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NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth, Bowman Lose Crucial Phoenix Race With Two to go

AVONDALE, Ariz. — For the first 318 laps of the Can-Am 500, which was extended 12 laps beyond its advertised 312-lap distance, it looked like either Alex Bowman or Matt Kenseth would be the driver to beat.

Bowman, a Tucson, Ariz. native won the pole at his home track, Phoenix International Raceway, and dominated in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 by leading a career-high 194 laps.

Kenseth, who entered Sunday’s race as of one the eight Chase contenders, led 55 laps but a caution with two laps remaining took away what would have been a Homestead-clinching victory at the desert oval.

By Lap 311, Kenseth had built nearly a three-second lead over second-place Bowman. But the caution flag flew when the right rear tire of Michael McDowell’s No. 95 went flat and sent the car sideways into the Turn 3 wall.

Kenseth’s enormous lead was eliminated, and this meant a double-file restart would ensue.

For the green-white-checkered restart, Kenseth picked the outside lane and Bowman was on the bottom. Bowman spun the tires and blocked Kyle Busch entering Turn 1. Busch tapped the No. 88’s bumper, which sent him into the corner with extra momentum.

Bowman got into Kenseth, who had a strong restart and tried to clear the No. 88 going into the turn. Kenseth’s No. 20 spun into the retaining wall as a result of contact, and both racers lost a chance at the win.

“I almost feel like the No. 20 thought he was clear,” Bowman said of the incident. “I wasn’t at the best angle, but I was also against the inside wall when we made contact. I guess he heard something on the radio that he thought he was clear.”

The 23-year-old Arizonan finished sixth — a career high in NASCAR’s premier series, but he wasn’t satisfied with the result.

“I hate taking someone out of the Chase like that, it ruined our day, too,” Bowman said. “There’s no way we should have finished sixth or whatever. That’s the worst we were all day. It’s just frustrating.”

As for Kenseth, he lost his aspirations of a third win in 2016 and second Cup title in the blink of an eye.

“We had a great day going until we got crashed with two to go,” Kenseth told POPULAR SPEED. “It’s really a disappointing result, but the effort was there. We had them right where we wanted them, but you also have to finish the deal.”

Kenseth said his spotter, Chris Osborne, cleared him entering Turn 1 on the restart.

“The No. 88 was laying way, way back for that restart, more than a car would, so I got going early on purpose, and I looked at him at the start-finish line and I thought we were doing OK,” Kenseth told the Motor Racing Network. “It looked like he had a little run on me, maybe not, and shortly thereafter Chris cleared me so with the glare I started looking to the corner, and I got turned out of the way.”

He ended up 21st, and the best he can finish in the Chase standings is fifth. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Busch, finished second and took what could have been Kenseth’s spot in the Chase finale next week.

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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 or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

RAPID REACTION: A Costly Caution

The current Chase for the Sprint Cup format has created some of the most intense moments in Chase history over the last two seasons. While the first seven races of the playoffs in 2016 haven’t been defined by the same level of drama, the Can-Am 500 delivered on the missing thrills.

With six drivers battling for two positions in the Championship 4, every position mattered more than ever and strategy fueled many last-ditch efforts to remain alive in the Chase. When a late race caution came out, it changed everything and led to two wild restarts to close out the Round of 8 and set the field for the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Late Race Luck

As the Can-Am 500 entered the final ten laps, Joey Logano’s championship hopes were in jeopardy as the faster cars of Alex Bowman, Kyle Buschand Kevin Harvick closed in. Bowman and Busch eventually passed the No. 22 car, putting Logano in trouble as losing another spot to Harvick would eliminate him from title contention.

When the caution came out with two laps to go, Logano caught his first of two lucky breaks as he looked to earn a Championship 4 spot. A second break came when Matt Kenseth crashed during the first Overtime attempt, taking one title contender out of contention.

A strong restart on the second attempt at Overtime propelled Logano to the victory and a spot in the title race. In the final two laps, Logano’s championship hopes went from dismal to bright as he capitalized on the restarts to avoid elimination in the Chase.

A Costly Caution

While the late yellow-flag helped Logano, it hurt Matt Kenseth. Kenseth secured the lead following a quick pit stop with less than 50 laps to go. He pulled away from the field and looked to be in a position to make the Championship 4 for the first time in his career.

However, the caution with two laps to go changed everything. When the race resumed, Kyle Busch dived low beneath the No. 88 heading into Turn 1 which forced Bowman up the track and into Kenseth, sending him into the wall and bringing his title hopes to an abrupt end.

Without the late yellow flag, Kenseth likely would have won the race and advanced to Homestead-Miami. He went from the top spot to a 21st-place finish in minutes, and will now watch as Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano duel for the championship next weekend.

Unable to Deliver

Kevin Harvick was the clear favorite for victory on Sunday as a result of his dominance at Phoenix in recent years. He needed the win to advance to the championship race as he entered the race 18 points below the cutoff line.

However, Harvick was unable to perform as well as many expected. The No. 4 car struggled for most of the day and Harvick didn’t lead a single lap at Phoenix for the first time since March 2013. He gained ground late, but it wasn’t enough as he finished fourth and was eliminated from championship contention before Homestead-Miami for the first time under this Chase format.

Substitute Strength

Alex Bowman has impressed many in his substitute role Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season. He and the No. 88 team produced their best performance of the season at Phoenix as they showed speed and had the most dominant car in the field.

After capturing the pole, Bowman led a race-high 194 laps and remained up front throughout the afternoon. His performance was even more impressive as he out ran all of the Chase contenders for most of the event, many of who needed to perform well to remain alive in the title hunt.

Now this team will look to upset the field again at Homestead-Miami as they hope to close out the season on a high note.

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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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Hamlin Seeks While Teammates Hide in Talladega

Joe Gibbs gave Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards a theoretical afternoon off, but Denny Hamlin worked a little more than three hours of overtime and secured himself a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Round of 8.

Hamlin overcame an early pit road penalty and beat Kurt Busch to the line to garner the final transfer spot. The points tally forced a tie with Austin Dillon, but Hamlin got the nod for achieving the highest finishing position in the Round of 12.

Hamlin’s teammates had a different agenda, though.

On the final pace lap, the JGR trio dropped to the back of the field and rode together for a majority of the race. It was a planned strategy to insulate themselves from a potential Talladega “Big One” – and that plan came together well.

Hamlin knew he was going to be on his own, in a race where teammates can typically serve as a strong asset, but understood that self-preservation served the greater good of the organization.

“Yeah, I knew they were (going to ride in the back), but they had to do what they had to do to get in,” he said. “You can’t sacrifice those three cars to try to get the last one in. You’ve got to know you’ve got in your hand three aces. You can’t try to get the fourth and risk it, so I knew I was going to be out there alone, but I found the guys that I worked with and stuck with them, and it all worked out.”

So how hard was it for a race car driver not to race?

Matt Kenseth was the highest secured JGR driver in the standings but knew the strategy had Homestead written all over it.

“It goes against everything you ever want to do as a race car driver,” he said. “You want to go try to win races, so I think it’s just kind of an unintended consequence of the way – being the cutoff race and the way the Chase works. You can’t afford to go up there and get wrecked and not have a chance to race for a championship, so it was just kind of the cards we were dealt and we had to play them. I don’t think any of us had any fun and none of us enjoyed, but it was just what we had to do to make sure we got to Martinsville and trying to race four more weeks and hopefully have a shot at the four of us trying to race for a championship.”

The next three races will set the stage for the season finale, but Talladega may just serve as a key for a Joe Gibbs Racing team to leave Miami a Champion.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Truex, Joe Gibbs Racing Find Trouble in Inspection

Everybody knows things can go chaotic at Talladega Superspeedway, but it’s starting out more chaotic than Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing planned as they found themselves in the midst of a firestorm during Sprint Cup qualifying.

The pre-qualifying inspection didn’t go as planned for Truex Jr. as they had a front load bolt confiscated away from them by NASCAR. NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller said it’s unlikely Truex will get a penalty as a result of the infraction.

“They had a jack bolt that we didn’t feel like met specifications that we have in the rule book, not a real competitive advantage,” Miller said. “What we will do is take it back to the R&D Center, go thru our normal process like we do, analyzing everything and see what we’re going to do. It’s no different than the JGR cars that failed the templates. It’s our job to officiate the sport, and this is no different than any other weekend.”

If Truex does garner a penalty, the rulebook states it’d be of P3 level, which would be a loss of 15 championship driver and owner points, a $20,000 to $50,000 fine, suspension for the crew and/or any team members for one or more races and/or probation for those team members.

After changing the part and going back through inspection, Truex went on to score the pole in qualifying.

“It’s just a front jack screw that was – when they drilled the top down to put the – I guess they broach the hex in the top so you can put the wedge wrench in there and it’s just a little too deep,” Truex explained. “It wasn’t a big issue. It wasn’t a hollow jack screw like some people are saying on Twitter. It was just a part that was machined a little bit wrong I guess is what the team told me and they don’t think it’s a big issue. Obviously, it’s not affected our speed any, so that’s good and proud of the guys. The Bass Pro Toyota is really fast, and I didn’t know what to expect here today, so we just did some race stuff yesterday, but guys did a good job getting the car ready and be cool to get a pole here at Talladega.”

Truex Jr. enters Sunday’s race at Talladega sitting seventh in points, 13 points ahead of Austin Dillon for the last transfer spot. He finished 13th at Charlotte, followed by an 11th at Kansas following issues getting his No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota Camry full of fuel. The Furniture Row Racing driver has had success at Talladega previously, posting eight top-10s in 23 starts.

Meanwhile, three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars got through inspection, but got pulled off pit road and sent back through by NASCAR officials due to not passing visual inspection on pit road. After some usage of the hammer on the back decklid of Denny Hamlin‘s car, and a couple of adjustments by the other two teams, the drivers were allowed to return to pit road and qualify as planned. Matt Kenseth went on to qualify third, followed by Denny Hamlin in eighth and Kyle Busch in 14th.

Hamlin stood by his team with his comments, stating there’s always trying to get what they can and he appreciates their effort. Meanwhile, Busch shrugged off what happened, saying it wasn’t his problem.

“I just worry about driving and doing the best I can do there, so did everything right and we ended up exactly where we thought we were going to – 14th – so we’ll take it,” he said. “That’s fine, and we’ll go racing tomorrow and see what happens from there.”

Kenseth enters this weekend sitting the highest in the standings of his teammates, third with a 29 point gap ahead of Dillon. Busch is next in points, sitting fourth with 27 points on Dillon. Hamlin currently stands as having the most to lose as he enters this weekend sitting 10th in points, six points behind Joey Logano for the eighth and last spot.

It’s worth noting Carl Edwards in the fourth entry for JGR was not called back to the inspection line.

“I don’t know if I was unaffected – there was an emotional toll watching those cars, and I was thinking, ‘Man, I hope we’re not doing whatever is going on there,'” he said. “It looks like a Stanley hammer could fit about anything. It’s amazing that with all the technology we have that you can still bang on something with a hammer and fix it. I’m pretty excited about our Subway Camry; it seems really fast and our cars are good. Everyone has put a lot of work into this, and I’m just excited to get this race going and hopefully have a really good one. I would be great to get to victory lane.”

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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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth Makes Strides Towards Title Run at New Hampshire

The Chase for the Sprint Cup creates an even and competitive playing field each September. Although many drivers showed strength in the regular season, seeing which competitors emerge at the beginning of the Chase often determines who will succeed.

An impressive performance from Matt Kenseth on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway added his name to the list of those showing the most promise through two playoff events.

He showed potential to contend for the title at times in the first 26 races of the season, including winning performances at two Chase tracks, Dover and New Hampshire. 

However, consistency wasn’t on his side as he only had two top-10 runs in the final six regular season races. It was hard to predict how the Joe Gibbs Racing driver would fare once the Chase started, but the Bad Boy Off Road 300 shed light on the answer.

Kenseth was up front for a majority of the afternoon and consistently posed a challenge to the leaders if he wasn’t pacing the field. He led a total of 105 laps, which was second most in the field.

Many expected this solid performance from the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota team as they captured the last two victories at New Hampshire. However, nothing is guaranteed in the Chase.

“You never know what’s going to happen in these races,” Kenseth said post-race. “You never know where you’re going to finish.”

If not for late-race cautions, Kenseth likely would have cruised to Victory Lane as he excelled on long green flag runs. However, as a result of the late race yellows and ensuing restarts, he faced challenges from other Chase contenders as his car needed time to reach its peak performance.

“Short runs were not our strong suit at all today; took about 10 laps for me to really get a rhythm and get going, kind of get away from people,” Kenseth said. “Used up pretty much everything I had holding Martin off, so just disappointed we didn’t come home with it.”

Kenseth’s ability to keep pace with Martin Truex Jr. also attests to Kenseth’s position as a top title threat after New Hampshire.

Following his Chicagoland victory, Truex Jr. proved he would have a say in how the championship battle unfolded. A dominant run on Sunday from the No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota further solidified Truex Jr.’s spot as an early favorite to make the Championship 4.

One solid run is noticeable, but now Kenseth must work towards putting together multiple impressive performances, like Truex Jr. has through two races, to support his championship campaign.

The good news for Kenseth? Dover is next on the schedule, where he captured the victory in May and has 16 top-five finishes, which is most for Kenseth at any Sprint Cup track. 

While this team still isn’t guaranteed a spot in the Round of 12, Kenseth currently sits fifth in the standings and is 26 points above the cutline.

A strong Dover performance would not only advance the No. 20 team to the second round but elevate their position as a title threat. Momentum means everything in the playoffs and this run coupled with an impressive day at the “Monster Mile” would allow Kenseth to earn an early Chase advantage.

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NASCAR Cup Series

RAPID REACTION: Misery to Majesty

What’s in a Name?

Kevin Harvick didn’t get his moniker by accident. “The Closer” donned his cape in the late stages of the race to get the job done. After a start less-than-stellar start to the Chase in Chicagoland, the “Happy” one shed misery to majesty and locked himself into Round Two. Is this the start of a Championship run? Too early to tell. It was the little things like bad pit stops and penalties that bit the No. 4 team during the season. But you can never count out a champion when it’s time to crown one.

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

Ask anyone in the garage and they’ll tell you that Ryan Newman is the toughest guy to pass. He’ll race you hard and make you work for the track position, even if he’s down a lap. Today, Kenseth was the tough one to pass — but for a different reason.

Today’s runner-up is arguably the best defensive in the series. When he wants to keep a spot, he’ll likely keep it. It’s called “stealing the line.” Kenseth can gauge his follower’s weak points on the track and make him drive there. Such was the case with Martin Truex, Jr. The ability to coax another driver into a space he can’t go is an art form. While Truex ultimately got the spot, he used up a lot of rubber doing it.

Fear of Commitment

With the caliber of drivers in the Chase, it’s going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. You have to be nearly mistake-free if you want to wear that crown in Homestead.

Carl Edwards’ commitment line penalty sent him to the rear of the field and caused him to restart his day. While ultimately finishing 6th, who knows what might have been if Cousin Carl didn’t get nabbed.

Thanks for Showing Up Again

Not really Chase-related, but what’s up with Kasey Kahne? Four consecutive top-ten finishes for the No. 5 team. They’re probably the hottest team in the series that nobody talks about. But, as the cliche goes, better late than never — especially when young William Byron is going to need someplace to eventually sit.

Bowman the Showman

Alex Bowman is regularly part of the conversation. Filling in for Dale Jr and sharing the duties with Jeff Gordon raised the bar nearly beyond reach. But Bowman can touch it standing on his tippy-toes.

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Commentary

In NASCAR’s Chase, Everyone Has A Part to Play

NASCAR is unique among American sports leagues, especially when it comes to the playoffs. Whether it be Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NHL or the NBA, once the end of the regular season comes, it is only those few teams who have clinched a playoff berth that continue. For the rest, they can pack up the gear and unpack the golf clubs as the off-season has begun.

Last weekend in Richmond, the Sprint Cup regular season came to a close, and the sixteen drivers who will compete for a championship were determined. (The XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series Chases will be finalized this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.) In other sports, those teams would be the only ones to compete for the remainder of the season. Not so in NASCAR.

Through the final races of 2016, every team that can qualify for a race will continue to compete and could still have an impact. While logic might suggest those capable of winning an individual race might have already done so through the course of the regular season or at least been consistent enough to make it into the Chase on points, there will be those in the field ready to play spoiler and could have a huge impact on the Chase.

Take, for example, Ryan Blaney. The driver of the No21 Wood Brothers Ford may not have been able to point his way into the Chase, but it wouldn’t be impossible to envision Blaney becoming another rookie to grab their first Cup win before season’s end. With a win in the playoffs allowing for Chase drivers to advance to the next round, a Blaney win could be a huge barrier for someone struggling in points who needs a win to keep their championship hopes alive.

At the same time, a non-Chase driver could end up having an adverse impact on the Chase. Imagine a scenario in which Matt DiBenedetto blows a tire at Dover and begins a wreck that includes Kyle Busch. Without meaning to, DiBenedetto could end Busch’s championship defense in the first round.

Of course, that’s not to say drivers couldn’t or wouldn’t intentionally derail another’s Chase chances. Last year, Matt Kenseth wrecked Joey Logano at Martinsville, ending Logano’s promising season and his chance at a championship. The incident stemmed from an earlier collision between the two drivers at Kansas, when Logano had spun Kenseth, leading to the latter’s eventual Chase elimination.

Before the first Chase race of 2016, there are already tempers flaring. Kenseth and Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski are already at odds, and no one can forget the physical fight between Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek in the truck series. There’s little doubt that Custer may have something to say about Nemechek’s chances in the Chase.

Welcome to the Chase 2016, where every driver in the field has a part to play.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Chase Can Be Unpredictable, But Numbers Point To Gibbs

Let me state the obvious here. It is clear Joe Gibbs Racing is the strongest team in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup and the championship should be won by one of its four drivers.

Not exactly breaking news, is it?

Gibbs has been the dominant team all season. All of its four drivers made the Chase and three of them – Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards – are among the top five seeds.

Busch is No. 1, Hamlin No. 3 and Edwards No. 5. Matt Kenseth is not far behind at No. 7. Combined they have won 11 of 26 races.

Let’s throw in Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing, which has a technological association with Gibbs. He is sixth in points and has two wins this season.

And it’s been a darn good year for Toyota, affiliated with Gibbs and Furniture Row.

Of the top eight drivers in the Chase, Toyotas earned five positions with the other three held by former champions.

Those five Toyota drivers have led 55.8-percent of all laps raced. And they’ve won half -13 – of the races.

However, team owner Gibbs, who is never been characterized as overconfident, warns that his drivers are among several that could win the Chase.

“I don’t think there is a favorite right now,” Gibbs said after Hamlin’s victory at Richmond. “I think everybody that’s in there is going to have a shot.

“We saw Truex last year go all the way to the final round, a single‑car team.

“All kinds of things can happen in what we’re doing here. So I think it’s the greatest reality show going.”

Gibbs has a point. If nothing else the Chase is unpredictable. But there have always been teams that enter the “playoff” with momentum while others seem to be spinning their wheels.

But, for the moment, in the opinion of some that doesn’t seem to make too much difference.

“I think that any one of these guys can get going,” Hamlin said. “You don’t know what they’ve got at the shop waiting to come to the race track. I think it’s really hard to predict what happens from this point on.

“I mean, is it a continuation of the regular season or has somebody been laying in the weeds?”

Hamlin suggested that Chip Ganassi Racing, which put both drivers, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, into the Chase for the first time, has its own momentum.

Kevin Harvick has been the points leader and the model of consistency for Stewart Haas Racing for almost the entire season, despite the fact he wasn’t a factor at Richmond.

“Larson has really stepped up his game over the last month or so,” Hamlin said. “And obviously Harvick’s car’s got great speed week in, week out, so he’s definitely going to be a challenge no doubt about it. “

Hendrick Motorsports has been a dominant team over many seasons – but not this year. Jimmie Johnson is eighth in points (and is in the Chase for the 13th time, more than any other driver) while Chase Elliott is 14th and made it on points alone – a noteworthy accomplishment for a rookie.

Johnson, who won twice this year, is out to win a seventh career title, which will tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time.

But it won’t be easy, something Johnson knows.

“It’s obvious if you win in each bracket you get to move on, but we had a great start to the Chase last year and had a simple mechanical failure that knocked us out,” he said. “I don’t know what the secret sauce is, but I know we need to be consistent and I know we need to be running in the top five, so that is our goal to start.”

Let’s be honest. We all want the Chase to be wild, wooly and filled with surprises – are you listening, Chris Buescher?

And let’s be honest again. Every Chase has the potential to be exactly what we would like to be, one that draws our unwavering interest.

There could, indeed, be a new and unexpected champion.

However, if we look at the numbers this season, it’s logical to assume that champion will be from Joe Gibbs Racing.

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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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth-Keselowski Rivalry Could Return

For Matt Kenseth, a good run at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night went wrong as a result of a blown tire. Though how the tire went down is the bigger story moving forward.

The tire went down as a result of contact from Brad Keselowski.

Coming to the green with 68 laps to go, Keselowski missed a shift on the outside of the front row, which allowed the field to get a run on him. Going into the corner while struggling to regain momentum, he overshot the corner, side swiping Kenseth, which inheriting pushed the fender in on the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry. Five laps later, the tire blew with Kenseth hitting the wall.

Knowing his night was over, and he’d finish 38th, Kenseth expressed his displeasure for his fellow competitor.

“That’s all on Brad (Keselowski), and I’m sure he’ll send a tweet out or go on a TV show and explain how it wasn’t his fault, but he knows better than that,” Kenseth said. “He knew his angle was bad, and he just drove way off in the corner because he made a mistake and he was trying to make up for it and had no respect for anybody on the outside lane. So, unfortunately, we’ve got a wrecked car because of it.”

Keselowski apologized for the contact post-race, stating he deserved the comments Kenseth had for him.

“I made a mistake, and it is crappy for everyone,” he said. “Hopefully he will accept the apology. I don’t want to miss a shift for myself, let along him. I got in the corner and just missed the corner. I was trying to get it in gear and just missed it and got him. It looks like it cut his tire, so apologies to him and his team. It isn’t anything anyone wants to see.”

While Keselowski is looking for the incident to blow over, it isn’t the first time the pair have crossed paths, with two notable events in the past two years. Who can forget Kenseth’s epic tackle of Keselowski in 2014 at Charlotte Motor Speedway? Or how about the contact on the restart at Martinsville last season?

Both drivers are qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and incidents between the pair could take them both out of contention. However, it’s not far-fetched to wonder whether history will repeat itself.

“It is racing. Anything is possible,” Keselowski commented on whether things will continue. “All I can say is I got into him, and it was my fault.”

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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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Larson Could Emerge as Sleeper Pick for Championship

Kyle Larson’s career has been defined by coming close. The 2014 Rookie of the Year finished in second-place four times and in third-place five times before breaking through for his elusive first career Sprint Cup Series victory at Michigan.

The pressure continued to mount for Larson as he often found himself in contention for the win but always seemed to fall short of Victory Lane. When he won for the first time two weeks ago, this pressure was alleviated.

Heading to Darlington as a Sprint Cup Series race winner allowed Larson to show his potential for a championship run. On one of the toughest circuits on the schedule, he shined by leading 45 laps and pulling away once out front. A third-place result attested to his strong performance and the momentum the No. 42 team is building.

Now Larson is in contention for his next career milestone, and his first opportunity will be competing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

While Larson hasn’t been the most consistent or dominant driver so far in 2016, the Chase begins a new chapter. There is often a competitor who doesn’t perform exceptionally well in the first 26 races but showed promise and comes alive in the Chase. Thus far this season, Larson fits the description. 

In 2014, it was Ryan Newman as the Richard Childress Racing team came within a half of a second of capturing the title. Last year, it was Furniture Row Racing making strides with Martin Truex Jr. and finding themselves battling for a championship at Homestead-Miami.

Larson’s success at most of the Chase tracks could make him the sleeper favorite for the title.

Chicagoland is crucial to starting the playoffs off on the right foot. Larson has made two starts at the track and finished inside of the top 10 both times. In his 2014 debut, he finished third after leading 20 laps.

The 24-year-old has two top-three finishes at New Hampshire, where consistency will be key to emerging as a threat. 

Dover may be where Larson performs best. In May, he challenged Matt Kenseth for the victory and ended up finishing second after leading 85 lapsHe has never finished outside of the top-11 at the speedway and has four consecutive top-10 results.

The Round of 12 may challenge Larson most. He hasn’t run as well at Charlotte but has a top-10 finish. Similarly, at Kansas, he hasn’t been dominant but finished second in October two years ago. Talladega will be a game of survival and merely finishing the race will be vital.

The third round is what could place Larson in the Championship 4. He finished third at Martinsville in April, has two top-10 finishes including a fifth-place result at Texas, and has a top-10 at Phoenix where he has been consistently on the verge of breaking through and excelling.

If he makes it to Homestead-Miami, he will be a threat. The No. 42 team finished fifth last November and came out on top of two championship contenders.

While he lacks the experience of most Chase contenders, the playoffs have been as wild and unpredictable as ever over the last two years. With a nearly even playing field, it will be anyone’s game and Larson is emerging as a wild card favorite for the championship. 

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