Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Facing an overtime restart with two laps left in the Hellmann's 500 on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, crew chief Slugger Labbe reminded driver Austin Dillon of the relevant numbers.
Dillon had to finish no more than five positions behind Denny Hamlin to secure a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup's Round of 8 -- as long as Hamlin didn't win the race.
Dillon had done everything right to that point. He had earned a bonus point by staying out for an extra circuit and leading Lap 117 under the second caution of the afternoon. He gained three spots after a restart on Lap 186 and was 11th when the green flag waved for the final time on Lap 191.
On the final two laps, he worked his way forward to ninth before the checkered flag ended the race. Only one problem. Hamlin beat Kurt Busch to the stripe by .006 seconds -- approximately 2 feet -- to finish third.
The two drivers finished the Round of 12 tied for eighth with 3,078 points, but Hamlin won a tiebreaker for the final Chase spot because his third-place finish on Sunday was better than Dillon's best Round-of-12 finish of sixth last week at Kansas.
"Yeah, it's really close," a disappointed Dillon said. "I guess it wasn't our day to do it. It wasn't planned for us to do that. We tried. We didn't really have enough speed all day to do much. I'm proud of my guys, and all my teammates helped me as much as they could. We just couldn't get another spot.
"We got a couple there at the end on the last little straight, but the No. 43 (Aric Almirola) was the car we needed (to beat for eighth place), and it didn't work out. Another top 10 at a speedway -- it's pretty nice to get that, but obviously not what we wanted. The No. 22 (Joey Logano) won and the No. 11 (Hamlin) finished third, so it's not what we needed, but we will take it and move on from here."
"Secret" allies help Hamlin hold Chase berth
With his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates running at the back of the field throughout Sunday's race to protect Round of 8 spots, Denny Hamlin had no obvious friends at the front of the field to help him join his teammates in the next round of the Chase.
But Hamlin revealed after finishing third behind Joey Logano and Brian Scott that he had received help from unexpected quarters in doing just enough to beat Austin Dillon for the final berth on a tiebreaker.
"I knew that strategy was going to be in play," Hamlin said of the conservative game plan in place for Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. "I mean, obviously, when you have three guys that realistically just don't need to wreck to get in, and you have one that needs to go out there and almost win to get in, you can't sacrifice the three guaranteed spots that you got to try to get one more in. That would just be bad gamesmanship. Coach (team owner Joe Gibbs) knows a little better than that. I think he's coached a few things before.
"So it was on me to go out there and do it. I mean, I had a few friends out there today -- a lot of them that probably had manufacturer or team alliances that they broke. I won't name names to get them in trouble, but they were very, very loyal to us today. That paid dividends, for sure.
"I just counted on my buddies to help me and hope that you earned some respect from some of those guys when they had to make a choice whether they were going to push you or somebody else. And luckily we had the right pushes when we needed them."
Brian Scott provides bright spot for Richard Petty Motorsports
Before Sunday's race, Richard Petty Motorsports had suffered through 31 races without a top-10 finish.
Drivers Brian Scott and Aric Almirola changed that. Scott ran a perfectly crafted race and finished second to Joey Logano, and Almirola came home eighth after working his way forward during the final 40 laps of the Hellman's 500.
"A good finish always helps," Scott said. "It helps with the team. It helps with the guys at the shop, the morale. Just trying to get any bit of a bright spot in this year has been difficult. I think that this is by far the brightest spot that we've had in a really challenging 2016 for Richard Petty Motorsports.
"I don't know. ... I guess the results and what this does for us going forward is yet to be determined. But just proud. I mean, the guys have worked hard all year. They've deserved a lot better finishes than we've given them. Just proud to deliver a good, solid top five, to do my job behind the wheel to give us a shot at the win -- just have a good day for Richard Petty Motorsports."
Scott's previous best finish in his first 48 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts was 12th, most recently at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in March.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
1. (16) Joey Logano (C), Ford, 192.
2. (25) Brian Scott #, Ford, 192.
3. (8) Denny Hamlin (C), Toyota, 192.
4. (7) Kurt Busch (C), Chevrolet, 192.
5. (6) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 192.
6. (24) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 192.
7. (22) Kevin Harvick (C), Chevrolet, 192.
8. (26) Aric Almirola, Ford, 192.
9. (9) Austin Dillon (C), Chevrolet, 192.
10. (32) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 192.
11. (15) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 192.
12. (4) Chase Elliott # (C), Chevrolet, 192.
13. (10) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 192.
14. (20) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 192.
15. (5) Greg Biffle, Ford, 192.
16. (34) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 192.
17. (11) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 192.
18. (36) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 192.
19. (23) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 192.
20. (30) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 192.
21. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 192.
22. (33) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 192.
23. (17) Jimmie Johnson (C), Chevrolet, 192.
24. (40) David Ragan, Toyota, 192.
25. (29) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 192.
26. (18) * Ryan Reed(i), Ford, 192.
27. (35) * Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 192.
28. (3) Matt Kenseth (C), Toyota, 192.
29. (13) Carl Edwards (C), Toyota, 192.
30. (14) Kyle Busch (C), Toyota, 192.
31. (38) Bobby Labonte, Ford, 192.
32. (21) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 192.
33. (37) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 192.
34. (39) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Toyota, 192.
35. (27) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 191.
36. (19) Alex Bowman(i), Chevrolet, 191.
37. (12) * Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 179.
38. (2) Brad Keselowski (C), Ford, Engine, 144.
39. (28) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, Accident, 113.
40. (1) Martin Truex Jr (C), Toyota, Engine, 41.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 159.905 mph.
Time of Race: 03 Hrs, 11 Mins, 38 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.124 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 6 for 25 laps.
Lead Changes: 31 among 14 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M. Truex Jr (C) 0; B. Keselowski (C) 1-11; M. Truex Jr (C) 12-13; B. Keselowski (C) 14-25; C. Elliott # (C) 26-27; B. Keselowski (C) 28; C. Elliott # (C) 29-31; B. Keselowski (C) 32-37; D. Hamlin (C) 38; M. Kenseth (C) 39; Kyle Busch (C) 40; B. Keselowski (C) 41; R. Stenhouse Jr 42-47; B. Keselowski (C) 48-62; C. Elliott # (C) 63; G. Biffle 64-76; C. Elliott # (C) 77-78; B. Keselowski (C) 79; C. Elliott # (C) 80; D. Hamlin (C) 81; C. Edwards (C) 82; M. Annett 83-88; B. Keselowski (C) 89-110; R. Blaney # 111; D. Hamlin (C) 112-116; A. Dillon (C) 117; D. Hamlin (C) 118-122; B. Keselowski (C) 123-143; R. Blaney # 144-145; T. Stewart 146; Kyle Busch (C) 147; J. Logano (C) 148-192.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): B. Keselowski (C) 9 times for 90 laps; J. Logano (C) 1 time for 45 laps; G. Biffle 1 time for 13 laps; D. Hamlin (C) 4 times for 12 laps; C. Elliott # (C) 5 times for 9 laps; M. Annett 1 time for 6 laps; R. Stenhouse Jr 1 time for 6 laps; R. Blaney # 2 times for 3 laps; M. Truex Jr (C) 1 time for 2 laps; Kyle Busch (C) 2 times for 2 laps; C. Edwards (C) 1 time for 1 lap; T. Stewart 1 time for 1 lap; M. Kenseth (C) 1 time for 1 lap; A. Dillon (C) 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 16 in Points: J. Johnson (C) -- 3,100; Kurt Busch (C) -- 3,099; J. Logano (C) -- 3,089; M. Kenseth (C) -- 3,088; Kyle Busch (C) -- 3,084; K. Harvick (C) -- 3,082; C. Edwards (C) -- 3,082; D. Hamlin (C) -- 3,078; A. Dillon (C) -- 3,078; M. Truex Jr (C) -- 3,060; C. Elliott # (C) -- 3,050; B. Keselowski (C) -- 3,043; K. Larson -- 2,155; T. Stewart -- 2,141; J. Mcmurray -- 2,110; C. Buescher # -- 2,109.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Perhaps more than any other driver in the Hellman's 500 on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Austin Dillon will have to walk a tightrope.
Tied for eighth with Joey Logano in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, Dillon needs a strong finish to advance to the Round of 8, but he can't afford a reckless move that could sacrifice his position in the points.
Dillon got off to a good start on Saturday, advancing to the second round of knockout qualifying and earning the ninth starting position for Sunday's elimination race in the Round of 12 (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
"I think it was a good run," Dillon said after time trials. "We can do it from there. We had good speed, and hopefully it shows tomorrow in the race."
Dillon, however, didn't spend much time in the draft during Friday's practice sessions. How his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet will perform in race trim remains to be seen.
"I really didn't draft much," he said. "It's kind of going to be one of those things where we get out there and just feel it and see how it goes."
But starting up front should help, even if qualifying is perhaps less important at superspeedways than it is at open-motor tracks.
"I think it does mean something, because pit selection is big, and also starting up front, so if there's a wreck early, you're kind of in front of it. I like being up front."
That's an appropriate mind-set, because Dillon needs to be near the front at the end of Sunday’s race as well as at the start. But Dillon has been there before. The grandson of team owner Richard Childress started second and finished third at Talladega in May.
ROUSH FENWAY DRIVERS INVADE TOP 12 IN QUALIFYING
Collectively, Roush Fenway Racing turned in an admirable performance during Saturday's time trials, putting all three of its full-time Fords in the top 11 on the grid.
Greg Biffle led the RFR qualifying effort with a fifth-place effort, followed closely by teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 17 Fusion. Trevor Bayne was 11th in the No. 6 Ford.
"Our speedway qualifying has been really good the last couple of years," Stenhouse said. "It's really cool to see all of the hard work that the guys put in at the shop and Doug (Yates) with the engines pay off.
"A lot of effort goes into trying to qualify well here, because anytime you can qualify well here, it generally means you have a better drafting race car. I'm happy with our top-10 start. We'll get a good pit stall selection and hopefully we'll be able to keep our track position all day."
Two of Stenhouse's six career top-five finishes have come at restrictor-plate tracks. Bayne picked up his only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory in the 2011 Daytona 500.
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth all were pulled from the grid before qualifying when NASCAR inspectors noticed irregularities with the rear deck lid. The issues were corrected, and Kenseth subsequently qualified third, Hamlin eighth and Busch 14th. ... Reed Sorenson made the final 12 in qualifying with the fastest lap of the day in his No. 55 Jay Robinson-owned Toyota, covering the 2.66-mile distance in 49.324 seconds (194.145 mph). But on his money lap in the final round, Sorenson slowed to 188.300 mph, qualifying 12th with a speed that would have placed him 35th in the first round. ... Ryan Reed, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes, will make his first Sprint Cup start after qualifying a creditable 18th in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Only 13 points to the good entering Sunday's Round of 12 cutoff race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Martin Truex Jr. gave himself as much of a cushion as possible, winning the pole for the Hellman's 500 at Talladega Superspeedway during Saturday's knockout qualifying session.
Seventh in the Chase standings, and 13 points ahead of Joey Logano and Austin Dillon, Truex covered the 2.66-mile distance in 49.508 seconds (193.423 mph) to claim the Coors Light Pole Award for Sunday's race (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) that will trim the Chase field from 12 drivers to eight.
"It's definitely cool," said Truex, who has never won a restrictor-plate race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "You come here, and you don't really have a whole lot to say as a driver when it comes to qualifying, so obviously proud of the team and proud of everybody in Denver and proud of everybody at the race track for their efforts.
"Built a brand new car to come here, and it's awesome to be the fastest guy in town. Excited about that, and obviously everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development) who builds the engines has done a great job too. It takes a lot to get a restrictor plate pole, so excited for all those guys and really neat to lead Toyota to their 1,000th start (in NASCAR's top three series combined). Hopefully, we'll be able to get the victory when the day is over."
Truex didn't allow a pre-qualifying inspection issue to derail his effort. Before his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota rolled out onto the grid, NASCAR confiscated a non-conforming jack screw from the car and required the team to replace it with a legal part.
The pole was Truex's first at Talladega, his fourth of the season and the 11th of his career. Truex was .015 seconds faster than four-time Talladega winner Brad Keselowski (193.365 mph), who will start on the outside of the front row.
Keselowski is 11th in the standings, seven points behind Logano and Dillon.
"It's good to qualify up front," Keselowski said. "I think it's a good confidence boost. I feel like when we have cars that qualify well here, we race well. The Miller Lite Ford was really fast here in qualifying, and hopefully it will stay the same for Sunday.
"It's been a good track for us, but past success is no guarantee. You have to go out and put the work in, and I think we're ready to do just that."
Chase drivers Matt Kenseth (193.189 mph) and Chase Elliott (193.166 mph) will start third and fourth, respectively. Elliott is 12th in the Chase standings, probably needing a victory in Sunday's race to advance to the Round of 8.
"As we all know, qualifying here is all about the guys back in the shop preparing these cars," Elliott said. "The Hendrick Engine shop gave me great speed, and the guys gave me an excellent car for tomorrow.
"Qualifying here at Talladega isn’t a make-or-break-you deal. I think it's good. I think our car has decent speed, and hopefully that will show up on Sunday."
Roush Fenway racing drivers Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both non-Chasers, will start from the third row after qualifying fifth and sixth, respectively.
Other Chase drivers qualified as follows: Kurt Busch (seventh), Denny Hamlin (eighth), Dillon (ninth), Carl Edwards (13th), Kyle Busch (14th), Joey Logano (16th), Jimmie Johnson (17th) and Kevin Harvick (22nd).
Johnson and Harvick already have earned spots in the Round of 8 by virtue of their respective victories at Charlotte and Kansas, leaving six berths available to the remaining 10 drivers.
NASCAR will meet and discuss the non-conforming jack screw on Truex's car during its weekly competition meeting, but Scott Miller, NASCAR's senior vice president of competition, characterized the imposition of a points penalty that would affect the Chase standings as "unlikely."
"I would say it would be unlikely, but it has to go through our process," Miller said. "We don't typically do that on a weekend, and because this is the playoffs, everybody has a heightened sense of everything.
"But this is really no different than things that we've done all year. We'll treat this one like just like we've done all year long."
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying -- Hellmann's 500
Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016
1. (78) Martin Truex Jr (C), Toyota, 193.423 mph.
2. (2) Brad Keselowski (C), Ford, 193.365 mph.
3. (20) Matt Kenseth (C), Toyota, 193.189 mph.
4. (24) Chase Elliott # (C), Chevrolet, 193.166 mph.
5. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 193.123 mph.
6. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 192.975 mph.
7. (41) Kurt Busch (C), Chevrolet, 192.746 mph.
8. (11) Denny Hamlin (C), Toyota, 192.610 mph.
9. (3) Austin Dillon (C), Chevrolet, 192.177 mph.
10. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 192.123 mph.
11. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 192.039 mph.
12. (55) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 188.300 mph.
13. (19) Carl Edwards (C), Toyota, 192.131 mph.
14. (18) Kyle Busch (C), Toyota, 192.039 mph.
15. (21) Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 192.039 mph.
16. (22) Joey Logano (C), Ford, 192.012 mph.
17. (48) Jimmie Johnson (C), Chevrolet, 191.704 mph.
18. (99) Ryan Reed(i), Ford, 191.700 mph.
19. (88) Alex Bowman(i), Chevrolet, 191.627 mph.
20. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 191.466 mph.
21. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 190.962 mph.
22. (4) Kevin Harvick (C), Chevrolet, 190.768 mph.
23. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 190.393 mph.
24. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 190.162 mph.
25. (44) Brian Scott #, Ford, 190.026 mph.
26. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 190.004 mph.
27. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 189.891 mph.
28. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 189.755 mph.
29. (7) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 189.688 mph.
30. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 189.643 mph.
31. (38) Landon Cassill, Ford, 189.612 mph.
32. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 189.515 mph.
33. (34) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 189.242 mph.
34. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 188.775 mph.
35. (93) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 188.419 mph.
36. (15) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 188.086 mph.
37. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 187.993 mph.
38. (32) Bobby Labonte, Ford, 187.368 mph.
39. (83) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Toyota, 186.765 mph.
40. (23) David Ragan, Toyota, 186.358 mph.
1 driver failed to qualify:
41. (35) David Gilliland, Ford, 188.089 mph.
Disbuted by The Sports Xchange
Positioned last on the Chase Grid, a hefty 25 points below the cutoff line in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Chase Elliott needs a win in the worst way.
The problem: He has never visited Victory Lane in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
To advance in his quest for the championship, Elliott virtually must earn his first win in Sunday's Hellmann's 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN). The Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner finished fifth from the pole at the 2.66-mile behemoth in his lone start there in May. Although Elliott hasn't won a race, he's shown he's a contender every week and had near misses in both Michigan races and at Pocono in June.
"We will just need to go and race our hearts out and try to win," Elliott said. "That's about all we can do."
In three career starts at restrictor-plate tracks, Elliott claims his fifth-place finish at Talladega, as well as results of 37th and 32nd at Daytona International Speedway. He did win the NASCAR XFINITY Series opener this season at Daytona.
Elliott does have a pedigree at Talladega. His father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, won there twice and holds the track records for poles (8) and qualifying speed (212.809 MPH).
"Talladega is always known for close finishes and I'm excited to get back," Elliott said. "The racing there, you can't really compare it to anything else. Talladega is a special place because it's a historic race track for our sport. I remember watching a lot of races there. My dad still has that qualifying record and it's obviously very impressive."
Additionally, Elliott's Hendrick Motorsports team is tied with Richard Childress Racing for the Talladega wins record with 12. He'll likely get advice from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who leads active drivers with six wins at the South Alabama track.
"The best place to be at Talladega, as everybody knows, is to try to be out front," Elliott said. "That is hard to sustain for a long period of time in those races, but we've seen guys who have gotten good at it over the past few years. They make it happen and are able to control a race really well. I do think there is an art to it. There are obviously a lot of things you can't control and running as close as we do there, that is a big factor, but I do think there is something that you can do better than others rather than just riding around and hoping for the best."
Hemric, Nemechek on verge of Chase elimination
Daniel Hemric and John Hunter Nemechek have plenty of work to do to advance in the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chase.
The two drivers are each 15 points below the cutoff line heading into the final race of the Chase's Round of 8 - Saturday's fred's 250 at Talladega Superspeedway (1 p.m. ET on FOX). If they cannot make up the ground at Talladega, they will be dropped from the championship hunt.
Hemric boasts five top-three finishes in his last six starts, including two runner-up showings, but lost ground in the Chase with his 28th-place performance at New Hampshire in that stretch. In his lone start at Talladega last season, he placed 28th.
"I'm looking forward to going to Talladega Superspeedway, and I know there's a lot on the line for this No. 19 team," Hemric said. "I think we learned a lot for our superspeedway package from the third truck we ran in Daytona with Austin Theriault, and hopefully that transfers over to myself, Tyler Reddick and Austin Cindric. Having an extra teammate to work with, especially given our current Chase points situation, definitely won't hurt. We've got to utilize each other to maximize our day and show what we can do together."
Nemechek races for his family-owned single-car team NEMCO Motorsports and does not have the same data advantage as Hemric. He has earned two wins this season, but has dug his deficit with Chase finishes of ninth at New Hampshire and 16th at Las Vegas. A post-race penalty at New Hampshire for failing to meet the minimum ride height docked him 10 points in the standings. Nemechek placed 11th at Talladega last year in his only start at the 2.66-mile track.
"I'm looking forward to going to Talladega, my third superspeedway race," Nemechek said. "And in the current position we're in for points, I'm actually glad we're going to a superspeedway. Anything can happen. So we just have to go out, execute, not make mistakes, do the best that we can do, run up front and try to win the race. Just try not to get caught up in any of the wrecks and be able to be there at the end when it counts and have a shot at the win."
Race Weekend Preview
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Race: Hellmann's 500
Place: Talladega Superspeedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 500.8 miles (188 laps)
What to Watch For: Heading into Sunday's Hellmann's 500 cutoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, Austin Dillon (ninth, tiebreaker), Denny Hamlin (10th, -6 points below Joey Logano on the cutoff line), Brad Keselowski (11th, -7) and Chase Elliott (12th, -25) are on the outside looking in for advancement to the Round of 8. ... Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski can break their tie for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins lead by getting a fifth victory. ... Non-Chasers who have won at Talladega who can spoil an automatic Round of 8 qualifying spot with a victory are Clint Bowyer (twice), Jamie McMurray (twice), Tony Stewart and David Ragan. ... Spring Talladega winner Brad Keselowski goes for the season sweep.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Race: fred's 250 powered by Coca-Cola
Place: Talladega Superspeedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 1 p.m. ET
Tune-in: FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250.04 miles (94 laps)
What to Watch For: Timothy Peters goes for his third straight win at Talladega. ... Timothy Peters (2014, 2015), Johnny Sauter (2013) and Parker Kligerman (2012) are the only drivers in the field who have won at Talladega. ... The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chase field cuts down from eight to six following Saturday's fred's 250.
If they don't advance at Talladega on Sunday, that will keep the powerful Penske organization - and Ford - out of the final round of the Sprint Cup championship for the second year in a row.
Because of the imminent threat of a multi-car crash that puts drivers behind the wall, the possibilities are always innumerable at Talladega when it comes to an elimination round in the Chase. But barring a major wreck that knocks out several Chase contenders, Keselowski needs to win the race to advance to this year's Round of 8 and Logano must have a finish close to the front to make it in on points.
So what's the problem for Team Penske, the same team that walked away with this year's Verizon IndyCar championship? The NASCAR Fords built by Roger Penske's squad in the team's massive headquarters building in Mooresville, N.C. haven't been fast enough. The team has not been able to keep up with the Chevy entries of Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, or the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and the affiliated Furniture Row Racing.
It's not a question of horsepower. The problem has been cornering speed.
The Chevy and Toyota teams have figured out how to skew their chassis and still pass NASCAR inspection. The Penkse team, where the owner's reputation as a businessman is a top priority, has not been able or willing to go down the same road when it comes to "fudging" in a way that doesn't show up in post-race inspections.
NASCAR publishes a weekly list of the teams that fail the Laser Inspection Station and the template station during pre-race inspections and then have to try again. The Penske Fords don't make this list nearly as often as the leading Chevy and Toyota teams. Nor were the Penske Fords among those caught with excessive skew in the rear axles after the first round of the Chase in Chicago.
At Talladega, cornering speeds are far more dependent on the draft and the Penske team has that figured out. Keselowski and Logano won the first two Chase elimination races at Talladega in 2014 and 2015.
Ideally, the team would repeat the 2014 race when Logano helped Keselowski get a victory over Matt Kenseth by pushing his Ford teammate on the final restart. Logano is currently tied for sixth place in the standings - now the cut line since two drivers have already advanced with victories. If he finishes in the lead draft behind a victorious Keselowski this year, that would likely advance the two Penske teammates.
What are Keselowski's chances? He's won both prior restrictor plate races this year at the Daytona International Speedway and Talladega, where he has four career victories. That includes his first career victory in a fight to the finish with Carl Edwards, which ended with Edwards' Ford hitting the catch fence.
Following his unforced error last Sunday at the Kansas Speedway that ruined his Ford and may have ruined his Chase chances, Keselowski said he would "drive my butt off" at Talladega.
Nothing less will suffice.
It is the usual case for Sprint Cup drivers to approach the Alabama state line with some trepidation, because they feel they can't control their own destiny on a track where speeds still invoke the threat of injury. Indeed, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had two wrecks on the gigantic 2.66-mile oval in one race this spring, which may well have contributed to the concussion problems that showed up this summer.
When it comes to an elimination race at Talladega, drivers quiver and whine about the arbitrary nature of the multi-car draft like so many rabbits running through a field under the shadow of hawks. In short, they make excuses in advance.
Keselowski may have an edge, because he always looks forward to Talladega. He told reporters during a test day this week at the Homestead-Miami Speedway - site of the championship finale - that he felt "quiet and confident."
He's less worried about getting in a big crash and more focused on the state of mind a driver has to carry into Talladega, where the decisive moments arrive in a hurry.
"Tactics change, cars change and I'm a few years older so I've probably changed, too,'' Keselowski said. "I think any success at the Cup level no matter what track, the keys are doing everything right. You have to have a great team, you have to make the right moves, and the strategies have to change and you have to have a little bit of good fortune. I don't think there is one key."
In other words, it's tough to win on any given weekend, much less Talladega.
The only connection between each of his four victories at Talladega, said Keselowski, was making the right move at the right time.
"Each time there was probably one moment that was more important than another moment and they aren't shared between the races," he said.
As in 2014, Keselowski is likely to have help from Logano if both drivers are in position to win in the always decisive closing laps at Talladega. For his part, Logano, whose tire troubles in Charlotte have left him mid-pack among the Chasers, said he would be looking for a victory after finishing third in Kansas.
"I race for the win," he said. "That is the way I race. I don't know a different way to race. That is probably the route I am going to go. I am sure we will talk about it this week, but I am a racer."
Surely the talk at Team Penske since the Kansas race has been about Keselowski needing a victory more than Logano if both are at the front of the field. True, a victory by Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott or Austin Dillon, which would break them out of the bottom of the points pack, could have dire consequences for Logano. But a victory by Keselowski would stymie this prospect.
Since two cars are better than one in the draft and on restarts, look for Team Penske to team up at Talladega. Given that both Keselowski and Logano have been winners there, it could be a formidable combination.
As the teams in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series gathered for the fifth race of the Chase, there were clouds in the sky and then the metaphorical type on the horizon. The sky-bound clouds cleared up by the time of Sunday's race, but that dark one known as Talladega Superspeedway never went away.
Unless you were Kevin Harvick.
Chase contenders were looking to avoid a trip to the Alabama track with advancement from the Round of 12 still hanging in the balance. It was Harvick who emerged from the bottom of the points heap and took a convincing win to sew up the automatic bye.
The driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy can now head south knowing that he's already advanced to the Round of 8 before the green drops on 500 unpredictable miles at NASCAR's scariest behemoth.
Harvick joins fellow Chevy driver Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports, the winner in Charlotte, as one of two drivers immune to the spooky quirks of Talladega. They merely have to leave in good physical shape -- never a guarantee at the 2.66-mile track -- to continue to the Round of 8 that starts in Martinsville, Va., the following week.
Teams have occasionally been given nicknames, particularly pit crews, in the course of NASCAR events. Harvick's team, led by Rodney Childers, might just as well be known as the "Backs Against the Wall Gang."
In three years of the Chase, they have never failed to advance, including the 2014 championship season. Needing a victory once again to move forward, Harvick got the job done in Kansas by beating Carl Edwards on the final re-start. In previous years, he advanced with a must-win victory in Phoenix and again last year in Dover.
There's no secret, said Harvick. Race to win each week, wherever you are in the standings. After all, he pointed out, to win a championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final round likely requires a victory, and a team might as well be prepared.
"I have no idea where we were in the points or how many we were behind," said Harvick, whose engine failed in Charlotte, dropping him to the bottom of the standings. "The only thing we talked about was trying to figure out how to win this race, and if we didn't win this race, what we needed to do at Talladega.
"I think for us it's always about reaching for something to motivate us," Harvick continued. "If it's having to win a race, going to a racetrack you haven't won at, whatever, rebounding from a bad week. We've been fortunate to be on the good side of this deal for three years now."
The team's motivation, said Childers, begins with Harvick. "It feeds down through him as far as being confident and being determined and working hard," said Childers. "That comes down through me, then our shop foreman, our car chief.
"We're just fortunate to have a lot of guys that won't quit," he continued. "They don't take 'No' for an answer. They don't care how many hours they work. They don't care what they have to do. They just try to make it happen. It's cool to be in that environment and be around people like that. It's something that we all hope that we can do sometime in our lifetime."
Perhaps it was the changing conditions at the track on the outskirts of Kansas City that made life difficult for some of the other Chase contenders. Half of the 12 contenders flirted with disaster and one, Chase Elliott, ran into it.
Elliott had problems with both rear tires, which dropped him to 31st. After contending for a win with 100 laps to go and leading four laps, Elliott found himself needing a victory at Talladega to advance. Hendrick Motorsports has gotten faster as a result of taking a new approach to the rear axle set-ups and perhaps that was the issue for Elliott, who suffered the initial problem after a pit stop.
The worst-case scenario -- a bad error -- belonged to Brad Keselowski, who cut it too close with a pass of Denny Hamlin in Turn 4, lost the rear of his Team Penske Ford and got rammed by the following Toyota. The Penske Fords have not been quick enough throughout the Chase. Keselowski may be as determined and motivated as Harvick, but didn't have the equipment to press the issue in Kansas and his frustration showed after his DNF.
"I want to race my guts out and go for wins," Keselowski said. "I don't want to points race. I don't care what the damn format is, I am going to give it my best."
Others who seemingly wilted under warm temperatures on the sunny day included Matt Kenseth, who led a race-high 116 laps before glancing off the wall while wrestling with changing track conditions brought on by the sunshine. It altered his handling for the worse after hitting the wall. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, victim of a blown engine in Charlotte, fell behind with a front splitter issue, then suffered yet another pit road penalty -- a problem throughout the season.
A second straight dodgy performance in his Toyota by Martin Truex Jr. has slowed the momentum of the Furniture Row Racing. There was a problem fueling the car, which added an extra pit stop, but the big issue was the lack of blinding speed that has led to four victories earlier this season.
Are the Toyotas wilting after dominating the regular season and the Round of 16? At this point, two Chevy drivers are locked in for the Round of 8 and the favorite headed into Talladega is Ford man Keselowski, winner of the last two restrictor plate races and a driver who seems to thrive on the pressure of the multi-car drafts.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Austin Dillon disproved the colloquial definition of insanity -- trying the same thing and expecting different results.
Last week at Charlotte, Dillon took two tires on a late pit stop and wrecked when Martin Truex Jr.'s attempt to push him on a restart went awry.
But late in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas, there was Dillon again, taking two tires and taking the lead for a restart on Lap 226.
This time the strategy worked. Though Dillon's No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet lost positions on the restart, a quick caution on Lap 233 allowed him to pit for tires and propelled him to a sixth-place finish.
The result left Dillon tied for eighth in the Chase standings with third-place finisher Joey Logano and back in the game as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads for the Round of 12 elimination race next Sunday at Talladega.
"I had no real concern," Dillon said of the late two-tire call. "I was more concerned at Charlotte than here. I knew that two tires, as far as firing off, was going to be OK through the gears. (AJ) Allmendinger and a couple of them did it, fired off and ran third there for a while.
"Our cars, we never put two tires on in practice or anything. Made it through the first lap, and I went into Turn 1 in third (gear), and the right front just plowed on exit. I actually almost got run over on the exit of (Turn) 2...
"We ended up finishing about where we were going to finish anyways, because we got four tires on the next (stop). It made us make the decision to come get four, drag people down. We ran about to where we were going to finish."
But it was good enough to rekindle Dillon's prospects of advancing to the next round.
Logano atones for Charlotte struggles
Joey Logano got the absolute most from his No. 22 Team Penske Ford on Sunday, and, as was the case with Austin Dillon, a strong run at Kansas put Logano in position to advance in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a solid performance next Sunday at Talladega.
Logano didn't have a car to compete for the win on Sunday, but he ran third behind Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards to ameliorate the effects of a 36th-place finish at Charlotte a week earlier. Logano goes to Talladega tied for the last transfer spot with the Chase field to be cut there from 12 drivers to eight.
"Yeah, we came out swinging," Logano said after the race. "It's what we had to do. We did everything we were supposed to do today. Our team executed perfectly. So I'm proud of our pit stops, our adjustments, our restarts. Just needed a little bit more speed.
"That was probably the biggest thing. We were a little bit off on the short run. You know, after 15 laps or so, we were as good as anybody, but we weren't better than them, so we couldn't make up what we were losing on the restarts.
"We made up a lot of points, just not enough. It's not comfortable. Austin and I are tied for next week, so that will be fun. So overall, I'm proud of the effort and the job we did today. We wanted to win, but we did everything we were supposed to do."
Elliott has his marching orders for Talladega
After disastrous results in the first two races of the Chase's Round of 12, Chase Elliott will be on a win-or-bust mission next Sunday at Talladega.
It's not that Elliott has run poorly. At Charlotte, he led 103 laps before being swept up in a late wreck not of his making.
In Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, he passed eventual race winner Kevin Harvick for the lead on Lap 169, only to see his winning chances disintegrate six laps later when he returned to pit road for an unscheduled stop after a tire rub flattened his left rear.
Two subsequent brushes with the wall applied the coup de grace, and Elliott came home 31st, leaving him 12th in the Chase standings and 25 points out of eighth with only Talladega left before the cut from 12 Chase drivers to eight.
"I don't know if we got the left rear getting up on the race track or something, and it got into the fender and cut it down," Elliott said of the original problem. "I don't know what to do, man. We were trying as hard as we can. We had such a good car today again, and... I don't know what to do. Just keep after it and try to move on."
"I just will go there (Talladega) and race our hearts out and try to win, I guess. That's about all we can do. We have something to be proud of in the way we've been running. There are just some things we can't control. I don't know how to fix that stuff... We're bummed, but what do you do? You just have to move on."
Kansas City, Kansas
Sunday, October 16, 2016
1. (11) Kevin Harvick (C), Chevrolet, 267.
2. (3) Carl Edwards (C), Toyota, 267.
3. (6) Joey Logano (C), Ford, 267.
4. (21) Jimmie Johnson (C), Chevrolet, 267.
5. (2) Kyle Busch (C), Toyota, 267.
6. (12) Austin Dillon (C), Chevrolet, 267.
7. (5) Alex Bowman(i), Chevrolet, 267.
8. (10) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 267.
9. (1) Matt Kenseth (C), Toyota, 267.
10. (20) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267.
11. (4) Martin Truex Jr. (C), Toyota, 267.
12. (9) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267.
13. (15) Kurt Busch (C), Chevrolet, 267.
14. (17) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 267.
15. (7) Denny Hamlin (C), Toyota, 267.
16. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 267.
17. (25) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267.
18. (19) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 267.
19. (18) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 267.
20. (16) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267.
21. (30) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 267.
22. (33) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 267.
23. (29) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 267.
24. (27) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 267.
25. (22) Greg Biffle, Ford, 266.
26. (31) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 266.
27. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 266.
28. (32) Brian Scott #, Ford, 265.
29. (26) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 265.
30. (24) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 265.
31. (13) Chase Elliott # (C), Chevrolet, 264.
32. (37) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 264.
33. (36) * Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 262.
34. (39) * Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 261.
35. (38) Joey Gase(i), Ford, 260.
36. (28) David Ragan, Toyota, 258.
37. (23) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 233.
38. (8) Brad Keselowski (C), Ford, Accident, 190.
39. (40) * Josh Wise, Chevrolet, Accident, 108.
40. (35) Aric Almirola, Ford, Accident, 36.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 133.155 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 00 Mins, 28 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.183 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 38 laps.
Lead Changes: 16 among 10 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M. Kenseth (C) 1-27; Kurt Busch (C) 28; M. Kenseth (C) 29-86; J. Logano (C) 87; B. Keselowski (C) 88; D. Hamlin (C) 89; C. Mears 90-94; M. Kenseth (C) 95-125; K. Harvick (C) 126-168; C. Elliott # (C) 169-172; C. Edwards (C) 173; J. Logano (C) 174; C. Edwards (C) 175-221; K. Harvick (C) 222; A. Dillon (C) 223-224; C. Edwards (C) 225-237; K. Harvick (C) 238-267.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): M. Kenseth (C) 3 times for 116 laps; K. Harvick (C) 3 times for 74 laps; C. Edwards (C) 3 times for 61 laps; C. Mears 1 time for 5 laps; C. Elliott # (C) 1 time for 4 laps; A. Dillon (C) 1 time for 2 laps; J. Logano (C) 2 times for 2 laps; D. Hamlin (C) 1 time for 1 lap; B. Keselowski (C) 1 time for 1 lap; Kurt Busch (C) 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 16 in Points: J. Johnson (C) -- 3,082; M. Kenseth (C) -- 3,074; Kyle Busch (C) -- 3,072; C. Edwards (C) -- 3,069; Kurt Busch (C) -- 3,062; M. Truex Jr. (C) -- 3,058; K. Harvick (C) -- 3,048; J. Logano (C) -- 3,045; A. Dillon (C) -- 3,045; D. Hamlin (C) -- 3,039; B. Keselowski (C) -- 3,038; C. Elliott # (C) -- 3,020; T. Stewart -- 2,131; K. Larson -- 2,120; C. Buescher # -- 2,090; J. McMurray -- 2,088.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- As well as Martin Truex Jr. has run at Kansas Speedway, it's nothing short of remarkable that the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota has never won at the 1.5-mile track.
Truex has led laps in seven of his 16 starts at Kansas -- in some cases, lots of laps. In the spring of 2012, while driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex was out front for 173 circuits before finishing second to Denny Hamlin.
Most recently, Truex won the pole and led 172 laps at Kansas in May, only to finish 14th after a late-race pit road snafu. But with a berth in the Round of 8 of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on the line in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 (on NBC at 2:15 p.m. ET), Truex couldn't think of a better time to get a breakthrough victory.
"Yeah, I definitely get a positive vibe coming here -- a positive feeling that we've been so close," said Truex who won at Chicagoland and Dover in the Chase's Round of 16. "We've done just about everything here but win, and I feel like it's time for us to make that happen.
"And I don't think there's ever been a time where I've come here more confident and so, yeah, I mean I'm looking forward to seeing how the weekend goes and seeing if we can finally close the deal here. I feel like we can do it, and (I'm) just ready to go out there and give it a shot."
BRAD KESELOWSKI HAS GOOD REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Like Truex, Brad Keselowski has a formidable history at Kansas Speedway.
It's the track that gave the driver of the No. 2 Ford his first victory in a Team Penske car, the year before his 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship season.
Keselowski will start eighth in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400, his worst qualifying position in the last seven races here. In his last six events at Kansas, Keselowski has led laps, averaging 24 per race.
With four victories in the 26-race regular season, Keselowski hasn't yet shown the speed necessary to win in the Chase, but he sailed through the Round of 16 with remarkable consistency as the only driver to post a top-five finish in each of the three opening-round races.
A solid seventh-place run last Sunday at Charlotte put Keselowski in solid position to advance to the Round of 8, with the cutoff set to come next weekend at Talladega, one of the No. 2 team's best tracks.
So even though the eighth-place qualifying effort was a slight tick down for Keselowski, he's comfortable with his starting position heading into Sunday.
"You always want to be really high up but compared to where we were in practice that was a really good gain," said Keselowski, who was ninth fastest in Saturday's final practice and 10th on the speed chart in 10-lap average.
"I'm looking forward to making the most of that come race time, because I think we have a much better race car than a qualifying raw speed car."
STEWART-HAAS CARS HAVE ISSUES IN FINAL PRACTICE
Kevin Harvick, who needs a strong finish on Sunday to climb out of the Chase cellar, brushed the outside wall ever so slightly in Saturday's final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Kansas Speedway. But the No. 4 car sustained some appreciable damage after recording the fastest 10-lap average in the session at 183.740 mph.
Kurt Busch, Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, wasn't as fortunate. After positing the third fastest single lap in happy Hour (185.797 mph), Busch blew his right front tire on the final lap of his closing run and dug the front of his No. 41 Chevrolet into the infield grass. Busch had to go to a backup car and will start Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 with no practice laps in the backup.
Pole winner Matt Kenseth was fastest in final practice at 186.361, an indication his car is equally stout in race trim.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- To learn how to master the track that continued to jinx him, Kyle Busch paid close attention to the way Matt Kenseth drove Kansas Speedway.
Though Kenseth was helpful, he apparently kept a thousandth of a second in his pocket. That was the margin by which Kenseth edged Busch in Friday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series knockout qualifying session at the 1.5-mile track.
Touring Kansas in 28.112 seconds (192.089 mph) to Busch's 28.113 seconds (192.082 mph), Kenseth earned the top starting spot for Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 (at 2:15 p.m. ET on NBC), the fifth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and the second race in the Chase's Round of 12.
"Smoked him!" chortled Kenseth, as Busch emerged from the radio room after an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "Smoked him!"
The Coors Light Pole Award was Kenseth's first of the season, his third at Kansas and the 18th of his career. With Busch claiming the second spot on the grid and teammate Carl Edwards (191.015 mph) qualifying third, JGR cars will start 1-2-3 for the first time since August at Bristol.
"It's nice to get a pole," Kenseth said. "I feel like our qualifying hasn't been nearly as good this year as it has been in the rest of the years I've been at JGR. We barely got it -- it was by a thousandth, or something like that.
"Obviously, our Camrys have been fast... Round one we were pretty decent--it was off a little bit--and then round three it was just right. We almost got beat, but it was as good of a lap as we were going to run. They did a good job today."
Kenseth joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. Busch didn't get his first top five at Kansas until the spring race of 2015, which started a run of third, fifth and first in consecutive events at a track where his average finish is 19.2.
Busch's second-place qualifying run on Friday was his best so far at the 1.5-mile track, and he freely acknowledged learning from Kenseth.
"We've talked a little bit, and I've certainly used some of the things that we've talked about with all of my teammates in order to get better here," Busch told the NASCAR Wire Service. "Just looking and studying about technique and things that he does and being able to work on how Matt carries his car around the track and where he makes his speed and me trying to be able to do the same thing.
"A lot of it has just come through technique and just being able to mimic the things that he does, and we've gotten a lot better at that. Certainly, our balance could have been a tick better in order to give me a little more security and feeling in order to go out there and run two thousandths faster."
Chase driver Martin Truex Jr. made it a quartet of Toyotas on the front two rows with a fourth-place qualifying effort at 190.786 mph. Alex Bowman was the only non-Chase driver to crack the top five, turning in a lap at 190.315 mph.
Of the five drivers who finished 30th or worse last Sunday at Charlotte and put their advancement to the Chase's Round of 8 in jeopardy, Joey Logano had the best recovery, qualifying sixth.
"That's better than where we have been," Logano said. "We qualified 14th here the last two times we've come here. We made a serious effort at changing some things here with the way we qualified to start closer to the front which is important.
"That's kind of where we were. We were about a sixth-place car today, and we need to find a little more, but we made progress."
Denny Hamlin, 30th at Charlotte and the eighth-place Chase driver entering Sunday's race, will start seventh. Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon, both currently below the Round of 8 cutoff, qualified 11th and 12th, respectively.
Chase Elliott, victim of a late wreck and resulting 33rd-place finish last Sunday, failed to make the final round on Friday and will start 13th. Two other Chase drivers qualified outside the top 12: Kurt Busch (15th) and Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson (19th).
"From Round 1 to Round 2, the car was much tighter," said Johnson, who was 10th in the first round. "We attempted to free it up, but I'm not sure some of those adjustments didn't change the ride height of the car and affected the splitter orientation with the ground. So, maybe we were on the splitter a little bit.
"But a ton tighter than what we had in the opening round. But, other than that, our car was repeating very well earlier in the day so kind of leaning that way. I don't know if it is good or bad, but I'm not accustomed to qualifying well all the time. I'm used to racing through traffic. I'm not worried about this; we'll just get that Lowe's Chevy up there."
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying -- Hollywood Casino 400
1. (20) Matt Kenseth (C), Toyota, 192.089 mph.
2. (18) Kyle Busch (C), Toyota, 192.082 mph.
3. (19) Carl Edwards (C), Toyota, 191.015 mph.
4. (78) Martin Truex Jr. (C), Toyota, 190.786 mph.
5. (88) Alex Bowman(i), Chevrolet, 190.315 mph.
6. (22) Joey Logano (C), Ford, 190.221 mph.
7. (11) Denny Hamlin (C), Toyota, 190.188 mph.
8. (2) Brad Keselowski (C), Ford, 190.087 mph.
9. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 189.927 mph.
10. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 189.840 mph.
11. (4) Kevin Harvick (C), Chevrolet, 189.580 mph.
12. (3) Austin Dillon (C), Chevrolet, 189.567 mph.
13. (24) Chase Elliott # (C), Chevrolet, 189.954 mph.
14. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 189.940 mph.
15. (41) Kurt Busch (C), Chevrolet, 189.773 mph.
16. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 189.760 mph.
17. (21) Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 189.540 mph.
18. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 189.387 mph.
19. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 189.241 mph.
20. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 189.201 mph.
21. (48) Jimmie Johnson (C), Chevrolet, 188.976 mph.
22. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 188.930 mph.
23. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 188.094 mph.
24. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 186.034 mph.
25. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 188.376 mph.
26. (7) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 187.669 mph.
27. (83) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 187.578 mph.
28. (23) David Ragan, Toyota, 187.513 mph.
29. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 187.441 mph.
30. (34) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 187.331 mph.
31. (15) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 187.246 mph.
32. (44) Brian Scott #, Ford, 186.819 mph.
33. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 186.419 mph.
34. (38) Landon Cassill, Ford, 185.052 mph.
35. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 184.824 mph.
36. (55) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 183.163 mph.
37. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 181.898 mph.
38. (32) Joey Gase(i), Ford, 180.560 mph.
39. (98) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 180.403 mph.
40. (30) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 179.850 mph.
After running at the finish in 26 straight races, the driver will have to do more than run consistently in the next two races in the Round of 12 at the Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway to advance in this year's Chase.
Elliott, who will not turn 21 until after the Sprint Cup season ends, has done everything but win a race as the replacement at Hendrick Motorsports for Jeff Gordon.
Starting with a pole at the Daytona 500, Elliott, in fact, has been better than the four-time champion was in his rookie season in 1993. Elliott has far fewer DNFs (Gordon had seven) and better averages for race starts (12.2) and finishes (14.9) than his predecessor. In a 30-race season in 1993, Gordon led 230 laps; this year Elliott has led 342 through the first 30 races.
But to advance to the Round of 8, Elliott may need the kind of luck that intervened for Gordon last year that sent him to record a last hurrah at the Homestead-Miami Speedway's championship round courtesy of a gifted victory at the Martinsville Speedway. Elliott will also need to overcome the statistical odds of becoming the first rookie to win a championship since the opening season of NASCAR's premier division in 1949, when all drivers were technically in their first year.
Despite leading 103 laps in Charlotte, Elliott finds himself mired with four other Chase contenders at the bottom of the points heap. As a result of a garden variety of problems, drivers Denny Hamlin (engine), Austin Dillon (restart crash), Kevin Harvick (engine) and Joey Logano (blown tire) are in the same boat as Elliott.
Given that the drivers who escaped harm in Charlotte are likely to hedge their bets by points racing for the next two rounds, Elliott has a long road ahead to escape from these other four hard luck cases.
The good news is that he trails the eighth and final transfer spot occupied by Hamlin by just three points. Ultimately, one of the "fated five" at the bottom is destined to get out of the group and they are essentially battling one another for the last transfer spot.
Given the fact his teammate Jimmie Johnson won in Charlotte and Elliott was an innocent victim of the restart melee, it's not surprising that he remains a confidant, low key cheerleader for his crew led by Alan Gustafson.
Every driver is nothing but upbeat about the future when it comes to competing in the Chase, but the fortuitously named son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott pulls it off as well as any of his more experienced peers.
"Hopefully, we can just try to have another car like we had today and not make any mistakes next week," he said after the setback.
As both his statistics and well cadenced drawl indicate, Elliott at the very least has the equilibrium that belies his youth to rely on. But can he score the long anticipated and now much needed breakthrough victory for the revived Hendrick team? His outlook for Kansas is not exactly sunshine and sunflowers.
"I definitely don't look at Kansas as a stellar race track for me," he said of the track that received new asphalt in 2012 and where Goodyear brings a special tire for the 1.5-mile oval.
"I feel like it's a very unique repave and the way the asphalt feels there to me is a little different than a lot of race tracks. I think I still have a lot to figure out at Kansas. I'm happy we got to run a Cup race there this year. I learned a few things and hopefully that will help going back."
Given that Elliott had only run seven races prior to this season in a Sprint Cup car, it seems clear that he has adapted quickly to all of the tracks on the schedule.
What he doesn't know about Kansas he can learn from six-time champion Johnson.
"I lean on my teammates a lot, really for any of the races in general, but definitely at Kansas which is a place I haven't run at a lot," he said. "Jimmie has had a lot of success there over the past couple of years having won a race and I think a lot of that can help."
And then there's the momentum thing, which Hendrick now has after Johnson's Charlotte victory and a combined 258 laps led by him and Elliott.
"You get this machine of Hendrick Motorsports rolling and some momentum on our side, we can accomplish a lot," Johnson said, "and I think all four cars are showing that. We've got a lot more to show the rest of the year."
Elliott has already shown he's capable of putting himself into position to win races, but remains in that no-man's-land of learning how to close the deal.
At the Pocono International Raceway in June, he made his move too early on teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., which enabled Kurt Busch to pass them both for the victory. A botched restart at the Michigan International Speedway in August opened the door to Kyle Larson for his first win. With a better final pit stop at the opening Chase race at the Chicagoland Speedway, Elliott might have taken that first victory there, too.
After Kansas, Talladega looms out of the Alabama plain as a place where any driver could lose as many points as the "fated five" lost in Charlotte.
So it's not exactly a fare-thee-well if the Kansas race doesn't go well. But for Elliott there's no time like the present for that first victory.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
It's happened again.
Kevin Harvick finds himself in poor position in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup following his 38th-place finish at Charlotte, caused by a blown engine.
He's been able to overcome Chase adversity by winning in a dire situation in each of the past three seasons: New Hampshire this year, Dover last season when he finished championship runner-up and Phoenix in 2014 on his way to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Right now, Harvick sits last in the Chase's Round of 12 standings - eight points behind Denny Hamlin on the cutoff line, while also trailing three other drivers for the final spot in the Round of 8. He'll try to produce another stellar performance under pressure in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2:15 p.m. ET on NBC) where he has logged one win (fall 2013) and three runner-ups in his last six races.
"The repave is definitely what changed and turned things around for us at Kansas," Harvick said of the 2012 resurfacing. "Really, I liked the race track the way that it was before with the asphalt really worn out and cars sliding all over. But once the repave happened we were able to really hit on some things and for whatever reason it kind of fits my driving style and we have got some good results out of it. It has been a really good performing race track for us and one that we look forward to going to and hopefully continue to get good results out of because it's been so good for us in the past."
Harvick doesn't believe he has to win at Kansas or the next race in Talladega to advance like he has had to do in the past.
"You at least have another option," he said. "As crazy as this thing can be, anybody can have trouble so it can even up pretty fast."
Underdog Koch readies to kickoff Round of 8
Playoff beards aren't limited to stick-and-ball sports.
Blake Koch hopes to keep his "Chase beard" growing as the NASCAR Xfinity Series Chase kicks off its Round of 8 in Saturday's Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
"When I said I was going to start this Chase beard, I didn't know I was going to make it to the next round," said Koch, a surprise competitor in the Round of 8, who advanced by producing an average finish of 12.3 in the first three Chase races. "It's going to be like an eight-week beard."
An underdog in every sense of the word, Koch's single-car Kaulig Racing team, owned by entrepreneur Matt Kaulig, was created this offseason. Koch finished 12th in the regular season points, earning the final spot on the inaugural Xfinity Series Chase Grid.
"It was huge just to make the Chase," Koch said. "After Chicago, I just felt a huge relief that we accomplished our goal, so going into the Chase, we kind of had nothing to lose because there are no expectations on me or our race team."
Koch's best finishes this season were eighth-place showings in the spring Richmond race and the fall Bristol contest. In five starts at Kansas, he has never finished better than 25th.
"It's been able to pay off with some good, consistent finishes, but consistency, I don't think, is what's going to transfer into the final four," Koch said after last Sunday's Charlotte race. "I think we're going to have to turn it up a notch. But I feel like we have. We had a pretty good car tonight and these last couple weeks we've been racing against cars we haven't raced with all year, so I'm extremely proud of my team and proud of this series - making it so new teams can start up and be competitive like this is pretty cool."
Koch's success was not lost on the rest of the garage. Three-race winner Elliott Sadler praised Koch and the Kaulig Racing team following Sunday's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway where Koch advanced to the Round of 8 with a 12th-place finish.
"I don't think you guys understand the kind of feat that Blake and those guys made," Sadler said. "They were moving into their shop the week of Dover in May. To make the final eight. I think Blake and his guys' start-up team kind of flew under the radar at the beginning of the season and got better and better and better. He and (crew chief) Chris (Rice) did a whale of a job in the first round. I think that's definitely the story of the first round."
Race Weekend Preview
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Race: Hollywood Casino 400
Place: Kansas Speedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Oct. 16 at 2:15 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)
What to Watch For: The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway for its second race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Round of 12. Jimmie Johnson leads the Chase Grid due to his win at Charlotte. He is followed by Matt Kenseth (31 points above Austin Dillon on the cutoff line), Kyle Busch (+27), Brad Keselowski (+25), Kurt Busch (+24), Carl Edwards (+20), Martin Truex Jr. (+19), Denny Hamlin (+3), Austin Dillon (three points behind Denny Hamlin on the cutoff line), Chase Elliott (-3), Joey Logano (-6) and Kevin Harvick (-8). ... Jimmie Johnson attempts to take sole possession of the Kansas Speedway wins lead. Johnson and Jeff Gordon both have three victories at the 1.5-mile track. Four drivers each have two wins at 1.5-mile tracks this season - Brad Keselowski (Kentucky and Las Vegas), Jimmie Johnson (Atlanta and Charlotte), Kyle Busch (Kansas and Texas) and Martin Truex Jr. (Charlotte and Chicagoland). ... Non-Chasers Greg Biffle (twice), Tony Stewart (twice) and Ryan Newman have all won at Kansas and will try to spoil an automatic bid to the next round.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Race: Kansasa Lottery 300
Place: Kansas Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 3 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)
What to Watch For: The NASCAR XFINITY Series kicks off the Round of 8 of its inaugural Chase. The eight drivers remaining are Daniel Suarez, Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Erik Jones, Brendan Gaughan, Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Blake Koch. ... NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers competing in the Saturday's NASCAR XFINITY Series race include: Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Regan Smith, Josh Wise and Matt DiBenedetto. ... Kyle Busch is the defending race winner.
Hendrick himself piloted a boat called "Preparation H." They may have jumped into the water to celebrate victories, but Hendrick never took a champagne bath – until Sunday afternoon at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Following a summer that was like a bed of thorns and no roses for Hendrick Motorsport, the team owner has restored his reputation as a maestro of team and equipment preparation. Such was the relief over the end of a 24-race losing streak, Hendrick, now 67 and a Sprint Cup entrant since 1984, took his first champagne bath to celebrate Jimmie Johnson's victory in the opening race of the Chase's Round of 12.
During the summer, it felt more like time for "milk and cookies" instead of time to pop a champagne cork. Back in the earliest days of NASCAR's longest running driver and crew chief pairing, Johnson and his Crew Chief Chad Knaus were at loggerheads. Hendrick called a meeting around milk and cookies to help them settle their differences and they came on to win six Sprint Cups.
But this year, Johnson was absent from the winner's slot in most Chase brackets after years of being a perennial favorite. Such was the Hendrick team's doldrums, including winless seasons from the cars driven by Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who stepped aside in August due to concussion issues. Asked before the race if he had considered the "milk and cookie" approach this summer, Hendrick replied, "I came real close."
Things are different these days.
Ever since Johnson's fifth straight title in 2010, NASCAR's premier league has made a headlong shift from a series with technology driven by crew chiefs to one driven by engineers. Teams now must compile information from all of its cars. It's no longer possible to sit down around some "refreshments" and come up with solutions by just involving one crew chief and driver.
Knaus said there have been many meetings, which eventually pulled the Hendrick team together.
There were "a lot of meetings involving the heads of states," said Knaus of the long, cool summer. "We've got the crew chiefs, we've got the management group and Kenny Francis (who directs the team's car building operation). What we were trying to do was identify what areas needed work. We started to hone in on where we thought we needed to get some gains."
What the team found was how to better "skew" their cars within the rules. Other teams were finding ways to get rear axle set-ups that passed NASCAR inspection and helped cornering speeds. Rivals also were proving better at getting their "skewed" bodywork through the inspection process. "Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't put it back again," said Ken Howes, the vice president of competition at Hendrick, who said the team began using similar tactics.
The Hendrick team's new bodywork was verified in August at the Aerodyne wind tunnel in Mooresville, N.C., where the team owner was present for a marathon 24-hour test. His crews were making the most of the NASCAR rule that limits the number of days of wind tunnel testing by working in shifts. Hendrick was there for the duration. "You have to show your support," said Hendrick, who was also observing how well his team was working together. It turned out, the team was in sync when it came to preparation.
But mid-race execution problems cropped up, such as poor pit stops late in races and pit road penalties, which Hendrick described as scary when it came to the losing streak. "We've been better than we've finished," he said of the first three Chase races. "This feels good. I've never taken a champagne bath in thirty-some years. This is like our first win."
Some luck was involved on a weekend when Hurricane Matthew's draft brought rain and strong winds that forced a postponement of the scheduled Saturday night start. The sunshine for Sunday's green flag at noon burned brightly, almost reminiscent of summer – except for the way the Hendrick cars circulated on a hot track. Johnson and rookie teammate Elliott combined to lead 258 of the 334 laps and Johnson opined that a warmer track helped the Hendrick cars versus the Toyotas that have been so strong at Charlotte recently.
Martin Truex, Jr., who led 392 of 400 laps in his Furniture Row Racing Toyota at Charlotte in May's night race, failed to lead a lap in Sunday's event. Johnson, who finished third in May, said he no longer has to scare himself to record good lap times to keep up. "I can drive consistent laps," he said. "These races are long and the conditions change. You can't drive an entire race at ten tenths. Nobody can. So it's how the car is consistent and stable (that) has allowed us to be competitive to work through traffic and the changing conditions."
The entire sport is about changing conditions. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing, has participated in five championships and is hardly surprised that the Chevy entries of Hendrick are proving to be such a tough match for the four JGR Toyotas and the affiliated team of Furniture Row.
"When the Chase starts, everything ramps up," said Makar of the Hendrick resurgence. "The game in the postseason is different than the regular season."
A team, he said, can only get so far ahead while working next to each other in open garages under a very tight box of NASCAR rules. "The smaller the box gets, the harder it is to differentiate yourself," said Makar. "It gets harder to find an advantage. When change happens, you're always trying to be the ones that figure it out first."
There's another angle on timing. If a team finds something coming into the Chase, that's definitely an advantage when it comes to momentum, which Hendrick Motorsports now has. For one thing, Johnson is qualified for the Round of 8 and doesn't have to worry about the wild card of the Talladega Superspeedway. On the other hand, a re-start crash has put Elliott on the bubble headed into the Kansas Speedway on Sunday.
At least one Toyota driver is adopting a no worries approach. Kyle Busch, who had both a tire problem and also suffered from a collision in that same re-start, managed to finish sixth. The defending Sprint Cup champion said he was satisfied with his car's speed after studying the notes of JGR teammate Matt Kenseth, who finished second.
Whether JGR has enough to beat the Chevy entries of Hendrick as the Chase and the Round of 12 continues to unfold is reason enough to keep watching. Hendrick versus rival JGR and Chevy versus Toyota is a lot like the Red Sox versus the Yankees with an international twist.
The green flag is now expected to wave shortly after noon ET Sunday.
Hurricane Matthew began influencing Charlotte NASCAR race weekend on Friday, with the cancellation of all on-track activity. The result was a rescheduling of a NASCAR Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled for Friday night but postponed until Sunday. That race is expected to take the green flag about 45 minutes after the running of the Bank of America 500.
When the Sprint Cup race takes the green flag on Sunday, Kevin Harvick will start on the pole.
"I think there are just so many good guys and teams in this deal. I think anybody can hit it," Harvick said. "I think there's a lot of good teams and a lot of good engineers that can hit it spot-on for the race."
Alex Bowman, serving as a substitute driver for the still-sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr., will start next to Harvick on the front row.
"We've got great Hendrick horsepower under the hood and just ready to go Saturday night or Sunday or whenever we get to race," Bowman said.
The Bank of America 500 is the fourth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the first race of the second round. Joey Logano won last year's race on his way to sweeping all three races of round two in 2015. Martin Truex Jr. won the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, leading all but eight laps of the 400-lap Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's longest race of the season.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Persistent rain from the effects of Hurricane Matthew forced NASCAR to cancel all of Friday's on-track activity at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including the Xfinity Series Chase Round of 12 finale.
Hurricane Matthew is the most powerful storm to threaten the Southeast coast in more than a decade.
The Drive for the Cure 300 will now run Sunday at 11 a.m. ET, broadcast on NBCSN.
The starting lineup for Sunday's rescheduled race will be determined by the Xfinity Series rule book, which sets the field by fastest-to-slowest practice speeds from both of Thursday's sessions. During final practice, Kyle Larson turned the fastest practice lap (185.198 mph) of the day and will start on the pole.
Erik Jones, who currently sits outside the top 8 cut-off line for advancement into the next round, will start second on Sunday.
Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bank of America 500 -- the first race in the Chase's Round of 12 -- remains scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. -- Kevin Harvick may have won the pole for Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC), but Alex Bowman continued to open eyes as a substitute driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Touring the 1.5-mile speedway in 27.547 seconds (196.029 mph), Harvick knocked Bowman (196.000 mph) off the pole by a scant .004 seconds in the final round of Thursday evening's knockout qualifying.
The pole was Harvick's first at Charlotte, his first of the 2016 season and the 16th of his career.
"It was good in (Turns) 1 and 2, but I felt like I gave up a little something in (Turns) 3 and 4 coming to the checkered," Harvick said of his lap in the money round. "This has just been a fun car to drive today. Hopefully we can get it dialed in race trim."
Where Harvick gave up speed in the final two corners, Bowman likely lost the pole in the first two turns, where he drifted up the track slightly and scrubbed off just enough speed to fall short of Harvick by the minute fraction of a second.
Nevertheless, driving in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in six of the last seven races of the season while Earnhardt recovers from a concussion, Bowman stole the show.
"The Showman Bowman was fast tonight," Earnhardt tweeted after the final round. Great job @AlexBRacing and @AxaltaRacing gang. P2 @CLTMotorSpdwy."
Bowman, the fastest of the non-Chase drivers in time trials, recently posted his career-best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish, a 10th at Chicagoland Speedway. Though Bowman continues to show excellent speed as a substitute, he has no definite plans for next year.
But he came tantalizingly close to a monumental achievement on Thursday night.
"Honestly, we didn't put the greatest lap together," said Bowman, who ran the fastest lap of the day in the second round (196.200 mph). "In (Turns) 1 and 2, we were a little free in (into the corner) and didn't really keep it on the bottom like I needed to.
"Turns 3 and 4 were really good. It means so much for Hendrick Motorsports to take a chance on me for these races. I'm really thankful to be here. I hate that we didn't get the pole. We were so close. It's definitely my best starting spot by a bunch, but you'd always like that pole."
Chase drivers claimed eight of the top-12 starting positions, with Chase Elliott qualifying third, Kyle Busch fourth, Martin Truex Jr., seventh, Carl Edwards eighth, Denny Hamlin ninth, Joey Logano 10th and Jimmie Johnson 11th.
Chase drivers Matt Kenseth (17th), Austin Dillon (19th), Brad Keselowski (20th) and Kurt Busch (23rd) failed to advance to the final round.
"I don't think anybody knew that we could go as fast as Bowman went in that second round," Edwards said. "That kind of raised the stakes for everyone."
NOTES: Danica Patrick will start 13th, her second-best effort this year after qualifying 11th at Sonoma in June. Patrick just missed advancing to the final round; Johnson edged her for the 12th and final position by .012 seconds... Hendrick Motorsports continued to show improved speed, putting all four of its cars in the top 12 (with Kasey Kahne in 12th joining Bowman, Elliott and Johnson). Hendrick-powered cars claimed four of the top five spots on the grid, with Harvick on the pole and Tony Stewart fifth.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying -- Bank of America 500
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Concord, North Carolina
Thursday, October 6, 2016
1. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 196.029 mph.
2. (88) Alex Bowman(i), Chevrolet, 196.000 mph.
3. (24) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 195.759 mph.
4. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 195.228 mph.
5. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 195.228 mph.
6. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 195.087 mph.
7. (78) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 194.826 mph.
8. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 194.553 mph.
9. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 194.168 mph.
10. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 194.049 mph.
11. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 192.630 mph.
12. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 188.547 mph.
13. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 194.161 mph.
14. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 194.007 mph.
15. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 193.966 mph.
16. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 193.868 mph.
17. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 193.791 mph.
18. (21) Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 193.736 mph.
19. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 193.722 mph.
20. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 193.625 mph.
21. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 193.209 mph.
22. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 193.009 mph.
23. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 192.205 mph.
24. (83) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 191.489 mph.
25. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 191.980 mph.
26. (34) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 191.829 mph.
27. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 191.544 mph.
28. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 191.530 mph.
29. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 191.469 mph.
30. (44) Brian Scott #, Ford, 191.381 mph.
31. (15) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 190.954 mph.
32. (38) Landon Cassill, Ford, 190.617 mph.
33. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 190.564 mph.
34. (23) David Ragan, Toyota, 190.054 mph.
35. (7) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 188.864 mph.
36. (98) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 186.002 mph.
37. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 185.976 mph.
38. (32) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Ford, 185.039 mph.
39. (55) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 183.673 mph.
40. (30) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 183.343 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. -- Carl Edwards and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have high expectations in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup - if only they can catch a certain "rabbit."
The hare in question is Martin Truex Jr., who drives the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, which maintains a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, and like JGR, gets its engines from Toyota Racing Development (TRD).
Truex won two of the three races in the Chase's Round of 16 and, appropriately, has earned the designation as favorite for this year's championship. Even though Truex finished 7.527 seconds ahead of JGR's Kyle Busch last Sunday at Dover, Edwards says the JGR cars aren't far behind.
And, ostensibly at least, the unfettered sharing of information between Gibbs drivers Edwards, Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin and the Furniture Row team has continued into the Chase.
"If we didn't know what engines and chassis and setups those guys had, it'd be really easy to say they've got something -- they've got something special that we don't have -- but knowing what they have and knowing what they're able to do with it, that's a motivator," Edwards said on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"And I've been telling people this week I really believe you're going to see the other four JGR cars - the four JGR cars -- really step it up, because Martin is that... he's that rabbit out there that we're all chasing. We know it can be done, and I think, in the end, that's a gift to have somebody in your camp or close to you that can do that."
AUSTIN DILLON EMBRACES UNDERDOG ROLE
It doesn't matter to Austin Dillon that Las Vegas oddsmakers have made him a 50-to-1 shot to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, by far the longest odds among the 12 remaining drivers.
After finishing eighth last Sunday at Dover and earning the final transfer spot from the Chase's Round of 16, Dillon believes his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has the speed to pull off a surprise in the Round of 12.
"Well, we have the least odds in Vegas right now - I just heard that," Dillon said on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I like this role, because it puts the pressure on the guys that I guess are projected to make it to the next round, whatever projections mean.
"Because in racing, I've learned real quick that it's not like any other sport... You just never know what can happen in a race, and you never know what the outcomes... there is so much that goes into every little piece and part of these cars.
"I'm confident in the company I drive for with RCR and the people around me, myself also, that we can make strong finishes, and that is what I'm confident about. I love the underdog role, because that makes when we do knock people out, it's going to be fulfilling."
For the record, Kevin Harvick is the Vegas favorite to win the Chase at 7-to-2 odds (per vegasinsider.com). Martin Truex Jr. is second at 4-to-1 and Jimmie Johnson third at 6-to-1.
--Katelyn Sweet, girlfriend of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson, won Thursday's 25-lap Better Half Dash at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which raised more than $70,000 for charity. Paige White, girlfriend of 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, finished second, with Hayley Dillon, wife of NASCAR XFINITY Series driver Ty Dillon, running third despite spinning twice...
--Charlotte-based Maaco, a collision and repair company, has signed on with Furniture Row Racing as an associate sponsor on Martin Truex Jr.'s No. 78 Toyota for Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Truex led a NASCAR-record 588-of-600 miles in winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May. In Saturday night's race, he goes for his third victory in four Chase races, having triumphed at Chicagoland and Dover in the Chase's Round of 16.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Jimmie Johnson might hold the Charlotte Motor Speedway record with seven wins, but lately Kevin Harvick has been better there. In his last seven starts at the 1.5-mile track, Harvick has registered two wins, three second-place finishes and no showing worse than ninth.
The No. 4 Chevrolet driver will attempt to notch another Queen City victory in Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC) - the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Round of 12 opener. Harvick won the event in 2014, the last time it was run at night. Last year, he finished second to Joey Logano when the race was held in the day on Sunday following a Saturdaynight rainout.
"I think Charlotte, just because of the fact we've had so much success there," said Harvick when asked what Round of 12 track he was most excited to go to. "We've run well there really every time we've been there with our Stewart-Haas Racing cars. Going there this weekend is definitely something I'm looking forward to. Any race track where you've had some success at, you definitely want to go back."
A win would earn Harvick more than just a trophy, it would advance him to the Chase's Round of 8. The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has visited Victory Lane at all three tracks in the Round of 12 - Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega - indicating a third straight trip to the Round of 8 might be inevitable.
"It's nice to know that you can go to any of these race tracks and win because we have," Harvick said. "They're all hard to win at and I think as you look at Charlotte, trying to put the car back in Victory Lane is the first goal, and if you can't, try to get the best finish that you can. That comes with no mistakes and if you do have a mistake, overcome it and capitalize on the moment if you have it to actually get to Victory Lane.
Despite his success at all three tracks, Harvick is focused on this weekend's race. In 31 career starts at Charlotte, including 15 in the fall, Harvick boasts three wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.
"There could be challenges no matter where you go," he said. "Charlotte is a very finicky race track and with the way that we practice, most of the practice will be during the day with the race at night. So temperature has a huge factor in how the race track changes and how they pace changes, so you have to try to guess a little bit to that. And obviously the weather can be a little bit of an issue as we creep into the weekend. You have to try to plan and balance all of those things to have a good plan, but you have to be ready to abort that plan and come up with a new one on the fly at any given point."
Erik Jones tries to stave off elimination from XFINITY Chase
Entering the NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase with a series-leading four wins and the 12 bonus points that came with them, Erik Jones seemed like an absolute lock to make the playoffs' Round of 8 if not the Championship 4.
He sure doesn't look like a lock right now.
Jones goes into Friday's Drive for the Cure 300 Chase cutoff race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) four points below Brennan Poole on the cutoff line. If he can't make up those points, he will be eliminated from championship contention.
Jones dug himself into his current predicament by finishing 28th at Kentucky and 16th at Dover. In three career starts at Charlotte, Jones has finished 15th (spring 2015), second (fall 2015) and 31st (spring 2016).
"We have a good team, we just have to do it right," Jones said. "I know this 20 team builds fast cars and I know this weekend at Charlotte will be no different. We just need to go out and execute and hopefully get into the next round. A lot of work and a lot of pressure, but I think we can do it."
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Race: Bank of America 500
Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 501 miles (334 laps)
What to Watch For: Martin Truex Jr. tries to defend his spring Charlotte victory. He has won three of the last five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and led the most laps in the two he didn't win. ... Joey Logano attempts to repeat as the Charlotte fall winner. ... Jimmie Johnson looks to add to his track-record seven wins. ... Kyle Busch goes for his first Charlotte win. He has visited Victory Lane at every active track except for Charlotte and Pocono. ... Non-Chaser Kasey Kahne looks to spoil an automatic bid for a Chase-eligible driver. He has won four races at Charlotte and has posted four top 10s in his last five starts.
NASCAR XFINITY Series
Race: Drive For The Cure 300 Presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina
Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Friday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)
What to Watch For: Daniel Suarez (6.6) and Elliott Sadler (8.9) - both of whom have advanced to the NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase Round of 8 via victories - lead all championship contenders in average finish at 1.5-mile tracks this year. ... The Chase bubble is packed with 10 drivers within 17 points of elimination. Here's where the drivers who haven't clinched berths in the Round of 8 stand: Justin Allgaier (17 points ahead of Ty Dillon on the cutoff line), Brendan Gaughan (+14), Ryan Reed (+11), Darrell Wallace Jr. (+10), Blake Koch (+4), Brennan Poole (+3), Dillon (-3 points below Brennan Poole on the cutoff line), Erik Jones (-4), Ryan Sieg (-10) and Brandon Jones (-18). ... NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Kyle Larson, Matt DiBenedetto, Josh Wise, Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are all scheduled to compete in Friday's NASCAR XFINITY Series race.
They aren't exactly ham-handed, bumbling Bubbas who are on the bubble because they can't get the job done. Each is in the Chase for a reason and all have advanced by avoiding big errors and demonstrating consistency, but they are all in need of a spark in speed.
Hurricane weather permitting, wheels will turn in anger for the fourth of 10 Chase races on Saturday night in Charlotte. The points have been reset for all of the drivers, but when engines are fired for the race, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon know they need to step up in the speed department or hope for a reprieve at the always unpredictable third segment at the Talladega Superspeedway.
The other eight contenders have either led laps in the first three races of the Chase, finished in the Top 5, or, in the case of Martin Truex, Jr. and Kevin Harvick, won races.
Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing and Chevy drivers Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports have demonstrated they have the speed to win races, the surest way to advance. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano may not have been strong victory contenders in their Team Penske Fords, but they have led laps and finished in the Top 10 five times out of six chances.
Betting on hitting a winning wild card at Talladega - instead of hitting the wall or another car - is never a good approach. So the next two races are critical for at least some peace of mind for the Chase drivers once headed for Alabama.
"You can't go to Talladega expecting a good finish," 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch said. Like others, he is looking to gain points on the field in Charlotte and then on a second straight visit to a 1.5-mile oval in Kansas City.
That may be an uphill struggle.
The No. 41 Chevy of Stewart-Haas Racing has finished 10th or lower in 13 of the last 16 races after being a regular contender in the first half of the season, including an opportunistic victory at the Pocono International Raceway.
Busch has recorded one win in Charlotte and none at the Kansas Speedway or Talladega during his 17-year career. Like his team co-owner, Tony Stewart, Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson have not been able to match the consistent speed of SHR's Kevin Harvick.
In the second half of the season, Harvick and others have found more speed, while Busch and Gibson have not kept up.
Austin Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team found enough speed at Dover to race their way into the Round of 12 - in part due to the misfortune of Kyle Larson. Over the course of the season, Dillon has recorded four Top 5 finishes and 11 Top 10s, including a rather heroic eighth place in Dover.
The question is whether the set-up in the new car built for Dover by RCR can carry over to the next three races.
"Some of my best tracks are in this round, Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega," Dillon said. "To head into Charlotte Motor Speedway with a better shot at the championship is awesome."
Whether the driver means he likes these tracks, is relatively better on them or expects to perform well is a point in question.
Dillon and RCR have led only seven laps all year and none at these tracks. Dillon has yet to record a Top 5 in either Charlotte or Kansas and has only one Top 5 result at Talladega. So a lot is riding on whether the team continues to find speed in the Chevy entries for its driver.
One thing is in Dillon's favor. Now that he's in his third full season, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress has proven he doesn't rattle easily and has been able to run at the front on occasion, if not regularly.
Surprisingly, two in what can be considered the bubble group - Hamlin and Edwards - drive for JGR, whose Toyotas have been dominant throughout the season. Hamlin has won three races, including a season-opening Daytona 500 victory - and Edwards has won two.
Hamlin says that Dover was his biggest obstacle.
"We've got some good tracks in front of us," he said. "I think those are all tracks where I ran strong in the spring and I've had strong runs in the past."
Do the statistics back him up? In general, they do, both historically and this season.
Hamlin finished 600 miles in Charlotte in fourth place this spring. He has no victories at the track, but six Top 5 finishes in 11 seasons. He was a contender at the Kansas Speedway before an accident - albeit of his own making - took him out in the spring. He has won there and has four Top 5 finishes.
Coming into Charlotte, Hamlin had two victories in his last 11 races and 10 finishes in the Top 10. But relatively speaking, his results of sixth in Chicago, 15th in New Hampshire and ninth at Dover were slightly underwhelming. Hamlin has led 406 laps this season, but only two in the Chase.
Hamlin and his team have found themselves playing a points game thus far, taking what they can get in order to advance. Perhaps that will change in the Round of 12.
Carl Edwards led 31 laps from the pole in New Hampshire, but his JGR team is still looking for consistency in races. His sixth place on the Golden Mile was preceded by a 15th in Chicago and followed by a 14th-place finish at Dover. Those results are not likely to advance him to the next round.
"We did not run well these first three races," Edwards said after Dover. "We really struggled. (Dover) is usually one of our best."
Edwards has led 773 laps this year to go with seven Top 5 and 16 Top 10 finishes. But the Chase is situational and currently his JGR team led by Crew Chief Dave Rogers has lost its edge. The team's two victories have come on short tracks, but the next ones on the schedule are not found until the Round of 8.
"You know, you want to run so well at these first two (in Charlotte and Kansas City) that you don't have to worry about the third one," Edwards said. "So, we've really got to lean on the notes from our spring Charlotte race. We've got to go out there and execute."
It's down to that. Execute or be exited from the Chase.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- It was a double-departure Chase day for Chip Ganassi Racing.
CGR drivers Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray entered Sunday's Citizen Soldier 400, the first elimination race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, riding on the ragged edge. Larson, 12th in the Chase standings, was five points above the cut line, and McMurray, in 13th, was five points below.
Long before the end of Sunday's 400-lap marathon at Dover International Speedway, both drivers saw their hopes to advance to the Chase second round essentially evaporate.
Chris Buescher, Tony Stewart, McMurray and Larson were eliminated Sunday. The second round of the Chase is scheduled to begin Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
McMurray's chances went up in smoke -- literally -- as the engine in his Chevrolet expired on the frontstretch near the race's halfway point. Larson lost power in his car early in the race, dropped a lap on pit road and then gave up more ground when the team was penalized for having too many crewmen over the wall as they tried to deal with Larson's issues. To further cement his demise, Larson slapped the turn 3 wall on lap 182, which brought out the race's third caution.
"It's unfortunate that both the No. 42 (Larson) and the No. 1 had a problem today," McMurray said in the garage. "But it is what it is, and that's why we race. I'm proud of my team and proud of our guys and all the hard work they've put in. And it stinks that it's over this way, but we get to race next week. So, we'll come back and try to do it again."
McMurray said it appeared that he and Austin Dillon would battle for a Chase spot as the race progressed. McMurray's engine issue blocked that possible drama, and he ultimately finished 40th (last).
"But I'm proud of our whole organization from where we started the year to the point that we are at right now," McMurray said. "When you run in the top 10 every week -- and Kyle won at Michigan -- we just have had great cars, and it stinks that it ended this way."
McMurray, who dropped out of championship contention in the first round of the Chase for the second straight year, said a vibration was the first hint of trouble with his Chevy.
"It vibrated earlier in the race, and it went away," he said. "And it's weird because engine issues usually don't go away. It felt like it had power, and then, I don't know, about 40 laps before it finally blew up it just started vibrating real bad."
Larson, who finished 25th, lost a lap because of the electrical problem but suffered a triple-whammy with the penalty for the team having too many crewmen over the wall and, later, the accident.
"I don't know what happened with the battery or whatever," Larson said. "I lost power and lost a lap. Then we had too many men over the wall. Really, if it had not been for that, we would have been all right because I was only a lap down. But it was a nice little present there for Austin by both Ganassi cars."
Dillon, who finished eighth, was the final driver to make the 12-driver cut for the next Chase round.
"We came a long way from where we started the season," Larson said. "We just didn't have good luck again this year."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- When racing pundits were making their Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup predictions at the start of the 2016 season, it is doubtful Chris Buescher made anyone's top 16.
Nevertheless, Buescher defied the odds and qualified for the Chase on the strength of an unlikely victory in the rain-shortened Aug. 1 race at Pocono.
But the opening two events of the playoff didn't go the way the driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford would have liked. Buescher finished 28th at Chicagoland and 30th at New Hampshire to fall into last place in the Chase standings, 30 points below the cut line.
To avoid elimination when the Chase field is trimmed from 16 drivers to 12, Buescher almost certainly needs a victory in Sunday's Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) to advance to the next round.
To Buescher, surprisingly, that means a stress-free weekend at the Monster Mile.
"We look at Dover as the last race of this round, and we really don't have anything to lose," Buescher said. "Chicago and Loudon weren't the races that we wanted to have, and we come into Dover, one of my favorite race tracks.
"I'm excited to get on track. This should be a place where we can really have a good run and see if we can advance to that next round. It's going to be tough at this point, but this is probably our best race track out of this round, so I'm excited to get going."
In his only previous Sprint Cup start at the Monster Mile -- a wreck-filled war of attrition on May 15 -- Buescher finished 18th, four laps down. But in four NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Dover, Buescher has one victory, three top 10s and a worst finish of 11th.
"Like we said, we don't really have anything to lose here," said the 2015 Xfinity Series champion. "All we have to do is gain, so, to me, it's going to make it to where we're able to go out here and not worry about it, take some chances, try and utilize some risk and see if we can pull something off."
JOHNSON ENCOURAGED BY PROGRESS OF EARNHARDT'S RECOVERY
Most race car drivers would rather wreck than watch someone else drive their cars.
From that perspective, Jimmie Johnson can understand why Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't been frequenting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race tracks as he spends the rest of the season recovering from a concussion.
Yes, Earnhardt made a brief appearance at Watkins Glen in August, and he participated in a longer press conference at Darlington a month later. But Sunday will be the first time Earnhardt will stay for a Sprint Cup race.
"I completely understand how difficult it is to come to the track and feel productive," Johnson said. "But I guess many of you haven't had a chance to see him in our team meetings, at the shop, and various ways we interact and being a part of the discussions week-to-week on what's happened when we're getting ready for the next week.
"He's been deeply involved in all of that. I can only imagine how hard it is to go to the track and watch your car race, and then also how boring it would be, because we do have the coolest job to sit in that race car. And then just to come to a track and watch, I don't know if I could do it.
"It's great from a public perception that he's coming and that people can really see how hard he's working and then kind of tie that together with his recovery process. But I've seen a lot of him and I know he's dying to get back in the race car and eager to feel amazing again, and I think he's on a great road of progress right now."
Part of Earnhardt's recovery involves participation in high-stress public situations. On Friday, before coming to Dover, he attended a high school football game at his alma mater, Mooresville High School.
Saturday morning's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice was shortened because of light rain but not before Jeff Gordon, subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend, posted the fastest lap of the session at 160.514 mph. Gordon ran 41 laps before the session was curtailed at the 40-minute mark, second only to Jamie McMurray's 42. ... Interestingly, there were no Chase drivers in the top six on the speed chart in the Saturday morning session. Behind Gordon were Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. Kyle Larson, who led Friday's opening practice at the Monster Mile, was the fastest of the Chase drivers on Saturday, recording a best lap of 158.898 mph. ... Saturday's final Sprint Cup practice was canceled because of rain.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- On a rainy morning at Dover International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson was hopeful lightning wouldn't strike twice -- figuratively speaking, of course.
A year ago, in the third race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the failure of a rear-axle seal eliminated the six-time series champion from NASCAR's 10-race playoff.
Never mind that Johnson has owned the Monster Mile with 10 victories in 29 starts. Last year's 41st-place finish in the Chase race reminded the Dover dominator that freakish bad luck can strike at any time and dramatically change the course of a season.
But that doesn't mitigate Johnson's eagerness to reverse his 2015 ill fortune.
"I'm excited to be back to my best race track, without a doubt," Johnson said Friday morning at the one-mile concrete track. "I think last year shows that you really can't count on a race track always being kind to a driver or always working in their favor.
"It's part of racing. I've learned it through many different lessons over my racing career. Last year, I think, kind of showed everybody once again that you just can't take a race or a track for granted for anybody. We're back with high hopes."
Currently eighth in the Chase standings, Johnson remains within striking distance of both Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon, who are tied for the 13th position, 18 points behind the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet.
Nevertheless, Johnson should be able to advance to the Chase's Round of 12 with a respectable finish in Sunday's Citizen Soldier 400 (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
TRUEX EXUDES CONFIDENCE AS HE COMES TO HOME TRACK
If you don't consider Martin Truex Jr. one of the favorites to win this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, you haven't been paying attention to the first two races in the Chase.
Truex won the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway and had perhaps the fastest car a week later at New Hampshire, though he dropped to seventh at the finish after a late restart.
Now he comes to Dover, the track closest to his childhood home in Mayetta, N.J., full of confidence -- and not just because he's locked into the Chase's Round of 12 by virtue of the win at Chicagoland. Dover gave Truex his first Sprint Cup victory in 2007; in addition, he notched two poles and 10 top 10s at the track.
And it's not the Chicagoland victory that accounts for the laid-back Truex's relaxed attitude. That sort of atmosphere permeates the Furniture Row Racing team.
"I think that we've been pretty relaxed throughout preparing for the Chase and starting it off," Truex asserted on Friday at Dover. "Obviously, winning Chicago was a big deal for us, but I think that we really haven't paid much attention to everybody else. We've really just focused on what we're doing and obviously happy to be locked in that next round already.
"But, all in all, I think our teams had a good focus, a good outlook, a good mind-set even before the Chase started. We've just had a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum -- obviously. So things are going well and I think for us it's just important to keep that mindset, not get too many highs or lows and just keep that even keel and be smart and race hard."
ELLIOTT: PRESSURE WILL INCREASE AS CHASE PROGRESSES
As a Sunoco rookie in his first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Chase Elliott has found the first two playoff races surprisingly "normal."
Elliott comes to the elimination at Dover tied for ninth in the standings, 16 points ahead of Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon, the first two drivers below the cut line.
But Elliott expects that, as the rounds of the Chase progress, the intensity will ratchet up significantly.
"I think the further you get into it, the more it is going to ramp up, for sure," Elliott said Friday at the Monster Mile. "Obviously, when guys are put in certain situations, their intensity is going to ramp up individually as you see, like last year. This race last year was a big race for that.
"I think a lot of it is situational, but, to me, this first round has been pretty normal as far as the races go and how I've seen people driving and whatnot. I feel like it's been pretty similar to the races throughout the year. Like I said, I think if you make it further into the deal, it will ramp up, I'm sure. I mean it has to as you start eliminating more guys, and it gets down to a smaller group of people."
Stewart, who will retire from full-time competition at the end of the season, is 15th in the standings going into the race at Dover, Del. on Sunday and is in danger of being eliminated after the opening Round of 16.
At Sonoma Raceway this summer, Stewart got the victory he needed to qualify for the Chase with a fortuitous final pit stop shortly before a caution fell, which put him in the lead. It may take similar good fortune for him to advance to the Round of 12 after Dover.
Just a run-of-the-mill win won't be enough.
He not only needs to finish ahead of the other three drivers below the cutline.
Stewart will also have to gain points on at least one of the 10 drivers above the cutline who are not yet locked in, which will likely require one of them to crash and retire early or suffer the sort of freakish mechanical misfortune that eliminated Jimmie Johnson last year.
Stewart can automatically advance if he wins at Dover, where he has three career victories. But that might require divine intervention given his performance with this year's low downforce package on ovals. An anticipated summer charge on flat, slick tracks in hot weather – where Stewart has traditionally been strong -- didn't materialize after the Sonoma victory in June.
It wasn't a strong recommendation that he finished 23rd at the relatively flat New Hampshire Motor Speedway last Sunday on a warm day. Stewart looked more like the Indy car driver he once was, one who won an IRL championship while relying on wings and high downforce.
In what was less than championship behavior, Stewart made himself scarce after the New Hampshire race. Midway in the race, he told his crew by radio that something was wrong with the car and that it suddenly went "numb." The crew didn't find anything when checking underneath the car on the next pit stop. Where several teams advanced in the late stages by putting on four tires during the spate of cautions at the end of the race, Stewart failed to advance. Now his season looks to be going numb.
Last year, four-time champion Jeff Gordon needed a miracle to advance to the championship finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway before retiring from full-time participation in the Sprint Cup. He got one.
Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked leader Joey Logano at the Martinsville Speedway late in the race, which enabled Gordon, running a distant second, to win and advance.
Gordon, who will race at Dover as a substitute for the concussed and sidelined Dale Earnhardt, Jr., had a much different swan song season than Stewart. Gordon was booed early in his career for breaking the good ol' mold of NASCAR drivers by favoring video games and running shoes over hunting, fishing and cowboy boots. But he eventually became a fan favorite due to an even-keeled personality and was recognized for having helped NASCAR grow by bringing in younger fans and female fans by the legions.
Three-time champion Stewart, by contrast, has been booed occasionally and still gets reamed in the online comments section.
The specter of a wrongful death civil suit over the incident on a New York short track where a young driver high on marijuana stepped in front of his car on a dark track remains, especially for the vast anti-Stewart segment of Sprint Cup fans.
At least Stewart's had an eventful season that has re-focused him on his stock car career. First, Stewart advanced his retirement plans by joining several fellow retired racing drivers in an off-road excursion during the winter and suffered a burst fracture in his back while on an ATV.
Even before returning, Stewart stirred up a hornets' nest by declaring NASCAR's lug nut rules unsafe. He was fined $35,000 for popping off, but NASCAR agreed the safety was out of whack and changed its rules.
Then came the Sonoma victory, which included a brilliant closing stint to beat Denny Hamlin, who suffered sheet metal damage in the process. Alas, the last race in the regular season also saw Stewart trade sheet metal with Ryan Newman in a fit of pique that wrecked quite a few other team owners' cars. This was the Tony Stewart that fans love or loathe. And to think, he and Newman considered themselves friends.
As a team co-owner, Stewart also continues to stir the drink.
His drivers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, have been two of the most consistent on the circuit and have won four races between them. By winning at New Hampshire, Harvick has automatically advanced to the Round of 12. Busch, meanwhile, is 26 points ahead of Stewart and two positions above the cutline in 11th place. Only Danica Patrick has been a disappointment behind the wheel of an SHR Chevy.
Stewart and co-owner Gene Haas are already winners in 2017, having been awarded factory team status by Ford, which means a great leap forward in technical support. The team will no longer rely on Hendrick Motorsports to build its chassis and instead will develop its own technology in-house from the ground up, a process already under way this very successful last season with Chevy.
Which Tony will show up at Dover?
The one who sulks and walks away from a poor race with no comment – or the extraordinary wheelman who has made political incorrectness popular long before Donald Trump's current campaign – but with occasional bouts of real grace and humor?
Harvick suggests that you should never count Stewart out.
"Everybody bet against Tony to even make the Chase," said Harvick. "I think you look at Dover, it's a race track that – he can go to any race track and win."
Harvick has pounded on the door of victory lane all season and been admitted three times. Stewart needed a break to get into the lead at Sonoma, a road course where the lower downforce package is less a problem than on ovals due to the different corner entries required for left and right turns. On the ovals, he hasn't performed nearly as well or consistently as Harvick and Busch, who has one victory.
The good news is that Stewart will continue in the sport and very likely be involved in more championships and certainly more victories. He may even have a few more run-ins with NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France when he speaks his mind instead of following the unwritten rules of the new Charter system. Stewart-Haas Racing will undoubtedly heat up the Ford versus Chevrolet wars and maybe even cool off the dominance of the Toyotas.
But will he advance past Dover and crash the Chase? Even if a driver above the cutline hits some dire straits, Stewart will have to raise his game on a high-banked mile oval while finessing speed out of the current low downforce package.
Those are long odds, but not the kind that have ever intimidated Stewart.
Earnhardt Jr., who has not raced since July 9 because of challenging post-concussion symptoms, will not race again in 2016 but he plans to be at XFINITY Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup events at Dover International Speedway this weekend.
"My eyes are really, really good," Earnhardt said on his "The Dale Jr. Download" podcast that is produced by JR Motorsports. "I had some issues with them for a while that were pretty frustrating and those have really gotten better. ... Basically, when I get in these environments, the symptoms I have now are balance."
Jeff Gordon remains at the wheel of Earnhardt Jr.'s Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 car. He will drive at Dover on Sunday and at Martinsville next month, with Alex Bowman assigned the six other races this season.
Earnhardt said he is not symptom-free. When he enters familiar environments, such as the birthday party for his 16-year-old niece last week, there are no issues. He also stood in the fourth row for a Lord Huron concert without incident, and said he went unnoticed by fans.
"We're almost back to being where I'm a normal functioning person with no issues," he said. "But to become that guy that I need to be inside the car, we've got to really train my senses to be really perfect. I'm going to be doing a lot of stuff that's really hard for anybody to do to try to continue to improve the balance and my response time and how quick I'm reacting to things and so forth … still working on it and I enjoy the work."
Earnhardt is familiar with Dover, of course, and its surroundings. But soon his recovery will require testing his ability to function outside of established comfort zones.
"The only thing that triggers the symptoms is going somewhere I'm unfamiliar with, going somewhere I've never been, where it is busy, a lot of people talking, a lot of movement, a lot of visual stimulation," Earnhardt said.