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NASCAR Cup Series

GOOD & BAD: 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Season

Another year of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition is in the books, with a familiar sight as Kyle Busch was crowned the series champion. Along the way, though, there were some highlights and low lights to consider from the action on-track all year.

Although I was unable to watch all of the races, let’s take a look back at the good and the bad.

GOOD: While the final event is the pressure cooker of the season, you should just treat it like any other weekend. Just ask Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens. As the rest of the contenders faltered under the pressure, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did what he does best en route to his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.

On any given week through the season, the No. 18 M&M’s Camry and that was on display with the top speed in Saturday’s practice. Despite not winning in the 21 races prior to the Ford EcoBoost 400, he also consistently ran up front, as highlighted by 27 top-10 finishes in the 36 events in 2019. However, many had placed him beneath his rivals due to only five top-10’s in the first nine playoff races. 

They all failed to recognize that Busch continuing to put himself in the right position, plus the poise of being in the position previously certainly helped. While you could see his title contenders were using a “win or bust” mentality, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens ran the event just like any other weekend. When he was unable to keep up with Martin Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick, it was just about giving feedback to continuing making adjustments to find more speed. Combined with a ultra fast pit crew that just did their job as normal and you had a recipe for success. 

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

BAD: The championship seemed to just come together on a less than stellar level for Busch, though, as the last event of the season did not have that late race drama to get you up on your seat. The contenders showed speed, but made uncharacteristic mistakes. 

Truex dominated the opening stage, though fell back in the second stage due to the pit crew putting on the tires on the wrong side of the car under a green flag stop. While he was able to make-up the ground in quick fashion to be in position to contend during the third stage, he was never able to make up the lost track position to Busch.

Denny Hamlin appeared to be in a closer position to challenge Busch than Truex was in the final stage despite an okay start. However, Chris Gabehart would elect to put on a big piece of tape, hoping to pick up downforce and speed so they could run down their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. It would back fire, with the No. 11 Camry overheating, resulting in an unscheduled pit stop, and a finish of 10th.

GOOD: No matter the format to decide the champion, the best drivers are always going to rise to the top. Over the past couple seasons, Busch, Truex Jr. and Harvick have been part of the Championship 4.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

BAD: Although Chase Elliott started off the playoffs on a high with a bunch of momentum following a great comeback victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, he hopefully has forgotten about the weeks that followed.

He suffered a blown tire at ISM Raceway, backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the outside wall, and ultimately failed to finish better than 32nd in the Round of 8. He broke an axle at Martinsville Speedway, and then tried to run the high line early in the event at Texas Motor Speedway, getting loose and backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the wall. Though even before that rough round, he suffered a blown motor at Dover International Speedway, and a crash at Talladega Superspeedway in the Round of 12. 

GOOD: The legitimacy of the champion produced by the playoff system in NASCAR has been, and will be debated for years to come with fans are either side of the fence. However, the post-season is producing what the sanctioning body wanted – drama. Let’s take a look back at Kansas Speedway, shall we? 

Eyes were focused in on the final laps of the Hollywood Casino 400 with everyone wondering who the eight drivers transferring to the Round of 8 would be. Certainly the late race caution helped up the stakes, but there were plenty of things to watch at the end, Elliott‘s late-race charge to challenge for the victory, to Brad Keselowski trying to salvage a decent day and losing ground at the end.

Ultimately, Keselowski saw his championships hope end courtesy of a mere three points. Although you could blame the sub-par performance on Sunday, there was also a crash at Talladega Superspeedway and an 11th-place finish at Dover International Speedway. If only he would have finished three spots further up the board any of those times.

BAD: Jimmie Johnson ultimately watched his chances of making the playoffs end in a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Battling three-wide, William Byron crowded Johnson, resulting in Johnson getting into the grass and sideways. In total, nine drivers were caught up in the incident. Johnson’s rear-end damage was significant enough that he could not continue.

Although NBC put on the focus on Johnson not making the post-season solely focused on Sunday, there were 25 races that drivers also scored wins and points to ensure their championship chances. Quite frankly, this year has been a struggle for seven-time with consistency being a struggle to find, including a crew chief change mid-season.

RUSTY LABOUNTY | NKP

GOOD: There were some good finishes this season, including Hamlin and Harvick at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Lap cars can be thanked for bringing the pair closer together, but that’s all part of the long-run racing in how you handle the traffic. Harvick, using some of his short track skills, kept the advantage by slowing down a touch sooner than expected and taking the preferred line that Hamlin would have wanted.

On the same coin, Hamlin does earn respect in how he handled the situation. He gave Harvick a bump in turn one, but just enough to get scoot him out of the groove a little and not wreck him. Notice the difference in crowd reaction compared to how he handled Martinsville Speedway a couple years ago with Elliott.

BAD: Anybody remember the fan attendance for the Food City 500? You can preach all you want that short tracks should be on the schedule, but you also need to show that you’re willing to support them and that’s by putting butts in the seats. Certainly there’s other factors contributing to the attendance – hotel costs, food costs, weather, though no matter how you approach it, it’s not a good look.

GOOD: Ryan Preece proved that he could drive this season, starting right off at the Daytona 500. He drove directly through all three wrecks that happened, crossing the line with an eighth-place finish in his Cup Series debut. Just check this out for evidence.

BAD: The racing may be a struggle to watch sometimes, but it’s made even worse when the officials can’t do their job. There was at least three of the first six races of the season that they had issues putting cars inline for the restart. How hard can it be to put a field of cars two-wide evenly when timing and scoring electronically prints you a perfect order? 

There was also that time at Atlanta Motor Speedway where Truex was assessed a penalty, but then it was taken back as NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said post-race the pit stop was reviewed in the tower and there was no penalty as they could not confirm foot was down early per video. It’s a little concerning when you hear straight from the sanctioning body that they don’t have enough views of a pit stop to confirm something, especially when they made us to believe their new pro trailer system with less officials on pit road and using video instead would work. 

Russell Labounty | NKP

BAD: We also need to get the coverage of these races improved. Between the endless commercials, and lacking smarts in the booth, it’s going downhill really fast. I mean, do you really the viewers at home care if the commentators are eating ice cream?

It seemed they would show a small piece of the race, before going straight to another commercial break. Essentially, giving you bits of the racing action in-between allowing you to memorize each ad since you’d seen it too many times to count. It almost felt like a third to a quarter of the race was shown in commercial – maybe more.

On top of that, the actual coverage of the event was lacking. Supposedly, observations from Texas Motor Speedway indicated it was a “slug fest” with groups of cars running together closely, battling for position. However, NASCAR on Fox didn’t bother to show that. They just showed the pack racing for the first 10 laps after a restart, and then focused on the single-file train at the front or went to commercial. 

P.S.: It’d also be nice if they showed the running order during their “Crank it Up” segment.

BAD: The Cup Series package certainly needs improvement, as the consensus from the majority of the races is that the rules package is doing nothing to produce “exciting racing” with the main show falling behind the two junior series. Hence why there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the new car in 2021. This was showcased through the whole season, with a bunch of lackluster races.

Take the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If you put aside the championship drama, the actual race was just – meh. There was no real battles or challenges for positions as everybody seemed to move up or down simply based on the strategy that they were running. You would get exciting battles on the restart, but they’d string out after five laps and then it was just a follow the leader train.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

You could also look back at the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway where Hamlin gapped the field by over 10 seconds at one point. The racing was so spread out with the unlikelihood of drama near the end that NASCAR put out a caution for John Hunter Nemechek‘s contact with the outside wall that normally would have been no cause for concern. After all, the Front Row Motorsports driver made it back to pit road without laying down any debris.

Other events that you could add to the list include the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway, Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.

“The cars don’t have any speed,” Busch said following the Pennzoil 400. “You’re wide open just trying to suck off of any car that you can that’s in front of you to get a draft. I was running 31-flats when I was chasing those leaders down and then once I got there, I stalled out to 31.40s because the wind was just so bad behind those guys that you couldn’t corner anymore, you couldn’t maneuver. I couldn’t run low if they ran low and I couldn’t run high if they ran high so you’re always trying to figure out which way to go.”

While it’s nice to look forward to 2021, that just means that we’re getting ready another boring season – unless they can make some minor tweaks to improve the status quo. Let’s beg and hope that happens. Alas, let’s remember what Jeff Gordon said earlier this year – “Tires don’t wear out, speed don’t slow down, you can’t get away from each other, and track position is key.” 

GOOD: Let’s back it up a little, though, as the package did not fail everywhere. 

The Hollywood Casino 400 was a great race to watch from the fan’s perspective. Between the aged surface and a new tire compound, drivers were using multiple grooves across the surface to try and gain time on their competitors. This allowed for side-by-side racing throughout the entire duration of the event, including a couple battles for the lead. The aged-surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway also allowed us to get a good race there, too. 

There was also New Hampshire, as although the field was spread out at times throughout the afternoon, there was always at least one battle for position within the top-10 to keep an eye on. By laying down the PJ1 traction compound in the separate lanes, it allowed drivers to get their cars working high or low to challenge each other. There was also varying strategy played with earning stage points versus trying to set yourself up for a good finish and tire wear, which kept things interesting with a variety of drivers finding their way to the front at times.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Bristol Motor Speedway also reminded us as to why we love short tracks with the Food City 500.

The reconfiguration caused the high line to become the only place for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but that wasn’t quite the case on Sunday. Track officials finally got the right traction compound as throughout the event, competitors were able to run high and low, with different drivers favoring each groove.

The result was constant side-by-side racing from the drop of the green flag, to the checkered flag, for positions throughout the field. It was also beneficial that NASCAR on FOX listened to the fan’s critiques from the past couple of weeks, not spending their time focused on the leader but rather showing each of these battles. 

There was also excitement with the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but we know restrictor plates are always entertaining when drivers want to race for it. 

If every race could be like what we saw here, then perhaps other gimmicks would not be necessary for fan excitement.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway

There was a lot of discussion to be had about the race at ISM Raceway on Sunday, but you could say the action on-track did not live up to that hype. Despite the speedway’s officials attempts to widen the groove with the PJ1 traction compound, the racing turned into a boring affair.

The restarts brought plenty of drama with drivers all over the track trying to gain ground, but that did not last as they embarked on the long run. The field would get widely spread out, even race leader Denny Hamlin gapping the field by over 10 seconds at one point. The challenges for position seemed to only happen when you had cars falling off the pace, except for a solid battle for 30 laps between Hamlin and Chase Elliott for second near the end of stage two.

The racing was so spread out with the unlikelihood of drama near the end that NASCAR put out a caution for John Hunter Nemechek‘s contact with the outside wall that normally would have been no cause for concern. After all, the Front Row Motorsports driver made it back to pit road without laying down any debris.

Ultimately, Hamlin did what he had to in getting the track position, and having a good handling No. 11 FedEx Camry to utilize the clean air and drive away from the field. Despite restart concerns mid-race with some issues, he also prevailed on the final run to the checkered with three laps to go, securing his position in the Championship 4.

Kyle Busch did try to mount a challenge in the final laps, with some questioning whether he fully drove hard or held back some after being reminded of his Joe Gibbs Racing’s teammate’s position coming to the green. However, if you know Rowdy, he is not a driver to settle for second and he has not won in 21 races.

On the flip side, the worst round of Elliott’s NASCAR career came to an end as he suffered a blown tire, backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the outside wall. After having a bunch of momentum following a great comeback victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, the most popular driver failed to finish better than 32nd in the last three races. 

Joey Logano will also be asking himself several questions as he started out fast and led early, but an ill-handling car caused him to fall a lap down mid-way through the event. His Team Penske team says that was simply caused by a half-pound air pressure adjustment, but the complete 180 in the car’s behavior has many other questions being asked.

Though overall, the drivers who deserved to be in the Championship 4 are there. The Big three in Hamlin, Truex, and Busch have made the cut, joined by Kevin Harvick. They currently boost the four best average finishes across all 35 races to date this season and have proven capable of winning. It’s just a matter of who will do it when it counts at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Elliott is Feeling Comfortable at ISM Raceway

AVONDALE, Arizona — When the green flag waves atop the LED-lit cactus flag stand for the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway, Chase Elliott will begin the race in an insurmountable 78-point hole. The product of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott is indeed in a win-only scenario as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series makes its stop at the 1.5-mile speedway.

Elliott has been able to overcome adversity with ease in both the Round of 16 and the Round of 12. Now the racing prodigy is faced with one last ditch effort in which he will be forced to ascend to champion-caliber heights in order to make a statement and advance to Homestead.

The 23-year old driver elaborated on his team’s ability to execute – specifically at Kansas Speedway in the final race in the Round of 12.

“We had some good fortune at Kansas,” Elliott told POPULAR SPEED. “I feel like we were in a position where we had to win that race and we were in a position to battle for a win – obviously we didn’t win – but things went our way enough to get through the round. I think for me that was a good opportunity for us to have our backs up against the wall and having to go out there and perform.”

The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevy Camaro went on to discuss how he and his team was able to capitalize on pivotal moments late in the race.

“We made the most of an afternoon that really wasn’t going all that well,” said the Hendrick Motorsports driver. “We were struggling on the long run and lost a lot of ground, but we made a lot of great pit stops towards the end and had good restarts which put us in a position to win and that’s what you have to do.”

While being put in these difficult situations is obviously not the preferred race weekend for Elliott, he firmly believes that being dealt with these trials is essential for breeding a champion in NASCAR. After all, these scenarios are bound to come to fruition should a driver advance to the series finale.

“I just think that being put in that position was a good experience and whether you’re in a position where you have to win now or two weeks ago, you’re going to have to be in that position at Homestead (-Miami Speedway),” said the Georgia-native. “I think being comfortable with that is a necessity with the way this format is. When your back’s up against the wall, you have to perform and I think the better you feel about that situation and the more you embrace it, the better off you’ll be. As a team we’ve embraced it and I’m really looking forward to the weekend.”

This is the third-consecutive season where Elliott finds himself in Round of 8. In his fourth season of full-time racing, has he proven himself to be capable of competing with the best of the best in the championship race in Miami? The calm and collected driver seems more poised than ever to get it done at ISM Raceway.

“We’re going to go out there, do our thing and have fun,” Elliott concluded.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Playoff Drivers are Feeling the Pressure at ISM Raceway with New Traction Compound

AVONDALE, Arizona — The Arizona sun beams down on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage area. Blue skies collide with the outside wall that stretches across the dormant 1.5 mile ISM Raceway. But this is far from a laid back weekend in the Valley of the Sun.

Cup Series crew members are frantically fine tuning their machines and lining up to go through inspection before hitting the track for what will positively be an intense pressure cooker of a race in Avondale, Arizona. While the premier series will only be partaking in a pair of practice sessions this Friday, there is more on the line now than ever to perform well this weekend.

ISM Raceway has been the sight of the semi-final event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit since 2002. But it was announced that in 2020, the track that underwent a $178 million renovation would be the sight of the Championship race weekend.

Why is this race in specific one that every driver had circled on their calendar for the 2019 season?

The 2020 Championship race will be held on November 8th, exactly one year from today. Not only will track conditions be almost identical to this weekend, but the rules package being applied to the Bluegreen Vacation 500 will be the same next year. On top of that, there is a new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, which has the entire garage area in a frenzy – and for good reason.

There was a traction compound applied to the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway and drivers like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, found out quickly that slipping up in those grooves could get treacherous.

Playoff drivers expressed a plethora of concerns about how the race will play out on November 10th and expect it to be a challenge for all 312 Laps. Even previous Cup Series Champions Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who are currently in the Championship 4 by upwards of 20 points, are on edge about the competition around them this Sunday.

“We’ll be watching those Trucks and Xfinity races pretty closely,” Logano said. “I think it’s going to take a little bit for it to come in but it looks to me like it will probably come into play in Turns 1 and 2 – it’s pretty high up there in Turns 3 and 4.”

Logano was one of a handful of Playoff drivers who performed well in the AAA Texas 500 with the new traction compound, notching a fourth-place finish. He sits fourth in the standings 20 points to the good and will need a clean race to advance to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a chance to win back-to-back championships.

Busch has the worst average finish in the Playoffs – next to the driver of the No. 22 – with a 13.38 average through eight races . All eyes will be on the No. 18 M&Ms Camry as Busch is currently riding a two-race win streak at the 1.5-mile track with an impressive 2.8 average finish over the last five events at ISM Raceway.

“Here at Phoenix it’s already very challenging and difficult to pass,” Busch said when asked about the PJ1 compound. “We saw that here in the Spring, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s going to be a hard fought finish this year and next year at the end.”

Martins Truex Jr. locked himself into the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway after capturing his third short track win of the season in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago. Normally, Truex could play it safe and focus on the weekend ahead, but the driver of the No. 19 will be far from complacent with a lackluster performance at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“I think it’s on everyone’s mind that this will be the final four race that decides the championship next year, so this race and the Spring race will be very important – especially with the rules package staying the same,” said the 2017 Cup Series Champion. “Everyone’s going to want to get a good head start on next Spring here for sure this weekend.”

The driver from Mayetta, New Jersey was also one of the benefactors of a rewarding finish last weekend at Texas. It should come as no surprise that the championship-caliber driver is one of the few drivers not overly concerned with the traction compound this weekend.

“At some point Sunday we’ll use that traction compound in [Turns] three and four because we typically run a higher line on long green flag runs,” Truex said. “It just depends on if enough guys are running up there and working it in – if that happens it’ll probably get pretty good.”

Playoff drivers below the cutoff line such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Hamlin could be pitted with an advantage over drivers like Busch and Logano due to their inherent need to perform well or win for a chance to compete for the 2019 Championship.

Larson was one of the lone drivers in the Cup Series in favor of the PJ1 compound application last weekend and he is feeling confident heading into the Bluegreen Vacations 500 this Sunday.

“I feel like there’s nobody better in our series in terms of searching for lanes and grooves to make your car better,” the driver of the No. 42 said. “If it burns in quick, I think I’ll really benefit from it.”

Talladega Superspeedway winner and racing prodigy, Blaney, revealed that he believes restarts could get even more hectic than normal this Sunday due to the track compound application.

“In the Spring you saw those wild four-five wide racing on restarts, but it’s going to be even more interesting this year especially with the stuff they put down on [Turns] one and two up top,” the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford said. “I think people are going to be using that top lane later in the day and it’s really going to affect restarts.”

The 25-year old started from the pole at ISM Raceway earlier this year and finished third with a legitimate shot to win. Blaney also reiterated that he had been pushed around quite a bit in that race and that he intends to return the favor and be one of the aggressors on those climatic restarts.

Hamlin, who finds himself 20 points below the cutoff line, was deemed one of the 2019 favorites for the Championship after an impeccable season. The 38-year old found trouble at both Martinsville and Texas Motor Speedway, but his chances really took a hit when he accidentally got caught up in the traction compound in the AAA Texas 500.

The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry had some strong words about the PJ1 application and even tried taking matters into his own hands following the race at Texas.

“I discussed with NASCAR that you’d have a better show from beginning to end if they didn’t add anything after the Xfinity race,” Hamlin shared. “Those cars did a really good job burning it in and it was actually really good at that time – it would’ve been great to start the Cup race with.”

Hamlin went on to further explain that the traction compound took hundreds of laps to properly develop last week and it was really slick – hence why when he got loose in re-application and crashed. With 312 Laps at a 1.5-mile track, the Cup Series may not have have the luxury of waiting hundreds of laps for the compound to burn in.

The Virginia-native boasts a series-leading average finishing position of 9.2 through 34 of 36 races this season and will need to replicate more of that magic this Sunday to continue his dominant stretch into Miami.

If the prior Playoff Round finales at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway are any indication of what to expect at ISM Raceway, then fans are in for a dramatically intense race at Zoomtown U.S.A. With two only spots available before Championship weekend at Homestead and teams already stressing about the PJ1 traction application, you won’t want to miss the Bluegreen Vacations 500 from ISM Raceway at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

With every point and position mattering that much more, some drivers will be regretting their decisions on Sunday.

Ultimately, it proved to be tough to pass throughout the AAA Texas 500. Some drivers were able to make passes, but being able to balance running the bottom and the edge of the groove that the PJ1 had been applied certainly did not make it easy. That was showcased through the final run to the checkered which saw the field spread out with no big battles for position.

As a result, strategy to gain track position became critical throughout the event – which worked to the advantage of some in being able to get a strong finish.

Costly Mistakes

While several of the playoff contenders were able to have strong finishes, including Kevin Harvick who punched his ticket to the Championship 4, there are others who have made the hole bigger for them moving forward.

Chase Elliott entered Sunday’s race in a hole following a broken axle at Martinsville Speedway. Now he has put himself in a “win or bust, no matter what” situation being over 60 points behind the cut-off following an incident on Lap 9. The Hendrick Motorsports driver tried to run the high line, getting loose and backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the wall.

Although he started off the playoffs with tons of momentum from a dominating performance at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, it has been rough since then with a blown motor at Dover International Speedway, a crash at Talladega Superspeedway, and the issues the past two weeks. By contending for the win at Kansas Speedway, he was able to squeak his way into the Round of 8 by a mere three points. Now it will take an even more commending performance if he wants to be part of the title battle.

Denny Hamlin also made a similar mistake to Elliott, getting sideways in turn four and spinning through the infield grass on Lap 80. As a result, he scored a 28th-place finish, giving up any cushion that he had over the cut-off line to now sit 20 behind Joey Logano for the last position.

Hamlin could point his way into the next round by simply beating Logano, but needs to be wary in doing so in case someone like Elliott or Kyle Larson pick up the checkered flag to move up the cut-off line. Therefore, competing for the win would be his best bet and that seems likely as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has ran well at ISM Raceway previously. He has scored a pair of top-five’s in past three trips to the desert.

Cream Rising to the Top

No matter the format to decide the champion, the best drivers are always going to rise to the top. Over the past couple seasons, Martin Truex Jr. and Harvick have been part of the Championship 4 and will be once again this year. Considering both competitors have been on their game all through the playoffs, it will more than likely take winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to secure the title. 

Over the past couple years, Kyle Busch has joined them, along with a fourth face that seems to change each season. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver appears to have a good chance at doing so once again being 22 points above the cut-off, however these playoffs have proven to expect the unexpected. If he is off on his game at all next weekend, the No. 18 could be left on the outside looking in.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway

The legitimacy of the champion produced by the playoff system in NASCAR has been, and will be debated for years to come with fans are either side of the fence. However, the post-season is producing what the sanctioning body wanted – drama.

Eyes were focused in on the final laps of the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, with everyone wondering who the eight drivers transferring to the Round of 8 would be. Certainly the late race caution helped up the stakes, but there were plenty of things to watch at the end, from Chase Elliott‘s late-race charge to challenge for the victory, to Brad Keselowski trying to salvage a decent day and losing ground at the end.

Ultimately, Keselowski saw his championships hope end courtesy of a mere three points. Although you could blame the sub-par performance on Sunday, there was also a crash at Talladega Superspeedway and an 11th-place finish at Dover International Speedway. If only he would have finished three spots further up the board any of those times.

Though essentially, Keselowski struggled and handed Elliott a gift – in which he capitalized when necessary. 

Elliott gets another breath of life by transferring. After a stellar first round with the comeback win at the ROVAL, an engine failure at Dover to start this round certainly took some wind out of the sails. Though showing he could contend for the victory on Sunday, combined with statistically having done well at both Martinsville Speedway and ISM Raceway, he could be someone to watch moving forward.

Denny Hamlin will enter the Round of 8 with the most momentum, courtesy of his victory on Sunday after pacing the field much of the second half. Historically known as one of the best at Martinsville and solid statistics through the other two tracks, he could certainly mount a charge for the championship. After all, he has finished four of the six playoff events thus far in the top-five.

Putting aside the drama in the final laps involving the playoffs, the Hollywood Casino 400 was still a great race to watch from the fan’s perspective. Between the aged surface and a new tire compound, drivers were using multiple grooves across the surface to try and gain time on their competitors. This allowed for side-by-side racing throughout the entire duration of the event, including a couple battles for the lead.

If every race could be like what we saw on Sunday, then perhaps other gimmicks would not be necessary for fan excitement.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Chase Elliott leads Hendrick Motorsports sweep of Talladega qualifying

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Led by pole winner Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports reasserted its domination of superspeedway qualifying on Saturday at Talladega.

The winner at Talladega in April, Elliott toured the 2.66-mile track in 46.692 seconds (192.707 mph) to win his second Busch Pole Award at Talladega, his fourth of the season and the eighth of his career. Hendrick Motorsports swept the top four starting spots for Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Alex Bowman qualified second at 192.552 mph, .040 seconds behind his teammate. William Byron (192.258 mph) earned the third starting spot, followed by Jimmie Johnson (191.566 mph).

Saturday’s session was the second time this year Hendrick cars have swept the top four qualifying positions. Hendrick drivers were 1-2-3-4 in qualifying for the Daytona 500, though they didn’t start the race that way because of subsequent Duel qualifying races.

Once before, in the spring Talladega race in 2011, Hendrick put all four of its cars on the front two rows with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole, followed by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin.

“We had a really fast NAPA Night Vision Camaro there,” said Elliott, who got a boost from qualifying after an early engine failure at Dover dropped him seven points below the current cut line for Round of 8 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. “It was really faster than I was expecting it to be today, which is nice. And (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and our team do such a good job at these places.

“Really, Hendrick, as a whole, and our body shop and our engine shop doing the job that they do coming to these places and have fast race cars and really, it’s kind of on them. So, I’m really proud of the effort. It was a tough week last week, obviously, so it’s just nice to come back and get a pole. Obviously, it’s a long race and anything can happen. So we’ve got to take advantage of a good pit pick and we’ll go to work from there and see what happens.”

Elliott, Bowman and Byron all are fighting for spots in the Round of 8, but the Hendrick contingent won’t have much help within the Chevrolet camp at the start of the race. The three rows behind the four Hendrick cars are occupied by Fords, with Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano qualifying sixth through 10th, respectively.

Keselowski, Bowyer, Blaney and Logano all are still alive in the Playoffs.

“We’ve had some good runs here, for sure,” said Logano, a three-time winner at Talladega. “We’ve had some really good race cars, and things have gone our way a lot, but I’ve said this all week that superspeedway racing evolves all the time. It never really stays the same for more than two or three races before our competition figures out a new way to beat you, and then you’ve got to come up with something new again.

“We’ve got to stay open to doing what our competition is doing and trying to do what they do better than them. That’s what we’ve got to try to do, but it seems like now more than ever the teamwork aspect has really come into play more than it’s ever been. I say teamwork, not just Penske – we’re talking about all the Fords or all the Chevys or Toyotas. Everyone really seems to be committed to each other and it’s really changed the game a lot.”

Erik Jones qualified 11th in the fastest Toyota. The remaining five Playoff drivers qualified as follows: Kyle Larson 12th, Kevin Harvick 15th, Martin Truex Jr. 18th, Kyle Busch 26th and Denny Hamlin 40th. Hamlin didn’t complete his lap before his engine failed.

“I blew up down the back coming to the checkered flag,” Hamlin said. “I was super fortunate that it happened when it did. I told them that I’ve seen some amazing, crazy things happen in my Playoff career, but blowing up on Lap 1 would have set a new precedent for me.

“I’m just super fortunate that it happened when it did. We were 15 seconds away from shutting her down and not knowing until the race started. It was crazy it all ended up the way it did. This was definitely more fortunate than unfortunate.”

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Elliott rallies for Roval win as Bowman squeaks into Round of 12

CONCORD, N.C. – Moments after taking the checkered flag in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, race winner Chase Elliott revisited the site of his biggest mistake.

Elliott drove his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet up to the tire barrier in Turn 1 of the 2.28-mile, 17-turn course and began a burnout that bordered on the sarcastic.

Early in the final stage of the 109-lap event and after a restart on Lap 65, Elliott locked up his brakes and plowed straight into the tire barrier, taking out the “Tums” logo in the corner known as Heartburn Turn. After pitting to address the damage, Elliott fell to 37th in the running and spent the rest of the race working his way forward.

After a spate of opportune cautions, Elliott took the lead for good on Lap 104, passing Martin Truex Jr. for second and Kevin Harvick for the top spot after the final restart.

Five laps later, Elliott crossed the finish line 3.016 seconds ahead of teammate Alex Bowman, who made a heroic run from the rear of the field to finish second and wrestle the final berth in the Round of 12 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs from Aric Almirola and Ryan Newman.

“Oh, my gosh, what a mistake, holy moly,” said Elliott, who picked up his third victory of the season, his first at the Charlotte road course and the sixth of his career. “You talk about messing something up, right here — don’t do that.

“What a day. Such a fast NAPA Camaro ZL1, and honestly that was the only reason we were able to get back in it. I pretty well blew it and got the cautions at the right time and brought it home. … But I don’t think that I could have done anything more stupid, leading that race.”

Bowman and Newman were locked in a tight battle for the final spot in the Round of 12 before Newman blew the backstretch chicane with three laps left and dropped to 32nd at the finish. That left Newman 14th in the standings and 15 points behind Bowman.

Almirola raced to a 14th-place finish and left Charlotte five points behind Bowman, the first driver outside the top 12. Kurt Busch (20th) and Erik Jones (40th after a Lap 23 crash knocked a hole in the radiator of his No. 20 Toyota) also were eliminated from the playoffs, which resume next Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

Bowman overcame a litany of mistakes and ill fortune to grab the final slot in the Round of 12. With 25 seconds left in Saturday’s final Cup practice, he crashed in Turns 3 and 4 and was forced to go to a backup car. That meant starting from the rear Sunday, and halfway through the first lap, Bowman spun in the backstretch chicane.

He was turned sideways in the six-car Lap 23 wreck that started when Busch slammed into the rear of Chris Buescher’s Chevrolet as the cars slowed entering the corner. And on Lap 42, Bowman turned Bubba Wallace at the exit of the backstretch chicane after a heated exchange that featured uncomplimentary hand gestures from Wallace.

At the end of the race, Wallace still was seething. As Bowman sat exhausted with his back against the driver’s side of his No. 88 Chevrolet, Wallace threw a drink into Bowman’s face and walked away.

Bowman could take solace, however, in the knowledge his championship hopes are still alive. After the race, Bowman visited the infield care center suffering from dehydration, team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed.

Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch already had clinched Round of 12 spots entering the Charlotte race. Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, pole winner William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Bowman clinched Sunday.

Harvick finished third in the Roval 400, followed by Bowyer, Keselowski, Truex and Blaney, who gritted out his eighth-place finish after damaging the rear suspension by hitting the wall.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Although not known for the most dramatic racing, there was enough drama to wet the appetite of every fan watching on Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The field spread out once there were some green laps in the books – as usual no matter the package, but the restarts saw close competition with some of those battles producing their own twists and turns for the race.

Of course, everything started off with the first trip down pit road when a stack-up resulted in Chase Elliott getting turned sideways.

“I haven’t seen a replay of the pit road incident, but one thing about Indy is pit road is so narrow,” Elliott said. “You have to start braking before you turn into your box which is typically not the case. I think that was a contributor. I apologize if I didn’t stop quick enough. Once they all started stopping, they stopped so fast, I didn’t get stopped quick enough and about the time I got stopped, somebody piled into me. It was one of those chain reaction things.”

Despite receiving damage and going a lap down making repairs, the Hendrick Motorsports driver fought back for a ninth-place finish.

His teammate Jimmie Johnson was not so lucky with his damage later in the event, though. Battling three-wide, William Byron crowded Johnson, resulting in Johnson getting into the grass and sideways. In total, nine drivers were caught up in the incident. Johnson’s rear-end damage was significant enough that he could not continue, ending his chances of making the playoffs.

Although NBC put on the focus on Johnson not making the post-season solely focused on Sunday, there were 25 races that drivers also scored wins and points to ensure their championship chances. Quite frankly, this year has been a struggle for seven-time with consistency being a struggle to find, including a crew chief change mid-season.

Despite some suggesting Johnson may be past his prime, he has stated that the No. 48 team plans to make the most of these final 10 races with some trips to victory lane.

The playoff battle was the main story of the day, and reasonably so with the Big Machine Vodka 400 being the cut-off. Ryan Newman put together the right drive en route to an eighth-place finish, snagging the last playoff spot Daniel Suarez

” We just weren’t good enough this weekend,” Suarez said. “Qualifying was wide open and we qualified 20th. We just didn’t have the straightaway speed this weekend for whatever reason. We have to keep working on it and try to keep getting better.”

While Suarez was critical of his Stewart-Haas Racing team, keep in his mind teammate Kevin Harvick won the pole and dominated the race, while both Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch will join him in the playoffs.

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Chase Elliott goes back-to-back at Watkins Glen

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – It was a striking case of déjà vu.

In a replay of last year’s GoBowling at the Glen, Martin Truex Jr. chased pole winner Chase Elliott lap after lap around the 2.45-mile road course, using everything in his arsenal to try to deprive Elliott of his second straight victory at the track.

Nothing worked for Truex, who crossed the finish line in the wake of the winning No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, .454 seconds in arrears.

Elliott logged his second victory of the season, his second at The Glen and the fifth of his career, becoming the first Chevrolet driver to win multiple races this season.

“This is wild,” exulted Elliott, who outran Truex last year at WGI to pick up his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. “Thank you, guys, that was pretty awesome. I’ve never been so far from home and thought I was at my house. Thank you. What a day!

“We had such a bad fast Camaro, and we stayed mistake-free. Martin was a little quicker those last two runs, but track position was king, and I didn’t mess up in (Turn) 1 this time, so that was good.”

In fact, nothing went wrong for Elliott until he ran out of fuel after his celebratory post-race burnout—same as last year.

“Sorry I ran out of gas again,” Elliott said.

Elliott swept the first and second stages and led 81 of the 90 laps, surrendering the top spot only during pit stop cycles. Truex, who led one lap by pitting one circuit later than Elliott on Lap 60, got tantalizingly close to Elliott’s rear bumper at several points during the final 25-lap green-flag run, but the 2017 series champion couldn’t mount a serious threat to overtake the winner.

“I tried to do all I could,” Truex said. “Chase did an excellent job, just not making mistakes, and really all I could do was get to two car lengths—one-and-a-half at the closest in braking—and just try to force a mistake. But he hit his marks. His car was really fast in the key areas that you need to be, leaving a few of the key corners.

“I just couldn’t get a run on him, and we just were kind of stuck there. Unfortunate, but our Bass Pro Camry was really, really fast today. We passed quite a few cars there that were fast and finished up front, just couldn’t pass that last one.”

Denny Hamlin ran a consistent-if-distant third, 11.229 seconds behind Elliott at the finish. Erik Jones started 14th and came home fourth, posting his fourth straight top-five result and solidifying his position in the standings with four races left before the cutoff for the Playoffs. Jones is 13th, 54 points to the good.

Ryan Blaney ran fifth on Sunday, followed by Matt DiBenedetto, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Kyle Busch finished 11th, recovering from a pit road speeding penalty and on-track dust-ups with front-row starter William Byron (21st on Sunday) and Bubba Wallace (28th).

Scoring points in both the first and second stages, Jimmie Johnson finished 19th in the debut of new crew chief Cliff Daniels and made up 12 points on Ryan Newman, who ran 25th after a flat tire forced an unscheduled pit stop, and a subsequent loose wheel compounded the problem. Newman and Johnson head for next Sunday’s race at Michigan tied for 16th, the last Playoff-eligible position.