NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Saturday’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500

Denny Hemlin

After an off week, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Saturday for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Beginning at 7:30 pm, it’ll be the first night race of the season and just the second in the track’s history. The event is 500 laps and 263 miles long with Joey Logano leading the field to green. Here are three drivers to watch in Saturday’s race.

Denny Hamlin

Over his career, Denny Hamlin has always performed well at Martinsville. He’s won there five times in the Cup Series and won three straight races there from 2009-2010. Hamlin’s average finish at Martinsville is an impressive 9.9 with 70% of his starts at the track resulting in a top-10.

Through seven races this season, Hamlin leads the points standings despite not yet winning a race. He already has six top-10s and his worst finish of the season is just 11th. Expect Hamlin to contend for the victory on Saturday.

Martin Truex Jr.

At one point, short track racing was an Achilles heel for Martin Truex Jr. But now, after winning two of the last three races at Martinsville, Truex Jr. has asserted himself as one of the best short track racers in the sport. He has 7 top-5s at the track and 13 top-10s for an average finish of 17th.

Truex Jr. secured his first win of the 2021 season a few weeks ago at Phoenix, and he’s looking for more. After winning just one race in 2020, the 40-year-old wants to bounce back in 2021 and become the first driver with multiple victories this season. Truex Jr. should most certainly run up front on Saturday.

Aric Almirola

2021 has been a season to forget thus far for Aric Almirola. Currently 28th in points, the 37-year-old has failed to place in the top-10 in this year with his best finish being 11th at Phoenix.

Historically at Martinsville, Almirola has been up and down. He has four top-5 finishes in his career, however, his average finish is 22nd thanks in part to several accidents and car failures throughout the years. To turn his season around, Almirola needs a strong run on Saturday, and he has the potential to do so.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch on Sunday in the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix on Sunday for the Instacart 500 — the fifth race of the 2021 season. Sunday’s event is an important one, as the race is on the track that will host the season finale in November. Top drivers will focus on set-ups in Sunday’s race to be better prepared if they are in the Championship 4 later this season. Here are three drivers to watch in the Instacart 500:

Chase Elliott:

Coming off a win in Phoenix last fall to secure the championship, Chase Elliott is one of the biggest names to watch on Sunday. He’s finished in the top-10 in 6 of his 10 career starts in the desert. After a decent start this season, Elliott is due for a win. He’s finished in the top-10 once so far in 2021, however, he sits fourth in overall points. Expect Elliott to contend for the win on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick:

Phoenix Raceway has always been one of Kevin Harvick’s best tracks. He’s won there nine times over his career, and placed runner-up twice. This season, Harvick has finished in the top-10 in three of four races and sits seventh in standings. Harvick has gotten off to a strong start this season, and it’d be fitting for him to pick up his first win of 2021 in Phoenix

Aric Almirola:

2021 has been less than stellar thus far for Aric Almirola. Currently sitting 28th in points, Almirola has failed to finish within the top-10 and has just one top-20. He’s crashed in two of four races and hasn’t spent much time up front. Going into Sunday’s race, Almirola has six top-10s in 20 starts at Phoenix Raceway. Almirola could use a strong run this weekend to turn his season around.

NASCAR: Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon win Duels at Daytona

A long, wild evening in NASCAR’s preparation for Daytona culminated in big victories for Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon.

Floridian rains created an extended halftime break at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night, pushing the proceedings into Friday morning. But the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series made sure there was an incredible show in store for those that stuck around.

Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon were the winners of the annual qualifying races held prior to the Daytona 500, allowing them prime starting position in Sunday’s main event. Almirola won a relatively calm first duel, leading 52 of 60 laps in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford before rains pushed back the start of part two by a couple of hours. When the latter portion was finally allowed to proceed, Dillon and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet capped off a chaotic endeavor by holding off Bubba Wallace for the win in an overtime finish.

“It just gives us a lot of confidence. We know we have a fast car,” Almirola said of his victorious No. 10. “It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.”

The starting front row for the Daytona 500 is annually determined by speeds on single-car qualifying laps while the 60-lap/150-mile Duels order the rest of the field. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron respectively took home the top two positions on Wednesday night, while Almirola and Dillon would start immediately behind them by virtue of their Duel victories. However, with Bowman experiencing possible mechanical issues and Byron getting caught up in a late wreck in their individual races, they could be forced to use backup cars, which would send them to the rear of the field. Should Bowman and Byron opt to do so, Almirola and Dillon would lead the field to the green on Sunday afternoon to officially open the 2021 Cup Series season (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

With their victories, Almirola and Dillon each assume the title of Cup Series points leader. Drivers who finished in the top ten of each Duel are awarded points toward the official standings, with the winners getting ten each. The runner-ups received nine, and each descending position receives one fewer tally, provided the driver is competing for Cup Series points on a full-time basis.

Duel One

Almirola’s victory was part of a mostly placid affair, though there was late dramatics before he crossed the start/finish line for the final time. After taking the lead on lap 13 from Christopher Bell, the No. 10 would lead the next 20 laps before he and his fellow Fords pitted at lap 34. Retaking the lead when green flag pit stops cycled the field, Almirola led the final 23 laps before taking advantage of side drafting to hold off Joey Logano for the win. As Logano was shifted back to fourth, Almirola held off Bell by 0.041 seconds to secure the victory. Ryan Newman finished third, sandwich Logano with Ryan Preece, who rounded out the top five.

Almirola has finished in the top three in each of his last three Daytona qualifying races. He’s coming off a career-best 18 top ten finishes with SHR last season, though he hasn’t earned a victory in a points race since the 2018 fall event at Talladega. Almirola’s first career victory came in a rain-shortened summer event at Daytona while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014.

Bowman started the race on the pole by virtue of being the fastest car on Wednesday night. He quickly took a conservative approach, moving to the back to avoid chaos, but a vibration forced a visit to pit road, during which the crew raised the hood on his No. 48 Chevrolet. Bowman was able to finish the race in 20th, four laps down. The crew will assess the situation to determined whether a backup car is necessary come Sunday. It will mark Bowman’s first official race in the No. 48 Chevrolet, taking over for retired seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Duel Two

Once the second segment got underway, Byron opted to play things more aggressively in the No. 24 Chevrolet, leading 24 of the first 32 laps. The racing was interrupted at lap 37, shortly before the pit window open, as a multi-car wreck drastically altered the playing field, a get-together that marred the days of Rookie of the Year contenders Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo.

Every lead-lap car visited pit road during the ensuing caution period, with the Fords of Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick assuming the front row of the restart on lap 40 after taking fuel only on their respective stops. Dillon pushed Byron to the lead two laps later, with Martin Truex Jr. later joining the fray. Truex took the lead at lap 52, shuffling Byron to the back. As Truex battled Harvick for the potential win, Byron’s car was heavily damaged in a crash triggered by Garrett Smithley and Brad Keselowski’s get-together. That wreck also ended the days of Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson.

Truex had the lead as NASCAR commenced a two-lap overtime session, and held it going into the white flag lap. However, he was shuffled into the middle with no pushing by Dillon and Wallace, who battled for the lead over the final turns. Bolstered by a push from Harvick’s Ford, Dillon got past Wallace in the final straightaway to capture his first career Duel victory. Wallace earned a runner-up finish in his first race for Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. Harvick finished third, Busch Clash winner Kyle Busch posted fourth, while defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott concluded the top five.

Ironically, Wallace was also the runner-up when Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500, a victory earned when he bumped Almirola on the final lap of the race. The affair was a bit of a bittersweet affair for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team, as the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death approaches. Earnhardt perished on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 while running third behind his protege Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Open Cars

Almirola and Dillon were far from the only winners on Thursday night, Several non-chartered, “Open” cars also worked their way into the 500 with strong performances in the Duels, and maybe a bit of luck to go with it. Eight Open drivers attempted to take the four available spots. These invitations to the main event could be earned through either being one of the fastest Open cars on Wednesday or being the best-finishing Open driver during each Duel.

The first Duel race featured Preece, driver of the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet. Though Preece was more or less locked into the Sunday field with the fastest qualifying time amongst the eight Open cars, his fifth-place finish likewise topped that same group in the opening Duel. Thus, with Preece now punching his ticket through the race, the qualifying entry shifted to the second-fastest qualifier, which was Austin Cindric. This played to the detriment of Ty Dillon, Austin’s younger brother, who was passed by Preece on the final lap. Ty ran a strong, consistent race, but his failure to keep Preece behind him resulted in his elimination. Following the shutdown of his team at Germain Racing, Ty Dillon has signed on with Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota on a part-time basis. Alas, this will mark the second consecutive miss at Daytona for GBR, who saw Daniel Suarez wreck in one of last season’s Duels.

Cindric, the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion will make his Cup debut on Sunday at Daytona despite a dismal 16th-place finish. His quest to partake was seemingly derailed when he took a speeding penalty exiting pit road during green flag pit stops, putting him a lap off the pace. Once it became clear that he wasn’t going to get that lap back, Cindric did what he could to ensure qualifying results would play a role in determining who would go home. His plan worked to fruition, as he helped push Preece ahead of Ty Dillon in the race’s dying stages. Cindric is driving select races in a part-time car for Team Penske while defending his title at the Xfinity level. He will make his full-time debut next with the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing.

With Preece and Cindric advancing, Ty Dillon and Timmy Hill were each eliminated from Daytona 500 contention. The pair will nonetheless race alongside Cindric in the Xfinity Series opener on Saturday late afternoon (5 p.m. ET, FS1).

Things were more straightforward but equally dramatic in the second stanza. Kaz Grala’s Daytona dreams were seemingly dashed when he was involved in the Alfredo/Briscoe fracas. Losing a lap to repair the damage, it appeared Grala could only pray for chaos over the last 20 laps. Gragson, another Xfinity contender seeking to make his Cup debut, appeared to have the inside edge for the spot, though a surprise contender emerged in Smithley, driving the low-budget No. 13 MBM Motorsports Ford. Smithley was likewise involved in the incident that handicapped Grala but was running in the top ten shortly after.

But Smithley’s get-together with Keselowski triggered a large wreck that not only caused heavy damage to Byron’s car but eliminated Gragson with it. Gragson was representing Beard Motorsports in the No. 62 Chevrolet, a team that endured tragedy on January 31 through the death of team owner and founder Mark Beard.

With Gragson and Smithley out, Grala coasted to a 14th-place finish that secured his spot in the 500. He joins fellow transfer David Ragan, who came home 10th and was locked in through qualifying speed. Grala will partake in his second career Cup Series event, having previously subbed for an ill Austin Dillon at Daytona’s road course last season. Grala brought the No. 3 Chevrolet home in the seventh spot.

This time around, Grala will pilot the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. The team is well known for its exploits at the Xfinity Series level and is looking to expand its reach in Cup this season. Thanks to Grala’s efforts, the team will likely be able to run further Cup Series events, including the return to the Daytona road course next weekend. The team is expected to have former Cup veteran and current Xfinity man A.J. Allmendinger take over.

“(Tonight is) big for Kaulig. They’re planning on running a handful of Cup races this year, not just this one race like they did last year,” Grala said. “Being able to get in, especially now with the format as far as which cars are able to enter each race when there isn’t qualifying, this is a huge day for us, a huge day for that organization as a whole.”

“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road. This is the first small step towards the big picture. I know it’s a victory for everybody on the team.”

For the full Daytona 500 starting lineup, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Stewart-Haas Racing

SHR’s NASCAR dominance went unrewarded at both the Cup and the Xfinity Series levels. They’re seeking revenge and even more wins in 2021.

2021 Stewart-Haas Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kevin Harvick 4 Rodney Childers Busch/Mobil 1/Hunt Brothers Pizza
Aric Almirola 10 Mike Bugarewicz Smithfield
Chase Briscoe (R) 14 Johnny Klausmeier HighPoint
Cole Custer 41 Mike Shiplett Haas Automation/Dixie Vodka

Two-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart united with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas in 2009. Haas, formerly a collaborator with Hendrick Motorsports, had been running a full-time team since 2003 but was struggling to find traction. Stewart joined him in co-ownership and, under the new name of Stewart-Haas Racing, joined the team alongside Ryan Newman. Driving the team’s No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart won his third and final Cup Series championship in 2011. Three seasons after, Kevin Harvick joined the team in the No. 4, formerly occupied by Newman under No. 39 branding. Harvick would win five races and earn his first Cup title that same year.

The team has raced Fords from the 2017 season onward. Stewart vacated the No. 14 the year before, giving way to Clint Bowyer for the last four seasons. Bowyer has since retired and will join Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the Fox Sports booth. The team’s No. 10 car, introduced in 2012, was driven for six seasons by Danica Patrick before Aric Almirola’s arrival. Elsewhere, the No. 41 arrived two years later and was driven by Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez before Cole Custer’s takeover last season.

2020 in Review

The 2007 New England Patriots. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. Kevin Harvick’s 2020 endeavors.

These dominant efforts all went for naught, as the more controversial side of the NASCAR playoffs came to light when Harvick, the winner of a series-best nine races last season, wasn’t one of the four championship contenders at the championship race in Phoenix. His last two wins came in playoff events at Darlington and Bristol, but consecutive finishes outside the top-ten in the Round of 8’s latter stages doomed him to elimination.

As a whole, the 2020 season was a bit of a roller-coaster for SHR. Beyond Harvick’s efforts, Almirola was at least consistent, finishing in the top ten in nine consecutive races drummer the summer stretch. No wins followed, however, and he was eliminated after the Round of 12. Bowyer’s swan song was respectable, ending in a playoff berth after a runner-up finish in the spring Bristol race. Custer’s Cup debut was a bit of a disappointment, but he managed to steal a win at Kentucky, along with the playoff spot and Rookie of the Year title that came with it. He was eliminated after the first round.

Meet the Drivers

Kevin Harvick

Experience: 21st season
Career Cup Victories: 58 (last: fall Bristol, 2020)
2020 finish: 5th
Best standings finish: 2014 Champion

If anything, last season simply made Harvick a stone-cold lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Harvick’s Cup Series career began under the most harrowing of circumstances. It was he, after all, who was called upon to take over Dale Earnhardt’s car when The Intimidator tragically passed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Prior to last season, he finished no worse than third in the final standings in eight of the last ten seasons. His Truck Series squad had also taken home two championships with circuit legend Ron Hornaday Jr. behind the wheel.

But, despite the lack of a championship at the end, 2020 may go down as Harvick’s greatest accomplishment yet. The way he dominated the circuit in a time where on-track preparation and adjustments were at an ultimate premium was extraordinary. The history was likely no consolation to Harvick, however, and that just makes this No. 4 team all the more dangerous in the future.

Last season’s win tally allowed Harvick to enter the top ten in the Cup Series’ all-time wins ledger. Up next on the list? Earnhardt at 76.

Aric Almirola

Experience: 10th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: fall Talladega, 2018)
2020 finish: 15th
Best standings finish: 5th (2018)

After wallowing in racing purgatory over at Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola has been consistent since being granted stronger equipment at SHR. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons behind the No. 10 and came home fifth in the 2018 standings. But when are expectations allowed to be raised? Almirola felt primed for a breakout at numerous points last season. He had remarkably strong luck in terms of starting position during the random draw portions and led a career-best 305 laps this season. Yet, Almirola remains mired in a 77-race win drought. SHR renewed his contract last season, but Almirola wants to kickstart things to a higher level.

“So far, I’ve been able to have some success (but) I still want more,” Almirola said prior to the playoffs last season. “I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps, and ultimately win a championship…so far, we’ve been successful…I feel like we have the potential. We’ve been all around it, we just haven’t put it all together to win races, but we’ve been so close. We’ve led a lot of laps. We’ve run top five a lot and when you do those things, typically you’ll find yourself in victory lane, so maybe the Good Lord is just making me be patient.”

Chase Briscoe

Experience: 1st season (No prior Cup starts)
Career Cup Victories: N/A
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

Much like his new teammate Harvick, Briscoe saw a dominant season go for naught, his own misfortune coming on the Xfinity Series level. Driving SHR’s No. 98 Ford, Briscoe won a circuit-record nine races but failed to take the championship at Phoenix. The most memorable victory came at Darlington in May, when Briscoe held off two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch for the win in the Xfinity Series’ return from the coronavirus-induced pause. Briscoe’s victory came shortly after his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage.

Briscoe will now replace the retired Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford, a dream come true for the 2016 ARCA champion. As an Indiana youth, Briscoe was a die-hard fan of Stewart, taking in his endeavors from the 14 car from afar. Now, it’s Briscoe’s to command on race days.

“The goal and dream was always the 14 car, but I don’t think it was always necessarily believable that it was going to happen the way it all worked out,” Briscoe said in October. “I truly care about that number and the history of that number going from AJ Foyt to Tony and even Clint. There is a lot of pride in that number being a dirt guy and drive that car and drive for Stewart-Haas. It is still unbelievable.”

Cole Custer

Experience: 2nd full season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Kentucky, 2020)
2020 finish: 16th
Best standings finish: 16th (2020)

Custer’s Rookie of the Year award wasn’t received well by some, as many noted that Tyler Reddick was the more consistent first-year man. But Custer was the only victory lane visitor with a yellow stripe on the back of his car, earning him the ROTY award. The shocker in Kentucky, NASCAR’s final visit to the Bluegrass State for the foreseeable future, did come during a short summer surge for Custer. Prior to the win, he posted his first career top five at Indianapolis and followed the triumph up with consecutive top tens after some bad luck in the immediate aftermath. Nonetheless, there’s going to be a bit of a target on this team’s back moving forward to perform on a more consistent basis.

Outlook

There’s little doubt that Harvick is going to insert himself in the championship picture. The only question is how many races he’ll take along the way. Almirola is also a potential playoff shoo-in but he needs to focus on getting back to victory lane, perhaps multiple times. Briscoe shouldn’t face too many obstacles in winning Rookie of the Year (his only competition, for the time being, is Anthony Alfredo in the underfunded No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford), so he can focus on keeping the No. 14 competitive in the post-Bowyer era. If Custer can’t make it back to the winner’s circle this season, placing the car in the top 20 in points would be a goal to be proud of.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

ESM’s Guide to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs

As the NASCAR’s postseason gets underway in Darlington on Sunday night, ESM has you covered for the road ahead.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get underway at Darlington Raceway tonight. 16 drivers enter the 10-race gauntlet, with four eliminated after every three races. The proceedings wrap up in Phoenix this November, and drivers can advance to the next leg of the tournament with a win in the preceding circuit.

ESM has you covered with lineup and the road (pun much intended) ahead…

The Drivers

1. Kevin Harvick

Team: No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
2020 Wins: 7 (Darlington 1, Atlanta, Pocono 1, Indianapolis, Michigan 1, Michigan 2, Dover 2)
Best Prior Finish: 2014 Champion

In this era of lost qualifying and practice, Harvick hasn’t been making a Hall-of-Fame case. As the 2014 Cup Series champion, the man who took over for the late Dale Earnhardt, and his impact on both the Cup and Xfinity levels, Harvick was probably going to Charlotte anyway. But his sheer dominance in going from motorhome to car has been nothing short of extraordinary. Only four races have ended with Harvick outside of the top ten and only a pair of visits to Daytona has stopped him from a streak of 13 consecutive top-five finishes. Through his seven wins (matching seven stages wins as well), Harvick has earned a Cup Series-record 57 playoff points, building himself a solid cushion that could sustain him all the way to Phoenix.

They Said It: “We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had…Our theory is not that you change gears and try to do something different, it’s you better be ready and already have been in that mode.”-Harvick on building momentum for the playoffs

2. Denny Hamlin (-10 points behind)

Team: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: Chris Gabehart
2020 Wins: 6 (Daytona Winter, Darlington 2, Homestead, Pocono 2, Kansas, Dover 1)
Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2010)

At Harvick’s side every step of the way has been Hamlin. Since entering the Cup Series in 2006, his No. 11 Toyota has accomplished almost everything there is to earn on the premier levels. February saw him win his third Daytona 500 (and second in a row, the first to do that since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95) and he added five more victories, giving him 43 since starting his Cup career. His career began with a third-place standings finish in his rookie year (the first rookie to qualify for what was then the Chase for the Sprint Cup) and he reached the final four last season, nine years after a runner-up finish. All that’s missing is an elusive Cup championship. Like Harvick, Hamlin was able to build a sizable lead over the cutoffs, currently lead the first won by 47 points thanks to his six wins and tying the No. 4 for the most stage wins with seven. Since teaming with new crew chief Gabehart last season, Hamlin has visited victory lane 12 times.

They Said It: “A lot of stuff has changed on and off the race track. I think I’ve changed a little bit as a driver. I’ve just adapted quite a bit as well. It’s tough to say what has automatically just flipped the switch and made the results what they’ve been over the last two years or less than two years. Certainly, there’s a process we’ve put in to preparing for each week that is working for us, it’s working for me. Me and Chris have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us. Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening.”-Hamlin on what’s been the difference for him over the last two seasons.

3. Brad Keselowski (-28)

Team: No. 2 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Jeremy Bullins
2020 Wins: 3 (Charlotte 1, Bristol, New Hampshire)
Best Prior Finish: 2012 Champion

The epic battle between Harvick and Hamlin has somewhat covered up Keselowski’s strong season. A strong summer propelled him to the third seed on the initial playoff grid, boosted by a streak of eight consecutive finishes no worse than 11th. Keselowski has worked his magic during his first season under Bullins, who came over from teammate Ryan Blaney’s pit stall during a Penske shakeup. He got off to a strong start in last year’s playoff proceedings, with top fives in each of the three first-round races. But a wreck at Talladega (site of five prior wins) put him in a hole and ended his chances at another trophy hoist at Homestead.

They Said It: I think I’ve been in this position now seven of the last eight years, in the playoffs, really eight of the last nine years and I’ve brought it home once, which is great. I’m super-proud of that. It’s more than I thought I’d ever accomplish in my entire life. And so I’ll always be proud of that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wanting to stop there. It doesn’t mean that I want to leave this sport with my one Cup and go home and tell my grandkids about it for the next hopefully 40-50 years, however long I’ve got to live. I’d rather tell them about two than one, but the reality is a championship is much bigger than a driver. They put the driver’s name on the trophy, but I’ve never seen a driver win a championship. I’ve seen a lot of damn good teams win championships.”-Keselowski on his No. 2 team

4. Joey Logano (-35)

Team: No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe
2020 Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Phoenix)
Best Prior Finish: 2018 Champion

Logano was the driver to beat prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, winning two of the first four races of the season, including the winter visit to the championship site in Phoenix. He struggled to regain speed once things got rolling again, but heated up as summer rolled on. The No. 22 won each of the first two stages at the regular-season finale at Daytona before a late wreck ended his day. It broke a streak of six consecutive top-ten finishes for the Connecticut native, who is likewise working through a year with a new crew chief in Wolfe. The Cup veteran helped guide Keselowski to his championship in 2012.

They Said It: (The wins) feel like a long time ago…Way too long. We’re ready to win again, but I do feel like we’re getting close back to that same point as we were. To me, there’s no doubt when we went back racing we weren’t where we wanted to be. I even said it a few times, almost like a lost puppy not knowing what road to go down to get back to where we need to be, and it’s hard to find that direction without practice. Going to a different racetrack every week it’s hard to grow. It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year. We can get ourselves in position to win again and I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”-Logano on his 2020 season

5. Chase Elliott (-37)

Team: No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
2020 Wins: 2 (Charlotte 2, Daytona Road Course)
Best Prior Finish: 5th (2017)

The early stages of the return to action were defined by bad luck for Elliott, who was denied several further opportunities for bonus points throughout the year. For example, contact from behind from Kyle Busch denied him a win at an earlier Darlington event this season and an ill-advised move to pit prior to overtime cost him an illustrious Coca-Cola 600 trophy. Elliott was able to get back to victory lane at Daytona, winning the first Cup Series event on the track’s road course his third straight at such a track. It was part of a streak where Elliott finished no worse than ninth in six of the final seven regular-season races. Elliott will be starting on the pole for Sunday’s opener at Darlington

They Said It: “You can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the Playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet. So, I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four. So, at the end of the day, if me being confident and knowing that we can do it, and my team knowing that (too), is the case and it is, then I think that’s really all that matters to me. But it’s certainly the goal. Certainly, if you want to win a championship, you don’t have an option. You’ve got to make it. We know that and look forward to the challenge.”-Elliott on the weight of missing the final four thus far.

6. Martin Truex Jr. (-43)

Team: No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: James Small
2020 Wins: 1 (Martinsville)
Best Prior Finish: 2017 Champion

Truex has been hotter than a summer down the Shore in his native Mayetta Township, NJ. Daytona’s regular season finale saw him end a streak of seven consecutive finishes in the top three…and that was only because he finished fourth. Wins have proved elusive, but Truex has proven time and time again to possess the championship pedigree. He has appeared in the final four in each of the past three seasons and four of the past five. That includes his 2017 title, won in the No. 78 Toyota with the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing.

They Said It: “You’ve got to be resilient. There’s going to be times in the Playoffs when your back is against the wall or you need to make something happen. That’s been the case for us throughout the years. Whether it’s been a season where a lot of things have gone right or a season where things have gone wrong. At the end the day, it’s 10 races to get in and you have to be resilient. You are going to face challenges along the way.”-Truex on the most necessary trait to possess to reach the final four

7. Alex Bowman (-48)

Team: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Greg Ives
2020 Wins: 1 (Fontana)
Best Prior Finish: 12th (2019)

Bowman seemed like the driver to beat in the early stages of 2020. He dominated the third race of the season at Fontana, leading 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. When the series returned to action after the pause, Bowman sat in second place in the standings after a runner-up finish at Darlington. But summer has been anything but hot for the No. 88 squad. Since that second-place posting in Myrtle Beach, Bowman has earned only six top-ten finishes. Contending for a championship would mean an extra something for Bowman, a Tuscon native who earned a surprising sixth-place finish at Phoenix when filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the 2016 season.

They Said It: “The summer was pretty rough on us. We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. So, I think we’re in a good place going into the Playoffs.”
“Darlington, for us, we were really fast there the first two races this year. The first race we finished second. The second race we had a way better race car. I started racing my competitors instead of the race track and hit the fence, so that’s on me to not do this time. But I think we can be really strong and have a really good day. I think each and every week during the Playoffs we’re going to be really good, but Darlington is one that we had circled that we can be really strong at, for sure.”-Bowman on recovering from a tough summer

8. William Byron (-50)

Team: No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
2020 Wins: 1 (Daytona Summer)
Best Prior Finish: 11th (2019)

Byron’s first career win couldn’t have come at a better time. With a playoff farewell from teammate Jimmie Johnson breathing down his neck for a playoff spot, Byron took home a victory at Daytona’s finale, taking the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane for the first time since Jeff Gordon punched his final four ticket at Martinsville during his farewell tour in 2015. Byron’s playoff tour will be overseen by crew chief Knaus, who partook in each of Johnson’s record-tying seven championships.

They Said It: “I think that now having that first win of the season and first win for me and this team, I feel like we’re more focused on just executing the details of each race. Obviously, our goal going into this year was to make it further than we did last year in the playoffs, which was the Round of 12 last year. So, if we can make it to the Round of 8 this year, it would be a success, for sure. We just have to take it one race at a time. A lot of these tracks are good for us. I think the first round is probably the weakest of the tracks for us, so we just have to try to focus on that.”-Byron on how the weight of his first win is removed

9. Austin Dillon (-52)

Team: No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Justin Alexander
2020 Wins: 1 (Texas)
Best Prior Finish: 12th (2017)

Dillon worked his way into the playoffs with a hard-fought win in Fort Worth. His timing, perhaps, couldn’t have been better. Dillon was forced to turn over the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet to Kaz Grala at the Dayton road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19. While Dillon has ways to go in living up to the reputation the No. 3 car carries with it, he has been relatively consistent in 2020. The win at Texas gives him a small cushion to at least make it to the round of 12.

They Said It: “I love being dismissed. I think it’s a great. It’s all I’ve just kind of always been that way. I feel like maybe not that way in the trucks are Xfinity at the end of those runs, but in the Cup series, it’s been a little bit of that. So and I feel like that’s what kind of propels us, and then we sneak up on people. I was very close to making it to the third round a couple years back in the playoffs and missed it by one point to Denny Hamlin not want to transfer this on and we missed at Talladega by one so I know from that experience at every Point matters, and we just need to go out there and do our job these first three races is good good races for us, but the stage is the way they play out. You got to get points. So we’re going to be very aggressive in getting those points and hopefully messed up a lot of brackets.”-Dillon on being an underdog headed into the playoffs

10. Cole Custer (-52)

Team: No. 41 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Shiplett
2020 Wins: 1 (Kentucky)
Best Prior Finish: N/A (rookie)

Custer is the first rookie to partake in the NASCAR Cup Series postseason since Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher fought their way in during the 2016 season. While the back-to-back runner-up in the Xfinity Series struggled in his first year at the wheel of the No. 41, Custer punched his ticket to the playoffs at Kentucky and kept the momentum going with three top-ten finishes over the past nine races. His opportunity to advance could come at Darlington, where he won last season’s Xfinity event (albeit via disqualification of race-winner Denny Hamlin). By qualifying for the playoffs, Custer has already earned the Cup Series’ Rookie of the Year title, topping a talented class that also featured Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.

They Said It: “I think we can go in there and prove some people wrong is the biggest thing, but at the end of the day it’s about being consistent and it’s about being competitive. I think we’ve had a lot of peaks and valleys at times this year, but at the same time we just need to try and level it out more going into these playoffs. If we can be consistent and we can put it all together and put all the pieces together for these last 10 races, I think we’ve shown that we can compete with anybody it’s just trying to put those pieces together every single race.”-Custer on his playoff approach

11. Aric Almirola (-52)

Team: No. 10 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 5th (2018)

Though wins have proved elusive (his last coming in Talladega’s event in the fall of 2018), Almirola was one of the most accomplished drivers of the summer. building a streak of nine consecutive top-ten finishes. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons in Tony Stewart’s No. 10, though advancement through the playoff rounds have has proved difficult. He made it to the penultimate segment in 2018, but a string of finishes outside the top-ten eliminated him in the first round last year.

They Said It: “It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time. I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team. What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job. I am excited about the playoffs. I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”-Almirola on being a playoff sleeper

12. Clint Bowyer (-53)

Team: No. 14 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2012)

The fan-favorite Bowyer has remained generally consistent in the No. 14 Ford that won the Cup Series title with Tony Stewart behind the wheel in 2011. Bowyer, who has doubled as a commentator for Fox Sports, will be seeking his first win since June 2018. His best finish came at the playoff track of Bristol, where he came home in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski.

They Said It: “Gas mask. Same precautions you have. I mean, it’s the same thing . It’s COVID. I mean, it (stinks). It’s pretty crazy to me that we’re this far along and we still really don’t know a whole lot more than where we’re at. I mean, it’s crazy times, but, nonetheless, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I’m probably not gonna go to college and hit up a keg stand. I’m probably not going to do that. I would say that would be a good opportunity to find yourself pointless.”-Bowyer on precautions he’ll be taking to avoid COVID-19 during the playoffs.

13. Ryan Blaney (-54)

Team: No. 12 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Todd Gordon
2020 Wins: 1 (Talladega)
Best Prior Finish: 7th (2019)

Apologies for pointing out a theme, but it’s possible that the 2020 playoffs could well become “Penske material”. No one on the circuit perhaps knows more about bad luck than Blaney. Only four drivers on the circuit led more laps than Blaney (586), several accidents beyond his control denied him victories at several tracks this season. He has likewise been impacted by the Penske shuffle, with Todd Gordon taking over his pit stall. Gordon was on hand to guide fellow Penske Ford driver Logano to his title in 2018. Blaney heard some bad news prior to Sunday’s opener at Darlington, as Gordon was suspended and he was docked 10 points for an improperly mounted ballast.

They Said It: “It’s just been so limited with no practice. You can talk so much throughout the week on the phone and things like that, but it’s just different than being able to go through a couple practices and the whole weekend with them and talking to them. But I think we’ve gotten the best that we can. Todd and I get along really well. He’s an amazing crew chief and a championship crew chief and has won a ton of races, so I think it’s been going well. It’s a shame, but everyone is in the same boat.”-Blaney on working with new crew chief Gordon

14. Kyle Busch (-54)

Team: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2015, 2019 Champion

Perhaps no other driver on the circuit has better personified 2020 from the average race fan’s point of view. Everything that can go wrong for the two-time Cup Series champion has indeed come to pass, whether it’s been getting caught up in wrecks, having tire or car issues, or simply being on the wrong pit strategy. It has put the defending champion in an awkward spot as the postseason begins: winless, no playoff points to fall back on, and in danger of elimination in the first round. Admittedly, most drivers would LOVE to struggle the way Busch has. But it’s clearly below the expectations the No. 18 and its driver have set for themselves.

They Said It: “This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. 2015, I was injured and I was on the sideline and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back and I was able to come back and then struggled for five weeks just getting a footing and then finally being able to win again at Sonoma. Right there just lit a fire under us and that was all it took for the rest of the year to be a championship contender and a guy to go out there to compete with his team and be the best of all of them. This year, it’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next and what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience. Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”-Busch on how 2020 has tested him

15. Kurt Busch (-56)

Team: No. 1 Chip Gannasi Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Matt McCall
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2004 Champion

Kyle’s older brother and fellow champion (the first under a NASCAR playoff system) failed to get a win, and it’ll come back to haunt him in the playoff standings. But strong consistency led to another playoff berth and allowed him to hover in the top ten of the standings all season. He beat out Kyle for a win at Kentucky last season, but an opening crash in the playoff debut at his home track of Las Vegas ended his chances of moving on. Busch is one of two playoff drivers to have run without a playoff system, the other being Harvick.

They Said It: “What I think it’s done is it gave it a strong comparison to other sports. There’s that Playoff atmosphere. There’s that championship race, where four guys are eligible to win the championship and it’s an even playing ground. When it was a long marathon process of going through all 36 races, that was a different sequence. That was maybe not as intense when it got down to the final rounds. And so, with these 10 weeks, the Playoff atmosphere is there, and it relates well to other sports. And that’s where it draws in more fans that might not have been NASCAR fans before.”-Busch on how the playoffs have changed NASCAR

16. Matt DiBenedetto (-57)

Team: No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Greg Erwin
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 22nd (2019)

DiBenedetto has built a strong following after earning his way to a decent ride in the long-running No. 21 car. He began his Cup career in low-budget vehicles and fought his way into the playoffs through general 2020 consistency (which includes a runner-up finish at Las Vegas). Some late struggles put him in a tough situation at Daytona, put he held off Johnson to clinch an elusive spot.

They Said It: “I would say that this week has been a release. It was so stressful and kept getting more stressful leading up to Daytona and the points closed in and we lost the gap that we had and all that. I would call this week exciting and we got to celebrate with some friends out on the lake Sunday and have a good time but come Monday it was time to shift focus and we still have a lot of racing left and a lot to accomplish. It was a relief and exciting moving forward now instead of stressful. Exciting knowing that we have an opportunity to really put a good end to our season and cap it off and have a lot more success. I am pretty pumped up about that and I am appreciative to be doing it for the Wood Brothers.”-DiBenedetto on making the playoffs for the first time as a veteran driver

The Races

(All times ET)

Cook Out Southern 500

Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, South Carolina
When: September 6
Watch: 6 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Erik Jones

“The Track Too Tough to Tame” hosts its annual Labor Day Weekend event and its first playoff race since 2004. In recent time, the race has become well-known for featuring throwback paint schemes, a tradition that will continue this year.

Federated Auto Parts 400

Where: Richmond Raceway, Richmond, Virginia
When: September 12
Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

Richmond’s short track hosted the final regular season race from 2004 through 2018. It is now the second race of the round of 16. Keep an eye on Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, who have won four of the last five September races.

Bass Pro Shops Night Race

Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tennessee
When: September 19
Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

For the first time, the famous cramped short-track settings of BMS will host a playoff race. The night race has been particularly intriguing, known for its flaring of tempers and propensity for wrecks.

South Point 400

Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nevada
When: September 27
Watch: 7 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

The Round of 12 gets underway in Sin City, where Logano punched his ticket to the playoffs in the second race of the season back in February.

YellaWood 500

Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Alabama
When: October 4
Watch: 2 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Ryan Blaney

If you thought the superspeedway proceedings that closed out the regular season at Daytona were exciting, just wait until you see what the playoffs themselves have in store at Talladega, home of multi-car pile-up commonly referred to as “The Big One”.

Bank of America ROVAL 400

Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, North Carolina
When: October 11
Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Chase Elliott

Since being introduced to the playoff in 2018, the “roval”, a half-oval, half-road course at the hub of NASCAR, has created all kinds of postseason chaos. This will be the first time it ends the second round of the playoffs, previously seen at the end of the round of 16.

Hollywood Casino 400

Where: Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kansas
When: October 18
Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

The Round of 8 gets underway in Kanas, where Denny Hamlin has won each of the last two visits, including a weeknight race earlier this summer.

AAA Texas 500

Where: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas
When: October 25
Watch: 3:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Kevin Harvick

Texas produced a surprise winner earlier this summer, with Dillon using strategy his favor to take hom a long-awaited victory. Harvick has won each of the last three visits in the fall.

Xfinity 500

Where: Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Virginia
When: November 1
Watch: 2 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

A battle on a short track will determine the final spots for the season finale in Arizona. Thus, racing will be tight and tempers will more than likely flare.

NASCAR Cup Series Championship

Where: Phoenix Raceway, Avondale, Arizona
When: November 8
Watch: 3 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

After nearly two decades in Miami, the NASCAR season finale proceedings will move to Phoenix. Hamlin, one of the favorites, is the defending victor, but fellow front-runner Kevin Harvick has won four times.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Fords dominate the 2020 playoff grid

The 2020 NASCAR regular season concluded on Saturday night with the exciting Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. Three spots were still up for grabs, with Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto taking two of the spots on points. The third was taken by William Byron, scoring his first career Cup Series victory.

With Bowyer and DiBenedetto now in the playoffs, it will mean that eight fords will have the chance to compete for a championship. All four Stewart-Haas drivers made it, as well as all three Penske teams and the lone Wood Brothers driver in DiBenedetto.

As for Stewart-Haas, Kevin Harvick has ran the show all year. He has seven wins, the most of all Cup Series drivers and has the number one seed in the playoffs. Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have remained winless in 2020, but have ran up-front all year. Almirola has 14 top-10s, while Bowyer has seven. Although not nearly as many great finishes, Bowyer has collected a lot of stage points. For Cole Custer, he’s in because of his win at Kentucky Motor Speedway. He has six top-10s, but would likely not have made it to the playoffs if it wasn’t for the win.

On the Penske side of things, no one driver has really been more dominant than the other. Brad Keselowski has three wins, Joey Logano has two wins, and Ryan Blaney has one. All three drivers have ran up front all year and work together incredibly well together. Each of the three drivers has double-digit top-10s.

And finally, Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers. DiBenedetto has been great in the #21 car this year, and the alliance with Penske has paid off. He has seven top-10s and has scored a lot of stage points. The only concerning thing for him is that he has just two top-10s in the last nine points-paying races.

Ford has been the dominant manufacturer all year, and it shows as eight if its drivers will be competing for a championship. Will their dominance continue during the playoffs?

NASCAR: Chase Briscoe proving he deserves a 2021 Cup Series ride

One of the biggest stories of the 2020 NASCAR season has been the dominating performance of Chase Briscoe in the Xfinity Series. Through 13 races, Briscoe has won five of them and sits first in the standings, driving the #98 for Stewart-Haas. He’s won three of the past four races under interim crew chief Greg Zipadelli, the former crew chief of Tony Stewart.

Briscoe is proving that he deserves a Cup Series ride, and two spots may be opening up right in Stewart-Haas. Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola have contracts expiring after 2020. Although the two have performed pretty well, they haven’t won much. Because of the lack of wins, it’s possible that Stewart-Haas lets them walk after 2020.

Almirola is 9th in points, but has finished in the top five in each of the last five races. He won in 2018 at Talladega, that being his only win for Stewart-Haas. Bowyer has won twice for Stewart-Haas, but both were in 2018. He is 13th in standings now and has five top-10s this year.

With Almirola on the run that he’s on, it’s more likely that it will be Bowyer who walks after 2020. But, what if both come back to Stewart-Haas? There’s a ride potentially opening up at Penske this winter, with Brad Keselowski having a contract expiring. Lots of speculation may have Keselowski going to Hendrick to drive the 48, and if that happens, the 2 car could be free for Briscoe. Penske drives fords like Stewart-Haas, and Briscoe drove for Brad Keselowski in the 2017 truck series.

With his Xfinity Series success, a few different paths could take Chase Briscoe into the Cup Series in 2021. A ride could be opening in his current company, or it’s possible he could switch to Penske in the premier series.

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick finally earns a win at Pocono Raceway

A bold strategy allowed Kevin Harvick to win at the Tricky Triangle on Saturday, the first half of a rare weekend doubleheader.

For Kevin Harvick, the 39th time at Pocono Raceway was the charm.

Harvick took home his third win of the NASCAR Cup Series season and his first at Long Pond, Pennsylvania landmark known as “The Tricky Triangle” in his 20th season on the circuit. His win at the Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute also marks the 52nd career Cup victory of his career.

“Everybody from Stewart-Haas Racing has done a great job. We’ve had really fast cars every time we’ve come to Pocono, just hadn’t got to Victory Lane,” Harvick said in a postrace Zoom conference. “It was definitely awesome to get to Victory Lane today with our Busch Beer Ford.  Proud of all the men and women at Stewart-Haas Racing for everything they’re doing right now.”

Harvick won with a bold strategy instituted by he and crew chief Rodney Childers. The No. 4 car pitted on lap 66 of 130 but only took two tires. In the early stages of the final 53-lap stage, he and teammate Aric Almirola were running in the top two spots when each hit pit road with 37 circuits to go. Duplicating the two-tire strategy, Harvick emerged from pit road with about a 12-second advantage over his Stewart-Haas teammate that had won the second stage and led the most laps on the afternoon/early evening.

The win at Pocono was the first win for both Harvick and Childers. They previously had collaborated on four runner-up finishes at Long Pond and Childers brought over an additional such finish while working with Mark Martin in 2012. Harvick has now won at every track on the Cup Series circuit with the exceptions of Kentucky and the Charlotte road course. He’ll get the respective opportunities on July 12 and October 11.

“I want to win everywhere,” Harvick said. “As well as we’ve run here, you definitely talk about it. For us, it was kind of one of those things where you joke around about it. We’ve run plenty good enough to win races here. It’s kind of like Texas. We finally knocked down that wall and won three years in a row.  Hopefully that’s the same trend that happens here at Pocono.”

There’s hardly any time for Harvick to celebrate the victory, as the Cup Series immediately returns to action in Long Pond on Sunday for the Pocono 350 (4 p.m. ET, FS1), which will run 10 laps and 25 miles longer than its predecessor. With the top 20 of the starting lineup set up through inversion of Saturday’s results, Harvick will have to start 20th. Drivers are also mandated to use the same car than ran in the 325-mile event.

That was the reason Harvick opted not to perform a celebratory burnout after scoring his victory. Even if he wasn’t planning on saving the motor for Sunday, Harvick declared that he has no interest in celebrating until fans are back in the stands on a full-time basis and he can celebrate his triumphs in victory lane with his race team.

“‘Im not doing any more celebrations with nobody out there to celebrate with. Until the fans come back, I’m not doing a burnout, standing on the car, doing any of that stuff. It doesn’t feel right not having my team in Victory Lane,” Harvick said. “We miss the fans. I miss my team being able to be right in there with us because those are the guys and gals that are making it happen. It’s tough to give an elbow bump or wave at them.”

The pole-sitter Almirola (having won the position through a random draw) finished third behind Denny Hamlin while rookie Christopher Bell finished a career-best fourth. Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle rounded out the top five.

Race Notes

  • The 350-mile event will actually be the final of three Sunday races at Pocono. All three of NASCAR’s national series will be racing on the same day for the first time in the association’s history. The Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series race, the Pocono Organics 150 to benefit Farm Aid was originally supposed to be run on Saturday but was postponed due to inclement weather (9:30 a.m. ET, FS1). In the middle will be the Xfinity Series’ Pocono Green 225 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons (12:30 p.m. ET, FS1). The Cup Series itself saw their own Saturday event delayed by an hour due to the aforementioned rain.
  • Ryan Blaney (12th) saw his streak of consecutive top-five finishes end at four. Blaney nonetheless moved up to the runner-up spot in the current NASCAR standings, 29 points behind Harvick.
  • Michael McDowell (8th) earned his first top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona and Talladega since the November 2016 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Driver of the No. 34 Ford for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports, McDowell has finished in the top 20 in seven of the last nine races.
  • By virtue of his 20th place finish, Ryan Preece will Sunday afternoon’s pole-sitter. Preece previously earned the pole at May 20’s Darlington race via the same method. Austin Dillon finished 19th and will start alongside him in the front row.
  • Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones were each involved in a tough wreck in the front stretch that played a major role in forming the latter stages of the Cup Series playoff picture. Reddick entered holding the 16th and final postseason seed, beating Jones out by a single point. Jones’ No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was forced to the garage, relegating him to a 38th-place finish. Reddick managed to get back on the track to finish 30th. He continues to lead Jones by eight points for the final spot on the playoff grid.
  • Quin Houff also failed to finish after he was involved in a wreck on lap 16 while B.J. McLeod was ousted due to a transmission failure.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Pocono pole sitter Aric Almirola talks momentum and diversity

After a third-place finish at Talladega, Almirola credited an unlikely source for kickstarting his NASCAR journey.

Reggie White had a knack for striking fear into those who wore No. 10. After all, the numeral was well within the allotted range for NFL quarterbacks, who were victimized 198 times by the Minister of Defense.

For Aric Almirola, however, White was a source of hope.

White was one of the biggest influencers behind NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative, one that seeks to increase the minority and female influence and impact on the sport. He and another NFL legend, former head coach Joe Gibbs and current NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs, kickstarted the program in 2003 with a class that included Almirola, one of the sport’s first drivers of Cuban descent.

“I feel lucky and I feel fortunate that somebody would step up and step out like he did to start the program that he did,” Almirola said after Monday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. “Reggie, the very first time I met him, he said, ‘The reason I’m doing this is I love racecars, I love cars, I love watching racing.”

“Coming with (Gibbs) to watch a few of these NASCAR races, I fell in love. I want to start a team and give a driver, drivers, crew members an opportunity from the grassroots level to work their way into the system.”

For the time being, Almirola remains a NASCAR Cup Series staple. He has been a full-time racer on the premier since 2012 and is in the midst of his third season behind the wheel of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. He has reached the playoffs in each of his first couple of seasons and strengthened his case for a return trip with a third-place finish on Monday. Typical Talladega calamity ensued on the final lap, as Almirola completed his top-three run backward as the pack failed to beat out Ryan Blaney for the win.

Almirola currently sits 12th in the standings with a 32-point cushion the postseason’s cutoff line. He was able to build with back-to-back top-five finishes, with Talladega’s posting coming immediately after a fifth-place showing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A prime opportunity to carry on the momentum comes this weekend at Pocono Raceway. Almirola will get a doubleheader rolling on Saturday afternoon, having earned the pole for the Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) via random draw.

“I‘m happy to finish top five another week in a row, I felt like we were really close to winning that one,” Almirola said of the race. “(We were) so close with our Smithfield Ford Mustang. We had the strategy of kind of riding around surviving most of the race. We didn’t race very aggressively early on in the race. As the laps wound down, I got to the front, then I got shuffled. Right there on that (final) restart we found ourselves back in position. We had a really fast Ford Mustang.”

Exciting as it was, Monday’s Talladega event (whose victory Almirola missed by 0.025 seconds) was forced to take a bit of a backseat when a noose was found in the garage of Bubba Wallace, Almirola’s fellow Drive for Diversity alum and the only African-American driver on the circuit. An FBI investigation concluded after the race determined that the noose was not a hate crime (having been in the stall since last October’s Cup event) but such a sight was still troubling to drivers and observers alike.

Prior to the GEICO 500, Wallace’s fellow drivers pushed his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet to the front of the field and stood behind him during the invocation and national anthem.

As a Cuban-American driver, Almirola admitted that while the scrutiny outside of NASCAR jurisdiction has been nothing compared to what Wallace has had to go through, he sympathized and wished him well.

“I’m a Cuban American. My dad and his whole side of the family came from Cuba in 1966.  So growing up trying to race as a Cuban American, sure, I’ve had things said to me, things that were offensive, that hurt. I actually told Bubba this morning that on a very, very small scale I can relate and I can empathize. I have never had to go through what he’s had to go through in the last couple of weeks, and especially in the last 24 hours. I feel for him immensely.”

Almirola previously drove the iconic No. 43 car for six seasons. Wallace admitted that he and Almirola “didn’t click very well” during a Friday afternoon press conference, but mentioned that his regards stuck out during his process.

“Aric Almirola sent a nice text right before all of that on Monday,” Wallace noted. “He was saying how we’re not friends and we don’t act like we are, but we’re going to stand next to each other, that he’d be proud to stand next to me as a brother and a human being. I thought that was really special.”

In addition to his future prospects, which include a third consecutive playoff berth and seeking his first win since October 2018’s Talladega event, Almirola is glad to play a part in NASCAR’s changing landscape. He notes that the he’s proud to part of the changing field, which includes newcomers in the pits, in front offices, and in the stands.

“I think that the sport has worked so hard since I got my opportunity in 2004 to adapt,” Almirola noted. “I think NASCAR has forever been considered an All-American sport. All of America has changed and evolved a lot over time. I think that NASCAR has done an incredible job of being inclusive and making sure that the garage area, the spectators, the fan area, that they all resemble all of America. I have been so proud to be a part of that initiative and that drive.”

“They continue to adapt and evolve and make our sport a more inclusive sport where people can feel welcome.  If you like racecars, fast racecars, the adrenaline rush of cars going 200 miles an hour side-by-side like you saw (on Monday), you should be able to come and be a part of it whether as a competitor or spectator and participate and enjoy it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags