistakes are held to a bare minimum, it would require errors by those drivers in seventh through fourth place -- Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick -- for all three of the former champs to advance.
I would predict at least one team in each of these two groups will make a significant error under what has become enormous playoff pressure. But which ones?
Stage racing may be a more democratic system than the former elimination format of what was called the Chase, but it's still down to the teams to perform. And like the preliminary rounds of the World Series, the Super Bowl or NBA playoffs, the pressure has a way of turning normally calm professional athletes into, well, less predictable performers.
Yep, the "El Foldo" is always with us.
Johnson, by virtue of seven championships, has to be considered the calmest under such circumstances. And, he's got three wins at Kansas. Yet, two weeks in a row his Hendrick Motorsports team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus, has failed him in the pits. His crew missed lug nuts in Charlotte on his final stop and he was forced behind the wall at Talladega after the crew started working too early on Johnson's damaged Chevy during a red flag period.
"Obviously we are in a tight spot in the playoffs after last weekend at Talladega," said an uncharacteristically tight-lipped Johnson. "We know what we need to do in Kansas."
Busch drives a Toyota, which is a big plus on 1.5-mile tracks this year due to better downforce and the horsepower from Toyota Racing Development needed to power past the extra drag. He's won at Kansas as recently as 2016. But Busch's error at Charlotte cost him four laps and a bundle of points. He never seemed to get cranked up at Talladega, either, where getting caught in the 17-car crash near the race's end finished off his chances for a second straight week.
Will Busch maintain what has thus far been an uncharacteristically even-keeled response to disasters this year? He says his Joe Gibbs Racing team, directed by crew chief Adam Stevens, is going to follow the usual routine that has resulted in five consecutive top-five finishes at Kansas.
"We are still some points out but we can go out there and try and get as many stage points as possible and, if we get a good run, we still have a shot to make it through," Busch said. "We'll just have to do what we've been doing all year and see where that puts us."
Kenseth has the most pressure on him, although he has been perhaps the most relaxed of all playoff drivers, constantly joking with the media who have inquired about his status next season after the Gibbs team announced prior to the playoffs that Erik Jones will replace him in 2018. He joked, for instance, about becoming a full-time bus driver for his children next year, picking them up from school as well as dropping them off.
So which Kenseth will show up -- the passionate driver who retaliated against Joey Logano in 2015 during the postseason by crashing him deliberately or the guy who is currently so low key he might even be off-key? The likable champion who is always polite even when subtly dissing others appears to be in his last playoffs due to no front-line drives being available for him. But so far it hasn't seemed to motivate him. Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still looking for their first win this year.
A win by any of the former champs is obviously the best route forward. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have already taken this road to get locked into the next round.
In his favor, Kenseth drives a Toyota and has 774 laps led at Kansas, including two wins. He might have won in 2015 at Kansas in the fall had Logano not knocked him sideways. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the sentimental favorite at Talladega, Kenseth ranks high on the list of drivers that fans would like to see continue in the playoffs.
"I've done things I never dreamed I would have a chance to do," said Kenseth last week at Talladega. "I never even thought I'd have a chance to race in the Cup Series full time before. I've been able to do that these years, have that success. I said 10 years ago if it all had to end that day, it was more than I ever dreamed of. It certainly has been way more than I ever dreamed of. Who knows what's going to happen next year?"
Indeed, who knows what will happen this weekend in Kansas? The only predictable element is that four drivers will be sidelined, more than likely including at least one former champion.
TV: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET -- NBCSN (Radio: Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
THIS WEEK: This will be the sixth race of the 10-race NASCAR Cup playoffs, as well as the elimination race at the end of the second round. When the race is over, the four lowest-ranked drivers in the standings will be eliminated from advancing to the Round of 8 third round, which starts on Oct. 29 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. ... This will be the 24th Cup race held at Kansas Speedway. Kevin Harvick won this race last fall, while Martin Truex Jr. won this past May's race there. ... Brad Keselowski won this past Sunday's race at Talladega, his third victory of the season. With the win, Keselowski earned an automatic berth into the Round of 8. ... Here's the Cup point standings after Talladega: Martin Truex Jr. (3,120 points), Brad Keselowski (3,101), Kyle Larson (3,096), Kevin Harvick (3,089), Denny Hamlin (3,088), Chase Elliott (3,087), Ryan Blaney (3,076), Jimmie Johnson (3,074), Kyle Busch (3,067), Matt Kenseth (3,066), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,052) and Jamie McMurray (3,045).
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: KANSAS LOTTERY 300 (200 laps, 300 miles around a 1.5-mile oval), Kansas Speedway; Kansas City, Kan.
TV: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET -- NBC (Radio: Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
THIS WEEK: The Xfinity Series was off last weekend. ... Alex Bowman earned his first career NASCAR win in the most recent race nearly two weeks ago at Charlotte. Sam Hornish Jr. finished second while Ryan Blaney was third. ... Bowman will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series. ... The Charlotte race was the final race of the first round of the Xfinity playoffs. Four drivers were eliminated from advancing to the second round at Kansas. Those eliminated were Brendan Gaughan, Michael Annett, Blake Koch and Jeremy Clements. ... William Byron (3,026) leads the Xfinity Series, followed by Justin Allgaier (3,023) standings, Elliott Sadler (3,026), Daniel Hemric (3,009), Cole Custer (3,007), Brennan Poole (3,006), Ryan Reed (3,005) and Matt Tifft (3,004).
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: The series is off this weekend. The next race will be the Texas Roadhouse 200 on Oct. 28 at Martinsville Speedway.
THIS WEEK: Parker Kligerman won last Saturday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, followed by Christopher Bell, Myatt Snider, Grant Enfinger and Austin Cindric. ... The race at Talladega was a first-round elimination race, eliminating Chase Briscoe and Kaz Grala, leaving just six Trucks left to contend for the championship. ... Christopher Bell is No. 1 in the point standings (3,047 points), followed by defending series champ Johnny Sauter (3,027), Matt Crafton (3,014), John Hunter Nemechek (3,014), Ben Rhodes (3,013) and Austin Cindric (3,007).
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION: The series is off this weekend. The next race is the NHRA Toyota Nationals (Oct. 26-29) at The Strip At Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
THIS WEEK: Winners of this past Sunday's AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex were: Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle). ... After joining the team earlier this year, Shawn Langdon will remain with Kalitta Motorsports for next season, but will shift from Top Fuel to Funny Car for the first time in his career. ... Here are the updated point standings: Top Fuel -- Steve Torrence (2,465 points), Brittany Force (2,408), Doug Kalitta (2,389), Antron Brown (2,360), Leah Pritchett (2,285), Tony Schumacher (2,273), Clay Millican (2,268), Shawn Langdon (2,193), Terry McMillen (2,147) and Scott Palmer (2,137); Funny Car -- Ron Capps (2,495 points), Robert Hight (2,471), Courtney Force (2,324), Jack Beckman (2,309), Matt Hagan (2,269), John Force (2,252), Tommy Johnson Jr. (2,224), Tim Wilkerson (2,206), J.R. Todd (2,199) and Cruz Pedregon (2,128); Pro Stock -- Greg Anderson (2,471 points), Bo Butner (2,456), Jason Line (2,441), Tanner Gray (2,360), Drew Skillman (2,301), Erica Enders (2,252), Allen Johnson (2,183), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (2,180), Chris McGaha (2,154) and Vincent Nobile (2,052); Pro Stock Motorcycle -- Eddie Krawiec (2,506 points), L.E. Tonglet (2,399), Andrew Hines (2,364), Jerry Savoie (2,360), Scotty Pollacheck (2,330), Matt Smith (2,313), Hector Arana Jr. (2,297), Karen Stoffer (2,200), Angie Smith (2,174) and Joey Gladstone (2,169).
Earnhardt's problems with concussion syndrome that forced his retirement may have begun when he wrecked twice at the Talladega Superspeedway in the spring of 2015. But that didn't slow him down on Sunday -- when only 14 cars were running at the finish.
During his final season, Earnhardt has lived with the possibility of an incapacitating injury. At Talladega, where speeds are higher than Daytona and multi-car crashes more frequent, the risks were as great as ever during an intense playoff race that counted with three red flag periods in the closing laps.
The massive grandstands were brim full with fans looking to see a fitting bookend to Earnhardt's extraordinary career at Talladega, especially in light of what happened to his father. Dale Earnhardt Sr. scored his final win in 2000 at the Alabama track before he was killed in a crash the following February at Daytona.
Earnhardt Jr., had a car capable of winning until the last multi-car melee bent the right front splitter on his Chevy. Trying to add one last restrictor plate victory to an impressive career total of 10 at Daytona and Talladega, Earnhardt limped home seventh, his Chevy finally snagged by the crashes of others.
A new king emerged in the form of Brad Keselowski, who earned his fifth victory at Talladega. That will become the most among active drivers once Earnhardt Jr. retires at the end of the season. It should have been mano-a-mano at the finish between the two mechanized warriors. But over the course of the final three green flag laps, it was not going to come to pass.
"I wish we could have seen what we could have done with a straight car at the end," Earnhardt said. "We tried to push Brad into the lead, but the splitter was on the ground so bad, we got disconnected, and everyone literally went right around us, and it was downhill from there."
There was better news on a day when Earnhardt started on the pole in front of the packed mile-long grandstands around the yawning arc of the front stretch's tri-oval bend. Earnhardt now faces a more certain future, one where the specter of a severe concussion from the high speeds at Talladega have been quelled.
Races at tracks where severe head injuries to drivers have occurred previously such as Martinsville and the Texas Motors Speedway are yet to be run. But if all continues to go well, NASCAR's most popular driver can concentrate on being the voice of NASCAR, articulating what makes the sport tick for him in a way that brings it to life. He will no longer have to sit through red flags at Talladega while torn sheet metal on bent tube frames is hauled away like gladiators being removed from the Roman Coliseum before the fighting begins anew.
"I think that anyone who questions our desire to be here and compete this year and our desire to run hard can look at the risks that we took this afternoon," Earnhardt said, "knowing that any of those crashes would have probably given me a bit of an injury that would have held me out of the rest of the season."
Earnhardt's resolve to leave the driving behind on his own terms was reflected by the ambition of the new monarch as well. Facing the same challenges that can come with constant wrecks, Keselowski continues to pursue victories and championships unabated.
"You know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you're going to get caught up in a wreck or something like that happens," Keselowski said. "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. And I think that's what we've been able to do."
For all his expertise at avoiding the wrecks while preserving a winning car, Keselowski had some help. A parade of Fords pitted together early in the first stage, stealing a march on other competitors -- including Earnhardt, who shortly afterward was penalized during a botched attempt by Chevy drivers to pit together. Including a pit road speeding penalty, it was the first of two occasions where Earnhardt Jr. fought his way back to the front.
Keselowski got the most help from his teammate at Team Penske, Joey Logano. At the end of the first stage, Logano, who did not make this year's playoffs, ran alongside and let his Team Penske teammate take the playoff bonus point without much of a challenge despite being on the faster high side. At the finish, it was Logano pushing Keselowski to the front. Afterwards, both drivers deflected any suggestions there were team orders in favor of Penske's playoff contender. But appearances were not deceiving.
Keselowski, who notched his first career victory driving for James Finch at Talladega in 2009, had two other advantages that were more universal. They included the V-8s built by Roush Yates Engines -- which powered the winners in all four plate races this year -- and the low-drag of the Ford bodies. But it was the 33-year-old Keselowski who came out ahead. One can imagine him scoring at least 10 plate victories before he is done. For now, he has six including his 2016 summertime win at Daytona.
Earnhardt Jr. leaves Talladega with six victories, including four in a row in one span and two near misses by a matter of inches. He also has possession of a blue-and-yellow Chevy No. 2 that Earnhardt Sr. drove in his rookie season of 1979 and to his first of seven titles in 1980, a long-term loan courtesy of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, which is located at Talladega.
The line of monarchs at Talladega began with Earnhardt Sr., who scored nine wins on the daunting high banks.
"I knew that I wasn't going to win 200 races and seven championships and do all those great things," Earnhardt said. "I just wanted to come in (to Cup racing) and be considered talented. But to be great at anything was beyond my imagination. I appreciate people's compliments on my plate driving and the success we've had at all the plate races."
On Sunday, there was a reminder that greatness is made, not born, and does not always involve championships or victories.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- During a memorable weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, the reality of his final season in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet intruded insistently into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s consciousness.
On Friday, the speedway gave Junior one of the most significant parting gifts he has received this year in a parade of recognition as he visits tracks for the last time as a full-time driver.
On Saturday, Earnhardt won the pole for the Alabama 500, his first at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
And on Sunday, Earnhardt took the green flag from the third position with three laps left, as fans in the packed grandstands stood, screamed and hoped against hope that Earnhardt could pull off a victory in his last run at NASCAR's biggest oval.
But it was Brad Keselowski who took the checkered flag in a Ford painted in a scheme that recalled the car he once drove in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for Earnhardt, who gave Keselowski the break that launched his career. Earnhardt faded to seventh over the final three laps. Earnhardt was disappointed at the result--less for himself and more for the fans who came to witness his final run.
"I'm always disappointed when we don't run well at tracks I know we should, but we did run well today, but I know that everybody was probably... is a little bit of air out of the bag there at the end to finish seventh," said Earnhardt, whose six victories at Talladega are the most among active drivers.
"I know those folks were hoping we could put something together, and I know there's a lot of folks came here, particularly to see this race because it's the last one here. I hate to leave slightly disappointed, but hopefully they enjoyed everything else they saw. I mean, we ran as hard as we could, did the best we could."
And though Talladega perhaps offered Earnhardt his best chance at victory before the end of the season, NASCAR's most popular driver isn't preparing concession speeches for the remaining Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tracks.
"Well, I think we go to the race track with a positive attitude," Earnhardt said. "We know we've won at some of these tracks coming up, and you just go in there with a good attitude and see how the weekend works out for you.
"I don't think that we've lost hope on winning a race by any means with the rest of the year. We can't. I wouldn't want a driver who felt that way, wouldn't want a team who felt that way, either. So we'll go in there with a solid attitude and see how it works out for us."
Late wreck ruins Elliott's winning chances
For 182 laps, Chase Elliott avoided the wrecks that wiped out eight of the 12 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders, but after a restart on the next-to-last restart of a rough-and-tumble race, his luck ran out.
Elliott was dicing for position on Lap 183 as the field--by then reduced to 19 cars--approached Turn 3. He tried to split the cars of Kyle Larson to the inside and Daniel Suarez to the outside, but Suarez edged down the track, and contact between Suarez's Toyota and Elliott's Chevrolet started a six-car wreck that left Elliott's No. 24 damaged beyond repair.
"I had a really big run, Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) was giving me a great shove, and Daniel had left enough room in the middle," said Elliott, who finished 16th in a race of heavy attrition and enters next Sunday's elimination event at Kansas Speedway sixth in the standings.
"Larson left me enough room from the bottom. There was a hole and I filled it. I don't guess Daniel either saw me in time, or that it was I just had a high rate of speed coming, and he didn't know or tried to block it. I'm not sure. We will move on."
Wild accident ends Stenhouse's restrictor-plate run
After a competitive beginning, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s bid to win a third straight restrictor-plate race ended in a 16-car wreck triggered by Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 172.
Contact from Truex's Toyota sent David Ragan's Ford for a wild ride across the track near the entrance to Turn 3, and Stenhouse's Ford suffered racing-ending collateral damage in the melee. The wreck dropped Stenhouse to a 26th-place finish and left him 11th in the series standings, 22 points behind Jimmie Johnson in eighth.
Next Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field will be cut to eight drivers.
"We were running up the bottom, and all of a sudden the 38 (Ragan) came down," said Stenhouse, who had finished fourth in the first stage of the Alabama 500. "I saw some stuff going on at the top and kind of right in front of me, but the 38 ended up parked right in front of us. I felt like we had a really good run coming up the bottom with the 48 (Jimmie Johnson), trying to get some of our track position back that we had lost at the end of the second stage.
"Our Sunny D Ford was fast again. It felt like we had a car that was capable of getting up there and contending for the win, led some laps, and it was a bummer we didn't get into Victory Lane. But we'll go on to Kansas next week and have some fun."
Sunday, October 15, 2017
1. (6) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 188.
2. (27) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 188.
3. (10) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 188.
4. (3) Joey Logano, Ford, 188.
5. (26) Aric Almirola, Ford, 188.
6. (15) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 188.
7. (1) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 188.
8. (11) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 188.
9. (39) * Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 188.
10. (33) David Ragan, Ford, 188.
11. (25) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 188.
12. (20) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 188.
13. (12) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 188.
14. (19) Matt Kenseth (P), Toyota, 187.
15. (14) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, Accident, 184.
16. (2) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 182.
17. (28) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, Accident, 182.
18. (9) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, Accident, 177.
19. (35) * Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 177.
20. (22) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, Accident, 176.
21. (13) Danica Patrick, Ford, Accident, 175.
22. (24) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, Accident, 172.
23. (21) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, Accident, 171.
24. (8) Jimmie Johnson (P), Chevrolet, Parked, 171.
25. (4) Kurt Busch, Ford, Accident, 171.
26. (5) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P), Ford, Accident, 171.
27. (16) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, Accident, 171.
28. (30) Landon Cassill, Ford, Accident, 171.
29. (18) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, Accident, 171.
30. (29) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, Accident, 171.
31. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, Parked, 171.
32. (37) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, Accident, 164.
33. (40) * DJ Kennington, Toyota, Accident, 164.
34. (38) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, Accident, 155.
35. (7) Clint Bowyer, Ford, Accident, 155.
36. (23) Erik Jones #, Toyota, Accident, 26.
37. (17) Jamie McMurray (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 25.
38. (34) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, Accident, 25.
39. (36) Mark Thompson(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 25.
40. (31) * Justin Marks(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 16.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 131.677 mph.
Time of Race: 03 Hrs, 47 Mins, 52 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.210 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 11 for 47 laps.
Lead Changes: 30 among 16 drivers.
Lap Leaders: D. Earnhardt Jr. 0; J. Logano 1-13; D. Earnhardt Jr. 14-20; C. Elliott (P) 21-25; M. Kenseth (P) 26-29; A. Allmendinger 30; J. Logano 31-54; B. Keselowski (P) 55-57; K. Kahne 58-61; M. Kenseth (P) 62-63; D. Hamlin (P) 64-66; M. Kenseth (P) 67; K. Kahne 68; B. Gaughan(i) 69-70; M. DiBenedetto 71-82; R. Stenhouse Jr. (P) 83-88; K. Busch 89-91; R. Blaney (P) 92-111; R. Newman 112; B. Gaughan(i) 113-116; D. Hamlin (P) 117; R. Blaney (P) 118-124; C. Elliott (P) 125-144; K. Busch (P) 145-148; J. Logano 149-170; D. Suarez # 171-176; C. Elliott (P) 177; D. Suarez # 178-182; B. Keselowski (P) 183-185; R. Newman 186-187; B. Keselowski (P) 188;.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): J. Logano 3 times for 59 laps; R. Blaney (P) 2 times for 27 laps; C. Elliott (P) 3 times for 26 laps; M. DiBenedetto 1 time for 12 laps; D. Suarez # 2 times for 11 laps; B. Keselowski (P) 3 times for 7 laps; M. Kenseth (P) 3 times for 7 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr. 1 time for 7 laps; B. Gaughan(i) 2 times for 6 laps; R. Stenhouse Jr. (P) 1 time for 6 laps; K. Kahne 2 times for 5 laps; K. Busch (P) 1 time for 4 laps; D. Hamlin (P) 2 times for 4 laps; R. Newman 2 times for 3 laps; K. Busch 1 time for 3 laps; A. Allmendinger 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 2,22,21,17,48,14,95,41,6,5
Stage #2 Top Ten: 21,2,14,24,41,3,48,4,18,11
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has started on the front row in every restrictor-plate race this season. The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has won six races at Talladega Superspeedway.
But Saturday was special because Earnhardt accomplished something he had never done before.
In his last season of full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, Earnhardt won his first pole at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Touring NASCAR's longest closed course in 50.256 seconds (190.544 mph) in the final round of single-car qualifying, Earnhardt claimed the top starting spot for Sunday's Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC), the second race in the Playoff's Round of 12.
And though Earnhardt isn't among the 12 drivers competing for a series championship this year, that didn't prevent fans in the frontstretch grandstands from standing and screaming en masse as Earnhardt sped toward the uniquely positioned start/finish line at the end of the tri-oval.
Remarkably, given the success of the Earnhardt family at the massive track in the heart of Alabama, Earnhardt had no poles to show for his previous 34 attempts. But a day after proudly driving the No. 2 Rod Osterlund Chevrolet that his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., piloted to his first series championship in 1980, Earnhardt Jr. found his mojo.
After Friday's practice, Earnhardt took a lap in the vintage car, a gift from the speedway to commemorate his contribution to the iconic track and to the sport. A day later, he earned his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season -- the first coming at Daytona in July -- and the 15th of his career.
Earnhardt beat Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott (190.412 mph), a Playoff contender, for the top starting spot by .035 seconds.
"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 and goes to the car and the guys that work on it, the engine, the body men. We've got an amazing staff back at Charlotte that builds some awesome stuff.
"I just hold the wheel straight and try not to bounce into the apron, but get as close to it as you can and make sure you run a clean lap. But there ain't much to it as a driver. ... This place has meant a lot to me. 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."
When Earnhardt climbed from the car, the crowd erupted again.
"I got chills," Earnhardt said.
Joey Logano (190.374 mph) qualified third, followed by Kurt Busch (190.268 mph) and Playoff driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (190.170 mph), who is trying for his third straight victory on a restrictor-plate track. It was Stenhouse who denied Earnhardt a Talladega pole in May.
"I was hoping we'd get another pole, and I think it would have been cool to knock him off the pole again, but obviously this shows our Ford is still fast," said Stenhouse, one of seven Ford drivers who qualified in the top 10.
"We've got speed in it, and it felt good yesterday drafting with all of our other Ford teammates. The biggest thing is we have a starting spot up front and that's really all we need. We're in a good spot because we can see the front."
Chevrolets and Fords dominated Saturday's time trials. Daniel Suarez qualified 14th in the fastest Toyota and Denny Hamlin in 15th was the top Playoff driver in a Camry.
"Thought we had a pretty good race car yesterday in practice," said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch, who will start 16th. "We did some practice runs with our teammates -- all of our Toyota guys and a couple other guys kind of jumped in there as well.
"We were fine, and I was hoping we would be able to show top-12 speed today, but we'll worry about tomorrow now."
Series leader Martin Truex Jr. will start 21st. Among the 12 Playoff drivers, Kevin Harvick will start deepest in the field from the 22nd position.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying - Alabama 500
Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017
1. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 190.544 mph.
2. (24) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 190.412 mph.
3. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 190.374 mph.
4. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 190.268 mph.
5. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P), Ford, 190.170 mph.
6. (2) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 190.151 mph.
7. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 189.778 mph.
8. (48) Jimmie Johnson (P), Chevrolet, 189.774 mph.
9. (21) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 189.669 mph.
10. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 189.658 mph.
11. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 189.620 mph.
12. (42) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 189.242 mph.
13. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 189.100 mph.
14. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 188.958 mph.
15. (11) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 188.820 mph.
16. (18) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, 188.783 mph.
17. (1) Jamie McMurray (P), Chevrolet, 188.783 mph.
18. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 188.705 mph.
19. (20) Matt Kenseth (P), Toyota, 188.664 mph.
20. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 188.626 mph.
21. (78) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 188.548 mph.
22. (4) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 188.400 mph.
23. (77) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 188.270 mph.
24. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 188.226 mph.
25. (13) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 188.219 mph.
26. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 188.015 mph.
27. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 187.923 mph.
28. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 187.890 mph.
29. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 187.618 mph.
30. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 187.405 mph.
31. (7) Justin Marks(i), Chevrolet, 187.394 mph.
32. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 187.148 mph.
33. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 186.590 mph.
34. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 186.180 mph.
35. (75) Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, 185.395 mph.
36. (15) Mark Thompson(i), Chevrolet, 184.911 mph.
37. (23) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, 184.409 mph.
38. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 184.384 mph.
39. (83) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 182.821 mph.
40. (55) DJ Kennington, Toyota, 182.456 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Matt Kenseth is a master of deflection--and he's had plenty of practice heading into Sunday's Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).
Ever since Kenseth announced at Kentucky Speedway in July that he wouldn't be driving for Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2018 season, the 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion has been the subject of rampant rumors and speculation.
For his part, Kenseth has parried questions about his 2018 status like a fencing champion. Asked whether he has had any recent substantive discussions about possible rides for next year, the droll Kenseth dead-panned an answer about a conversation with his wife.
"It probably weighs on me way less today than it did probably a few months ago," Kenseth said of the uncertainty he's facing. "Had some real productive talks with Katie. We're going to run another day. Had a real, long productive talk together. That was enjoyable. It's true, we did. Talked about it a lot."
When talking about possible next steps in his driving career, Kenseth offered an unexpected option.
"I was thinking about maybe driving a school bus," Kenseth said. "I thought it would be fun. I drive the kids to school every morning. I enjoy that. I thought it would be fun to drive them home, too."
As facetious as Kenseth was during his question-and-answer session with reporters on Friday morning at Talladega Superspeedway, there remains the serious possibility that Kenseth could win a second championship without a deal lined up for 2018.
Entering the second race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff's Round of 12, Kenseth is ninth in the series standings, one point behind Jamie McMurray in eighth and one point below the current cut line for the Round of 8. But Kenseth is a previous winner at Talladega, and he has two victories at Kansas Speedway, venue for the Oct. 22 Round of 12 elimination race.
In fact, in his last 14 starts at Kansas, Kenseth has two wins, 10 top 10s and no finish worse than 14th. So it's a distinct possibility Kenseth will drive his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the Round of 8--before turning the car over to Erik Jones at the end of the year.
LOGANO TRYING FOR 3-PEAT AT TALLADEGA
--Spoiler alert! Joey Logano could have a substantive effect on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff--even though he failed to qualify for the postseason.
Logano has won the past two fall races at Talladega Superspeedway, and a third victory would change the chemistry of the Playoff. As it stands now, with Martin Truex Jr. taking the checkered flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway, at least five drivers will advance to the Playoff's Round of 8 on points.
If Logano or any other non-Playoff driver wins Sunday's Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC)--or if Truex wins a second straight race--that number increases to six. And in an otherwise troubled year for the No. 22 Team Penske Ford team, Logano believes Talladega provides the best opportunity for a victory in the final six races.
Don't expect Logano to cut the Playoff drivers any slack. He'd love to play spoiler at a track where the nature of restrictor-plate racing amplifies the number of potential winners.
"I'm wired one way," Logano said. "I've got one gear, and it's wide-open. That's all I've got, so, for me, it keeps it pretty simple. When I come to the superspeedways it's go to the front and stay in the front, race hard, and I think that shows in our results. We either win or we crash, and I'm OK with that. I've said this a lot here the last few weeks that fifth, second, 15th, crashing, what's the difference?
"It's all about winning. That's what we're here to do, and that's what we're going to do is just to go out there and race for the win, and that means you've got to battle up front all day long, learn as much as you can about your car, get it as best as you can for the end of the race, know who is racing around you and go out there and try to win it."
BELL TO MOVE UP TO NASCAR XFINITY SERIES IN 2018
--Christopher Bell, a five-time winner and championship favorite in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season, is ready to take the next step in his career.
Joe Gibbs Racing announced on Friday that Bell will compete for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in a JGR Toyota next year.
"I'm excited," said the 22-year-old from Norman, Okla., who grew up racing on dirt and this year realized a lifelong dream by winning the Chili Bowl for midget cars during the NASCAR offseason. "One thing that Toyota has done a great job of is preparing me for the next stepping stone.
"Whenever I was running late models at Kyle Busch Motorsports, they were kind of trickling me into some truck races, and I think I got seven truck races that year before I went full time, and it worked out again this year where I'm going to have, I think, eight Xfinity races before I go full time next year. So that's great seat time for me.
"I'm going to be able to be with the organization and kind of learn how they operate, and driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports, you already have somewhat of a feel for how they do things, and I think it's a great fit and the perfect stepping stone."
--Jimmie Johnson spun after cutting a tire in Friday's opening Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Talladega Superspeedway.
"Popped a tire going into (Turn) 3 and, looking at some photos here a second ago, it looked like the tire was already soft down the back straightaway. I guess I ran something over on the apron getting up to speed, and made, oh I don't know, maybe a third of a lap and was spun out which is really bizarre." Johnson kept the car off the wall avoided major damage... Brad Keselowski led opening practice with a lap at 197.859 mph. Kurt Busch was second fastest at 197.806, as Ford drivers ganged up to take the top nine positions in the first session. Kasey Kahne paced final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at 191.222 mph. Twenty-three cars started Happy Hour in the "penalty box" under practice holds of 15 to 30 minutes for inspection failures, and only 23 drivers from the 40-car field posted times in the session.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Sitting in last place on the Monster Energy NASCAR Playoffs Grid -- 10 points behind Jamie McMurray on the cutoff line -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could use a win in the next two races to advance to the Round of 8.
His best chance at a visit to Victory Lane is in Sunday's Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) -- the site of his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in May.
"I'm definitely looking forward to Talladega this weekend," said Stenhouse, who is from nearby Olive Branch, Miss. "Last Talladega was really special for me. Talladega is considered my home track so it meant a lot to me to have my dad and friends there to help celebrate my first Cup win."
Stenhouse passed 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch on the final lap on his way to the checkered flag. He followed up his Talladega win with another restrictor-plate triumph at Daytona International Speedway in July. A win by the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing driver on Sunday would give him three victories in the four restrictor-plate contests on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.
In addition to his win, Stenhouse claims three top fives, five top 10s and a 10.4 average finish in eight career starts at the 2.66-mile behemoth. He enters the race coming off a 13th-place finish in the Round of 12 opener at Charlotte.
"It would be nice to be able to get our Ford back in Victory Lane and secure a spot in the next round, but, if not, I think it's a race track that we could still gain a lot of points," Stenhouse said. "Nothing is guaranteed when you go there. I've been crashed out of them just as easy as finishing well, but I definitely think our entire team is excited about getting back to Talladega."
Grala goes for another superspeedway win
In the February NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway, Kaz Grala -- then 18 years, one month and 26 days old -- etched his name into the record books as the youngest driver to ever win at Daytona.
Now, the GMS Racing driver will try to advance to the Round of 6 in the series Playoffs with another superspeedway win in Saturday's fred's 250 at Talladega Superspeedway (1 p.m. ET on FOX).
Grala currently sits seventh on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings, eight points behind Austin Cindric on the cutoff line. He heads into the contest riding a four-race top five streak, including a fifth-place showing in the last event at Las Vegas. Saturday's race marks his first career start at Talladega.
"Obviously it's cool knowing that the last superspeedway race we were able to get the pole and the win, but anything can happen in these types of races," Grala said. "You can have the fastest truck or be the best plate racer, but we've seen it time and time again in every series, that doesn't guarantee you any sort of favorable finishing position. We're looking at this race as a wild card, just like everyone else is."
Talladega Race Weekend Guide
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Race: Alabama 500
Place: Talladega Superspeedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 500.08 miles (188 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 55), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 110), Final Stage (Ends on lap 188)
What To Watch For: Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes his last start at Talladega before he retires from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the season. The No. 88 Chevrolet pilot leads active drivers with six wins at the 2.66-mile track. ... Brad Keselowski goes for his fifth career Talladega win. ... If a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs driver wins at Talladega, he automatically advances to the Round of 8. ... Chase Elliott enters Sunday's race coming off two runner-up finishes. ... Team Penske has won three of the last four races at Talladega.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Race: fred's 250 Powered by Coca-Cola
Place: Talladega Superspeedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 14 at 1 p.m. ET
Tune-In: FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250.04 miles (94 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 20), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 40), Final Stage (Ends on lap 94)
What To Watch For: The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series heads to Talladega for the Round of 8 cutoff race of its Playoffs. Austin Cindric currently holds the final points transfer spot to the Round of 6. He is eight points ahead of Kaz Grala and 14 points better than John Hunter Nemechek. ... Grant Enfinger is the defending race winner. ... Entering the race, the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 4 Toyota leads ThorSport Racing's No. 88 Toyota by 51 points in the owner standings.
Jimmie Johnson's lug nut episode in Charlotte begged for more clarification and instead the response from NASCAR further clouded the issue on how it enforces rules.
Suffice it to say, whether it's in the rule book or not, all teams now know it's OK to tighten or add lug nuts even if their car is out of the pit box -- not just the team of a seven-time champion. Going into Talladega, where safety issues are always paramount, that's a good thing -- even if NASCAR backed into it due to media coverage of Johnson's final pit stop.
The problem is the same ol' NASCAR mentality of running a meritocracy and favoring the teams that run at the front, which are generally the favorites of fans and sponsors. Those who have been smart enough to catch on to the unstated policy by NASCAR not to penalize teams if a lug nut is worked on outside the pit box, goes this line of thinking, get rewarded.
While the Charlotte episode was not necessarily a conspiracy to help Johnson sustain his efforts to win a record eighth championship, the question was begged.
But give NASCAR credit for two recent developments that are significant outside of poor play-calling. First, by working with TV partners and by letting fans know in advance, NASCAR now has the option to push forward the start of a race by one hour. Last week in Charlotte, that enabled drives and teams to race for 500 miles instead of getting interrupted by a tropical storm.
This week, teams head for the Talladega Superspeedway, where NASCAR has fixed a glaring problem with two changes. First, the event was moved forward to the second race in the Round of 12 playoffs.
That means teams with solid chances of advancing to the Round of 8 cannot afford to race at the back in hopes of avoiding a wreck in the massive draft. Why not? This year's stage system means contending drivers who lollygag at the back risk giving away stage points to those who are hammer down at the front of the field.
Running at the back to control one's destiny is the NASCAR equivalent of taking a knee. It happened last year with several contenders, who again thumbed a nose at one of the sanctioning body's signature events and the racing credo of a fearless pursuit of speed -- in effect cheating ticket buyers. And by the way, don't sponsors recognize it when their drivers are not competing like potential champions?
The worst thing about last year's fall race was the tacit endorsement of Joe Gibbs, a team owner whose over-the-top support of sponsors knows no boundaries. One doubts the hard-nosed Gibbs would have allowed his team members to take a knee during the national anthem were he still coaching the Washington Redskins. But it was OK to turn a motor racing creed on its head to protect his sponsors by allowing his drivers to avoid incidents by not racing.
Talladega continues to be Earnhardt country in part because neither Dale Earnhardt Sr. nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever balloon-footed it around the 2.66-mile behemoth while racking up a total of 16 victories.
Earnhardt Jr. says he's taking a low-key approach to his final race as a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup at Talladega before retirement. He was involved in wrecks twice in last year's spring race -- perhaps contributing to the concussion problems he later suffered and that forced him to miss the fall round. But despite not being in the playoffs, Earnhardt says he's looking to run at the front at a track where he has six victories and narrowly missed a seventh by the width of a bumper in 2015.
"I expect to race up front and expect our car to be strong, and our guys expect us to work hard and be toward the front all day," said Earnhardt, who is likely to be competing with playoff contenders looking for a victory that will advance them to the Round of 8. "I think we need to be leading the race with 50 to go or at least on the front row for those last few restarts."
Chase Elliott, a teammate of Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports, gets the message and is looking to follow the recent footsteps of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by winning his first Cup race on Sunday.
"I think there is something the driver can do to be a factor at Talladega," said Elliott. "There are guys that have been consistently winning at those races over the past number of years. Anytime you see something consistently happen there is obviously not just luck involved in it. The guys who have embraced it and have been willing to want to figure it out seem to excel and we would like to be amongst that group."
In addition to teammate Earnhardt, Elliott is referring to the drivers at Team Penske. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been winning regularly at Talladega, taking four of the last six events. Earnhardt leads all active drivers with six wins at Talladega and Keselowski is second with four.
Of course, just because a driver is running with the leaders, there's still leeway when it comes to not embarrassing the sport -- and one's sponsors as well. That's why it's so pathetic when drivers have decided to drift to the back.
Gibbs driver Kyle Busch is an example of a playoff contender who, after hitting the wall last week, needs to avoid a crash this week. But he will be trying to get the bonus points in the first two stages because he needs them.
"The key there is to somehow stay out of trouble," said Busch. "At Talladega, you pretty much stay around the bottom since there is a lot of grip there, and you can pretty much run wide open every single lap. Everyone can run up on top of each other. When you get single-file at the bottom, sometimes it's hard to get a lane on the outside with enough good cars to get something going.
"It can be frustrating at times because of that. It also seems to still put on a good race each time we go there. If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race. Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that's when it starts to get crazy."
Yep, guys decide they want to advance their position without waiting until the end of the race. It's a concept that has produced some big accidents, some of them pretty harrowing, as well as great racing. That's the way it is at Talladega, where some guys do better at winning than others.
The plot may have been familiar -- Martin Truex Jr. won a record-tying fifth race on a 1.5-mile track -- but getting to the finish was anything but routine.
For those who think the current batch of drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup are either too slick or too spoiled, the high humidity and a variety of circumstances set the stage for some throwback performances on the Charlotte track's washboard surface now traversed at 200 mph.
The asphalt treatment designed to add grip and create three avenues of racing apparently ran out of substance in the high groove. Kyle Busch miscalculated the influence of what used to be called "bear grease" and crashed into the Turn 3 wall while running in second place before the first stage had been completed.
Miscalculating by inches in his plan to create a higher groove, Busch spent the rest of the race hustling a hunk of junk to avoid being the first car out of the race and losing a passel of points. After finishing six laps down while trying to maintain the required minimum speed, Busch collapsed from both heat exhaustion and a dose of carbon monoxide poisoning upon emerging.
"I'm all right, I'm better now," Busch said after bags of ice brought his temperature down. He finished 29th and gained 10 points through his heroics. Thanks to his playoff bonus points, championship contender Busch is still on the good side of the cut line.
"I got heat soaked and felt like I had heat stroke just from being inside the race car for 200 laps with the crush panels knocked out of it. Obviously, it was my bad, just trying to get a little too much too early in the race and got too high out of the groove and got myself into the fence and tore the right side off of it. My guys did a great job trying to rebound and get it back together as much as we could throughout the day. It was just evil out there the rest of the day trying to stay with a relative pace with the rest of the field."
Not long after Busch incident, fire, the most fearful of motor racing ills, burst out when Ryan Newman crashed during a free-for-all on the back straight. Newman escaped with the help of the mandated fire suppression system in his Chevy. For a harrowing moment, the worst-case scenario engulfed him.
Once it was over, all drivers cited the extreme humidity that sapped their fluids and tested their metal in the sense that cockpits were often overheated and retained more carbon monoxide than usual. That was true of the winning Toyota of Truex Jr., whose footbox was lined with insulation in anticipation of a typical fall day and not the forerunner of a super-humid tropical storm.
Back in the day when there was no insulation between a driver and the engine compartment, which leaked carbon monoxide as well as oven-like heat, the problems with overcooked feet were resolved by some drivers of yore like Dave Marcis by wearing leather-soled Wingtip shoes.
For his part, Truex Jr. survived the heat to get through two late race restarts, including one in overtime. He emerged un-blistered and untouched over the last 57 laps after his pit crew put him in front and into clean air.
Perhaps the grittiest performance was turned in by someone not even at the track. The winning driver's longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, stayed home to avoid the risk of infection after taking yet another chemotherapy treatment in her ongoing battle with ovarian cancer. Once Truex Jr. had survived those late restarts, Pollex tweeted a photo that showed her smiling in front of the TV with the winning Toyota in the background.
Her tweet cited that old bromide about selling cars after winning.
"Well that was tough to watch," Pollex wrote. "But I'm cheering you on from home babe! Chemo Monday, victory lane Sunday."
For their part, Truex Jr. and the Furniture Row Racing team celebrated with great abandon. There was no worry about the test this coming Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in the second race of the Round of 12. It's a race that looms large, like the three-story high banks at the Alabama track, because a multi-car Big One can ruin almost any driver's playoffs.
Except for Truex Jr., who advanced to the Round of 8 with his victory along with five more playoff bonus points, which gives him 64 -- more than one race's worth. Ink him in for the finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It's also clear the Furniture Row team recognizes that when it does well, it's an inspiration for a woman who is in the fight of her life and handling it with great courage.
The elevated heat, the stress and the relief when it was all over got to Truex Jr. once he was in Victory Lane, where Pollex usually joins him. To a standard question, he became overwhelmed with emotion before quickly exiting the TV interview to rejoin his team's celebration.
"I couldn't hold it in anymore," Truex Jr. said later in the post-race interview with writers. "Yeah, Sherry, I was thinking about her because she's not here, and I know she really wanted to be. She hates missing seeing our guys succeed. I know our guys love having her around when we win, and she's a fun person to celebrate with, so I thought about that. I thought about winning this first race of the round, the pressure coming off. Just a lot of things, I guess, you know. I was worn out. I just lost it for a minute. There's a lot going on, so yeah."
It was another reminder that NASCAR drivers may make millions, but they still are dedicated to winning a championship trophy that money can't buy.
"It just shows how much this stuff means to us," Truex Jr said. "We put everything into this, everything we have, especially our team, just every day away from our families. And I think they had this car up on the (chassis) plate on Wednesday or Tuesday with the nose cut off trying to make it better. Just the effort that they put in is amazing, and to succeed and be a part of that, it just feels unbelievable."
There is occasional trolling that suggests that Furniture Row and Truex Jr. have led 324 laps at Charlotte this year and have won on four other 1.5-mile tracks due to cheating.
If it's illegal to be dedicated, gritty and to take risks to keep improving, then these guys are cheating big time.
More likely, the trolls still hoping for an encumbered finish should find that same hole they crawled out of and return.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Concord, North Carolina
Sunday, October 8, 2017
1. (17) Martin Truex Jr (P), Toyota, 337.
2. (7) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 337.
3. (3) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 337.
4. (1) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 337.
5. (18) Jamie McMurray (P), Chevrolet, 337.
6. (14) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 337.
7. (25) Jimmie Johnson (P), Chevrolet, 337.
8. (15) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 337.
9. (9) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 337.
10. (10) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 337.
11. (2) Matt Kenseth (P), Toyota, 337.
12. (23) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 337.
13. (22) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P), Ford, 337.
14. (26) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 337.
15. (6) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 337.
16. (13) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 337.
17. (38) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 337.
18. (21) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 337.
19. (20) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 337.
20. (19) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 337.
21. (27) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 337.
22. (8) Kurt Busch, Ford, 337.
23. (29) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 337.
24. (24) Aric Almirola, Ford, 337.
25. (30) Landon Cassill, Ford, 336.
26. (28) Joey Logano, Ford, 335.
27. (5) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 335.
28. (39) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 333.
29. (4) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, 331.
30. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 330.
31. (34) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 330.
32. (33) * BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 326.
33. (36) * Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 326.
34. (32) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 295.
35. (16) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 293.
36. (35) * Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 267.
37. (31) David Ragan, Ford, Accident, 263.
38. (12) Danica Patrick, Ford, Accident, 263.
39. (40) * Brett Moffitt(i), Toyota, Accident, 89.
40. (11) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, Accident, 43.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 139.128 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 38 Mins, 00 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.911 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 10 for 44 laps.
Lead Changes: 14 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: D. Hamlin (P) 1-40; C. Elliott (P) 41-51; K. Harvick (P) 52-93; J. McMurray (P) 94-97; K. Busch (P) 98-116; K. Harvick (P) 117; K. Busch (P) 118-120; K. Harvick (P) 121-225; C. Elliott (P) 226; D. Hamlin (P) 227-231; K. Kahne 232-233; M. Truex Jr (P) 234-267; K. Larson (P) 268-279; K. Harvick (P) 280; M. Truex Jr (P) 281-337.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Harvick (P) 4 times for 149 laps; M. Truex Jr (P) 2 times for 91 laps; D. Hamlin (P) 2 times for 45 laps; K. Busch (P) 2 times for 22 laps; C. Elliott (P) 2 times for 12 laps; K. Larson (P) 1 time for 12 laps; J. McMurray (P) 1 time for 4 laps; K. Kahne 1 time for 2 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 4,24,1,42,18,11,20,41,19,48
Stage #2 Top Ten: 4,24,20,78,41,11,42,48,21,1
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. --- Kyle Busch didn't stagger, nor did he stumble as he emerged from the Charlotte Motor Speedway Infield Care Center on Sunday. Still he gingerly made his way toward a golf cart while he delicately slipped a pair of dark sunglasses across an ashen face.
Busch spent nearly an hour in the clinic following the Bank of America 500, receiving fluids and other treatment for the effects of a muggy day that was masked by overcast skies. Medical personnel attended to him shortly after he exited his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry following a 29th-place finish.
But bigger than that 29th-place finish is the 0-for-28 collar he'll now wear at least until next May, that being his record in official races at Charlotte. And in the short term an even more significant total is 12, as in the dozen points that separate him from the cutline that will slice four drivers from the playoff field to eight in two weeks after the series races at Kansas.
More fun with numbers: His sticky day at Charlotte started with him second in points --- it ended with him sixth.
"It stinks to give up points," Busch said. "We came in here thinking we had a shot to run in the top 10 and we did. We just threw that ... I threw it away. So we're still above the cutline, but we don't have that cushion that we'd like to have. You can go into Talladega (next week), crash out early and be in the back of the pack and not finish well and be coming from behind in Kansas."
The idea of having to press over the next two weeks didn't seem necessary when things began on Sunday.
Busch was in second place when he hit the Turn 3 wall on Lap 136, suffering damage to his right rear quarterpanel. His team had the car back out before the five-minute clock expired, yet the lost time was too much to overcome. Indeed his car was never competitive after that, with his No. 18 Toyota falling behind by six laps while battling random slips into the wall.
To compound matters, the effects of a humid day began to take their toll on the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. And a suffocating environment was exacerbated by crushed panels on his car that permitted noxious fumes into the cockpit.
Busch sprawled on the infield grass for several minutes after the race before he slowly stood, shed his fire suit and boarded an ambulance that carried him to the medical center.
"They said my CO was in the double digits, so obviously fighting some of that, too," Busch said. "But, overall, it was just the hottest I've been in the car. I didn't feel sick from the CO or anything like that. I just felt heat stroke and I've had that before. Living out in Vegas, you have that a few times when you're playing outside in the summer as a kid. I knew what it was, I knew what it felt like, but the only way to do it was to get out and cool down."
Sunday was the 11th time that Busch, who started fourth, finished 20th or worse at Charlotte. Three times he's been a runner-up, including the Coca-Cola 600 in May. He has 16 top-10 showings and has finished in the top-five 11 times.
Yet, again, he remains winless.
"So far he hasn't (had good luck at Charlotte)," Gibbs told reporters along pit road. "We hope to climb out that hole someday."
The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Larson scored a top-10 in Sunday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet left the first race in the Round of 12 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff knowing he should have done better with one of the fastest cars on the track.
Larson ran in the top five early on but missed his pit stall on the first pass down pit road, requiring a return trip and a resulting loss of track position. He recovered and climbed back toward the front.
Larson subsequently led Laps 268 through 279, but he lost 10 spots on pit road when his rear tire carrier tripped over the hose to an air gun during a stop under caution on Lap 327, and the tire changer had difficulty removing the lugs from the left rear.
A pair of less-than-stellar restarts late in the race--not to mention contact from Kurt Busch's spinning car on Lap 335--relegated Larson to a 10th-place result that could and should have been better.
"I felt like I had a car to win," Larson said. "I made a mistake on pit road early. We rebounded from that. And then we had a costly mistake late and somewhat rebounded; but then those last two restarts didn't go my way...
"Disappointing, but we fought hard."
Larson enters next Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway second in the series standings, but he's 34 points behind points leader and Charlotte race winner Martin Truex Jr.
Despite leading the most laps, Harvick finishes third
For the first half of Sunday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick looked unbeatable. Wresting the lead from Chase Elliott after a restart on Lap 52, Harvick swept both the first and second stages of the first race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff's Round of 12--his first stage wins since he swept both the first and second stages on Mar. 5 at Atlanta.
But late in the race, when the traction compound applied to the track began to lose some of its bite, Harvick couldn't run his preferred line as effectively and finished third behind winner martin Truex Jr. and Elliott. A slow stop near the end of the race--on Lap 327 of 337--also proved costly, to the tune of four positions.
"That's about where we were going to run, second or third," Harvick said. "We just kind of lost a little bit of the track there as the VHT (traction compound) started to wear off in the second half of the race."
From a restart on Lap 284 to a caution on Lap 325, Harvick chased Truex relentlessly, closing up to his bumper in Turn 3 roughly midway through the run. But Harvick couldn't pass the eventual race winner.
"I would get close, and then I would get loose, and as the day went I just got looser on the entrance to the corners," said Harvick, who led a race-high 149 laps. "The car started bouncing really bad and started losing grip as the VHT went away and kind of lost what I had at the beginning of the race -- to arc it into the corner and do all the things I needed to do to get through the middle of the corner and be in the throttle.
"I knew where I was running was kind of questionable as to how long it would last, and the entry was the first part that gave up for me, and I just had to be really cautious getting in there. that's why I lost my speed from the first half of the race."
Pit road miscue costs Johnson valuable points
After running seventh in Sunday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, seven-time Monster Energy NSCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is in a precarious position heading to the second race in the Round of 12 at Talladega Superspeedway, a track he doesn't relish.
Johnson had worked his way into the top five before a snafu on pit road dropped him to 16th for a restart on Lap 284 of 337. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had to wait several extra seconds while the lug nuts on the left front tire were tightened after the car had started to leave the pit box.
"We worked our way up to fourth and then had a little miscue on pit road and restarted 16th or something and got back up to seventh," Johnson said. "Decent progress. The car was not easy to drive and not fun to drive, but my conditions were a lot better than the other guys, and I could work my way back up through there."
Nevertheless, Johnson is seventh in the series standings and a mere eight points ahead of ninth-place Matt Kenseth facing the uncertainty and potential peril of a restrictor-plate race.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. -- Make no mistake. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took issue with the suggestion that missing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff this year has allowed the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to compete under less pressure and have more fun in his final races as full-time driver.
Earnhardt's "fun meter" says something completely different.
"I think that the fans would be having more fun if we were racing for the championship and then I would be having more fun interacting with them in that manner and their excitement of it," Earnhardt said on Friday after opening practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "So I think it's a little bittersweet for me and the fans and our supporters with the situation we're in. I only really have fun when we run well.
"It's been a difficult year from a fun meter standpoint. We haven't really moved the needle too much this year. This past couple of weekends, especially at Dover and Richmond, we've seen some improvements and had fun driving the car and been quick. And I think we were good off the truck today. I thought we had something to build on."
Earnhardt's optimism quickly dissipated when he hit the Turn 4 wall in the first five minutes of practice. The No. 88 team rolled out a backup car, and Earnhardt ran two laps in that Chevy before the end of the 85-minute session.
"I don't really know how to compare the backup car to the primary," Earnhardt said after the abbreviated run. "And it doesn't have all the bells and whistles, so it might not be quite as good as I was hoping, I guess, initially when we rolled it off the truck today.
"But, that's it. I enjoy running well. When I don't run well, I don't know that anybody enjoys that. And it's hard to make light of it or to smile through it. And I think the fans would have more fun, and in turn, me having more fun if we were in the thick of the championship battle."
Later that evening, Earnhardt qualified 23rd for Sunday's Bank of America 500.
The needle on the fun meter didn't move.
EVEN RIDE-AROUNDS CAN BE PERILOUS
Erik Jones was the designated driver for TV exhibition runs at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and just before 10 a.m. ET Saturday morning, Jones made a rookie mistake in the NBC Sports show car.
Coming off Turn 4 and into the tri-oval at the 1.5-mile track, Jones guided the car up to the outside wall, unaware that the crossover steps leading down from a gate just before the start/finish line were still in place. You can guess the rest. The right front of the car hit the metal stairs and demolished them. Jones never saw the steps.
"It definitely was a surprise," Jones said after the NASCAR XFINITY Series drivers' meeting. "I knew I'd hit something, obviously, but had no idea what it was or that it was as big as it was. I would have never guessed it was some stairs. It was definitely a weird way to start the day."
Saturday may have been weird, but Friday was downright disappointing for the driver for the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota. Jones' car didn't pass inspection in time to make a qualifying run for Sunday's Bank of America 500. Accordingly, he'll start 38th.
STENHOUSE JR. SEES POINTS PATH INTO ROUND OF 8
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. survived the Round of 16 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff by the thinnest of margins -- he grabbed seven stage points at Dover to edge Ryan Newman by two points for the final berth in the Round of 12.
Conventional wisdom says Stenhouse must win next Sunday at Talladega to make it to the Round of 8, and that's not an unreasonable supposition. After all, the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford has won the two most recent events at restrictor-plate tracks. But don't tell Stenhouse he can't advance on points. After all, crew chief Brian Pattie did the math, and it was Pattie who kept Stenhouse on the track at Dover to set up the risk/reward play for the decisive stage points.
"I'd love to do it by winning Talladega, but I think, realistically, you've got to plan on points," Stenhouse said. "That's our mind-set for now. If we took the races -- the first Charlotte, the first Kansas and obviously the first Talladega -- not counting the win to advance us, but if you take those points, we would have sat sixth out of the drivers that are left.
"So Pattie kind of showed me that this week, that, if we can get back to doing what we were capable of earlier in the season, that we can do it on points as well. That's going take a lot of effort. We're not there right now, but as the weekend went last time we were here for the 600, we got a little bit better until we ran at night. I thought we were a little bit off, but our mind-set is points right now, and we'll see how that changes after Charlotte."
Though Stenhouse was the last driver to qualify for the Round of 12, he's seeded eighth to start the round, thanks to 10 playoff points earned for his wins at Talladega and Daytona.
Distribured by The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. -- Toyota drivers swept the front row in Friday night's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series knockout qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but, for once, the occupants of the top two spots on the grid aren't named Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Denny Hamlin, Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, posted the fastest lap in the final round to win the pole for Sunday's Bank of America 500 (NBC at 2:00 PM ET), the first race in the Round of 12 in the series Playoff. Hamlin covered the 1.5-mile distance in 28.184 seconds (191.598 mph) to edge another teammate, Matt Kenseth (191.489 mph), for the top starting spot by .016 seconds.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Hamlin's first of the season, his second at Charlotte and the 25th of his career. In 13 seasons of Cup racing, Hamlin has won at least one pole per year, with the exception of 2011. Hamlin is seventh in the standings and Kenseth 11th after surviving elimination in last Sunday's Round of 16 finale at Dover International Speedway. The Playoff field will be cut from 12 drivers to eight after the Oct. 22 race at Kansas Speedway.
Hamlin underscored the importance of starting up front on Sunday.
"For us, it's a big bonus, because we're in that kind of a middle spot in the grid right now where we have some decent playoff points," Hamlin said, "but we're still 40 or so behind Truex and maybe 30 or so behind Kyle (Busch) and we can knock a big chunk out of that if we run up front in the first two stages.
"So we've got the starting spot to do it. We need to log all the points we can while we have the track position, and I'm glad we're starting off this round this way, and hopefully our car is good enough to stay there to get those points early on."
For Kenseth, who starts the Round of 12 below the cut line, the strong qualifying effort was equally gratifying.
"Track position is obviously important -- track position, restarts, pit stops, strategy, all that stuff," Kenseth said. "Not probably the easiest track we go to typically to pass, now being a day race and maybe (the track will) widen out some and (we'll) be able to pass a little bit easier than normal, hopefully.
"It's always important to be up front and try to get a good pit stall for Sunday. It's how you want to start your weekend."
Coca-Cola 600 pole winner Kevin Harvick (191.394 mph) dominated the first two rounds of qualifying, posting the fastest lap of the evening at 192.589 mph in the first round, but the 2014 series champion had to settle for third in the money round.
"I didn't feel like I got to the green quite as good (in the third round), and I felt like I had a little bit to spare in (Turn 1) and I didn't," Harvick said. "I got the ground just a little bit and got up a foot (from the bottom of the track) and just had to wait a split-second -- but we have a really good car.
"We had three good rounds, a good starting spot and we'll go from there."
Series leader Martin Truex Jr. had an uncharacteristically lackluster qualifying effort, earning the 17th starting position, his worst of the season on a non-restrictor-plate track. Truex last missed the final 12 at Michigan in August, starting 13th. Before that, his only qualifying performance outside the top 12 on an open-motor track came at Phoenix in March, when he started 16th.
"I felt pretty good at the end of practice and thought we would be in good shape for qualifying. But the car got way loose for whatever reason. We'll be fine. We'll work hard tomorrow in race trim and get this Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota ready to roll on Sunday."
Dover winner Busch qualified fourth, followed by non-Playoff driver Clint Bowyer. Brad Keselowski claimed the sixth starting spot, edging Dover runner-up Chase Elliott for the position. After a strong third-place run at the Monster Mile, Jimmie Johnson failed to make the second round and will start 25th.
"Multiple trips through the inspection line doesn't help by any stretch and we just missed it," Johnson said. "So another frustrating Friday, unfortunately; and we'll be back tomorrow and we'll have to pass a bunch of cars on Sunday.
"It sucks starting the weekend behind like this, but it is what it is, and we're just going to have to go to work on Sunday."
Danica Patrick will start 12th after advancing to the final round at a non-restrictor plate track for the second time this season. She qualified sixth at Sonoma in June.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying - Bank of America 500
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Concord, North Carolina
Friday, October 6, 2017
1. (11) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 191.598 mph.
2. (20) Matt Kenseth (P), Toyota, 191.489 mph.
3. (4) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 191.394 mph.
4. (18) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, 190.941 mph.
5. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 190.584 mph.
6. (2) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 190.557 mph.
7. (24) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 190.409 mph.
8. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 190.362 mph.
9. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 190.221 mph.
10. (42) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 190.067 mph.
11. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 189.813 mph.
12. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 189.215 mph.
13. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 190.000 mph.
14. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 189.813 mph.
15. (21) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 189.707 mph.
16. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 189.580 mph.
17. (78) Martin Truex Jr (P), Toyota, 189.500 mph.
18. (1) Jamie McMurray (P), Chevrolet, 189.208 mph.
19. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 189.201 mph.
20. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 189.168 mph.
21. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 188.904 mph.
22. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P), Ford, 187.422 mph.
23. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 187.285 mph.
24. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 185.644 mph.
25. (48) Jimmie Johnson (P), Chevrolet, 189.221 mph.
26. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 188.996 mph.
27. (13) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 188.409 mph.
28. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 187.728 mph.
29. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 187.220 mph.
30. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 187.039 mph.
31. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 186.851 mph.
32. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 186.297 mph.
33. (51) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 184.388 mph.
34. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 184.131 mph.
35. (55) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 183.045 mph.
36. (66) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 182.420 mph.
37. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 181.165 mph.
38. (77) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
39. (23) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
40. (83) Brett Moffitt(i), Toyota, 0.000 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. -- As he moves through his final season of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had one consistent request--that gifts and recognition in his honor have a broader societal impact. Moments after posting the third-fastest speed in the opening minutes of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, Earnhardt Jr. crashed Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt got loose entering Turn 4 and slid up the track where he struck the outside wall preparing for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America 500 (Sunday, Oct. 8, NBC at 2:00 PM ET).
On Friday, Charlotte Motor Speedway honored Earnhardt's wishes-and then some--with a gift of $100,000 to establish and underwrite the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Concussion Research Fund at the Carolinas Healthcare System's Levine Children's Hospital.
During two separate seasons, Earnhardt missed races because of concussion symptoms. In 2012 he was sidelined for two events, and last year he sat out the final 18 races after his symptoms from a wreck at Michigan worsened drastically in subsequent weeks.
During Friday's presentation, the football team from Mooresville High School, Earnhardt's alma mater, was ushered into the media center as part of the surprise.
"We have a lot of history with concussions and awareness and rehab and all that good stuff, so this is something that is actually very close to my heart," Earnhardt said. "I hope to be able to continue to help others going forward. This is a great way to do that, so thanks again."
Earnhardt didn't play football at Mooresville. In fact, his Twitter profile lists him as "Former backup fullback for Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer."
"I was 4-feet-10-inches tall at the time," Earnhardt said of the year he entered high school. "I think I was 5-foot-3 when I got my driver's license. So I was real short, and we were driving by the football field--well, the practice field--and they were out there practicing, and I said, 'I want to play football.' And the guy said, I'm going to take you down and introduce you to the soccer coach, because I don't think you need to be playing football.
"So I played soccer anyways. I got me a letter jacket and all that. We went to State and lost, but it was a lot of fun. I played one year, and I was the back-up, so I sat on the bench all year and I got to play a couple of games. We were a pretty good team, so we would get a big lead, I would get in a couple of games."
THE BEST MEDICINE FOR TALLADEGA? A WIN AT CHARLOTTE
The Oct. 15 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway is all but certain to have a profound effect on the Playoff.
Though Talladega isn't an elimination race per se, the random nature of events at a restrictor-plate track can elevate the championship prospects of drivers who avoid the inevitable "big one" and dash the hopes of those who don't.
But there's a strategy that can make the outcome at Talladega moot. Just win Sunday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and lock up a spot in the next round before heading to the heart of Alabama. That, says playoff driver Ryan Blaney, is the only way to approach Talladega with any sense of comfort.
"If we're in Victory Lane (at Charlotte), to be honest with you, I feel that's the only way that you can really feel good about heading into a speedway like (Talladega)," Blaney said. "Even if you win a couple stages, yeah, that's great and you have a bunch of gap.
"But you can go out and get caught in one before the first stage and lose a bunch. I don't think you can ever feel comfortable going into a speedway race unless you're locked in. Hopefully we can win the race. That's our main goal. Maybe a solid day helps out. I don't think you really be comfortable unless you win the race going into next week."
NASCAR AND WEATHER COMPANY ANNOUNCE PARTNERSHIP
--NASCAR can't control the weather at its race tracks, but through an association with The Weather Company, announced Friday as an official NASCAR partner, hyper-local prediction of conditions affecting racing venues will be more ac curate than ever.
In collaboration with Flagship Solutions Group, The Weather Company will integrate a weather insights dashboard into NASCAR's racing operation and decision support system.
"There is an enormous amount of logistics and planning needed to support a NASCAR race, but the one thing we do not have control over is weather," said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR vice president, officiating and technical inspection.
"This partnership with The Weather Company and Flagship Solutions Group will provide NASCAR access to critical information that can improve race operations and help minimize delays, while improving the race-day experience for millions of our loyal fans."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Kyle Larson was satisfied with his Round of 16 performance, but knows he has plenty of work left in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
"Even though we started the playoffs with a pretty nice cushion, and looked good to make the next round, I was glad to see our Chevys were strong throughout the first round and we had three solid finishes," said Larson, who enters the Round of 12 third on the Playoff Grid, 24 points ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the cutoff line.
"It's great to have both me and (Chip Ganassi Racing teammate) Jamie (McMurray) through to the second round, but I know things are going to get more intense for us in this round," added Larson
The intensity Larson mentioned starts with the Round of 12 opener -- Sunday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).
In eight career starts at Charlotte, Larson has one top five, two top10s and a 19.8 average finish. He placed a career track-best fifth in last season's Charlotte fall race. Larson finished 33rd in this year's May race after wrecking out of the competition.
"Charlotte has been kind of a hit-or-miss track for me, but I'm usually pretty good during the day there, so hopefully a day race will favor me," Larson said.
The No. 42 Chevrolet driver has a 3.2 average finish when he's finished the race at 1.5-mile tracks this year. He's in the midst of a breakout season where he's posted career bests in wins (4), top fives (14), top 10s (18) and laps led (1,109) with seven races remaining.
"We obviously want to win in each round and not have to worry about the points, but if we can continue to be consistent and finish around the top five, we should put ourselves in a good position to move on," said Larson. "We just need to stay focused and work to be mistake free this weekend."
Reed fights for final transfer spot
Ryan Reed is clinging onto the final transfer spot to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs Round of 8.
The 24-year-old Californian sits two points above ninth-place Brendan Guaghan for advancement heading into Saturday's Drive for the Cure 300 Presented by Blue Cross and Blues Shield of North Carolina cutoff race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Reed finished 10th in the Xfinity Playoffs opener at Kentucky and 16th last week at Dover. In eight career starts at Charlotte, he owns a high finish of 11th and an average showing of 13.9.
Reed advanced to the Round of 8 last season, placing sixth in the final championship standings.
"Charlotte is obviously a huge race for us," Reed said. "Being a cutoff race and currently only being two points (ahead), it is super important to be fast and not make any mistakes. Charlotte is a good track for us and another 1.5-mile track, and our 1.5-mile program is where we are the strongest."
Race Weekend Guide
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Race: Bank of America 500
Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m. ET
Tune-In: NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 501 miles (334 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 90), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 180), Final Stage (Ends on lap 334)
What to Watch For: Kyle Busch goes for his third straight victory. The last driver to achieve the feat was Joey Logano in the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. ... Jimmie Johnson attempts to add to his track-record eight Charlotte wins. ... Chase Elliott looks for his first win following his fifth career runner-up at Dover. ... Non-playoff-eligible drivers who can spoil the day with a victory at Charlotte include past Queen City winners: Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Race: Drive for The Cure 300 Presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina
Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 3 p.m. ET
Tune-In: NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on lap 200)
What to Watch For: The four drivers lowest in points who are winless in the Round of 12 following Saturday's race will be eliminated from the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs. Right now, Ryan Reed sits two points above Brendan Guaghan for the final spot. Michael Annett (eight points behind Reed) ranks 10th, followed by 11th-place Blake Koch (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-20) in 12th. ... Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney are scheduled to participate in Saturday's race.
The driver most likely to fill this void? Kyle Busch, whose career has some interesting parallels to that of Earnhardt Sr., is a promising candidate.
Without squinting excessively, one can see some similar characteristics to the late Earnhardt in Busch, even though he's not likely to be mistaken for "The Intimidator."
The key difference in the two drivers' careers -- beyond the changes in stock car racing itself at the Cup level -- is the age when they started. Earnhardt Sr. was 28 years old his rookie season and Busch was nearly a decade younger. While Busch, nicknamed "Shrub" as a teenager, has virtually grown up in the public arena of the big leagues, Earnhardt arrived full time in the Cup after two broken marriages and a long struggle to get to the top.
Needless to say, both drivers were blessed with extraordinary car control and ability to measure the risk, more often than not, in risky maneuvers. The key similarity between the two is the age they began winning championships.
Earnhardt won his first title at age 29 and Busch won his first at age 30. If Busch, now 32, wins his second championship this year, he'll be slightly ahead of the curve established by Earnhardt Sr. who won his second of seven titles at age 35.
In terms of fan response, fans either loved or loathed "The Man in Black." Busch gets a similar grandstand reaction -- and social media response.
Earnhardt was fond of issuing blunt criticism of NASCAR over rules in an era when there was constant jawboning on the rule book. For his part, Busch gets acerbic, or worse, when he thinks officials are plotting against him.
Earnhardt was only too happy to give media members a difficult time in post-race interviews on days when things didn't go according to plan or after a narrow loss. That approach also jibes with the Busch method. He is the one driver journalists can count on (in the absence of Tony Stewart) to avoid comment or offer sarcasm when he does answer questions after races where things did not go as planned.
This holds true for Busch even in the age of required appearances by the runner-up and third-place drivers in the media center after races. For his part, Earnhardt hated losing so badly that he always tried to win the next race -- the one to get out of the track quickly while avoiding the media.
Earnhardt was plenty angry early in his career, perhaps sublimating the grief over the unexpected death of his father. The original plan was for him to drive alongside the 1956 NASCAR Late Model champion, Ralph Earnhardt, while barnstorming short tracks in a second car.
After his father succumbed to a heart attack at age 45, Earnhardt began tearing up enough equipment to fill a junkyard. Eventually, he had to borrow a short track car from his former father-in-law, Robert Gee. But Earnhardt was unrepentant in his aggressiveness on the track, which eventually enabled him to realize an extraordinary ability. The next step was learning to channel the aggression well enough to win seven championships.
That's the stage that Busch appears to find himself in at present. He seems poised on the threshold of the self-discipline necessary to win championships. Despite 42 career victories and 13 full seasons in the big leagues, the solitary championship thus far betrays an inability to handle adversity during what are now called the playoffs.
Like others, Busch has had his share of bad luck in terms of broken parts. But Busch once even failed to make it to the postseason and in others collapsed like a lawn chair.
Jimmie Johnson, the master of emotional equilibrium, might not have won his seventh title last season in the finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway had Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens not lost the handle on Busch's chassis and then panicked on pit strategy.
Don't look for that to happen this year. Busch's extraordinary come-from-behind victory at Dover over Chase Elliott gave Busch four victories for the season. Several more trips to victory lane should have, or could have, happened. Despite a garden variety of bad luck and mishaps, Busch has remained focused.
The most notable example of the disciplined Busch was his response after his new pit crew -- following a switch of crews made by Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of the playoffs -- cost him dearly at the Chicagoland Speedway. He didn't throw anybody under the nearest bus, and the same crew helped him win the next two races. Now, momentum is on the side of Busch and Stevens.
Just as Earnhardt always had an alternate plan to get out of the track first if he lost, Busch has an alternate plan when it comes to championships. If he doesn't eventually catch the trio of legends who currently are tied with seven titles, Busch will still be able to point to his victory total in the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series. Currently, he has a total of 182 wins and that number will eventually exceed 200 at the present rate.
That would catapult Busch into rare territory and bring up the debate about whether his victory tally should carry the same weight as Richard Petty's 200 victories in Cup competition. But that's a comparison for another day.
TV: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET -- NBC (Radio: Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
THIS WEEK: This will be the 118th NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte, which has been hosting NASCAR since 1960. ... Jimmie Johnson is defending winner of this race, while Austin Dillon won at CMS in this past May's Coca-Cola 600. ... Kyle Busch won last Sunday's race at Dover, his second straight victory. ... This is the fourth race of the 10-race playoffs. It is also the first race of Round 2 of the playoffs, with four of the original 16 playoff contenders eliminated after last Sunday's race at Dover. ... Here's the Cup point standings after Dover: Martin Truex Jr. (3,059 points), Busch (3,041), Kyle Larson (3,034), Brad Keselowski, (3,020), Jimmie Johnson (3,017), Kevin Harvick (3,015), Denny Hamlin (3,013), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,010), Ryan Blaney (3,008), Chase Elliott (3,006), Matt Kenseth (3,005) and Jamie McMurray (3,003).
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: DRIVE FOR THE CURE 300 (200 laps, 300 miles around a 1.5-mile oval), Charlotte Motor Speedway; Concord, N.C.
TV: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET -- NBCSN (Radio: Performance Racing Network/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
THIS WEEK: This will be the 72nd Xfinity race at CMS. ... Defending winner of this race is Joey Logano, while Blaney won there this past May. ... This is the final race of the first round of the playoffs. The original 12-driver playoff field will be cut to eight drivers after this race. ... Blaney won last Saturday's Xfinity race at Dover. ... Justin Allgaier (2,107 points) leads the Xfinity standings, followed by William Byron (2,104), Elliott Sadler (2,094), Cole Custer (2,093), Daniel Hemric (2,090), Brennan Poole (2,082), Matt Tifft (2,067), Ryan Reed (2,055), Brendan Gaughan (2,053), Michael Annett (2,048), Blake Koch (2,043) and Jeremy Clements (2,035). ... The Xfinity Series is off next weekend and resumes the following week at Kansas Speedway.
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: The series is off this weekend. It will resume next weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
THIS WEEK: Ben Rhodes won his first career Truck race last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. ... Christopher Bell is No. 1 in the point standings (2,152), followed by Rhodes (2,105), Matt Crafton (2,101), Johnny Sauter (2,098), Chase Briscoe (2,084), Austin Cindric (2,082), Kaz Grala (2,074) and John Hunter Nemechek (2,068).
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION: The series is off this weekend. The next race is the AAA Texas Fall Nationals, Oct. 12-15, at Texas Motorplex.
THIS WEEK: The six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs is at the halfway point after last weekend's race at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis. ... The winners in last Sunday's AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals were Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle). It was the eighth win of the season for both Torrence and Capps. ... Here are the updated point standings after Gateway: Top Fuel -- Steve Torrence (2,376 points), Doug Kalitta (2,334), Brittany Force (2,293), Antron Brown (2,282), Clay Millican (2,235), Tony Schumacher (2,234), Leah Pritchett (2,224), Terry McMillen (2,115), Scott Palmer (2,105) and Shawn Langdon (2,100); Funny Car -- Ron Capps (2,395 points), Robert Hight (2,349), Courtney Force (2,287), Matt Hagan (2,238), Jack Beckman (2,228), John Force (2,197), Tommy Johnson Jr. (2,191), J.R. Todd (2,168), Tim Wilkerson (2,130) and Cruz Pedregon (2,096); Pro Stock -- Greg Anderson (2,393 points), Bo Butner (2,390), Jason Line (2,317), Tanner Gray (2,299), Drew Skillman (2,208), Erica Enders (2,197), Allen Johnson (2,151), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (2,148), Chris McGaha (2,122) and Vincent Nobile (2,052); Pro Stock Motorcycle -- Eddie Krawiec (2,378 points), L.E. Tonglet (2,362), Andrew Hines (2,306), Hector Arana Jr. (2,263), Jerry Savoie (2,261), Scotty Pollachek (2,252), Matt Smith (2,238), Karen Stoffer (2,148), Angie Smith (2,119) and Joey Gladstone (2,117).