NASCAR | Kyle Larson penalty affects title race — sort of

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson (42) took pole during qualification for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup held at Sonoma Raceway on June 23-25, 2017. (Photo by Allan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by Allan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire

The never-ending NASCAR saga took another twist this week as Martin Truex Jr. took the Monster Energy Cup series points lead without turning a wheel. That was the result of a penalty against Kyle Larson, who had come out of Saturday’s race at Kentucky with a one-point lead over race winner Truex. That is among the talking points going into Sunday’s Overton’s 301 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

NASCAR dings Larson, team

In postrace inspection at Kentucky Speedway, NASCAR discovered a faulty brake cooling assembly on Larson’s No. 42 car. The sanctioning body docked Larson 35 points, took 35 owners’ points from Chip Ganassi Racing and fined crew chief Chad Johnston $75,000. Johnston also was suspended for three races, starting this weekend. Larson’s problems were compounded Friday when his pole-winning run was disallowed after inspection, this time for an unapproved rear deck fin. That handed the pole to Truex, who ran a lap of 133.077 mph. Larson will start last in the 39-car field.

How much does the points penalty matter?

As far as making the playoffs? Not at all. Larson and Truex are guaranteed spots in the 10-race postseason (am I the only one who still wants to call it “The Chase”?) thanks to their multiple wins. As far as seeding and their fate in the playoffs? It could matter a lot. Truex leads Larson by 34 points with eight races left in the regular season. The points leader after 26 races gets an additional 15 points to carry forward into each of the first three stages of the playoffs, should he make it that far; the second-place car after the regular season gets 10 bonus points.

Almirola back at wheel

Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola returns this weekend, two months after suffering a broken vertebra in a wreck at Kansas. Almirola missed seven races with his injury and was only confirmed for his comeback after a test this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he received medical clearance. “When something gets taken away … at a moment’s notice like that, it has certainly made me appreciate my passion for racing and my desire to compete at this level,” Almirola said. Three racers filled in driving the No. 43 car during his absence.

Will Kenseth/Jones situation unsettle either team?

One of NASCAR’s biggest silly season dominoes fell this week when Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Erik Jones would drive the No. 20 Toyota next season in place of Matt Kenseth. Jones has done a fine job as a rookie in the No. 77 Furniture Row machine (and that team has a tech alliance with JGR) but will both the No. 77 and No. 20 teams remain stable knowing that their drivers are lame ducks with this many races to go in 2017?

Another pit issue for No. 18

Is this even news anymore? The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team had yet another lug nut issue at Kentucky and, as a result, NASCAR fined crew chief Adam Stevens $10,000. Stevens had just returned from a four-race suspension that resulted from a wheel coming off Kyle Busch’s car during the race at Dover. Ben Beshore took over as interim crew chief … until NASCAR suspended him because lug nuts were missing during postrace inspection at Sonoma. This pattern simply seems inexcusable for a championship contender.

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