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Kyle Busch in good shape to advance; Kenseth and Hamlin will battle at Dover RELATED: Track your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge and Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota One week after all three of its teams came out of Chicagoland Speedway with top-10 finishes, Joe Gibbs Racing heads into the final race of the Challenger Round in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with two teams suddenly looking very vulnerable. Only a Herculean effort by driver Kyle Busch and his crew kept the No. 18 team from finding itself in a similar position. "Completely the opposite," JGR’s Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations, said following Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when asked to compare the results of the first two Chase races. Busch, seventh the previous week, somehow managed to salvage an eighth-place finish at NHMS in spite of severe damage to the front of his Toyota. Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin weren't as fortunate. Fueling issues kept Hamlin on pit road for an extended period during the race, which in turn left him deep in the field and in the middle of trouble when a four-car accident unfolded on Lap 180 of the scheduled 300-lap race. Kenseth had run in the top 10 for much of the day, eventually climbing as high as third, before contact with Paul Menard sent the No. 20 entry into the wall with less than 30 laps remaining. Kenseth wound up 21st on the day, Hamlin finished 37th. With four drivers trimmed from the field of 16 after this week’s race at Dover International Speedway , Kenseth will be looking to, at the very least, hold his ground. The 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion enters Sunday’s AAA 400 (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET), eighth in points and only eight ahead of Hamlin in the No. 13 spot. Kenseth's record at Dover is solid, with a pair of victories (2006, ‘11) and 20 top-10 finishes in 31 career starts at the fast, high-banked one-mile track. He finished third there earlier this year. Hamlin and his No. 11 team sit six points out of the 12th spot, held for now by Richard Childress Racing driver Ryan Newman . But Hamlin's far from alone -- only 12 points separate those between Kenseth (2,057) and 16th-place Aric Almirola (2,045). A week ago, the gap was a far more imposing 34 points between the two positions. He has yet to win at the Monster Mile, but Hamlin has finished inside the top 10 on six occasions, including a fifth-place result this past June. "Kyle was able to get up on the wheel and do what he could, fought hard for all his positions and they ended up with a respectable finish out of it," Makar said. "Matt didn't have time to get back; it was just a bad situation with just a few laps to go. He … didn't have time to actually race back with a couple of laps to go. It was just a tough situation for him." "Denny, I tell you, just snake bit there. We still don't know what happened to the fuel system. It was some freak thing, something we’ll have to look at when we get back (to the shop). But right now … it's nothing really obvious." Hamlin's issues put the driver "in a bad spot, a bad place on the race track" Makar said. And with everything else that happened after Hamlin's fuel issues, there were no guarantees he would have escaped those unscathed. "But he had a good, fast race car. It's a shame they weren’t able to race all day like that," Makar said. The strange turn of events for the three teams certainly weren't expected, given their solid start a week earlier. Now, they regroup and head to Dover , hoping to remain relevant. "I was really surprised," said Makar. "But I think it's going to be interesting next week. We've got to go race hard and get a good finish with everybody and hopefully we can move on." Four more drivers will be trimmed from the field following the Contender Round (Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega), leaving eight to battle through the Eliminator Round (Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix ). The final four will advance into the Championship Round, scheduled for Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Steve Letarte's time atop the No. 88 pit box is winding down RELATED: Subscribe to NASCAR Illustrated In the midst of the 2014 Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is understandably focused on the task at hand and not the transition coming in 2015. But the clock is inexorably winding down on his time with crew chief Steve Letarte atop the No. 88 pit box. Their professional union helped revitalize the careers of both driver and crew chief. Letarte was coming off a winless 2010 campaign with Jeff Gordon and certain his pink slip awaited at season's end. Earnhardt had lost his way and was coming off two consecutive seasons with points finishes in the 20s. Fast-forward four years and the duo's got a legitimate chance of capturing its first Cup championship. NASCAR's most popular driver is happier than he's ever been driving and that owes much to Letarte, too. "I don't know that I would have been able to do it and have as much fun doing it," Earnhardt said. "He orchestrated the whole thing." Title or not, the Greg Ives era will unofficially begin when the checkered flag drops at Homestead-Miami Speedway . Ives, who has overseen Chase Elliott 's breakout season at JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series , will be stepping up in class to NASCAR's elite level. Earnhardt was asked how hard it'll be to replace the chemistry he shared with Letarte and whether that is even possible. "I think we can," he said. "I gotta understand when Greg comes in that he's not gonna do it like Steve. I'm not gonna sit there and go, 'This is how we did it, this is how we need to do it, this is how Steve did it.' I don't want somebody to tell me to drive like Jimmie (Johnson) or to drive like Jeff (Gordon). "So I'm not gonna sit there and go, 'Oh no, man, this ain't gonna work or I don't believe in your way because that's not Steve's way.' I gotta let him have the freedom to do it the way he thinks we should be doing it." To do that, Earnhardt said he'll lean on some of the lessons he learned under Letarte. "I just need to be as mature and professional as I can about it and I think that's some of the traits that I've accrued over the years in working with Steve." Letarte will leave his team "mostly staying intact" according to Earnhardt and that continuity should help temper the transition. "If we were bringing in a bunch of new people and putting them in important positions along with Greg, I'd be kind of nervous," he said. Letarte's influence will seemingly linger in many ways after he leaves Hendrick Motorsports for NBC Sports to begin his broadcasting career. Will they be getting him a going-away gift in the No. 88 shop? "Yeah, I think that we owe him that," Earnhardt said. A title perhaps? "That'd be nice," he said. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Expect plenty of strategies at play for Sunday's MyAFibStory.com 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) RELATED: Play Perfect Chase Grid Challenge and Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota JOLIET, Ill. -- In less than 24 hours, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will officially begin when the green flag drops at Chicagoland Speedway . That much we know. And that's about all we know. What actually happens -- and the strategy and reasoning behind why whatever happens actually happens -- over the ensuing 10 weeks is very much a mystery in this new era of a 16-driver, four-round Chase Grid. Will drivers go for wins? Play it cautious at first? Race for points? Yes. Any and all strategies and mindsets will be in play in Sunday's MyAFibStory.com 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), the opening event of the three-race Challenger Round in which all 16 Chase drivers will vie for the 12 spots in the Contender Round. "There are a lot of different ways you can win, or advance, with this format," said Brad Keselowski , the postseason's top-seeded driver after winning four races in NASCAR's regular season. "We can run through all the hypotheticals, but there's so many different scenarios that it's a waste of time in my mind. I just want to go out there and take care of business." Taking care of business presents the simplest and most clear, direct path to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Championship Round, where four drivers have a shot at the Sprint Cup Series championship. Winning a race guarantees an eligible Chase driver a spot in the next round. So win once in the Challenger Round, the Contender Round and the Eliminator Round, you're in Homestead with absolutely no questions asked. What if you don't win in all three rounds? That scenario, which is far more likely than the first, is where the water becomes murky. "I think you could get through this whole Chase and not win a race and win a championship," said Kevin Harvick , who had two regular-season wins. "There's so many ways this whole thing could shake out. You could see one of the favorites get knocked out in first two rounds, and they can be back in stride and win the last few races. "There's a million different ways it could all play out." To combat that aura of uncertainty, NASCAR drivers are prepping for Sunday's opener and the ensuing postseason events in a variety of ways. Denny Hamlin said he will be more mindful of his pit-road speed, opting to go a hair slower to ensure not surpassing the limit -- even if it risks losing a position or two. Kyle Busch is one driver who comes to the track with a brand-new, never-been-used car. Harvick has practically a brand-new crew on pit road, while Aric Almirola 's over-the-wall team was also tweaked. These moves were made to give those respective drivers, and their teams, the best shot at a championship, whether it comes by winning or logging top-10s. "I think consistency is still going to pay off, at least in the first couple of rounds," Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon said. "Now, what it takes to move on to Homestead is a little different than going from the first segment to the second, and the second to the third. But there's no strategy or formula that's going to be perfect. "There's no magic formula to winning no matter what the format is because you don't know what the other cars are going to do." While some drivers, such as Keselowski, agreed with Harvick that winning a title could come without winning a postseason event, others wouldn't go that far. "I think consistency can get you to the fourth round at Homestead," Kasey Kahne said. "Wins are more important if you want to win a championship. I think your wins get you going in the right direction, and that's what's going to win a championship in my opinion. You have to win races." Perhaps Carl Edwards , who brought a fast No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford to the track this week, said it the most succinctly. His strategy would guarantee practically any of the Chase drivers a championship. How feasible it is presents a different question altogether. "Really," Edwards said, "what it comes down to is, you have to be perfect." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: NASCAR Chase Grid games WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Take a virtual hot lap around Homestead-Miami Speedway with Ryan Newman.
Late model champion will drive No. 5 at Homestead Josh Berry has picked up his second NASCAR Nationwide Series race for JR Motorsports, team co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller announced Wednesday on her podcast. On "Fast Lane Family," a radio show Earnhardt Miller hosts as part of Dirty Mo Radio, she announced that Berry would drive the No. 5 Ragu Chevrolet in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway . "We have worked really hard (for that sponsorship), and we're still working. We'd love to put Josh in more races," Earnhardt Miller said. Berry, who won the track championship at Hickory Motor Speedway this year driving a late model for JRM, finished 12th in his Nationwide Series debut at Iowa Speedway in August. "It's so exciting for me and I'm very thankful that Ragu came on board and everyone at JRM worked as hard as they did," Berry said on the radio show. "It's so cool to see happen." The No. 5 vehicle has been split among Berry, Kevin Harvick , Kasey Kahne and Austin Theriault this season. The team's two full-time drivers, Chase Elliott and Regan Smith , are currently first and second in the points standings. That's not lost on Berry. "I have a pretty good feeling it's going to be a real exciting weekend for all of JR Motorsports that weekend," he said. Click here to listen to this week's episode of Fast Lane Family. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Opening race of the Chase at Chicagoland showed what we can expect RELATED: Track your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge and Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota It was a case of mistaken identity. If you thought the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup preview took place on Thursday at The Murphy in downtown Chicago, you’re not alone. After all, there were banners on the walls, TV and radio crews, national, regional and local reporters—and, of course, the 16 Chase drivers clad in their colorful fire suits. As they always do on such occasions, drivers answered questions optimistically. Those entering the Chase with obvious strength explained why their excellent performances would continue. Those who qualified for the Chase by the thinnest of margins explained why their fortunes were about to improve. But make no mistake. That annual ritual wasn't the real Chase preview. The real Chase preview took place on Sunday, in the first race of NASCAR's playoff. The MyAFibStory.com 400 was a crystal ball that provided a clear vision of Nov. 16, 2014, the date of the final Chase race at Homestead-Miami Speedway . The drivers likely to be competing for the title under NASCAR's new Chase format were the same drivers running up front and leading laps on Sunday. Admittedly, on Thursday afternoon, Kyle Busch singled out the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski , the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick and the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon as the strongest cars entering the Chase. But it wasn't until Sunday that the reality hit home with the force of a wrecking ball. It wasn't until Sunday that what happened at Chicagoland Speedway either affirmed or silenced Thursday’s happy talk. What Sunday's race told us was that, barring calamity, Keselowski, Gordon and Harvick (the first, second and fifth-place finishers, respectively, at Chicagoland) will be three of the four drivers who survive elimination and qualify for the final race. What Sunday's race told us was that six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is likely to be in a dogfight for the final spot at Homestead with the likes of Joey Logano , Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin . At Chicagoland, Johnson continued to run where he has been running—in the top 10 for most of the race, but without the speed to challenge the frontrunners for the victory. Johnson finished 12th and didn't lead a lap. The performance of the No. 48 team two weeks from now at Dover, Johnson's personal playground, will be telling. What Sunday's race told us was that the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are on the upswing, but they still can’t answer "Yes" to the question "Are we there yet?" Hamlin ran sixth. Kyle Busch started on the pole (based on practice speed because of a rainout of time trials), led 46 laps and finished seventh. Kenseth survived a spin on pit road to run 10th. That's the third time this season all three JGR drivers have finished in the top 10 in the same race. The first time didn't come until the 19th race of the year, at New Hampshire, which hosts the second event of the Chase next Sunday. What Sunday's race told us is that the handling issues of the Roush Fenway Racing cars have not abated and that Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle may be hard-pressed to advance beyond the first elimination round. Biffle narrowly made the Chase at Richmond with an ill-handling car. If possible, the No. 16 Ford he drove at Chicagoland was worse, as his 23rd-place finish attests. Edwards started third but soon drifted back through the field, finishing 20th. If the RFR teams hope to be players in the Chase, they have much work to do and very little time to do it. What Sunday's race told us is that, after a mid-season lull, non-Chase driver Kyle Larson is ready to win a Sprint Cup race, and his breakthrough victory will probably come at one of the intermediate tracks in the Chase. That has the potential to complicate the equation for Chase drivers trying to advance to the next round by winning. What Sunday's race told us was that, if you have to pick a favorite to win it all this year, his name is Keselowski. His race-winning move, splitting the cars of Harvick and Larson off Turn 2, was vintage Kyle Busch. The resilience of Keselowski and his entire No. 2 Team Penske outfit was vintage Jimmie Johnson. Twice Keselowski drove from the back to the front, the second time after front tire changer Hunter Masling had the maturity and courage to admit he hadn't gotten his lug nuts tight. Keselowski returned to pit road on Lap 183 of 267 to correct the problem, restarted behind a blockade of lapped cars and still found the right balance between patience and aggression that enabled him to drive back to the lead in time to win the race. If Keselowski's victory at Richmond a week earlier made a statement, Sunday's win at Chicagoland provided the exclamation point. And it told us that, after the reality check of missing the Chase last year, Keselowski is ready to win another title—and has the hunger to match. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Alan Cavanna gives you the latest information about the final weekend of racing in NASCAR's top three series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway .
Excitement of new Chase format will be amplified during playoffs RELATED: Play Perfect Chase Grid Challenge for chance at $100,000 prize MORE: Driver capsules " Track stats " Chase 101 During the frigid temperatures of the offseason last winter, NASCAR officials took a two-tiered approach to refreshing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs, revising the eligibility rules to get in it and the format to win it. The news heated up the hot-stove season, creating an all-new level of bench racing. The element of the unknown set the garage's best minds to work with early opinions on devising new strategies and approaches. Now, with 26 regular-season races behind them in the deep reaches of summer and 10 postseason showdowns looming, both sides of the season appear to be entwined by a common thread. "Our mentality is to win. That's what we come to do -- nothing's changed there," said Joey Logano , a three-time winner this year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "We're going to do what we've got to do." The newly charged emphasis on winning goes to another level Sunday with the opening round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway . After 10 years of postseason stock-car racing with only slight changes to the format, this Chase goes into its 11th with major moves. I f the new-look Chase takes on a tournament-style feel with a survive-and-advance mindset, it's no accident. The overhauled format, in which regular-season winners virtually punch their postseason ticket, was developed to discourage conservative "points racing" and make for more aggressive pushes toward the checkered flag. The change paid frequent dividends with teams taking pit-road gambles and drivers testing the limits on the track. In an overwhelming show of parity, 13 drivers visited Victory Lane during the regular season to clinch Chase berths, meaning the new rules of the road will greet former champions, familiar faces and newcomers alike. The remaining three earned their way into the expanded 16-driver field based on their place in the Sprint Cup standings. In previous years, drivers were removed from contention by mathematical means if they stumbled off to sluggish starts. Now, the eliminations after each of the three-race rounds (Challenger, Contender and Eliminator) are more clear-cut, whittling the title-eligible field from 16 to 12 to eight to a best-finisher-take-all championship race among the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16. After each round, the points reset to level the playing field, but winners in each round get the benefit of a free pass to the next. Brad Keselowski is the top seed and has four regular-season wins, including last week's regular-season finale at Richmond. He's joined by a quartet of three-time victors atop the Challenger Round heap -- former champs Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon , and first-time championship hopefuls Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Logano. While the rules for advancement remain the same at each of the three cuts, Steve Letarte -- Earnhardt's crew chief, who will trade his wrenches for a microphone on the NBC Sports broadcast team in 2015 -- suggests that the pressure to perform will only increase as the Chase rolls on. "I don't think it's anything like past years," Letarte said. "I think the first three (races), you've got to run top 15, the middle three you've probably got to run in the top 10 and the last three, you're probably going to have to win one to end up at Homestead." While the powerhouse teams will likely feel a ratcheted sense of pressure, in true tournament style the new format will also lend itself to potential upsets by plucky underdogs. Denny Hamlin , Kasey Kahne and Kurt and Kyle Busch all faced issues or dry spells during the season that would have placed them either firmly on the Chase bubble or completely out of contention in past years, but their ability to convert one regular-season win each gives them nearly equal footing at playoff time. Likewise, A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola -- two drivers who notched their first career victories in 2014 -- now have a Cinderella shot at championship glory. Almirola emerged as a surprise winner with a rainy victory at Daytona in July, and Allmendinger scored a long-awaited breakthrough at Watkins Glen a month later by flexing his road-course expertise. For Allmendinger, the triumph was one of perseverance and redemption, but it also came with an opportunity to rise up come clutch time. "When it comes to the Chase, with the new format, it doesn't mean we can't show up to Chicago and get hot early," Allmendinger said Aug. 10 after his maiden voyage to Victory Lane in NASCAR's top series. "The way the format is laid out, you don't have to be amazing for 10 races, you just have to be good enough each three sets of races. The next thing you know, you get to Homestead -- anything can happen." The format has not only provided extra incentive to win, but the system has also provided benefits for clinching early. Drivers with regular-season wins under their belts have rolled toward the Chase under far less pressure than in past years. The effect has been the same for teams and crew chiefs, who have been able to experiment with car setups for Chase races without great risk of damaging their postseason hopes along the way. Regular-season strategies under the new system have shifted, but the question of whether playoff strategies will follow suit remains. While teams will continue to make customary adjustments for each of the 10 tracks in the Chase, Logano said he doesn't anticipate his Team Penske bunch making wholesale changes to their overall approach. "I think we've got to race the same way we've been," Logano said, noting that his team had amassed a modest five-race hot streak during the summer with an average finish of 3.6 over the span. "I would hate to change what we're doing. It's working pretty good." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: NASCAR Chase Grid games WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Kenseth, Dollar General Literacy Foundation Donate $1,000, Case Of 80 Children’s Books To Each Of The Seven Local Elementary Schools Competing In Texas Motor Speedway ’s “Speeding To Read” Program