Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes a pass around Jamie McMurray to clinch the 12th position and advance in the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
RELATED: Meet all 16 drivers in the Chase JOLIET, Ill. -- Thursday's playoff-opening media day for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was graced by the arrival of two newcomers in the 16-driver field. Neither was new enough to need a name tag, but Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard both savored the spotlight that comes with their newfound championship eligibility. "Quite honestly, I've never paid attention to what happens at Chase Media Day," McMurray said as he made media rotations at The Murphy in downtown Chicago. "I don't know that I had any idea what all of this was. When we showed up today and took our photo out front when we initially got here, I thought we were literally here for a photo in front of this building and I wasn't sure why. And then when I walked in and saw all this -- amazing. It somewhat reminds you of a condensed version of what we do at Daytona every year." With the meet-and-greets out of the way, both first-timers settle down to the business end of their Chase debut this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway , site of Sunday's MyAFibRisk.com 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the first of 10 playoff races that will determine the Sprint Cup champion. Both found out quickly that the event is no ordinary race, as evidenced by the build-up and obligations before the Challenger Round opens. Both drivers participated in Chase Across North America activities Tuesday: McMurray loaded into Talladega to help a group of middle school students paint a car in Victory Lane, while Menard traveled to Martinsville for a parade and the key to the city. Both then traveled to Kansas Speedway for Wednesday's test session before arriving for Thursday's festivities in the Windy City. The Chase marks uncharted ground for both, but on-track activity and the normal flow of the weekend schedule should provide some familiarity. "I've never been in this position before, so I'm just taking it like I take every week with a busier week leading up to the event this week obviously," Menard said. "But ... I feel good about how we're approaching it. We're just going to put our heads down and go as far in this deal as we can." The wait for a Chase berth has been a lengthy one for McMurray , whose first premier-series start came roughly a year and a half before the 10-race playoff system debuted in 2004. Since then, his career has been dotted with Chase near-misses, but he secured his spot in the field as the top points-earner among non-winners. The Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver doesn't see the zero in his win column as an impediment, citing the example of Ryan Newman last year in the first go-round for the new-look Chase. Newman weathered eliminations all the way to the championship round without a win in 2014, something McMurray said he's capable of replicating thanks to the No. 1 team's consistency this season. "For sure, it obviously has been a long time," McMurray said. "I'm really proud of our team and what we've been able to do to make the Chase. I think I'm most proud that we would've made it in any format. It wasn't necessarily that you're the last guy to get in. We were in the top 10 in points all year long and that's a huge accomplishment for us." The wait has been slightly less prolonged for Menard, who joined the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2007. He wound up as the final driver to qualify for the Chase, 17 points ahead of Aric Almirola . RELATED: Top quotes from Chase Media Day If the Richard Childress Racing driver has an X-factor, it could be from his cult following in social media circles. Though he's among a handful of drivers who aren't on Twitter, he said he's felt the modest groundswell of support from the loyal Menard faithful. "What is there -- 15 nations and one empire? Is that what they say?" Menard said, referring to both the Chase "driver nation" branding and the @PMenardEmpire Twitter account. "No, it's cool. I've actually met Jory, who does the Paul Menard Empire. He's been to a few races and I've met him. Then just randomly … somebody came up -- it was in Richmond -- and said they wanted to meet the emperor. So I signed an autograph. It's cool. I hear about it and it's a pretty cool deal."
Below is a breakdown of how the full 43-car field fared at Dover International Speedway . 1. Kevin Harvick , No. 4 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing . Harvick scored his spot in the Round of 12 in dramatic fashion by leading a career-best 355 laps and notching the 750th victory for manufacturer Chevrolet. 2. Kyle Busch , No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing . Post-race, Busch said he was pleased with where his team finished, citing it had a second-place car, but also adding it had quite a bit of ground to make up to catch the "lightning-fast" No. 4 team. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr ., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports . The final caution flag was a lucky break for Earnhardt, who took the opportunity to address a loose wheel. He then used a solid restart to slip past fellow Chase contender Jamie McMurray and punch his ticket to the next round. 4. Jamie McMurray , No. 1 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing . "Nice work guys. Nothing to be ashamed of," McMurray radioed his team after just missing the cut for Round 2. For more in-car audio, sign up for RaceView . 5. Aric Almirola , No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports . Almirola was posting top-five lap times with 55 laps to go, but needed those remaining circuits to pick up seven spots and match his best Dover result. 6. Kasey Kahne , No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports . The decision to stop twice during the fifth caution period to ensure the No. 5 was full of fuel didn't hurt Kahne, who earned his seventh Dover top 10. 7. Matt Kenseth , No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing . Kenseth, already a Round 2 contender thanks to his Loudon victory, spent the remaining 125 laps on Sunday looking for more corner speed. 8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr ., No. 17, Roush Fenway Racing . Stenhouse restarted 10th after the fifth caution flag, and he held on for his best Dover finish. 9 . Kyle Larson , No. 42 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing . Larson looked to play the spoiler when he moved into the top three in the final 100 laps, but a decision to stay out during the final caution flag hurt his chances. 10. Joey Logano , No. 22 Ford, Team Penske . Logano advances to the next round of the Chase with his ninth Dover top 10. 11. Martin Truex Jr ., No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing . Truex, a Round 2 contender, climbed through the field after starting from the rear when NASCAR had a post-inspection issue with the flare on his side skirt. 12. Jeff Gordon , No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports . " Man, it's never easy," Gordon told his team after a rough final restart. "I know that wasn't easy," spotter Eddie D'Hondt said. "But we did what we needed to" (to advance). For more in-car audio, sign up for RaceView . 13. Greg Biffle , No. 16 Ford, Roush-Fenway Racing. Biffle got sideways with 11 laps to go, but saved his car while running 15th . 14. Clint Bowyer , No. 15, Michael Waltrip Racing . Bowyer recovered after dropping from eighth to 25th when he made an unscheduled stop on Lap 175 for a loose wheel. 15. Carl Edwards , No. 19 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing . Crew chief Darian Grubb didn't want to risk the No. 19's spot in the next round of the Chase so he called his driver back down pit road during the sixth caution flag for a right-front tire issue. 16. Brad Keselowski , No. 2 Ford, Team Penske . Around Lap 60, Keselowski was running 16th when he reported that his engine temperatures were dropping. He maintained and will compete in the second round of the Chase. 17. Kurt Busch , No. 41 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing . An issue with the left-front jack bolt caused Busch to lose ride height late in the race. The team corrected the issue but still had to make additional repairs during the Lap 374 stop under caution. 18. Denny Hamlin , No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing . Hamlin won the race off pit road after a four-tire stop during the competition caution, but his forward momentum was stalled because he was tagged for speeding. A second penalty sealed the deal, but he still advanced because he won Chicagoland. 19. Ryan Newman , No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing . Newman earned the beneficiary pass after the third caution flag and managed to stay only one lap down as the race progressed. He advanced to the second round of the Chase. 20. Sam Hornish Jr ., No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports . Hornish and his team chased the handling of his No. 9 Ford all day, even as the track took on rubber. 21. Danica Patrick , No. 10 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing . Patrick worked with her team to help her No. 10 Chevy take off better around Dover's 1-mile oval. 22. David Ragan , No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing . Ragan, who fell off the lead lap by Lap 105, had previously told his team he was "too free on exit and pretty snug in the center." 23. Austin Dillon , No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing . Dillon's team made several chassis adjustments during the second half of the race to help him get into the corner better. 24. Casey Mears , No. 13 Chevrolet, Germain Racing . Mears was running 25th during the first half of Sunday's race when he was hooked in the right rear and saved his car from spinning on-track. 25. Paul Menard , No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing . Menard rolled off the grid 14th and almost immediately went backward as he watched his first Chase run fade. 26. Tony Stewart , No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing . Stewart recently announced he'd retire from driving after 2016 to focus on ownership. But on Sunday, the driver of the No. 14 focused on pit strategy to improve his track position. 27. Justin Allgaier , No. 51 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports . Allgaier received the beneficiary pass during the competition caution, but spent much of the race looking for mid-corner grip. 28. Cole Whitt , No. 35 Ford, Front Row Motorsports . Like his teammate Brett Moffitt , Whitt discovered that his car improved around Dover as the 1-mile concrete oval took on rubber. 29. AJ Allmendinger , No. 47 Chevrolet, JTG-Daugherty Racing. Allmendinger was going too fast trying to get onto pit road when he spun up the track on Lap 311. 30. David Gilliland , No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports . Gilliland reported a tight-handling condition during the final 60 laps of Sunday's race, which his team worked to address. 31. Trevor Bayne , No. 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing . Halfway through a fuel run when the fifth caution flag was waved, Bayne elected to take the wave-around like most cars one or more laps down. 32. Alex Bowman , No. 7 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing . Bowman and his team continually made adjustments on the No. 7 Chevy throughout Sunday's race trying to find balance. 33. Reed Sorenson , No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing. Already three laps down and in 36th, Sorenson told his team that he was "just racing the track right now" when they informed him leader Kevin Harvick was bearing down. 34. Matt DiBenedetto , No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing . "Holy crap," DiBenedetto said while running 37th on Lap 101 when he learned leader Kevin Harvick was on his bumper -- again. 35. J.J. Yeley, No. 26 Toyota, BK Racing . Long green-flag runs were a struggle Sunday for Yeley. 36. Josh Wise , No. 32 Ford, Go FAS Racing. Wise sustained minimal nose damage after making contact with Jeb Burton on Lap 3. 37. Michael Annett , No. 46 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports . During the fifth caution flag, Annett reported that his entry was neutral and he couldn't pick up the gas when he wanted to. 38. Alex Kennedy , No. 33 Chevrolet, Circle Sport . Kennedy rolled off the grid 36th in his Dover debut. 39. Timmy Hill , No. 62 Chevrolet, Premium Motorsports . Starting 43rd at the fast 1-mile oval made forward progress an immediate issue for Hill in his fourth Dover appearance. 40. Landon Cassill , No. 40 Chevrolet, Hillman Smith Motorsports. Cassill's fear that his engine was "letting go" was realized on Lap 372 and prompted the eighth caution flag. 41. Jimmie Johnson , No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports . A torn rear axle seal sidelined Johnson in his 500th Cup start and ended his quest for a seventh championship. 42. Brett Moffitt , No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports . Moffitt's lap times were improving as the track picked up rubber, but his car was "killed" when he blew a right-front and made hard contact with the wall to bring out the seventh caution flag. 43. Jeb Burton , No. 23 Toyota, BK Racing . Burton spun on Lap 3 and cut a tire on Lap 192 to bring out the caution flag twice on Sunday.
RELATED: Full race results " Updated Chase grid " Series standings SHOP: Harvick gear DOVER, Del. -- By Jove, he's done it again! Forced to win at Dover International Speedway to keep his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship hopes alive Sunday, Kevin Harvick did just that, dominating Sunday's AAA 400 to stave off elimination from the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . In a virtual carbon copy of last year's Chase race at Phoenix, where the 2014 premier series champion had to win to advance to the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway , Harvick led 355 of 400 laps (a career best at any track) in winning for the third time this year and the 31st time in his career. "I think we're better than we were last year, just because of the experiences and things that we've had," Harvick said after the race. "I think when we look at everything that’s gone on over the last couple of years, it's just been a lot of fun. "So, it's just that never-quit attitude. That's what (team co-owner) Tony Stewart said when we went to Homestead last year. He said, 'Whatever you do, do not quit until they throw that checkered flag.' " Harvick won the race and secured his first Sprint Cup title by a half-second over Ryan Newman in the 2014 race. But there was one major difference between last year's must-win race and the one on Sunday. Phoenix is Harvick's best track. At Dover, on the other hand, he had never won before and had posted just four top-five finishes in 29 previous starts. As fast as Harvick's No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was, however, none of the statistics mattered. After a restart with 24 laps left, he pulled away to a 2.639-second victory over Kyle Busch , who, likewise, secured a berth in the 12-driver Contender Round with his second-place finish. Nor did the stats help Jimmie Johnson , whose shocking ouster from the playoffs took place at the Monster Mile where he holds a record 10 victories. The six-time series champion pitted his No. 48 Chevrolet at Lap 104 and brought it to the garage shortly thereafter, with a failed rear axle seal. Johnson lost 36 laps while his team replaced the rear end housing and was credited with a 41st-place finish, leaving him 12 points shy of the Chase cutoff, which came down to a tiebreaker for the 12th and final spot between third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr . and fourth-place Jamie McMurray . Joining Johnson and McMurray on the Chase sidelines were Paul Menard (25th Sunday) and Clint Bowyer (14th), who, like Harvick, faced a win-or-bust scenario at the one-mile oval track. Narrowed to 12, the field for the Contender Round now includes Challenger Round winners Matt Kenseth (Chicago), Denny Hamlin (New Hampshire) and Harvick, as well as Carl Edwards , Martin Truex Jr ., Kurt Busch , Jeff Gordon , Brad Keselowski , Kyle Busch , Newman and Earnhardt Jr. But on Sunday, Harvick showed his hand as the speed horse in the Chase, just as he was last year. Harvick's car was fast last week at New Hampshire, but he ran out of fuel while leading with three laps left to create the must-win scenario at Dover. "Anytime you can go through moments like this and gain some momentum and prove to yourself that you can do things like this, there's no way you can't be stronger," Harvick said. "I'm just so proud of those guys and so proud of our fans and everybody for all their support all week. There it is -- stay the course." Kyle Busch conceded Harvick's victory was bad news for everyone else still in the Chase. "The way he ran today -- hell, yeah," Busch said. "That was a guy that we wanted to knock out. That's a guy that can win all these races, and you don't want to have to compete against a guy like that. "But that's why they're as good as they are, and they were last year's champion, so they're going to have an opportunity to continue on. We'll see what happens. There's still two more rounds to figure out who's going to make it to Homestead."
RELATED: Watch the live stream here From 8-11 a.m. ET on Tuesday, NASCAR.com will live stream the post-race inspection process at the Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C. The three-hour look takes you behind the scenes as NASCAR officials inspect NASCAR Sprint Cup Series vehicles following Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway . The cars at the R&D Center this week are: the No. 4 Chevrolet of Kevin Harvick (won Sunday's race), the No. 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch (finished second in Sunday's race), the No. 43 Ford of Aric Almirola , the No. 88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr . and the No. 1 Chevrolet of Jamie McMurray . For more information on what the inspection process entails, click here.
RELATED: Where does No. 88 team stack up in this week's pit crew rankings? CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr . said he doesn't anticipate any further changes to his pit crew even though teammate Jimmie Johnson has been knocked out of this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . Earnhardt and fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon advanced into the Contender Round of the Chase, which begins this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway . Johnson, a six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, did not secure one of the 12 Chase positions, falling by the wayside when a rear axle seal failed during Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway . RELATED: Johnson's dream of seventh title in 2015 washed away at Dover Speaking to the media Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Earnhardt couldn't guarantee that there would be no changes in his over-the-wall crew, "but I would like to keep my guys," he said. Earnhardt's last win came in July at Daytona. His pass of Jamie McMurray in the closing laps at Dover vaulted him into the Contender Round, but he and his team had to overcome a loose wheel during the race to put themselves back in contention. A caution allowed Earnhardt to pit and correct the problem and kept him from having to come to pit road under green-flag conditions. "I'll be honest with you. … I don't know what's going to happen. You might find out tomorrow that somebody got changed," he said. "I don't think you build a guy's trust … he needs to know that you believe in him; the same for the driver. The driver needs to know the team believes he can do it. "I think the (tire) carrier, the (tire) changer, all those guys want to think that the driver and everyone involved believes in them when they go over the wall. "If I take the 48 guys because I think they're better, then what am I going to do next year when we have to start from scratch again? All those guys that are on my car now are going to be pissed off because I don't believe in them because I took the 48 guys when the going got tough. "So I don't believe in doing that. I think that my guys can do it; I think we will find the combination that works for us to get to the end of the season and beyond." RELATED: Change made to No. 88 pit crew Earnhardt's No. 88 crew has been retooled in recent weeks, most recently for Dover as front-tire changer Scott Brzozowski replaced David Mayo, who had earlier been replaced by Kevin Novak but had been brought back onto the main crew. The addition of Brzozowski can possibly be a game-changer for the team, according to Earnhardt. "I hope that Scott wants to stick around beyond this season," he said. "I actually talked to him today. "It's not like we need two new (tire) changers. We just need one key guy that can come in and kind of elevate the standard and push everyone. Over the past couple of years when we've had great pit crews, a lot of the guys that we've been working with this year were on those teams. "If you get one guy in there that’s kind of a key player … like a wide receiver or a quarterback is to a football team, he can really elevate the play of everybody around him and boost the entire crew; just the confidence that those guys have going over the wall when he's a part of it changes the whole consistency of the team." Gordon's No. 24 team picked up the services of tire changer Nick Odell recently, which freed up the move for Brzozowski to the 88. Gordon, a four-time champion in his final full-time season, is still searching for his first win in 2015. "We really want Scott to try to wrap his brain around sticking with us," Earnhardt said. "We could really use a guy like him on the 88 car to bring some stability to the rest of the group. I've got a lot of faith in our guys; it's not like we need to go crazy and blow it up, go looking outside our system." Any crew changes for his team, he said, would be orchestrated by crew chief Greg Ives and Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Doug Duchardt. Swapping individual crew members heading into the Chase isn't unusual. There have even been cases of swapping entire crews, in the middle of a race no less, as Johnson and Gordon did in 2010. "I know teams have done that before but I just feel like, yeah you might get somewhere in the short term and get some stability but over the long term you basically have just destroyed the integrity of the team you have," Earnhardt said. "Having those guys back at the beginning of next season is not going to be an option. They're not going to want to work for you once you take them off the car during the Chase."
Zack Morris has the honors ahead of Hollywood Casino 400 RELATED: @nascarcasm on how NASCAR, 'Saved By The Bell' are alike Kansas Speedway has announced its grand marshal for the Hollywood Casino 400 , and -- Hey, hey, hey, what is going on here? Zack Morris, straight from Bayside High, will utter the most famous words in racing on Oct. 18. Oh, Preppy! via GIPHY OK, we get that it's not actually Zack Morris -- it's actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and he's done much more than just "Saved by the Bell." Still, who doesn't remember him as the fun-loving, trouble-making high schooler? We only hope he brings Kelly Kapowski with him. We're also glad he can no longer be confused with Jamie McMurray .
RELATED: Full Richmond results RICHMOND, Va. -- There were no last-second heroics, no pit-road gambles or stunning strategy in an effort to beat the odds. For Jamie McMurray , Ryan Newman , Jeff Gordon , Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard , points positions proved crucial. And in the end, proved to be enough. The group collected the final five positions in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup by failing to fail, running well enough to earn the final berths in this year's 16-team field. "It was still stressful, because we had that last restart," Gordon, a four-time champion making his final Chase appearance, said after bringing his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet home seventh in Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway . "It was nice not to have to really be sweating it." Gordon needed a finish of 17th or better to clinch. "I know this guy's happy," Gordon said as team owner Rick Hendrick eased up behind his driver to give him a congratulatory hug. "He was sweating it a little bit like the rest of us were. So that feels good to make him happy. This team, they deserve it." Hendrick, who has seen Gordon evolve from a promising young talent into one of the most successful competitors in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, provided a news flash: "Let me be the first to tell you," he said, "he's going to drive another year. He's not doing good enough, so he's got to go one more." Hendrick was kidding. Sort of. GALLERY: 2015 Chase drivers celebrate at Richmond McMurray locked in his first career Chase spot by simply taking the green flag to start the 400-lap event on the .75-mile track. Although he started 31st in the 43-car field, by night's end McMurray ( Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates) had raced his way up to 13th. "I'm super relieved," McMurray said. "I've been the guy on the outside trying to fight my way in, and I've also been in this a couple of times and been knocked out at Richmond." Like McMurray , Menard ( Richard Childress Racing ) will be making his first Chase appearance when the 10-race playoff begins next week at Chicagoland Speedway . The excitement of qualifying was tempered a bit by a difficult night on the race track -- Menard finished 26th, three laps down to race winner Matt Kenseth ( Joe Gibbs Racing ). "We had a fast car, it just burned the left-front tire off after like 30, 40 laps and we started going backwards," said Menard. "Try to figure out what happened there." His No. 27 team wasn't the only one to have issues with the left front, he said. But others had no similar problems. "Some guys," he said, "obviously figured it out. "We've had a lot of good runs this year; obviously this wasn't one of them." Bowyer's Chase appearance will be his final showing with Michael Waltrip Racing -- the two-car organization will cease to exist after the '15 season. "I hate to say this but it's actually nice to go into the Chase the way we are; the pressure is off," Bowyer said. "Hell, we were trying to make the Chase, that's big, that's monumental for our organization and our team. "Let's just go have fun, let's get everything we can out of every single weekend and see what happens. Literally, the pressure is off until somehow, some way you're in the thing (for) two rounds or three rounds then all of a sudden the pressure kicks back up. But that's the neat thing about being in our situation, being part of this Chase. Right now, in the next three or four weeks, there is no pressure." Bowyer's status as a Chase participant was the most tenuous -- a slip could have opened the door for someone else to bolt past. His 10th-place finish proved more than enough to accomplish what was required. RELATED: Bowyer wants to end MWR run on a high note "At the beginning we weren't real great," crew chief Billy Scott admitted. "We had to work hard on it. Just stayed calm, it was a long race. After that we just kind of found a place and ran our race. "We were keeping an eye on guys that hadn't won and were running up front, where the guys were that we were racing in points and felt pretty comfortable with getting in on either side of that. "There was no need to gamble. We just ran a pretty conservative race and brought it home in one piece."
RELATED: Full race results " Series standings " Jimmie exits Chase early The AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway represented the final race of the Challenger Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup , and Kevin Harvick was able to stave off elimination with a victory. See who advanced to the Contender Round and whose title dreams have come to an end. Advancing: Matt Kenseth Joey Logano Denny Hamlin Carl Edwards Martin Truex Jr . Kurt Busch Jeff Gordon Brad Keselowski Kyle Busch Ryan Newman Dale Earnhardt Jr . Kevin Harvick Eliminated: Jamie McMurray Jimmie Johnson Paul Menard Clint Bowyer Up next: Bank of America 500 , 7 p.m. ET, Oct. 10 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). This will be the opening race of the Contender Round, and the advancing drivers will see their point totals reset to 3,000. Who it favors Most wins: 5— Jeff Gordon Best driver rating: 106.6— Kyle Busch Best average finish: 10.2— Joey Logano Who it hurts Fewest top 10s: 4— Brad Keselowski (in 12 starts) Worst driver rating: 79.0— Ryan Newman Worst average finish: 19.1— Kurt Busch
Last time Panthers coach visited shop veteran driver won Sprint All-Star Race CONCORD, N.C. -- It was the sort of game-day speech that Ron Rivera has been accustomed to delivering in his four seasons as an NFL head coach -- forceful, designed to inspire and motivate. Tuesday morning, though, his words didn't resonate inside the familiar setting of the Carolina Panthers' locker room but instead in an all-hands team meeting at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates' NASCAR headquarters. Rivera's first visit to the Ganassi shop, in May of 2014, wound up being a roaring success. Just days after the Panthers' coach met the team and offered a speech about staying relevant in an evolving sport, Jamie McMurray found himself on Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. With results like those, McMurray might've been prompted to ask what took so long to book the return trip? RELATED: McMurray wins 2014 Sprint All-Star Race "We'll see, I guess, how it goes this weekend," McMurray said with a laugh, pointing toward Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "He's been a really good friend of (team co-owner Felix Sabates), and he's become a really great friend of our team's, and I've become a real big fan of his. When you watch on TV and watch other sports, I don't know that you appreciate everything that goes into it and how talented people are behind the scenes but he is an amazing guy and he is where he is because of his ability." With 19 of 36 Sprint Cup Series races in the books this year, Rivera's speech could almost be considered a slightly belated halftime pep talk. Either way, it comes at a pivotal time for the Ganassi team, which heads into Sunday's Crown Royal Presents the Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network, IMS, SiriusXM) with seven regular-season races left to bolster the credentials for both McMurray , the 2010 Brickyard winner, and teammate Kyle Larson in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. It's a spot Rivera was in last year with the Panthers, who rallied from a six-game losing streak midway through to win their final four regular-season games, win a division title and earn a playoff berth. After last weekend's race at New Hampshire, McMurray clings to the 11th spot in the 16-driver Chase Grid while Larson sits 21st in the series standings, having missed a race because of illness. Both drivers are still searching for their first victory in 2015. Rivera's speech was tailored to reach a different audience but the shared bond of teamwork bridged any potential gap between the motorsports world and professional football. That became evident last season when Rivera asked the Ganassi team for footage of the team's race-winning pit stop last May, intending to show his team and to illustrate how the Panthers could benefit from similar coordination and cooperation. It was at last year's All-Star event that Rivera learned that an 18-second pit stop seems fast in layman's terms only. The head coach also learned that the two sports have more in common that one might think. "There are a lot of parallels and first and foremost, it starts with teamwork," Rivera said. "Really, my message is to make sure everyone's doing what they want to do and everybody's doing what the group wants to do because at the end of the day, if somebody's not on board and doing the things that they need to do to give you a chance to win, you're not going to win. Also, the parallel being that last year as a football team, we started hot then had our problems. Same thing with these guys -- they started hot and have had their problems. "And I know at the end of the day, they've still got seven weeks left. They have every opportunity to get into the Chase for the Cup, so who knows. That's really the message, that they can control it. They control their own destiny and the truth of the matter is, on any given Sunday, they're the best race team and they've got a chance to win." After his nearly 20-minute talk, Rivera said he'd welcome the chance to return, adding that spending time in another professional sport helped to enhance his leadership skills. If the coach's presence remains a good-luck charm for the Nos. 1 and 42 Chevrolet teams, he may be called upon as a much more frequent visitor. "To have someone of that caliber available to you to talk to your team in a real-life situation, somebody they know and somebody they respect and understand, that speaks their language, we're really, really lucky to have an outsider like that come in with a little different perspective, but exactly on point," Ganassi said. "We've got seven weeks till the playoffs begin and we want to have both cars in." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule