Winless wonders: Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth break into Eliminator Round

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Winning gives you the biggest payoff in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But consistency still grants a tidy sum.

Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth are proof of the latter. Despite them not being able to capture a checkered flag, they’re among the last eight drivers standing in the Eliminator Round.

However, they both came very close to a victory this afternoon in the Contender Round finale at Talladega Superspeedway.

On the second green-white-checkered attempt, Newman rode a big run on the outside line to pull up alongside Keselowski for much of the final lap. But help from behind on the inside enabled Keselowski and Kenseth to seize control in the end.

Kenseth wound up second at the finish, while Newman held on for a Top-5 result in fifth. But while a win eluded their grasp, they easily made the Eliminator cut.

Newman advances with the biggest points cushion among Chasers without a win, a gap of 27 points over the cutoff. Two spots down the Chase Grid in sixth was Kenseth, who ended the Contender Round nine points to the good.

“It was a great result in the end, I guess, to make it to the next [round],” Newman told ESPN. “I think to me, the next three races are the most important to win. We’ve been knocking on the door in the last three, so we’ll just keep digging.

“I don’t know how to answer any questions about that last restart. I don’t know if I could’ve done anything better. Obviously, I could’ve done things worse. But it was just the way things line up. Happy to stay in the Top-5 in the last couple of laps.”

As he touched on, Newman’s fifth-place result capped a solid Contender Round for him that also had results of sixth at Kansas and seventh at Charlotte one week ago.

Meanwhile, Kenseth once again came through in an elimination race this post-season. In the Challenger Round finale at Dover, he finished eighth to ensure his advance to the Chase’s second round.

Finishes of 13th at Kansas and 19th at Charlotte put him one point behind the cutoff going into today. But the runner-up result at ‘Dega allowed him to pick up a total 10 points in the positive direction.

Kenseth, like Keselowski, also had to start from the back in today’s race, too; in his case, it was due to an engine change.

“We kind of just hung back there waiting around for the big wreck – there was a bunch of small ones, never a big one,” Kenseth said about his afternoon. “One time in the middle of the race, I tried to get up front. I didn’t feel like I had enough strength to hang in the top five or six, which was safe.

“Once we got shuffled back far enough, we tried to be as close to the pack as we could for that last pit stop. I knew [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliffe] and The Home Depot guys would have a good strategy, great stop. Weren’t there very long. Gained a chunk of the track position back and then the caution fell when we were leaving pit road.

“That put us up in 12th or something. Had a couple good restarts, kind of in the right place at the right time, got a good finish.”

Kenseth will have some backup for the Eliminator Round as Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin also made the cut with a 10-point cushion, good for fifth on the Chase Grid. Hamlin finished 18th in today’s race.

“Hate lagging in the back, but couldn’t afford to have what happened to the 18 [Kyle Busch] happen to us and take our chances out,” Hamlin said. “Still proud of our effort and happy that we made it.”

Roush Fenway Racing also had its sole remaining Chase contender, Carl Edwards, move on as well with a 21st-place finish.

“We knew we couldn’t wreck and it ended up playing out exactly like we planned,” Edwards said. “We stayed out of the wrecks and made it in, but that was nerve-wracking.”

30 Seconds to Know: How does the Chase Eliminator round work?

Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

Hunter Jett Lawrence fans
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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”