Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR: Decal to Honor Late Champion Stefanik

This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series will honor NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Mike Stefanik, who died in a plane crash last Saturday.

A decal commemorating his life will be placed on the A-Pillar on each car. The decal will reflect the red of his most recent paint schemes, as well as his stylized name from his car.

Additionally, the years of his nine NASCAR championships (seven in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and two in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East) are listed on the decal (1997 and 1998 are repeated for his championships in both series in the same year).

The decal will also run on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, NASCAR Pinty’s Series and NASCAR K&N Pro Series East cars competing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. The Modifieds will then carry the decal for the remainder of the 2019 season.

Truex locked into second round of Playoffs
For the first time this season, Martin Truex Jr. takes over the top position in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings thanks to a hard-fought victory in last week’s Playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And he arrives at Richmond Raceway for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) the most recent winner there – earning the win last April.

Truex’s five victories in 2019 are most in the series. He and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch are the only two drivers in the series to win at least four races a season the last four years. They each have won a series high 21 races since 2016. And neither appears to be slowing down.

Truex, specifically, boasts some important momentum. He has 11 top-five and 16 top-10 showings through the opening 27 races and holds a three-point edge on second place Kevin Harvick in the Playoff driver standings following Las Vegas. He has five top-six finishes in the last seven races. His previous wins came in April (at Richmond), May (at Charlotte, Dover) and June (Sonoma).

Richmond has been a good place for Truex, who was third in this Playoff race last year and has five top-10 runs in the last seven races there. Ironically, his worst finish in that stretch was a 20th in the 2017 regular season finale at Richmond and Truex would go on to win his first Cup title two months later. He won four of the 10 Playoff races that year, including the Homestead-Miami season finale.

Kyle Busch looking to bounce back
After a couple challenging weeks behind the wheel, Kyle Busch welcomes the opportunity to restore his Playoff course this week at Richmond Raceway, where he is the defending race winner. The Monster Energy Series Regular Season Champion has suffered back-to-back rough outings in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – a season-worst 37th-place finish at Indianapolis two weeks ago and a 19th place in the Las Vegas Playoff opener last week.

Although Busch’s work this season earned him the top ranking to start the Playoffs, the tough luck at his home track of Las Vegas has now dropped him to fourth in the standings – 19 points behind the points leader, his JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. It’s the lowest Busch has been ranked since the first Las Vegas race of the season, when he was also fourth in the standings. The upside for the 2015 Monster Energy Series champion is that he led the points for 14 weeks. And he leads the Monster Energy Series with six victories at this week’s venue, Richmond Raceway.

Busch swept both Richmond races in 2018 and is coming off an eighth-place finish at the track in April. He has top-10 finishes in eight of the last 10 races. And he is one of only four active drivers to win a Richmond race from the pole position (2010). He has the best average finish (7.0) in the field since 2005 and boasts the second-best driving rating – 110.2, compared to Kevin Harvick’s series-best 110.4.

Since 2005, Busch has a series best 17 top-five finishes in 28 starts at Richmond – 60 percent of the time he finishes in the top five. His six career wins is twice that of any driver in this week’s field. His victory in May 2018, from the 32nd starting position is the farthest on the grid a race winner has started in the track’s 126-race history.

Busch’s four wins this season have come at ISM Raceway, Auto Club Speedway, Bristol-1 and Pocono-1 – however that last win was June 2. He’s been runner-up at Sonoma and Kentucky since then.

The good news for Busch is that both his 13 top-five and 21 top-10 efforts are tops in the series. And the 15 bonus points Busch earned for winning the regular season title carry over to the next Playoff round.

“It’s kind of an insurance policy,’’ Busch said. “We all pay for insurance to hopefully never have to use it, but it’s there just in case.

“For us, we’ve done a great job of being able to build those points up throughout the regular season and it’s nice to be able to have that point structure in place to kind of give you the opportunity to have your early season success help you through the postseason. I think it’s the most-fair structure that we’ve had through the Playoff era.’’

Harvick is peaking at the right time
Kevin Harvick conceded two weeks ago that maybe his 2019 Playoff push would benefit from better timing. Last year he had a career-high eight-win season but had won five of those before the midpoint of the regular season. This year, Harvick seems to be peaking just in time for the 10-race Playoff.

The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has won two of the last five races, three of the last eight. He won the Indianapolis regular season finale from the pole position and led a dominating 118 laps. Last week he led 47 laps and finished runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. in the Las Vegas Playoff opener.

Harvick shows up at Richmond Raceway ranked second in the points – tying his best points position of the year (he was ranked second for two of the season’s opening three weeks). And more bad news for competition: Harvick is the highest rated Playoff driver at Richmond.

He has three wins – the last in May 2013, won four pole positions, and earned a series best 24 top 10s and 15 top fives in 37 starts. He has finished top 10 in 64.8 percent of his starts. His seven Xfinity Series victories is most all-time, and he tied an amazing statistic – winning three Xfinity races in a row (2005-06) – to equal a mark set by Harry Gant in 1991-92.

Harvick is currently on a seven-race streak of top-10 finishes at Richmond and was runner-up to Kyle Busch in this Playoff race last year. He’s led laps in four of the last five Richmond races and twice – in 2006 (272 laps) and 2011 (202 laps) – led more than half the race total laps.

“I think the back-up plan is to survive and advance, but we want to win,’’ Harvick said. “We want to be racing for the lead and trying to win stages and be aggressive. I think being aggressive is just going to bite you less than kind of being passive and just trying to mediocre your way into the next round by looking at points.’’

Virginia is home for Hamlin
Denny Hamlin has long considered Richmond Raceway his “home” venue. Having grown up in nearby Chesterfield, Va., doing well at Richmond was always a goal. And he’s succeeded.

Hamlin has three Monster Energy Series victories and three Xfinity Series wins at the 0.75-mile oval. His 1,659 laps led in Cup there is most in the field. He is one of only four active drivers to win from the pole position (2016).

In seven of the last eight Richmond races, Hamlin has finished sixth or better. He was fifth this April. He has 12 top-five and 16 top-10 efforts in 26 starts, including a runner-up finish to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2006 – his first ever Monster Energy Series race at his home track. Six times he’s led at least 100 laps, including 381 of 400 laps from the pole position in 2008 – only to finish 24th while Clint Bowyer celebrated in Victory Lane.

Hamlin could really use some of his hometown magic. He tumbled from second in the points standings to start the 10-race Playoff push to a season-low seventh place following a 15th-place finish in the Las Vegas Playoff opener last week.

Still Hamlin’s season statistics are impressive. He has 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes through the opening 26 weeks and is averaging a 9.9 finish. In seven of the last nine races he’s finished sixth or better – and that includes two victories, at Pocono2 and then Bristol-2 from the pole position.

Team Penske performing
All three Team Penske drivers – Brad Keselowski (third), Ryan Blaney (fifth) and Joey Logano (ninth) – earned top-10 finishes in the Las Vegas Playoff opener. And Logano’s 105 laps led was most among all competitors.

They arrive in Richmond with a lofty record to launch from. Logano is a two-time Richmond Monster Energy Series race winner (in 2014 and 2017). Keselowski won in 2014 and has four Xfinity Series victories at the track.

The reigning Cup champion Logano is ranked third in the Playoff standings – only seven points behind leader Martin Truex Jr. Keselowski is fifth, 24 points out. And Blaney is 10th, 43 points behind Truex and 12 points up on 13th place Ryan Newman with two races remaining to settle which 12 drivers move on to the next round of the Playoffs.

Richmond has been a stellar overall venue for Team Penske, which swept both race wins in 2014, including one of the most dominant performances in track history from Keselowski who led 383 of the 400 laps to win the fall race.

Logano has the second-best average finish (10.2) on the season among the top five in the points. Of those drivers, only regular season champ Kyle Busch (8.6) has a better average finish.

On the bubble
Four drivers came out of the Las Vegas Playoff opener ranked below the top-12 cutoff with two races left to try and get inside that group to advance to the Round of 12.

Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman is 13th in the standings – six points behind 12th place Aric Almirola. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch, the 2004 Monster Energy Series champion, is ranked 14th, 14 points behind Almirola.

Clint Bowyer, who won the pole position last week at Vegas but finished 25th, is ranked 15th – 21 points behind his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Almirola. And Erik Jones, who is points leader Martin Truex Jr.’s teammate, is currently 16th in the standings – 26 points behind Almirola. Jones has had horrible luck the last two weeks with a finish of 39th in the Indianapolis regular season finale and then 36th last week at the Vegas opener with his No. 20 Toyota suffering a mechanical problem.

Newman, Kurt Busch and Bowyer all have previous victories at Richmond. Both Busch (2005 and 2015) and Bowyer (2008 and 2012) have two wins. Newman won in 2003.

Of the four, Newman has the best career average finish (12.5) and top 10 mark (19) in 35 Richmond starts. Bowyer is averaging a 12.7 finish in 27 starts with 15 top 10s. Busch has a 15.3 average finish in 37 starts. Busch and Newman have the most top-five finishes (seven) among the four drivers.