Saturday, Oct 16

After having an unusual Friday, Joe Gibbs Racing picked up the speed in race trim and swept both rounds of practice in Las Vegas led by Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.

Practice One:

In the morning practice that began at 8:30 a.m. Carl Edwards paced the field in a backup car at 191.564 mph. The No. 19 Toyota had to go to a backup car after following a crash in round two of qualifying on Friday. In the first round he was fourth fastest, but the team worked until the late hours on Friday evening to prepare the new car.

After qualifying fifth, Austin Dillon was second fast on one lap speed. The No. 3 car also was among the fastest on 10-lap speeds.

Casey Mears finished the session in third, .128 seconds behind Edwards. Kasey Kahne finished with the fourth best lap and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five.

Polesitter Kurt Busch was the lowest on the speed chart that he had been all weekend at 10th, while his teammate and defending winner of this race Kevin Harvick was mired down in 22nd.

Struggling all weekend long has been Kyle Busch, who posted the 27th time. Joey Logano was a disappointing 30th on the board following the first session, though qualifying outside of the front row for Sunday’s 400-mile event.

Practice Two:

Kenseth laid down a lap early on in the session that would remain atop the board for the entirety of the session. At 189.460 mph, the No. 20 Toyota laid down a lap that would be more similar to race conditions.

Edwards was able to finish out “Happy Hour” second quick. He self-admittedly was happy that the team is using the backup car because of the speed that it has shown throughout the first two practices.

Busch was just over a tenth of a second behind Kenseth in third. The Las Vegas native is looking for his first career win at his hometown track on Sunday.

Richard Childress Racing teammates Paul Menard and Ryan Newman finished out the top five. The No. 27 car ran 54 laps, the most of all teams as he is looking to take advantage of running at one of his best tracks this weekend.

Dillon had the 11th overall speed, but was the fastest on the 10 consecutive lap average. He was so happy with his car that they covered the car up with 20 minutes remaining in practice.  

Busch and Logano were able to get their cars to a respectable speed of 14th and 17th. Just like the morning practice Harvick finished 22nd on the chart.

The third race of the Sprint Cup season will begin at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday where one team will look to solidify itself in the Chase.

Taking over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet in 2016 is 20-year-old Chase Elliott. Imagine that, just two years out of high school and taking over the ride from NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

In 2014, his first full-time NASCAR season, Elliott went out and dominated the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports. He won three races, the most out of all of the XFINITY Series regulars, and secured 42 more points than his closest competitor and teammate Regan Smith.

During the 2015 season, Elliott ran up front for the majority of the year, but was unable to win back-to-back championships. Overall, he had 27 top-10 finishes, more than he had in his championship-winning season. But outside of his win at Richmond in September, he struggled to run as the leader on a consistent basis, leading 236 laps, down from 390 in 2014.

Like all rookies, Elliott will have some bumps in the road in his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. Joining Elliott as first-year drivers are Brian Scott, Chris Buescher, Jeffery Earnhardt and Ryan Blaney.

Each have a different story behind them, but Elliott’s is the most significant. If he fails in his first campaign, questions will be raised about whether or not he is the right driver to replace Gordon in the elite ride.

One thing is certain, Rick Hendrick believes so.

 It seems like ages ago now that Hendrick put Elliott into some of his equipment, but in reality it was only five years ago and he was just 15 years old. Hendrick is the one who basically told Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that he needed him to fill a position at JR Motorsports, before he had ever even raced in an XFINITY Series event. The legendary team owner believes in the kid, like he does all of his drivers.

The 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class looks to be one of the best in recent years. Sure, there was the rookie class in 2014 that was made up of Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and others. But in terms of raw talent, this one could compete against it as arguably a better overall class, and possibly one of the strongest in recent memory.

One of the obvious goals for the No. 24 team in 2016 is to win the Rookie of the Year Award, something that the team hasn’t faced since the 1993 season when Gordon was a rookie as a part of the “Rainbow Warriors.”

“All of them, I’m sure, I really don’t know,” Elliott told Speedway Digest as to who his biggest threat will be for the award. “I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side. But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

Elliott will be teaming with some of the sport’s best. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 26-time Cup winner Earnhardt and a resurged Kasey Kahne.  

There are other team goals for 2016. Of course, a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth is always a necessity. Since the Chase was implemented in 2004, the No. 24 car has only missed out on the playoffs one time, back in 2005 and has finished in the top 10 in points 22 out of the last 23 seasons.

In order to qualify the Chase, Elliott would most likely need to win a race. A few playoff berths will be given out to the highest drivers in the standings without a win, but a win essentially assures a chance to compete for the championship.

Elliott is not worried about his rookie competition. It’s not that he thinks NASCAR should engrave his name on the trophy now, but the fact that worrying about his competition could always cause turmoil. If he goes out and drives his style, everything will take care of itself.

“I’m definitely not going to show up to the racetrack each week and worry about what the other rookies are doing because I think you’re going to have to focus a lot,” Elliott said. “That’s definitely not going to be my main concern when I show up each week.”

On his down time, Elliott could be seen with one of his closest competitors and rivals in Blaney.  The two have become good friends as they’ve grown up together, though they sit a couple years a part in terms of age. Their fathers have cemented a legacy in which the two youngsters will look to better and add onto the legacy of their last name.

Elliott stated that he doesn’t have a great relationship with any of the rookies except for Blaney. As both drivers have progressed through the ranks of NASCAR, they’ve been able to have a real bond off the track.

“I guess the only other one that I really know or talk to any is Ryan Blaney,” he said. “We’re good friends and he’s really the only one of the rookie guys that I even know at all.”

By many, Elliott is the pre-season favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award and begin his legacy inside of the No. 24 car. If all goes well for him, he will put check marks next to all of his goals at season’s end and call it a successful rookie campaign.

Track time will be important for the team. In five career Cup races, Elliott has experienced some difficulty with a best finish of 16th and an average result of 26.2.

When Kasey Kahne made the move over to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, it was the best career move he had ever made in NASCAR. He was joining a team that had won five out of the last six championships, and in 2011, Hendrick equipment took home the title. It seemed like he was entering a wonderland and the perfect ride to elevate his career.

That wonderland came to a screeching halt this past season when Kahne struggled on the racetrack and was visibly frustrated after missing the Chase for the first time in four seasons as the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Kahne is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he recorded just three top-five finishes. His top 10 total was down from 11, to 10 in 2015, his lowest since 2010, when he was a part of Richard Petty Motorsports.

But for Kahne, a driver who came into the sport with such high regard and excelled rather quickly, there is no real reasoning as to why he has fallen off the radar. He has been in the same shop as four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon over the past four seasons, and on the same team as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and multiple race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

The No. 5 team hit rock bottom in 2015. After re-aligning himself with former team engineer, Keith Rodden, the team was destined to have instant success, especially with how Rodden elevated Jamie McMurray just a year prior at Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2015, he lead a career low 66 laps. He also had three DNF’s including a scary incident at Pocono in which he crashed into the pit wall, scurrying members from AJ Allmendinger’s team. But for the majority of the season he was irrelevant when it came to running up front.

“There are different areas that we as a team needed to work on, so we worked on those positions and spots,” Kahne said of changes that occurred over the off-season. “We changed a few people around that we feel will be better for our team morale. Some of the things that I look for in a car and then the other thing is just enjoying what we get to do again.”

Kahne made it clear that last season was the worst he felt inside of a racecar as he was never comfortable on track. He wasn’t able to enjoy the success that his teammates did, all winning a race. It really put his personal morale and the entire team morale down. With racing over the off-season, he believes it will be an increase in momentum heading into 2016.

“I think by going over and racing my Sprint car and racing midgets and doing things over the off-season that I’ve wanted to do for a long period of time kind of was able to start over in a way and feel good about racing cars,” he said. “I think that helped me in the way that I approached this off-season”

2016 will be all about regaining confidence that the Washington native once had. He was unable to gain consistency throughout 2015 and really through his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, he finished fourth in the point standings in 2012, but still needed one of the Wild Card positions to make the Chase.

Since joining one of the top teams in motorsports, Kahne was taken the checkered flag, five times. Compare his first four seasons at HMS to his previous four years with other teams, the amount of wins are the same. Even in qualifying the numbers are down as the No. 5 team has only sat on one pole in the last three years.

Change was needed for the new season. Kahne needed a new mindset, and a clear slate before the Daytona 500. With the recent birth of his son, Tanner, Kahne will look to enter the new year with even more of a reason to perform.

He is under contract with HMS through the 2018 season. He doesn’t have to race for his job, but for himself wants to be successful or else he would have a different job. There is so much left for him to achieve inside of a racecar and the first step might be racing more throughout the season.

With recently getting back into a Sprint car, it has urged him to want to race more. He wants to race for his Sprint car team throughout the NASCAR season, if allowed by Rick Hendrick.

Since the death of his friend Jason Leffler in 2013, Kahne has done very little to no dirt racing. In part it was because Farmers Insurance and Hendrick Motorsports didn’t allow him the opportunity to compete outside of NASCAR. With the recent resurgence on dirt, Kahne seems to be amped up heading into the new racing campaign.

Kahne knows that the team needs to be improved if they are to have any success in 2016. The team has been partially rebuilt, and it will be the second season that Rodden and he have worked together as driver and crew chief. The chemistry needs to improve, but he believes that they can outperform from their 2015 numbers.

“As a team we need faster cars,” he said. “It’s not that it’s not all there, it’s what we are putting on the track and what I’m driving and the way I’m driving. The speed’s not there. There are times when I was as fast as anyone this year, but not near enough.

“I want to be at the front for practice, qualifying and reach each week, not just three times a year. We’re better than that and our cars, our team, everybody is better than that.”

Kahne has a history of being on the Chase bubble heading into Richmond, if the team has better equipment, and prepares like every week is its last there is no telling what this team can do. Take for example the 2014 season where it took him until Atlanta to lock himself into the Chase, two races prior to the point reset.

Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, there are no excuses. Kahne needs to achieve success in 2016 or else his first five years with HMS could be called a bust.  

Win or go home. Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not.

Less than a week after being fined $50,000 for a post-race battle at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the No. 2 car is back in Victory Lane.

With some wild moves to block his competitors, Brad Keselowski charged to the front in an intense battle during a green-white-checkered finish at Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski won his sixth race of the year with the victory in the Geico 500 over a hard-charging Matt Kenseth in what was arguably the most intense race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

 “Obviously this win is huge,” Keselowski said. “We feel like we have been one of the strongest teams all year here, especially the second half of the season. This team has worked hard and I feel like they deserve a shot at a championship. The issues we had at Kansas put us behind and having to fight all the way back, everyone executed and did their job today.”

After receiving damage to his right side door panel from a wreck with Michael McDowell on Lap 59, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion faced adversity throughout the day. However, without any major repairs needed, he worked his way through the field and led five different times throughout the race for a total of 12 laps.

With eliminations on the line, Jimmie Johnson led a race-high 84 laps on Sunday afternoon. For the No. 48 team, that was not enough to send him onto the Eliminator Round of the Chase. Johnson used the low line throughout the day, and threw countless blocks to maintain the lead. However, prior to the final round of green-flag pit stops, Danica Patrick swerved around the six-time champion to take the lead. Johnson dropped back a few spots in the midst of the first green-white-checkered stint and had to save gas during the caution period as well. But on the final restart of the day, the pre-season favorite slipped back to finish 24th at Talladega – eliminating him from championship contention.

Besides Johnson, two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates did not advance to the next round of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran up front throughout the 500-mile event. Yet even with 31 laps led, the No. 88 Chevrolet could not survive the chaos at Talladega. On Lap 187, David Gilliland tapped Earnhardt on the backstretch; causing major damage to his vehicle. Entering Sunday, he had to win in order to advance to the next round of the title. After having his first multi-win year since 2004, he will not contend for the championship.

Kasey Kahne, who made the Chase with a win at Atlanta, was also eliminated from the Chase after Talladega. Although he was inside of the top-eight in points, with Keselowski’s win – he was sent back one position in the Chase Grid. Kahne finished 12th at Talladega, and was just three points behind teammate Jeff Gordon after the sixth race of the Chase.

Kyle Busch entered Talladega as the highest-ranked driver without a win in Round 2. For the majority of the day, he worked with Kenseth at the rear of the field – approximately four to five seconds behind the lead pack. The strategy was working, but then chaos erupted with “the big one.” On Lap 102, with cars wrecking in front of him, Busch checked up and was hit by rookie Austin Dillon. Busch’s car slammed into the wall and received major cosmetic damage and injured the toe of his race car. Although he was able to get back on track – 49 laps down – Busch was able to gain just three positions. He was four points behind Kahne and trailed Gordon by seven markers.

Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano will advance to the next round of the Chase. Gordon will be the lone HMS driver in Round 3. Ryan Newman was just four points behind Logano after Talladega, and represents Richard Childress Racing as their only driver in the Chase. Kevin Harvick will advance to the next round along with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Carl Edwards will also advance for Roush Fenway Racing.

Here are some notables from the Geico 500:

-Terry Labonte finished 33rd in his final Sprint Cup Series start (890th total) for Go FAS Racing.

-Landon Cassill finished fourth on Sunday for Hillman Racing. Prior to this race, his best career-finish was 11th at Talladega earlier in the year.

-Travis Kvapil ended the day in the sixth position for Circle Sport Racing in the No. 33 car. The finish marks the first top-10 for Kvapil since an eighth-place finish at Talladega in 2012.

-Casey Mears earned his third top-10 of the year for Germain Racing with a 10th-place finish.

-Cole Whitt finished 15th for BK Racing. His previous best career-finish was 18th-place at Auto Club Speedway earlier in the year.

-Martin Truex, Jr. led his first lap of the year for Furniture Row Racing, but finished in 27th.

Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR

In a wild 500-mile event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kasey Kahne hoisted the trophy for the first time in over a year. Holding off Matt Kenseth during a green-white-checkered restart, the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet took the victory as he sliced himself between the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of the No. 20 team and Denny Hamlin.

With the victory, Kahne has locked a spot inside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after being on the verge of earning a position in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Now, all four Hendrick Motorsports car are locked inside of the Chase. The victory marks the 17th in his career, and his fifth triumph while racing for HMS.

“We were all over the place during the race but the guys stayed with me and worked hard,” Kahne said. “On those restarts - I didn’t know what would happen because I had great restarts all night and I struggle with restarts a lot.  That’s big, because that is one of the things you have to be good at and it worked really well tonight.”

 “Yeah, we are locked in and I hate it comes down to this Atlanta or Richmond just about every year for me.  Sometimes we are in, sometimes we are out.  But thankful that now at HMS I have been in all three years now.  We have the pressure all the way to Richmond, but we made it again, thankful for that.”

Kenseth clinched a spot in the Chase based on points with a runner-up finish. Clint Bowyer is now on the outside looking in after finishing Sunday evening’s race in the 38th position due to a broken shifter. Greg Biffle currently holds the final spot in the Chase, and it would take a victory by a win-less driver inside of the top 30 to take that away from the Roush Fenway Racing driver.

Kevin Harvick was forced into the wall in front of Joey Logano after Paul Menard spun his tires on the final restart. Menard evidently took the middle lane on the outside of Danica Patrick; shoving the No. 4 car into the wall to end his evening after leading a race-high 195 laps. Harvick was the fastest car throughout the evening as his No. 4 car pulled out in front during each restart.

After Kahne led 23 laps while holding off Harvick, the caution came out with just two laps to go. Everyone on the lead lap came onto pit road, with Kenseth and Menard taking two tires. Kahne slipped to the fifth position, but was able to work his way back up after Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch tangled with a pair of laps left in the race.

While leading early in the race, Harvick nearly hit a squirrel – as he was entering Turn 3. He radioed in on the radio to tell his crew what happened as he was in disbelief; thinking a cat ran from the fence down to the apron while Harvick’s car was approaching. Prior to the first caution, just 23 cars were on the lead lap as the No. 4 car was setting a blistering pace – over seven seconds ahead of Jeff Gordon, who was in second.

On Lap 78, while running in the runner-up position, Gordon blew a left-front tire while entering Turn 3. The No. 24 car pancaked the wall, but he was able to come back and finish 17th after being stuck two laps down and having untimely cautions – preventing him from taking the wave around until the two green-white-checkered runs.

Danica Patrick earned a career-best finish as she ended the evening in the sixth position. Patrick received two free passes on Sunday evening after getting lapped. However, she consistently worked on her No. 10 car and earned a spot inside of the top 10. Ty Dillon finished 25th at Atlanta in his Sprint Cup Series debut for Richard Childress Racing in the No. 33 Chevrolet. Although he finished three laps behind the leader, Dillon gained valuable experience and finished one position behind his brother, Austin Dillon.

In the midst of the final green-flag pit cycle, Keselowski was attempting to go around Hamlin, but he missed pit road after Cole Whitt blocked him; leading the No. 2 car to slam into the back of Josh Wise’s No. 98 car.

Tony Stewart received a warm welcome by race fans during driver introductions on Sunday evening. Stewart rapidly worked his way to the sixth position within two laps of the green flag waving after starting 12th. He ran inside of the top 10 for the majority of the race until Kyle Busch and he collided on a restart. Stewart later blew a tire – ending his night in the No. 14 car as he made a return to NASCAR competition due to missing the past three events after the tragedy that occurred on the weekend of the Watkins Glen race. After the incident, he was not available for comment, but his crew chief did.

“The car has had speed all weekend long and we qualified well,” Chad Johnston said. “I went into today with some pretty high hopes of finishing well and possibly coming out of here with a win but it just didn’t work out in our favor.  We got into a little trouble with the 18 and got into the outside wall, knocked the toe out of it, and a lot of heavy right side damage.  We were just trying to fix that and salvage what we could out of the day but then we blew a right front there right before that caution came out.”

 

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