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RAPID REACTION: GEICO 500

The unpredictability of restrictor plate racing that excites fans and keeps drivers on edge throughout the event produced one of the wildest races in recent years at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

Through the “big one” that collected 16 cars, an Overtime finish, and a first-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner, the 2.66-mile oval showcased all that it’s known for in the GEICO 500.

For the First Time

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. entered Talladega following the best start to a season in his career, finishing in the top-10 four times through the first nine races. He continued to demonstrate his car’s speed and strength throughout the weekend by winning the pole and capturing his first career victory.

Through 157 starts, the 29-year-old’s best result of second came twice at Bristol in 2014 and 2016. He has performed well at Talladega before, scoring his first career top-five at the track in October 2013.

The improved performance out of Roush-Fenway Racing this season allowed the No. 17 Ford to remain up front throughout the race. Stenhouse Jr. then made the right move on the last lap to pass Kyle Busch and celebrate in Victory Lane.

The ‘Big One’ Strikes

The GEICO 500 was relatively clean for much of the afternoon before trouble struck with 20 laps to go. While running second, Chase Elliott received a bump from behind by AJ Allmendinger, and it sent Elliott spinning into the oncoming pack.

Both Elliott’s and Allmendinger’s cars were lifted off the ground, with Elliott’s landing on all four-wheels and Allmendinger’s resting on its lid. 

Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski had three of the strongest cars in the field and were also among the drivers collected. Keselowski and Harvick made repairs and continued, but last October’s Talladega winner Logano went to the garage.

All competitors involved walked away safely.

Making the Right Call

Green flag pit stops are challenging at restrictor plate tracks as teams must communicate with other crews to ensure multiple cars pit at the same time to allow for drafting help off of pit road.

Kyle Busch worked this strategy to perfection during his final stop of the day as he went from running outside the top-10 to leading once all cars cycled through.

Busch maintained the top spot until the final lap when Stenhouse Jr. passed by, and he was unable to challenge for the lead again, ultimately placing third.

Not His Day

After narrowly avoiding the 16-car crash on Lap 169, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked to be in a position to contend for the victory in the closing laps.

However, once the race resumed, he reported a loose wheel and made an unscheduled pit stop that put him a lap down. When the second to last caution came out with 10 laps to go, he earned the free pass and a chance to mount a final charge to the front.

With the field running three and four-wide ahead of him, he was unable to make up much ground and finished 22nd.

He will now have one final opportunity to capture a seventh victory at his best track on the schedule when the series returns to Talladega in October.

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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

RAPID REACTION: A Tale of Two Lanes

A weekend that featured the bottom lane’s revival, rain and a Monday edition of the Food City 500 delivered one of the most competitive races at Bristol Motor Speedway in many years.

Multiple drivers seemed capable of winning, but Jimmie Johnson prevailed for his second consecutive victory in 2017 and 82nd career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win.

Back on Top

Following an uncharacteristic slow start to the year, Johnson has returned to the level of dominance that led to his record-tying seventh championship last season.

A strong performance at Texas showed that the No. 48 car wasn’t lacking speed and Johnson’s second career Bristol victory places him among the top performers of 2017.

It marks quite the turnaround for Johnson as he now joins Brad Keselowski as the only multi-race winners through eight events.

A Tale of Two Lanes

Prior to race weekend, Bristol applied a VHT resin to the bottom lane of the turns to improve grip in the groove that was once the preferred line around the track. The speedway did the same before last August but expanded the groove where the VHT was applied this year.

This grip provided drivers with two main racing grooves including the top lane that had become the favored line to take around the track after Bristol altered its surface in 2012.

Some drivers primarily used the bottom lane, some used the top, and a majority used both throughout the race. When Johnson made the race winning pass around Kevin Harvick following the restart with 32 laps to go, he stuck to the bottom while Harvick ran the top, ultimately giving Johnson the lead and win.

While the grip in the bottom lane brought back glimpses of the old Bristol, it ultimately created a new style of competition at the half-mile as two lanes were successfully used for much of the event.

Nearing Victory

A second-place finish for Clint Bowyer marked his best performance since finishing second at Richmond in April 2013.

It has been a long time since the Stewart-Haas Racing driver was this competitive and confident behind the wheel. Claiming the runner-up spot marks his second top-five and fourth top-10 finish of the season.

He hasn’t finished worse than 13th in the last seven events, showing the No. 14 team’s strength and his ability to adapt to a new team quickly.

Some of Bowyer’s best tracks are ahead on the schedule which will likely make him a favorite to break his winless drought that spans over four years.

Costly Penalties

Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. had two of the best cars in the field on Monday. Larson led 202 laps, and Truex Jr. paced the field for 116 circuits. However, both were caught speeding on pit road late in the race and shuffled back in the field.

Instead of battling up front as the laps counted down, both had ground to make up. While they each came home with top-10 finishes, they likely would have challenged Johnson for the win in the closing laps without the speeding penalties.

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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

RAPID REACTION: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson passed Joey Logano with 16 laps to go, en route to the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 victory.

One-Groove Show

Although Texas Motor Speedway officials tried to get rubber laid down via running multiple laps with their tire machine, it was a one-groove affair with everybody fighting for the bottom. There were some position changes, but only due to a competitor missing their marks and sliding up off the corner. As the race closed, a second lane developed in turns three and four, with passes in the closing stages.

Even left annoyed today, fans should be patient – the track should improve with age, and produce great racing.

Hendrick Motorsports

While Chase Elliott has five top-10’s in seven races, his teammates have struggled. Between Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne, they have only three top-10’s in the first five events. Entering Sunday, it appeared that Hendrick Motorsports would continue on that path, given poor starting positions. However, they all found a way to the front, with three placing in the top-10.

Texas Motor Speedway has always treated the organization well, and the momentum should carry to Bristol Motor Speedway, where all but Kahne scored a top-10 last year, including Earnhardt’s runner-up finish.

Put me in Coach

As things are heading up-hill for Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing wishes something would go their way. After sweeping both events in 2016, they failed to contend for victory this year. Matt Kenseth ran up front most of Stage 1, while Kyle Busch briefly cracked the top-10 mid-race.

Now six races into 2017, the foursome has scored only three top-fives. Daniel Suaraz was expected to struggle as a rookie, but based on last seasons results, the other three weren’t expected to.

Some may say it is too early to panic, but for a team that dominated throughout last year, there could be concern two months into the year. Perhaps focusing on last year’s championship run caused them to fall behind, not learning about the new package.

The next two events at Bristol and Richmond International Raceway will be a big test after Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch dominated both trips there last year.

One Hit Wonder?

Ryan Newman has a win, which puts him into the post-season playoffs ultimately – but not much has happened outside that.

Outside of the victory, they only have two top-10’s – eighth at Martinsville due to Newman, and fifth at Daytona International Speedway by Paul Menard. Surprising considering Austin Dillon ended off last year as someone people suspected to score his first career win soon with 13 top-10’s in 2016.

Sunday’s race at Texas proved pitiful for them with the best finish being Newman’s 26th. Dillon went to the garage on Lap 1 with a track bar issue, while Menard went to the pits on Lap 184.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

RAPID REACTION: A New-Man in Victory Lane

In the month of March, it seems as if everyone is talking about the unexpected winners. As the drivers of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drove into Arizona, you could say an upset stole the show.

Newman Wins

For the first time since 2013, Ryan Newman and Richard Childress Racing are victorious, after leading just two laps.

Newman and his team overall had a quiet day, running inside the top-15. Late in the race, he had worked his way into the top-10, but during the race’s final caution, they decided to make a big move.

Along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Martin Truex Jr, Newman stayed out, giving him the lead for the last restart. He then held a charge from Kyle Larson to get the win.

Oh The Irony

After a pit road scuffle last weekend, it looked like Kyle Busch was going to get his redemption in Phoenix. After taking the lead on Lap 194, the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion took control of the race and didn’t look back. With 15 to go, Busch held a 2.5-second lead and looked to be coasting to victory, but that changed quickly.

With five laps to go, a caution came out as a result of Joey Logano blowing a tire. Recall it was Logano whom Busch fought against last week.

During the race’s final caution, Busch and his team lost the race off pit road to Kyle Larson. Also, Busch also lost additional track position with drivers staying out, forcing him to restart fifth. During the final two laps, he’d only be able to fight back to third.

Speeding Leads to Long Day For Logano

Two weeks ago in Atlanta, Kevin Harvick had a dominant effort cut short after a speeding penalty. Two weeks later, a speeding penalty was a burden to yet another driver’s day.

Logano, who led all but one lap in Stage 1 of Sunday’s Camping World 500, was sent to the rear of the field during a caution early on in Stage 2, after being caught too fast entering.  Logano fought back to run in the top-10, but a blown right front tire resulted in a 31st place finish for the 26-year-old.

Second Again

In what’s becoming a reoccurring theme, Kyle Larson finished second for the fourth time in the last five races.

The 24-year-old ran up front all day and looked to be in a position to get a win late, restarting fourth for the Overtime finish, the highest of anyone who came down pit road for two tires. With fresher tires and the preferred lane, Larson seemed to be in a position to take the lead. Unfortunately, contact with Stenhouse held him up, and he’d have to settle for another runner-up.

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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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Commentary

RAPID REACTION: A Chaotic Final Lap

A wild and unpredictable Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway kicked off the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season on Sunday afternoon.

As drivers climbed back behind-the-wheel for the first time since November, aggressive driving defined the exhibition race as many bold moves were made throughout the event. This competition produced numerous crashes, exciting racing, and chaotic moments.

A Chaotic Final Lap

The drama peaked on the last lap as the hard-charging Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano worked their way to the front after running mid-pack for much of the final segment. As race leader Denny Hamlin attempted to block the progress of Keselowski and Logano in Turn 1 and 2, contact ensued.

Hamlin came down in front of Keselowski, sending the No. 11 FedEx Toyota spinning and hindering Keselowski’s momentum. However, Logano avoided the trouble, launched into the lead, and captured his first career victory in the Clash.

Teamwork Tested

Joe Gibbs Racing’s teams worked together throughout the Clash and executed a strategy similar to the 2016 DAYTONA 500. The JGR cars dominated the “Great American Race” last February by running together up front for a majority of the event and leading 154 of the 200 laps. For many of the final 50 laps on Sunday, they repeated this approach, and it nearly delivered another Daytona victory.

Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and Matt Kenseth paced the field up until the final lap as they raced nose-to-tail. Kyle Busch kept pace at times but was unable to remain in line with his teammates as he battled approaching cars.

When the cars began to shuffle with two laps to go, the JGR train broke up as the Team Penske duo along with Kevin Harvick closed in. While JGR’s strategy to run together worked for a majority of the event, it fell apart in the final laps and ultimately cost the organization a fourth consecutive victory in the Clash.

Busch avoided Hamlin’s spinning car on the last lap and went on to finish second. Suarez came home eighth, Kenseth 11th, and Hamlin 13th after a strong day.

Trouble for Seven-Time

When Jimmie Johnson last competed in a race, he captured the victory and 2016 championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, his day didn’t go as well on Sunday. He was involved in the first two cautions of the race, both featuring crashes off Turn 4.

While exiting the final turn on Lap 17, Johnson’s car broke loose and spun Kurt Busch into the outside wall. Johnson suffered minimal damage, but the accident ended Busch’s day.

On Lap 50, Johnson lost control again coming off Turn 4 and spun by himself, hitting the inside wall. This ended Johnson’s day and raised questions about why the No. 48 car experienced such loose conditions exiting the final turn.

His trouble appeared similar to what took his teammates Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of last year’s DAYTONA 500 after they were both involved in separate incidents coming off the final turn.

Where Did They Come From?

Hamlin’s ill-timed block in Turn 1 on the final lap led to contact and a spin and halted the momentum of drivers running the bottom line. However, it transformed into an advantage for competitors racing along the top as they propelled forward and gained multiple positions.

Alex Bowman went from seventh to third in Turn 2 while Danica Patrick catapulted from 10th to fourth. Both had quiet performance in the Clash but remained in position throughout the race and were rewarded at the end by the luck factor that often plays a crucial role in restrictor plate racing.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

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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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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.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @NASCARJason

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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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Rapid Reaction: Johnson Clinches Ticket as JGR Feuds and SHR Fumbles

Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway opened the Round of 8 for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, and it was a hungry Jimmie Johnson stealing the show from the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. Some Chasers now find themselves with a large deficit to overcome while others are sitting pretty.

Now, with just three races remaining in the season, the pressure only continues to mount.

 

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Lack of Speed

Stewart-Haas Racing had a miserable day at the racetrack.

The two remaining SHR Chase-eligible drivers, Kevin Harvick (20th), and Kurt Busch (22nd) were nowhere close to being competitive. Harvick is now sixth in the standings and Busch trails him in seventh.

For Busch, the problem seems to be speed. In the past 12 races, he has posted only four top-10s and the No. 41 team has done nothing to reverse the trend even though they have managed to be one of the final eight teams.

For Harvick, there is more hope. Three of the last four years, he has gone on to win at Phoenix International Raceway, and make it to the final round of the Chase every year since its installment in 2014.

Danica Patrick finished 24th, and Tony Stewart finished 26th after qualifying sixth.

 

Joe Gibbs Racing Stellar, minus Edwards

With the four Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing representing half of the remaining Chasers, the field was chasing Denny Hamlin (third), Matt Kenseth (fourth), and Kyle Busch (fifth) for much of the day. All three drivers led laps and showed  potential to navigate their way to the next round. If any of the three drivers above is disappointed, it would be Denny Hamlin, who was the leader before Jimmie Johnson passed him on Lap 409.

Carl Edwards was the big loser today. While running inside the top 10 around Lap 357, he blew a right-front tire and hammered the wall. It essentially ended his day and spoiled a solid effort put forth by the No. 19 team. He went behind the wall to make repairs, and eventually returned to the track, but finished a dismal 36th. He is eighth in the standings.

The problem Joe Gibbs Racing now faces is at least one of their drivers will not make it to Homestead-Miami Speedway to compete for the championship by way of the Jimmie Johnson win today. Teamwork goes up to a certain point, but in the end, each driver will need to do what is best for them.

 

Two Legends Make (Supposed) Last Martinsville Appearance

Both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart made their scheduled final appearance at Martinsville Speedway, a track where they each found success.

Stewart made 34 career starts at the paperclip, with three wins, 17 top 10s, and 10 top 5s. Stewart was bounced in the first round of this year’s Chase after his improbable victory at Sonoma in June. Stewart has three races remaining before he retires from Sprint Cup racing, as Clint Bowyer is set to pilot the No. 14 next season.

For Jeff Gordon, Martinsville was his best racetrack. He was a winner nine times in 47 starts, with 38 top 10s, and 29 top 5s. Gordon retired at the end of last season, but stepped in the No. 88 ride this season, subbing for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he has said he has no plans to return to the driver’s seat as Alex Bowman will take over the No. 88 for the rest of the year.

 

Johnson Still Writing Resume

Jimmie Johnson will race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for a record-tying seventh career NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in three weeks.

Before today, Johnson had never made it to the championship round.

The race wasn’t without obstacles for the No. 48 team. He and Denny Hamlin made contact early in the event, race, leading to cosmetic damage for Johnson’s crew to take care of in the pits. Later in the race during a 29-lap caution (yes, you read that right), Johnson lost fuel pressure and stalled on the track before pitting. He restarted fourth and took over the lead on Lap 409.

With the win, Jimmie Johnson tied Jeff Gordon for the most wins at Martinsville Speedway with nine wins.

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

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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: Logano Scores Victory as Two Contenders Go Up in Smoke

Talladega Superspeedway never disappoints – and the Hellmann’s 500 Sunday afternoon was no exception. As the Round of 12 concluded, unexpected problems struck several playoff contenders. Some were able to rebound from their adversity, while others suffered issues too big to overcome. Nevertheless, the Chase is unforgiving, and four drivers were cut from their championships hopes.

From the Bottom to the Top

From the drop of the green flag, it was apparent Penske Racing driver Joey Logano had a strong car. However, less than 50 laps into the race, the driver suffered a significant error during a green flag pit stop. The jack became jammed into the side of his No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford as he darted from his pit stall. The team was hit with a penalty for removing equipment outside of the stall and forced to come back and remove it. Fortunately, a caution came out a lap later for Martin Truex Jr. blowing a motor, allowing him to remain on the lead lap.

Heading into the event, Logano was already in jeopardy of being cut in the playoffs – tied with Austin Dillon for the final transfer spot in eighth. He and his team knew they not only needed to survive the treacherous track, but also score a solid finish. They excelled in both. Logano drafted through the pack and as the laps came to a close, he soon found himself in the lead. After a caution placed the event in overtime, the driver held on to the lead and grabbed his second victory at the 2.5-mile track.

 

Farewell to Four

As aforementioned, Talladega served as the final battleground of the Contender Round – and when the checkered flag flew, four were eliminated from the playoffs.

Brad Keselowski, like his teammate, knew he needed a stellar finish to advance to the next round. Luckily, Talladega is known to be one of his best tracks. While the driver led a race-high 90 laps, engine issues struck on Lap 146, abruptly ending the team’s impressive performance.

Martin Truex Jr. also suffered from similar problems. As mentioned previously, the engine in his No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota blew up on Lap 42, ending his day prematurely.

Chase Elliott was cut from the playoffs after finishing 12th. The rookie started from the fourth position and led nine laps. However, his car faded during the second half and ended the team’s first championship run.

Finally, Austin Dillon’s championship hopes ended in the result of a tiebreaker with Denny Hamlin. As the two jockeyed for position on the track, they found themselves within a few points of each other. When the event concluded, they were tied. The rules set the playoff tiebreaker to be the best finish within the round. The event happened to be Hamlin’s best as he beat Kurt Busch by inches at the line and score a third-place finish – which was what he needed to advance. Notably, Dillon’s best finish of the Round of 12 was sixth last week at Kansas.

 

Tension but No Turmoil

As the laps ticked down, the well-known stress of the door-to-door pack racing returned. Talladega is known to be a time-bomb for carnage – culminating in the last laps, as driver patience thins. However, while there were two cautions within the final ten laps, the event Sunday did not feature an overwhelming multi-car accident.

However, the ending was still exhilarating – watching a pack of professionals battle for position in the closing moments. It was proof while wrecks are a staple to restrictor plate racing, they are not necessary for the end of a great race.

 

Toyota Prominent in Round of 8

As the Round of 8 begins, the playoff field is becoming more competitive – and the championship is just around the corner. However, one can’t help but notice Toyota comprises half of the eight contenders, which continues the trend of Toyota’s newfound dominance in the series this year. The team still owns the most manufacturer wins of the season, and now the entirety of Joe Gibbs Racing is still in championship contention.

As a result, this increases the odds one of their drivers will be a part of the championship-deciding round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, perhaps two of them. Regardless, one cannot deny the impressive performance from the foreign manufacturer in 2016.

 

EMAIL STEPHANIE AT stephanie.adair@popularspeed.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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

RAPID REACTION: Harvick Continues to Thrive in Squeamish Chase Situations

Kevin Harvick won the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday and will advance to the Round of 8 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship for the third year in a row.

The Kansas victory is his fourth of the season and second of the Chase; his first Chase win came at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last month.

Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards looked like the class of the field at the mile-and-a-half track, leading 116 and 61 laps respectively, but the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 was able to seal the deal in the end.

He and Jimmie Johnson are the two drivers that have won in the Round of 12 and will go to Talladega Superspeedway without sweat dripping down their backs with the fear of elimination at the 2.66-mile speedway.

NASCAR’s Most Clutch Driver?

You can certainly make that argument for Harvick. He was in must-win situations at Phoenix International Raceway in 2014 and Dover International Speedway in 2015 and took the checkered flags in both races. Now, he’s a Kansas winner in 2016.

Although Kansas isn’t an elimination race, it’s treated as one because of the unpredictability that Talladega notoriously produces. Harvick will go to the 500-mile event with an eased mind and a weight lifted off his shoulders — a weight that six other drivers will have the burden of bearing.

Sliding Out of Chase Contention?

Brad Keselowski got loose on the exit of Turn 4 on Lap 190 and with the unintentional help of Denny Hamlin, the driver he was passing, his No. 2 spun and slid through through the frontstretch grass, tearing the front fenders right off the Team Penske Ford.

Keselowski will head to Talladega 11 points behind the Chase cutoff. He’s not in a must-win situation but remember — he won this race two years ago when his back was against the wall in the 2014 Chase to keep his season alive. Can the Blue Deuce driver get it done again?

Elliott’s Lead Goes Up In Smoke

Chase Elliott took the lead from Harvick just past the halfway point, but it was short lived. After a cycle of green-flag stops, the No. 24 began to emit smoke from the left rear tire and was forced to pit.

Elliott restarted deep in the field and scraped the wall a couple of times as he was stuck in traffic. With 23 laps to go, he had a second rear tire failure and made another trip to pit road. The 20-year-old driver led four laps on the day but finished three laps down in 31st place.

The driver who won two of the first three poles at restrictor plate tracks this season will look to rebound next week at the final plate race of 2016. He’s 25 points behind the cutoff for eighth in the standings so he’ll need to stay out of trouble and hope for luck to go his way if he wants to make the third playoff round.

Talladega Hopefuls

Austin Dillon, Hamlin, Elliott, and Keselowski are the drivers looking from outside into the Chase. Keselowski has four career wins at the upcoming track, including the spring race earlier this year. Hamlin, this season’s Daytona 500 winner, has one career victory at ‘Dega and first-year Chasers Dillon and Elliott are still looking for their first career Cup win.

Talladega is the wild card race of the Chase for the championship. “The Big One” is inevitable at NASCAR’s largest superspeedway and if the crash fest that occurred in spring race is any indication of how the upcoming race will be, then everyone except Johnson and Harvick will be on edge in the week leading up to the Alabama 500.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.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 or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary NASCAR Cup Series

RAPID REACTION: Daytime Drama

CONCORD, N.C. – The Chase’s lone night race turned into a midday melee at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Questionable weather conditions force the sanctioning body to move the Sprint Cup Series event to Sunday afternoon for the second year in a row. This decision threw teams for a loop and led to plot twists no one expected.

As Jimmie Johnson outran Matt Kenseth for the coveted Chase-securing victory, others didn’t fare as well. For many, the first race of round two raised more questions than it answered. That makes the next two weeks kind of interesting.

Here are some rapid reactions from Charlotte’s Chase race.

Pencil in some cautions?

Moving the race to the daytime was a decision NASCAR had to make to keep fans safe. Good karma repaid them with a chaotic event, which had a total of eight cautions. The move to Sunday afternoon made every team’s setup useless, and it was all about who could adapt the best.

The current aero package doesn’t favor night races, and Sunday proved that. Afternoon heat caused a lot of side-by-side racing, yet some weren’t impressed with the action.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said, “I thought it was going to be a lot better, but it wasn’t actually much fun. It was single-file, much like a night race here.”

Nevertheless, it was an entertaining afternoon, to say the least.

Rough start to Round of Twelve

No Chase driver was safe from Charlotte’s wrath; five championship-eligible racers suffered issues, ranging from accidents to blown engines.

Kevin Harvick locked himself into round three with his New Hampshire victory, and good thing, too. The No. 4 team’s day started off strong but came to a screeching halt when problems with the electronic control unit arose. The finished relegated the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion to a 38th-place finish.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver fell off the pace on lap 155, but Joey Logano hit the wall as the caution flew. It was the second time the No. 22 got in the wall – but the Team Penske car could not fix the damage. Logano finished 36th.

Two other drivers – Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon – ended up in the garage as well; Martin Truex, Jr. hit Dillon’s bumper on a late restart and caused an accident that involved 12 cars. The No. 3 collected others, including the No. 24. Elliott and Dillon’s days were decent in their respective ways, yet their Chase hopes are now hanging by a thread.

Denny Hamlin is no stranger to playoff season issues, and he joined other Chasers in battling harsh circumstances; while running second with less than 50 to go, his engine failed. It was a shocking development, given Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance throughout the season. The 2016 Daytona 500 champion and four fellow competitors find themselves in compromising positions just one race into the second round.

Chasers who?

With various championship contenders struggling, the door opened for under-the-radar drivers to pull off strong days.

Kasey Kahne, who’s found consistency as of late, credited crew chief Keith Rodden with his third-place finish, saying, “We were bouncing a bit, so we struggled with that. Keith made the right adjustments to get me off my right front, and that helped a lot during the last three or four runs of the race.”

Larson is still fighting for wins despite his elimination from the Chase field. His attributes the No. 42 team’s speed for the top five effort.

“We’ve had fifth to 10th place speed the last couple of months, but we haven’t had the luck to go with it,” he said, adding, “Today was good; we got some bad luck in the beginning of the race when our tire came apart, but we fought back to the lead lap and got a top five. I’m good with that.”

Ryan Newman failed to make the Chase Grid but keeps pulling off impressive finishes; he brought the No. 31 home fourth. Other non-Chasers who filled out the top 10 include Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray.

Hendrick power shines again

If anyone doubted Johnson would be a major player for the 2016 championship, he proved them wrong on Sunday He took Hendrick Motorsports to victory lane after leading 155 laps throughout the afternoon. The Chevrolet organization is flexing its muscle at the right time, with its other three cars also recent contenders. Elliott led 103 laps before the wreck, Kahne finished strong, and Alex Bowman was in the top 10 when his accident took place.

You can say HMS was sandbagging throughout the entire regular season. You might be right – but they call it “strategy,” and it’s a strategy they do very, very well. All four cars have the ability to win in the next six races, and that should scare the other 36 cars on the track.

EMAIL KRISTEN AT kristen.schneider@popularspeed.com

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