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Dover, Del. — Ryan Blaney kept the party rolling from his first win this season long enough to stimulate business at his favorite bar. He soaked in the celebration from his checkered flag on the roval at Charlotte. Now he hopes to stamp himself a contender in the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

Blaney, one of NASCAR’s blossoming young stars, earned an automatic spot in the second round when he zipped past Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. for the surprise win on the speedway and infield road course blend.

Blaney had some fun at the expense of a Fox Sports panel that predicted he would fail to advance out of both the first and second rounds of the three-race playoff rounds. He tweeted a clip of the studio show where panelists left him out of the round of eight and wrote, “Sure hope to prove y’all wrong once again.”

“Yeah, to be honest with you I had a few to drink that night when I said that,” Blaney said, laughing. “I saw that and it rubbed me the wrong way. I was just messing around.”

 

The Team Penske driver got the last laugh at Charlotte. But even he is not convinced one win automatically made him a title contender along with former series champions Truex, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.

“I wouldn’t say we’re a championship favorite,” he said. “I’d say we’re in the hunt, and honestly we’ve been in the hunt all year.”

The chase toward the title continues Sunday at Dover International Speedway. Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway also make up the races in the second round.

The last four drivers standing after three rounds will race for the best finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18 to be crowned the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion.

Blaney is still in the mix.

Stewart-Haas Racing holds four of the 12 spots: Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola. Team Penske is right behind SHR with Blaney, Joey Logano and Keselowski. Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are in the field for Hendrick Motorsports. Truex (Furniture Row Racing), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) make it 12. Kyle Busch and Harvick start 1-2 in Sunday’s race.

There is some urgency for the non-Penske drivers to win or post a top-10 finish at Dover: Talladega is on deck and Keselowski and Logano have combined to win five of the last seven races at the superspeedway.

Larson crashed out of the first Talladega race and finished 40th — the kind of result that will knock him from contention this time around.

Here is a look at the round of 12 as it gets underway at Dover.

Penske power

The NASCAR season was dominated early by the Big Three of Harvick, Truex and Kyle Busch.

Now?

It’s the Team Penske trio of Keselowski, Blaney and Logano. Team Penske drivers combined to win four of the last five Cup races and seemingly have a lock on the Talladega checkered flag. Logano’s only win this season was at Talladega.

“It really does build a lot of momentum within the race team,” Logano said. “You want to be the driver and the team that brings home the win for the race team, but there are still a lot of good things to see your teammate win that comes along with that. Obviously, the momentum for them, but the momentum for everybody back at the shop. It also motivates you, because you want to be the guy that brings home the wins and it proves that your cars can do it.”

Penske, though, hasn’t had a driver win at Dover since Keselowski (Rochester Hills) in 2012.

Xfinity

Christopher Bell has a second straight NASCAR championship in sight.

Bell won his sixth Xfinity Series race this season in the playoff race Saturday at Dover International Speedway, setting the rookie record for victories in a season.

He passed three drivers for most rookie wins: Greg Biffle won five races in 2001, as did Kyle Busch in 2004 and Carl Edwards in 2005.

Bell built his record with wins at Kentucky, New Hampshire, Iowa and twice at Richmond and expected to add a few more as he chases a championship.

“We’re in really good shape,” Bell said.

The 2017 Truck Series champion, Bell won the first stage Saturday and was never in any serious trouble driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, leading 110 of 200 laps.

“It’s been a career year for me,” Bell said. “All credit to Joe Gibbs Racing. We have really fast race cars every time I go to the racetrack.”

He was the only driver headed into the race who secured a spot in the semifinal round.

Ross Chastain, Ryan Truex, Ryan Reed and Brandon Jones all failed to advance.

Bell, Justin Allgaier, Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer, Elliott Sadler, Tyler Reddick, Austin Cindric and Matt Tifft are still in the running for the championship when the series picks up in two weeks at Kansas.

“I’ll be just as sharp whenever we get to Kansas as I was today,” Bell said.

The playoff drivers in the round of eight know there is only one sure way to knock off Bell.

“It would be nice to win a race,” Custer said. “I think we’ll have a shot to do it.”

Custer was second at Dover, followed by Allgaier, Ryan Preece and Spencer Gallagher.

The 23-year-old Bell this season became the first series regular with a three-race winning streak since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999. Kyle Busch did it four times between 2008 and 2016, but he was also running full-time in the Cup Series.

“I don’t think it’s any of our championships to lose,” Bell said. “It boils down to the last race. It all boils down to one run at Homestead who the champion is.”

Bell ran a pair of K&N races and seven Trucks events in 2015, winning for the first time on the dirt at Eldora. He showed enough promise to land a full-time truck ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016, winning just once but finishing in the top 10 in 19 of 23 events.

Last season was the first of consecutive breakout seasons for Bell. He won five times and finished in the top five 15 times, and he clinched the championship by finishing second at Homestead.

Bell moved up yet again in 2018, landing a 23-race Xfinity deal with JGR after running just eight times in the series, including a win at Kansas in 2017.

“I think his future in the sport is big,” crew chief Jason Ratcliff said. “I think it can go as far as he wants it to go.”

Hamilton takes Japanese GP pole

Championship leader Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, leading a 1-2 finish for Mercedes and taking a step closer to securing his fifth Formula One title.

With rain threatening, Hamilton clocked a lap of 1 minute, 27.760 seconds to lead teammate Valtteri Bottas by 0.299. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was third.

Mercedes read the weather conditions perfectly, ensuring that both drivers recorded their best laps early in the third part of qualifying, before the rain increased to secure their fifth consecutive one-two at Suzuka.

“The call we made to go out in Q3 which is probably the most difficult call,” said Hamilton. “You saw all of us fumbling and trying to figure out what to do — the team were spot on with it and it gave us an opportunity to grab this pole position.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel’s qualifying run did not go as well with the German hitting a wet patch and spinning off the course. Vettel finished ninth — later raised to eighth — further damaging his chances of catching Hamilton in the championship race.

“It’s not the position we deserve to be in,” Vettel said. “I think we had better speed than ninth but we start there and then see how it goes. Anything could happen tomorrow, tomorrow’s a new day. Obviously it’s not easy when you start further back but it’s not impossible.”

With five races to go, Hamilton leads Vettel by 50 points in the standings. Race winners get 25 points.

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