Kyle Busch might very well go down as the greatest in NASCAR history

Kyle Busch

For the second time in his career, Kyle Busch is the NASCAR Cup Series champion. For some, that gives cause to celebrate. But for those who do not count themselves as fans of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, there may still yet be a bad taste in their mouths as they work to digest the final outcome of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As is the case virtually every time the driver of the No. 18 Toyota achieves some new milestone, the conversation invariably turns toward Busch’s place in NASCAR history. Here is someone who is almost as well known for what he does outside the NASCAR Cup Series as he is for what he does while racing in the sport’s top division. And for some this is quite a hot button issue.

So where is Kyle Busch’s place in the history of NASCAR racing?

The 34-year-old driver’s record in the Cup Series alone makes him a no-doubt choice for the NASCAR Hall of Fame even if Busch were to retire from the sport right now. Along with his two championships at the top level, he has amassed a total of 56 career victories. That number places him ninth on the all-time win list just ahead of Rusty Wallace and 20 wins behind eighth-place occupant Dale Earnhardt.

If Kyle Busch had never entered any other type of race after breaking into the NASCAR Cup Series his record at the top level alone would be sufficient to qualify him as one of the sport’s greatest ever. However, he has indeed entered other races since becoming a full-time Cup Series driver and that causes some to take exception.

Much is often made about the number of total times Busch has visited victory lane across NASCAR’s top divisions. Some discount the wins he has piled up in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series arguing that those wins amount to the equivalent of a Major League Baseball player adding to his home run totals by playing in AA or AAA minor league games.

Kyle Busch has celebrated 56 NASCAR Cup Series wins

But just as his success in the Cup division alone is worthy of Hall of Fame inclusion, so too would be his achievements in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Busch has scored 96 triumphs at that level of racing. That almost doubles the number of the next highest person on the list which is Mark Martin who scored 49 wins. The younger of the two racing Busch brothers also earned a championship in NASCAR’s second division back in 2009 when the sanctioning body still allowed drivers to compete for titles in more than one series during the same season.

So again, just like in the case of his Cup Series record, Busch’s achievements at the Xfinity level would earn him a place of honor in the NASCAR Hall of Fame even if those achievements were to stand alone. Consider that drivers such as Jack Ingram, Richie Evans and Jerry Cook earned the sport’s highest post-career reward with accomplishments that came outside of the Cup Series.

Kyle Busch would be a sure thing for the Hall of Fame if he were to have only raced at the Xfinity Series level.

But that’s not all.

Busch also has a stellar record in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. His 56 wins on that tour outnumber those of any other driver who has competed at that level. Further, the majority of those wins have come in trucks owned and prepared by his own Kyle Busch Motorsports team so he has achieved a number of those victories as an owner as well as a driver.

KBM trucks have taken a total of 75 NGOTS checkered flags with Busch himself scoring 40 wins in his own machines.

Once again, considering that Ron Hornaday, Jr. is already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in the truck series, it would seem safe to say that Kyle Busch would be a likely entrant if that form of racing is all he had ever done in NASCAR.

Kyle Busch has been successful as both a driver and team owner in the truck series

Now that Kyle Busch has secured multiple NASCAR Cup Series championships, is in the top-10 in all-time wins at the elite level, and has accomplished all that he has in the lower divisions there can be little doubt that he is one of the greatest drivers in the history of this sport. And further considering that he is still younger than the age that is often considered to be the prime for stock car racers(late 30’s), his numbers of titles and victories are almost certain to continue climbing upward.

Some may consider Busch’s 2015 Cup Series title to be tainted due to the fact that he missed multiple races after sustaining injuries in a crash at Daytona. This 2019 championship, however, comes with no such asterisk. And while Cup Series wins and championships certainly do outweigh those achieved at lower levels, the accomplishments in the other divisions cannot be completely dismissed.

Besides his arguable 2015 championship, many also take exception to the often volatile driver’s demeanor. While his sometimes abrasive nature may actually attract some enthusiasts to him, others find themselves being rubbed the wrong way by Busch’s behavior.

Regardless of how his championships may be viewed or his attitude judged, there can’t be any doubt that this is one of the all-time greats in NASCAR. And with the possibility of adding even more trophies to his collection, Kyle Busch may very well end his career as the greatest to ever strap on a racing helmet in the NASCAR ranks for those who are able to judge him objectively. However, that number may be somewhat few.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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That’s not exactly how this NASCAR Playoffs thing is supposed to work

Matt Crafton

Matt Crafton won his third NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship on Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Obviously, that’s great for the veteran driver and his ThorSport Racing team. However, his path to that title was not exactly carved out the way in which NASCAR intended when this current championship-deciding system was devised.

The current NASCAR Playoffs system is the evolutionary product of the ‘Chase for the Cup’ format that was created following the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series season to prevent a situation such as the one that played out that year when Matt Kenseth won the championship by using a model of consistency to simply out-point the competition. The No. 17 Roush Ford only won one race that season but piled up so many top-5 and top-10 finishes that he had clinched the title before the green flag ever waved over the season finale.

However, executives in the NASCAR corporate offices, particularly CEO Brian France, and the sport’s television partners wanted a system in which the championship battle would go down to the wire in the season finale. Thus, the ‘Chase’ was born.

Now, the NASCAR Playoffs, which ultimately grew out of that Chase format, are supposed to be set up in such a way that winning is the ticket to success when it comes to earning a title. Drivers are initially invited into the playoff by winning races. However, since enough drivers who had declared themselves eligible for the NGOTS title had not won races to earn a ticket into the playoffs, Crafton found himself in the mix as a result of outpointing those who had not received an invitation by scoring victories.

The races that make up the season ending playoffs are broken into segments with those who have won a race within each segment being given an automatic placement into the next round. Of the four who qualify for a spot in the final run for a championship, the highest finisher in the last race of the season is declared the champion.

Although Stewart Friesen was the only driver of the eventual Championship 4 to win in the round that set up the deciding race in south Florida, drivers Brett Moffitt and Ross Chastain had each visited victory lane multiple times during the course of the 2019 campaign. Crafton, on the other hand, had not only failed to win a race this season(his last win was at Eldora in 2017), he had not even placed in the top-5 at the finish of a race since June at Texas Motor Speedway.

Austin Hill, who was not part of the Championship 4, won the race at Homestead just ahead of Crafton with Chastain coming home fourth, Moffitt fifth and Friesen finishing eleventh in the final rundown.

Again, that’s not exactly how this system is supposed to work.

Matt Crafton in his No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford

Following the Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway late Friday night, the 43-year-old Crafton was unconcerned about the perception of his winless championship.

“You know what we’ll say to that? We won the championship,” Crafton declared. “It’s just as sweet to be totally honest. Yeah, it would have been great to win some of those battles throughout the year, but we went through a lot and we’ve had a lot of adversity this year. Without a doubt, I felt like we should have won some races, but at the end of the day, we’re the 2019 Truck Series champion.”

On Friday night a winless driver won a NASCAR-sanctioned championship by not winning. That’s not exactly how the sanctioning body designed it. But it doesn’t diminish the fact that Matt Crafton is the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Good Thing That Scuffle Happened at the End of the Martinsville Race

Martin Truex, Jr. completely dominated at Martinsville(Photo: Getty Images)

Here we are several days removed from the First Data 500 contested last Sunday at the Martinsville Speedway and despite being closer to the running of this weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Texas Motor Speedway, the vast majority of talk, print, and television content revolving around the sport is still focused on the paper-clip shaped track located in southern Virginia. But unfortunately, not much of that talk is centered on the racing that took place the half-mile.

Instead, most who are discussing Sunday’s race are chattering about the altercation that occurred on pit road following the checkered flag between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin that ultimately also involved a number of Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing crew members.

And for NASCAR, that’s a good thing.

Wait, it’s a good thing that people are talking about a post-race scuffle on pit road instead of the action on the track? Well, yes it absolutely is because the racing on the track quite simply was not very good, at least at the front of the pack.

While there may have been some bumper tag and side swiping further back in the field, the leader essentially went unchallenged virtually all day as Martin Truex, Jr. led a crushing total of 464 of the 500 laps in the event. After taking the lead just after the halfway point, the No. 19 JGR Toyota was at the top of the scoreboard for the remainder of the day.

In a piece written earlier this week for AutoWeek.com by Matt Weaver, it was pointed out that Truex’s astounding number of laps led combined with the 446 circuits paced by spring winner Brad Keselowski means that the two eventual Martinsville winners showed the way for more than 900 trips around the speedway in their respective triumphs.

According to Weaver, there have been only three green flag passes for the lead in the two races contested on a track typically known for its beating-and-banging style of short-track action. The writer stated his belief that the aero package being employed by NASCAR in 2019 has brought about this sudden run of seemingly complete and total domination by the lead cars in the Cup Series events held at Martinsville.

Further, the column points out that Martinsville does not appear to be the only track to have fallen victim to the aero-induced lack of passing. The ‘Monster Mile’ at Dover and the road courses in Sonoma and Watkins Glen have apparently suffered similar fates.

Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and crew members mixed it up in Martinsville(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

So getting back to the original point, the scrap between drivers and crews served as a benefit to NASCAR in that pundits and fans would otherwise be talking about a race that featured one car leading essentially the entire way. Or worse, no one would be talking about the race at all.

A green flag pass for the lead occurred after Kyle Larson stayed out on old tires following a caution flag being displayed just prior to a stage break. The No. 42 team gambled that they could earn some stage points by holding off at least some of those who pitted for fresh rubber. Truex eventually moved around Larson but no one else could get by before the stage ended.

This week the focus has been on whether or not crew members should get involved in driver disagreements. If not for that, everyone would be talking about why no one can seem to get involved in passing the leader.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin enter Martinsville with decided advantages

Martinsville Speedway currently holds the distinction of being the first track to host a race in the ‘Round of 8’ portion of the NASCAR Playoffs. That means that at the end of the day on Sunday followers of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series could potentially know who one of the four drivers with a chance to be crowned as the 2019 champion will be. The winner of the First Data 500, provided that driver is one of the eight still remaining in the title hunt, will be issued an invitation as one of the Championship 4 contestants in the season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 17th.

Entering this weekend on the paper-clip shaped half-mile located in southern Virginia, two drivers from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable hold what appears to be a distinct advantage over the other six title contenders. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin currently sit first and third in the MENCS standings as the series heads into this final trio of events leading up to the season ending Ford EcoBoost 400 in south Florida.

Kyle Busch leads the MENCS standings and has had plenty of success at Martinsville

Busch has found his share of success at Martinsville over the course of his career. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has scored two wins to go along with sixteen top-5 and seventeen top-10 results on the often difficult to handle short track. The Las Vegas native is currently in the midst of a streak that has seen him score eight consecutive top-5 finishes here with his two victories coming in in 2016 and 2017.

All of those numbers combined give Busch an impressive average finishing position of 12.0 in the 28 Cup races he has entered at Martinsville.

Unless some sort of mechanical trouble or an unforeseen incident befalls Busch, it would seem that he must be considered a favorite to emerge from Martinsville as a solid threat(if not a lock) to be in one of those four positions to earn a chance at the championship.

Perhaps the only driver among those in the final eight with a better track record than Busch at Martinsville is his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin. The home-state driver has steered his No. 11 Toyota into victory lane five times on this track which has provided him with quite a collection of grandfather clocks(given as a winner’s trophy) from this track. And more, the JGR racer has piled up fourteen top-5 and twenty top-10 results here over the course of his career.

One thing to consider, however, is that Hamlin has not won here since the spring of 2015 but he did finish as the runner-up in this race one year ago and was fifth here back in March. In his favor, though, is the fact that this team has been very hot of late scoring finishes of fifth, third and first in their last three races to assure advancement into this round.

Among all active drivers, only Jimmie Johnson(8.5) has a better average finishing position at this track than Hamlin’s 9.6. However, seven-time champion is not among those with a chance to win the title.

While Busch and Hamlin enter the race seemingly in very good positions, others have a steeper hill to climb at this track. Certainly getting off to a good start is something every driver and team would like to do in this round but some may not be able to do that if the statistics hold true.

Denny Hamlin(11) and Kyle Larson have had very different degrees of success at Martinsville

Kyle Larson enters this race seventh in the standings 35 points behind leader Busch and 19 markers behind fourth place Joey Logano. And unfortunately for the driver of the No. 42 car, this has been one of his worst tracks. The Chip Ganassi Racing pilot has only managed one top-5 and one top-10 here and holds an average finishing position of 23.6 on the paper-clip.

Of Larson’s 11 starts at Martinsville, four have ended with finishes of 30th or worse. His best finish in his last six starts here has been a 14th in 2016.

While Ryan Blaney currently ranks eighth in the standings 37 points behind Busch and 21 points separating him from the fourth place cut line, he has had better luck at Martinsville than Larson. In seven Cup starts at this facility he has earned two top-5 and three top-10 results.

Of the drivers within the top-4, Martin Truex Jr. has had the most difficulty at Martinsville with no wins and an average finishing position of 18th in his 27 starts. But recall that he was within one turn of winning this race last year.

Obviously, anything could happen this weekend. But going into the event at Martinsville the numbers seem to indicate that Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin stand the best chances of setting themselves up for success here in the first race of the ‘Round of 8’.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Playoff Racing: You have won me over

Matt Kenseth posted consistent finishes that led to his 2003 championship

Matt Kenseth drove to such an impressively consistent season in 2003 that he wrapped the NASCAR Cup Series title even before the green flag was waved over the field at the season finale race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Despite the fact that he only scored one victory that year, the 25 top-10 finishes Kenseth compiled were enough to allow him to be crowned as the series champion following the season’s penultimate race in Rockingham, NC.

Even though he had won more than twice as many races as any other driver on the series that season, Ryan Newman could only muster a sixth place finish in the final series standings. The eight checkered flags that year were not enough to overcome the fact that he posted eleven results outside the top-20 in 2003.

Up to that time, the point system formula used by NASCAR rewarded consistency and punished those who failed to make it to the finish line at the end of each and every race. It was a system that had been drawn up, on a napkin according to legend, with the intent of encouraging racers to run all of the events in an era when there needed to be such encouragement. And for years it had accomplished that very thing.

However, the era of multi-million dollar television contracts and major corporate sponsorship of race drivers and teams was not a place where the rewarding of someone seemingly choosing to run in positions 6-10 was looked upon favorably. As a result, then NASCAR boss Brian France announced that a change would be forthcoming.

No doubt driven by television partners, sponsors, fans, and perhaps even some teams, the Chase for the Championship was born at the beginning of 2004 campaign. Under this new system, the top-10 in the standings would have their point totals re-set with ten races remaining on the schedule and would then race it out over those final events with the driver scoring the most points in that segment being declared the champion.

When I first learned of this change, I thought it was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. Keep in mind, this was a sport that had always had its champion decided based on how that driver had done over the course of an entire year, not just a few races at the end of the season. To me at that time, it seemed as if NASCAR had turned its world upside down and had buried the traditions that had built the sport.

Of course, that initial Chase system has since been changed and tweaked to the point that we now have in place the NASCAR Playoffs format which rewards running up front and winning races in a way that had not been a part of the sport in the decades leading up to 2004.

Watching drivers such as Kevin Harvick(4) and Chase Elliott battle for titles can be very entertaining

Until the past couple of years, I had steadfastly held on to my disdain for the playoff system believing that it crowned a driver who happened to simply get hot at the right time as the champion rather than rewarding those who had been consistently good throughout the season. However, I have come to modify that opinion of late.

In the era we live in today, like it or not, sports are as much or more about entertainment as they are about the true intent of the sport as it was originally created. Baseball, football and basketball have all changed over time to add more entertainment value to their products whether it be “juiced baseballs” and smaller parks, rules that favor more passing than running, or three-point shooting sprees, each of those sports have evolved over time in a way that has caused them to lean more toward the entertainment side than the ‘original intent of the game’ side.

This week I listened to the ‘Dale Jr. Download’ podcast as show host Dale Earnhardt Jr. and guest Richard Petty discussed that very point. Each seemed to agree that for the sport of racing, and NASCAR in particular, must change with the times in order to survive. That further cemented my own emerging view by showing that if two men who have made their livings in racing sense the need to change, then I should be able to accept modifications as well.

Drivers are forced to take more risks now than used to be the case

I have recently come to enjoy the strategy plays being made throughout races and throughout entire seasons as teams work to put their drivers in the best positions to advance toward a championship. I have also come to enjoy the hard charging styles that many drivers have had to adopt in order to win races or move up in the running order at the stage breaks.

This is not to say that the sport is better or worse than it once was. It’s just different. And while some aspects of the sport may have changed over the years, the idea of building a car and driving it as fast as possible has not. As long as that ideal remains in place, the sport will remain, at least in the most important degree, true to its roots.

I’m 52-years-old and have witnessed some of NASCAR’s most historic moments in person. Richard Petty’s 200th win at Daytona, the first four wins of Dale Earnhardt’s career, and Darrell Waltrip’s incredible streak of wins at Bristol Motor Speedway are all events lodged in my memory bank. And I am hoping that many more are yet to come in whatever form the sport takes.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Are the big tracks giving NASCAR a Formula 1 type feel?

The Stewart Haas cars worked closely together in 2018 at Talladega(Photo: pe-sports.com)

The biggest and fastest tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule have always required drivers to work together by using the draft in order keep pace with the competition and pass other cars. This has been true since the 1950’s when the first of what we have come to call the ‘plate tracks’ was first built. But lately it seems as if the teams, and perhaps more importantly the manufacturers, have decided that working together to achieve the goal of placing one of their own in the winner’s circle supersedes all else at Talladega Super Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.

And with the current playoff format in use it is easy to see why.

During the early days of racing on these tracks drivers would follow each other around and seize the opportunity to pull up on and ‘slingshot’ by the car that was leading the train around the speedway. That gave way to racing in big packs when the restrictor plate was introduced into the sport and followed by so-called tandem racing that came to the forefront for a short time.

But now, a new form of working together has emerged, or reappeared for thise who may be old enough to remember the old manufacturer days of the sport in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

One year ago at Talladega the cars prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing organized themselves into a pack of four and thoroughly dominated the 1000Bulbs.com 500 by leading more than 80% of the laps and eventually putting Aric Almirola in victory lane. The four-car team essentially locked bumpers for that entire race and remained in that formation virtually all day leaving the competition to wonder how they had been so completely overwhelmed.

Aric Almirola wins at Talladega with a puch from teammate Clint Bowyer(Photo: HHP/Alan Marler)

And since then, this type of racing seems to have evolved even further. The three manufacturers curently involved in the sport have almost certainly encouraged their teams to work together for the purpose of pushing one of their brand under the checkered flag ahead of the others. Ford vs Chevrolet vs Toyota has now become the way of things which was clearly illustrated by the fact that many of the Chevrolet drivers and team leaders secluded themselves into a private space during the rain delay on Sunday at Talladega to almost certainly share information and discuss strategy.

Earlier this year in the Daytona 500 a Ford driver(Michael McDowell) was criticized for making a move that might have helped him improve his position rather than drafting with another Ford(Joey Logano) to push that car to the lead on the final lap.

Of course, teamwork in one form or another has long been a part of NASCAR, particularly on the drafting tracks.

For years fans and participants of other forms of racing have derided Formula 1 for its team orders that have on occasion called for one driver to allow another to score a win or a better finish to help the team win a championship or to move up in the standings. Something about that type of strategy and predetermination  just seems to go against the nature of competition according to these critics.

One may now have to wonder if that very sort of thing is now happening in NASCAR. If teams opt to only work with cars of the same brand, could they not also decide to make sure to push the driver who needs the most help in the NASCAR Playoffs standings across the finish line for the win to assure that as many cars as possible with the same name plate on the grille advance to the next round?

For example, after poor finishes last weekend in Dover, Ford driver Ryan Blaney and Chevy pilot Chase Elliott sit below the cut line and could be in jeopardy of not moving into the ‘Round of 8’ without help. A win by either of those drivers would immediately negate their points deficits by automatically moving them into the next round.

Do you really think that the manufacturers haven’t thought of this if they have already thought of encouraging their teams to work together on these tracks?

And don’t forget that in 2020 the second race at Daytona will be in the position of deciding who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t. Manufacturers and teams will almost certainly be planning strategies to push the most vulnerable of those who might miss the cut toward the front.

As the financial situation in the sport is structured right now, the manufacturers have tremendous power due to the fact that teams are so reliant on them. Just look at how the situation played out at Leavine Family Racing this year as popular driver Matt DiBenedetto was supplanted in that ride by up-and-coming Toyota racer Christopher Bell as evidence of the influence of the brands.

Not that it’s necessarily a bad way to go about things as you can’t blame Ford, Chevy, or Toyota for wanting their drivers to win races. And of course, it would be pretty difficult to manage the chaos that often occurs over the finale few laps at Daytona and Talladega, but it is easier to assure that one of your drivers will win the race of they have been managed to push each other to the front of the field all throughout the day.

Does it really sound that much different than what has been going on for years in Formula 1?

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Miserable Monster Outing Leaves Penske Relying on Talladega

Ryan Blaney’s troubles at Dover have left him needing a good finish at Talladega

Virtually every driver and team still involved in the NASCAR Playoffs came into this current stretch of three races that make up the ‘Round of 12’ pointing out that they wanted to jump start their efforts in this segment by scoring a good finish at Dover International Speedway in the Drydene 400. The emphasis on Dover was born out of the fact that the next event for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will take place in the wildcard race at the ever treacherous Talladega Super Speedway coming up this weekend.

However, one of NASCAR’s power teams now finds itself in the very position of having to hope for good runs, and perhaps even a win, on one of the series most unpredictable speedways. Team Penske left the ‘Monster Mile’ with none of its three drivers earning a top-10 finish as Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney each suffered mechanical issues that landed them in 34th and 35th places respectively.

The third Penske car, Brad Keselowski, eventually came home with an 11th place result after a somewhat up and down day.

The races at Talladega often feature massive wrecks that seem to be quite random in regard to who gets swept up in them. Drivers who left Delaware with top-5 or top-10 finishes have to feel more comfortable going to Talladega than those who used up their so-called ‘Mulligan’ in the first race of this three-race segment. Being caught up in a ‘Big One’ and winding up 34th or 35th again could very well leave Logano and Blaney heading into the third event of this grouping at Kansas Speedway needing nothing less than a win to advance to the ‘Round of 8’.

The drivers who have amassed greater numbers of playoff points throughout the season can better withstand disaster in one race than those who have not done so. However, two poor finishes in three races would almost certainly doom anyone’s playoff chances unless that third result is a victory.

Joey Logano had trouble with his car before the green flag even waved in Dover

As things stand right now, Blaney is in last place among the remaining twelve contenders with a deficit of 22 points below the cut line. Logano, due to the number of playoff points he accrued coming into the final ten races, is tied with William Byron for the final transfer spot. Keselowski sits sixth in the standings with a cushion of 20 points over the cutoff position.

While it is certainly not inconceivable that most of the title contenders could find trouble in the 1000bulbs.com 500 at Talladega, no team wants to be in the position of having to rely on such. However, if trouble befalls two of the three Penske pilots, that is exactly where they will be on Sunday afternoon in Alabama.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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