NASCAR’s Bristol Dirt Race: What you need to know

Mother Nature hasn’t cooperated, but NASCAR is prepared to take to the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday afternoon.

Similar to the NHL’s Winter Classic, NASCAR is set to move away from its traditional surface for an arena that may harken back to the participants’ earliest playing days.

The unpredictable asphalt of Bristol Motor Speedway has obtained a 30,000-ton plot twist through the addition of dirt. Stock car racing on dirt has been fairly common at lower, local levels of racing, but the premier NASCAR Cup Series has not run a race on dirty since 1970. Though weather has postponed the celebration, that streak is set to end on Monday afternoon through the Food City Dirt Race (4 p.m. ET, Fox).

This special event was originally set to be held on Sunday, with qualifying heat races on Saturday. Alas, flooding rains in the Sullivan County area, ones that have turned parts of the BMS parking lot into a de facto lake, have delayed the proceedings. ESM has everything you need to know…

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 26: A general vie of trucks during practice for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 26, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Dirt

The premier Cup Series last ran on dirt in Raleigh when Richard Petty won by two laps at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds over five decades prior. Bristol is already known for its short-track racing and even shorter tempers. Further unpredictability stems from the dirt surface, which took 2,300 truckloads to completely cover.

Plenty of drivers in Monday’s Cup Series have prior dirt experience. Several dirt track stars will make Cup cameos while series regulars plan to run the Camping World Truck Series race prior to the main event (12 p.m. ET, FS1). The Truck Series previously held a dirt event at Ohio-based Eldora Speedway and six of the seven winners from its 75-mile event (Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Chase Briscoe, and Stewart Friesen) will appear in the Cup’s 250-lap endeavor.

But a practice session on Friday afternoon was almost all the preparation afforded to the drivers of Cup cars that weigh over 3,000 lbs., gargantuan compared to the relatively tiny sprint cars (cars with high power-to-weight ratios) and late models (where the latest model of a manufacturer is used) typically run on dirt. Not even a return to the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Circuit on the iRacing circuit earlier last week could provide much help. Ryan Blaney, winner of last week’s event at Atlanta, was the fastest car in the practice session, which also yielded another set of tires for the Cup after excessive wheel wear was on display. Unlike late model cars, the use of a windshield also proved detrimental during the practices on Saturday, as excess mud completely blinded the competitors.

Drivers have thus turned to whatever sources they can to help them become relative earthbenders as the green flag nears. Six Cup regulars (Wallace, Larson, Briscoe, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Daniel Suarez) will run the CWTS race. Blaney has turned to his father Dave, a former Cup Series veteran and renowned dirt champion in the World of Outlaws sprint car division. Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion entering his second decade on the circuit, has consulted with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Briscoe…a Cup Series rookie with dirt experience and a Trucks win at Eldora.

“It’s definitely weird to have a guy like that coming to me, but it’s neat,” Briscoe, driver of the No. 14 Ford at the Cup level. “Typically, it’s me going to Kevin. We actually talked (last week) for probably 20-30 minutes on the phone just going through the different things of what I felt like the car is gonna need to have, things that he can expect to see, feeling he can expect to feel, and just kind of where he needs to try to get his car during practice. Hopefully, I didn’t steer him in the wrong direction and hopefully, he can have a good run.”

The Favorite 

Already followed by a massive spotlight, Kyle Larson was set to shine and stand out amidst Bristol’s dirt. Fired from his NASCAR ride after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event…a happening Larson continues to make amends for and evolve from…Larson returned to the dirt circuits where he originally made his racing name. He took home wins in 46 events, including the Chili Bowl National event in January. Larson would defend that title this year, becoming a multi-winner alongside NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart in the event often labeled the Super Bowl of midget racing.

The Bristol dirt event was supposed to be a coming-out for Larson, a return to glory for both and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But it appears Larson has already taken care of that part, as he has emerged as one of the hottest drivers of the Cup Series’ first month of action. Larson has taken full advantage of his new opportunity, winning at Phoenix, the site of November’s championship finale festivities, and dominating last weekend’s event at Atlanta before his tires faltered late. Nonetheless, Larson has led the most laps amongst 2021 Cup drivers (379) and paces the current standings with only Denny Hamlin ahead.

But for all the hype around Larson’s return to dirt, the driver insists this weekend will be like any normal event. Strong showings in the early races have likely removed some of the burden Larson holds as one of the more experienced dirt drivers.

“I don’t think I view any weekend differently. I want to win every weekend,” Larson said. “So, it doesn’t relax me any more; it wouldn’t have made me any more stressed going in there. It’s still early in the year and we’ve been running well. I’ve been confident that we were going to make the playoffs no matter what, based off of just sheer speed and being with a great team. Had we started the year off badly or average and been around that bubble spot right now with no win going into Bristol, yeah, I would probably have a lot more pressure on me to go win. But we’ve been running well, so that doesn’t change my mindset now going into Bristol.”

With the qualifying heats washed out, Larson was originally set to start on the pole but an engine change made after his practice run will banish him to the rear of the field. On paper, that could cause a problem: Monday’s race will run for 250 laps as opposed to the 500 normally run on Bristol’s asphalt. Stage breaks will come after the first 100 laps to set up a 50-lap finish. Larson will be unable to gain spots on pit road, as NASCAR is eschewing traditional pit stops out of an abundance of caution for the long-awaited dirt event.

“It’ll be long. The track will change a lot, so just have to stay on top of that and hopefully our Freightliner Chevy is good and we can stay out front for most of it.”

It has, in fact, been Larson’s teammate that has dominated the more recent affairs at Bristol this week. Alex Bowman, taking over in Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet for HMS, topped the first of two practice sessions and was the runner-up to Blaney in the second. In other HMS affairs, William Byron won the aforementioned virtual event in iRacing on Wednesday, while defending Cup Chase Elliott made offseason headlines for continuing to race in different disciplines after hoisting the trophy in Phoenix.

“When you challenge yourself in different ways, it’s good for you. It’s good for you to go and push yourself to new levels,” Elliott said. “Coming off a great season, it’s great to go and kind of find new limits. Understand more about yourself in different ways, ways that you haven’t experienced before. And all those new experiences, if you take one thing from all of them combined, you’ve spent your time in a good place and it was worth doing it.”

“I think the bottom line is just a new challenge, a new set of circumstances, a new discipline – all of those things just are pushing yourself in ways that I haven’t done in the past and I think it’s a good thing. I hope I can do some more of it.”

Larson will also compete in the Truck Series event for Niece Motorsports in the No. 44 Chevrolet, starting 28th in his first CWTS event since November 2016.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 26: Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 HighPoint.com Ford, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 26, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Unpredictability

Upsets began long before March Madness started.

Through six events, the NASCAR Cup Series has seen six different visitors to victory lane. Daytona offered first-time winners on both its legendary oval (Michael McDowell) and new road course (Bell). Larson’s win at Phoenix was his first since October 2019 at Dover. Playoff drivers Blaney, Truex, and Byron have likewise earned wins, but some of the series’ more renowned names like Elliott, Hamlin, Harvick, and Kyle Busch have gone without. The series record for most unique winners to start a year is ten, earned back in 2000 through names like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and both Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr.

While the parity has revamped excitement, it’s raised stress levels of drivers in the garage. On paper, a win more or less secures a spot in the 16-driver NASCAR playoffs, provided the car remains in the top 30 in points overall. But with different drivers winning and dominating the opening slate, some have theorized that we could see more than 16 winners, which would leave some drivers in an awkward spot on the playoff bubble following the 26th race at Daytona this summer.

Superspeedway events often provide unusual winners that could end up swiping playoff spots. McDowell’s win at Daytona, for example, was his first in 357 Cup Series starts and served as a major boon to his Front Row Motorsports team, NASCAR’s equivalent of a mid-major at the Big Dance. There are thoughts that the dirt at Bristol can produce another surprise winner that serves as a crasher to the playoff party.

“Anybody could go win this race,” Briscoe said. “I think it’s somewhere in the middle of a superspeedway and just a normal race. Equipment is still gonna matter a little more than it would at a superspeedway, but at the same time I feel like any team could go here and run better than they typically do.”

Briscoe would know as he’s one of the drivers that most stands to benefit from the dirt activities. The Rookie of the Year contender is mired in a 27th-place standings hole, 57 points away from Chris Buescher, the final current playoff entrant based on points. It’s a stark contrast from Briscoe’s Xfinity Series endeavors last season, when he set a single-season record with ten victories before taking over for the driver-turned-Fox analyst Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Ford.

The early struggles for Briscoe have been part of team-wide woes at SHR. Harvick has been consistent with top ten finishes in all but one race so far, but it’s nothing compared to his regular season dominance last season (nine wins). The most recent ROTY, Cole Custer (22nd, 39 points out), is a few slots ahead of Briscoe, who is tied with Aric Almirola. All four of SHR’s Fords reached the playoffs last season, including Bowyer in Briscoe’s No. 14, but only a toned down Harvick would appear if the season ended today.

Briscoe knows that his dirt experience can play to his advantage. He won the 2018 Eldora Truck event in a photo finish over Grant Enfinger and will run the series’ event on Monday in the No. 04 Ford owned by Cory Roper, who drove it to a third-place finish at Daytona to open the year.

“I think it’ll drive way different. Eldora, I think you can get away with driving the car pretty sideways, where Bristol I don’t know if you’re gonna do that at Bristol, truthfully,” Briscoe said of the differences between Bristol and Eldora. “(Stock cars) just aren’t meant to be on dirt. They don’t drive very well on dirt, so I would say that would be the biggest thing is it’s hard for me to really say until we go do it just because I do think Bristol is gonna drive quite a bit different than Eldora.”

Briscoe certainly isn’t alone in drivers who can steal a playoff seed with their dirt experience. A strong showing for Wallace, the 2014 Eldora champ, would certainly be a terrific boon for his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota venture alongside team owners Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan. Larson singled out both Bell and Dillon as drivers to watch on Monday.

But Briscoe knows that the dirt can giveth…and the dirt can taketh away.

“It could be a huge boost to our team, but it also could be a downfall if we go there and really struggle because there are such high hopes,” Briscoe noted. “Nobody knows what to expect from a setup standpoint. Some teams could hit it. Some teams could miss it. Hopefully, we get it right. I think setup is still very important on the dirt side. Just because you have a dirt background still doesn’t mean you’re gonna win this race. There are a lot of variables that go into it.”

One thing’s for sure…drivers have taken a liking to their unusual surroundings, as Harvick attested to the Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer.

“This has been a weekend that I had big X’s through, and honestly, that’s as much fun as I’ve had in a race car in a long time,” Harvick said. “Just getting over my anxiety and being able to do something way outside my comfort zone was rewarding.”

For the full Cup Series lineup, click here

For the full Truck Series lineup, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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: Richard Childress Racing

Reenergized after the No. 3 returned to victory lane, RCR is looking to get both of its cars into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

2021 Richard Childress Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Austin Dillon 3 Justin Alexander Dow/Bass Pro Shops/American Ethanol/Symbicort
Tyler Reddick 8 Randall Burnett Caterpillar/Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen/Alsco

History

RCR is best known for running the No. 3 Chevrolet, which Childress himself ran for a majority of his own full-time driving career (1973-81). The numeral was made legendary by Dale Earnhardt, who drove it to 67 victories and six of his record seven NASCAR Cup Series titles (1986-87, 1990-91, 1993-94). It was retired after Earnhardt’s tragic passing after a wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but it returned to the Cup level when Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon began his own full-time endeavors in 2014. Kevin Harvick drove the car, under No. 29 branding, for 13 seasons before departing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Childress opened a second full-time vehicle in 1997, with the current No. 8 Chevrolet running under previous identities of Nos. 30, 07, and 27. Notable names to pass through each respective incarnation include Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Paul Menard.

2020 in Review

The 2019 Cup Series season had been a struggle for RCR, as the team failed to put a car in the top 20 in points for the first time in its full-time racing days, a streak dating back to 1976. Reddick, the winner of back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series championships, took over the No. 8 from Daniel Hemric while Dillion was reunited with crew chief Justin Alexander. The latter pair previously united for a last-lap victory at the 2018 Daytona 500, the No. 3’s first victory in the Great American Race since Earnhardt captured a long-sought-after triumph in the 1998 edition.

Their reunion paid big dividends. Dillon earned one of the best seasons of his career and ended an 88-race win drought at the O’Reilly Auto Parts at Texas in July. The win secured his spot in the postseason, which came up big when he was forced to skip August’s Daytona road course event due to a positive COVID-19 test (Kaz Grala brought the No. 3 home in seventh in his absence). He further impressed in the opening round of the playoffs, earning consecutive top-five finishes in the first two races (including a runner-up at the opener in Darlington). Dillon’s 11th-place finish of the standings tied a career-best previously set in 2017.

Reddick got off to a decent start to his career, leading the 2020 rookie class with three top fives and nine top tens. He was in contention for wins at several points during the season, including the aforementioned Texas event, where his runner-up posting created the first RCR sweep of the first couple spots since October 2011 at Talladega (Bowyer and Burton). Reddick nearly stole a playoff spot during the regular season finale at Daytona, but his involvement in a late wreck forced him to watch from the outside.

Meet the Drivers

Austin Dillon

Experience: 7th season
Career Cup Victories: 3 (last: Texas, summer 2020)
2020 finish: 11th (Round of 12)
Best standings finish: 11th (2017, 2020)

A target’s always going to be on Dillon’s back because of his status as both Earnhardt’s successor in the No. 3 and as Childress’ grandson. Dillon had proven his racing mettle at several points in the past, winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title and the 2013 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, as well as his aforementioned Daytona triumph. That meant little to NASCAR’s hard-to-please fanbase, but it appears that the latter stages of 2020 could be the start of something bigger for Dillon and the No. 3 team.

“I hope we can keep giving them something to talk about…The confidence is building,” Dillon said after a fourth-placing finish at Richmond in September. “I feel like a lot of people know that we’re here right now. And even if I get knocked out, eventually the naysayers are going to say, ‘See, I told you so,’ so I’m not worried about all that. My confidence comes from within my group. I’m so proud of the team that I’ve got surrounded by around me.”

Dillon might be glad to see on-track qualifying return to select races this season. He was one of six drivers to sit on the pole in at least three races during the 2019 season.

Tyler Reddick

Experience: 2nd season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 19th
Best standings finish: 19th (2020)

Reddick was by far the most consistent of the 2020 Cup rookie group. His lack of victories cost him the official award, with brief playoff contender Cole Custer taking it home through his triumph at Kentucky.

“He always wants as much as he can’t he’s a champion. He’s done a great job this year found a lot of speed at different tracks,” Dillon said of his teammates rookie season prior to the playoffs. “I think he did and does has done an amazing job all year as a rookie and I think it’ll be in the playoffs for years to come. So it’s one of those things that he’s probably disappointed that but I think everybody knows that he’s got the speed and the pace to win races and get in the playoffs as a real contender for years to come.”

Outlook

Last season saw RCR vehicles take down several dubious streaks, but there’s plenty of work to be done. No RCR participant has finished in the top ten of the standings since Ryan Newman’s runner-up posting in 2014 while driving the defunct No. 31. RCR is also looking to put multiple cars in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, when Dillon and Newman finished 11th and 16th respectively. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Reddick earn his first Cup Series win and playoff berth in 2021, while Dillon can truly force the racing world to take notice if he can make it to the semifinal round of eight this fall.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview: YellaWood 500 (Talladega)

The NASCAR Cup Series prepares to take a chaotic trip to Talladega Superspeedway, as the playoffs hit their midway mark.

What: YellaWood 500
Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, AL
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Watch: NBC

This weekend, the hardest postseason hits in Alabama may come not in Tuscaloosa, but Talladega.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs hit their midway mark in both their second stage and overall, as Talladega hosts the YellaWood 500 on Sunday afternoon. With its propensity for tightly-packed racing, wrecks capable of taking out more than half the field, and surprise winners, one lap has the potential to repaint the entire playoff picture.

“The playoff race in Talladega is pretty wild because you have probably two-thirds of the field has been eliminated that’s really not racing for much except trying to win and you have some other ones that are going to be fighting tooth and nail for stage points,” Denny Hamlin said in a prerace teleconference earlier this week. “I suspect it’ll be pretty wild again, but I’m confident that all of our cars are good enough to win every time we go there.”

By virtue of his win last weekend at Las Vegas, Kurt Busch is the long participant amongst the dozen playoff drivers remaining to have clinched his spot in the Round of 8.

The Track

First Cup Series Race: 1969
Length: 2.66 miles (188 laps, 500 miles)
Most Wins: Dale Earnhardt (10)

Talladega is the longest track on the NASCAR circuit, and one of the most chaotic. Speeds often near or exceed 200 miles per hour, though restrictor plates and tapered spaces in the car have made efforts to restrict airflow and allow more horsepower. The latter effort of tapered spaces was introduced at the most recent Talladega event, the GEICO 500 back in June. Such a setup creates tightly-packed racing and little wiggle room, though this does notably level the playing field and expand the list of potential winners. It also prevents cars from breaking away from the rest of the pack.

The most renowned feature of Talladega is “The Big One”, the name given to the massive crash that packed racing can produce. It can eliminate half the field and alter playoff destinies. Twelve drivers have earned their first win at Talladega, including Raphael Lessard, who earned a victory in Saturday afternoon’s Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series race.

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

They Said It

“The pressure is off. There’s not going to be any consequences for the next two weeks. But still, we want to gain points. We want to put some points in our pocket from the stages and the finish at Talladega and the Roval just to build up towards the season end. That’s how we’re going to make it to the Championship 4 is to still keep putting the pressure on, but we know we can slip up, or as Mark Martin said, you can stub your toe every now and then but you’ve just got to learn from it.”Kurt Busch on how he’s approaching the next two weeks

“It’s the best-case scenario driving the No. 21 car, having the fast Fords under us to go there, and not only that, the big thing is having our Penske teammates. Brad, Joey, and Ryan are incredible plate racers and obviously our cars, the Fords are fast, and having all the Fords on the racetrack. Great situation, and we’ll be aware of everyone else’s situations, too, but as I said before, it’s a fun situation: go out there and we’re just trying to win races and have some fun and rack up points.”Eliminated playoff driver Matt DiBenedetto racing with Team Penske drivers

Three To Watch

Austin Dillon (Starting 12th)

No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Dillon is starting last amongst the playoff drivers, though one can work their way up through the field at Talladega. He and his team would certainly know a thing or two about winning that way. 20 years prior, Dillon’s predecessor in the No. 3, the late, great Dale Earnhardt, earned a win by going from 18th to the front of the field over the final six laps of the 2000 Winston 500. Tragically, it wound up being the 76th and final win of his NASCAR Cup Series career before his death at the Daytona 500 four months later.

“Seeing him come from the back to the front and make the moves he made, he was known as a speedway racer and the things he could do in the draft. I think that was amazing,” Dillon said this week. “Obviously, there’s a lot of history there. That’s 20 years ago and I think that would be fitting for us to go win at Talladega and lock ourselves into the next round of the Playoffs…Things are lining up and we’ll try to make it happen.”

Dillon’s performance in the opening round of 16 drivers (2nd, 4th, and 12th over the three-race stretch) surprised many, but his Round of 12 got off to a tough start with a lost belt relegating him to a 32nd-place finish at Richmond last week. Considering he’s 32 points behind the cutoff to the next round, a win at Talladega might be his best chance to move on.

Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Blaney (Starting 14th)

No. 12 Team Penske Ford

A brutal opening round ended Blaney’s championship hopes before they could truly get started. His struggles might go as far back as the immediate aftermath of his only victory of 2020, a narrow .007-second victory over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. back at the June event. Since then, Blaney has earned only five top-ten finishes, including a seventh-place posting at Las Vegas last weekend.

Blaney’s elimination, however, offers him a bittersweet silver lining that allows him to go all-out at Talladega, where he has won consecutive races. The first half of that victorious couple came last fall, ironically also by a .007-second margin, holding off Ryan Newman to earn his Round of 8 seed. He became the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 2007 to earn consecutive victories at Talladega. He has a long way to go to catch up to Earnhardt, and another win would make him the first to win three in a row since Dale Earnhardt Jr. took home a quartet between 2001 and 2003. Armed with the power of consequence-free racing, Blaney could be ready to join an even more prestigious group.

Brendan Gaughan (Starting 39th)

No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet

Gaughan has a brand of immunity even more important than Blaney’s…Sunday will mark his final NASCAR start.

The retiring 45-year-old was a full-time driver on the Cup Series circuit for only one season (racing a No. 77 Dodge partially funded by Roger Penske in 2005), his eccentric personality and friendly demeanor made him a favorite amongst fans. Gaughan has earned 10 wins on the Xfinity and Truck Series levels and has won championships on off-road circuits and what is now ARCA Menards Series West.

With the assistance of Beard Motorsports, Gaughan has made brief cameos at the Cup Series by running every race at Daytona and Talladega since 2017. He nearly stole last season’s fall event, but The Big One struck with less than 10 laps to go, flipping his No. 62 airborne and pushing him back to 27th. There’d be no better way to say goodbye than a visit to victory lane.

For the full starting lineup, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski advances with dominant win at Richmond

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

Brad Keselowski advanced to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 12 with a dominant win at Richmond Raceway.

In an attempt to make the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs a three-man headliner, Brad Keselowski made sure he was the only driver taking care of business at Richmond Raceway on Saturday night.

Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford led 192 of 400 laps, including the final 48 en route to victory at the Federated Auto Parts 400. The No. 2 team gained automatic entry to the next round of the Cup Series playoffs with its fourth win over the season. One more race remains in the opening round of 16 drivers, with the bottom four in the standings eliminated next weekend. Only Kevin Harvick (8) and Denny Hamlin (6) have won more races this season.

With his 33rd career Cup Series win, Keselowski ties Fireball Roberts for 24th-place all-time.

“I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to a lot of the greats in the sport,” the 2012 Cup champion said. “I really wish I was winning five to ten races a year because that’s what it’s going to take to do that, but I’m trying to also be grateful for what I have and to have won four races to date this year.  But I want to be the best, and to be the best you’ve got to have those 5-10 win seasons consistently and I’ve been having 3-4 win seasons.”

Keselowski, seeking his second Cup Series title, took his first lead of the day on lap 121, passing teammate Joey Logano and leading the next 42 circuits before hitting pit road. Once stops cycled through, Keselowski coasted to a stage victory, his sixth of the season. With the win in both the race and the stages, Keselowski has an extra six-point cushion going into the next round.

“A race like tonight I think easily gets sold as there weren’t any wrecks. These drivers are just good,” Keselowski said of the clean race. “These cars all drove so bad with that little bitty spoiler on them, a lot of horsepower, and you had guys with new tires and old tires sliding around, and it’s so easy to get in trouble and to wreck. These drivers are just freaking good, and they didn’t do that. To win a race against drivers that are this good is pretty cool.  It’s something I’m very proud of, and I’m going to try to soak it up.”

The No. 2’s main competition for victory was the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet of Austin Dillon. After opening the playoffs with a runner-up finish at Darlington, Dillon drove the fastest car in the field for a majority of the evening. He led a career-best 55 laps despite numerous calamities on pit road. He came home second in the opening 80-lap stage behind Denny Hamlin, but a speeding penalty during the ensuing yellow flag put him at the rear. Dillon would recover also finish second in the middle stage.

Attempting to make his final stop with 65 laps to go, Dillon missed pit road, costing him precious seconds on the racetrack. He was able to briefly regain the lead before Keselowski took over the rest of the way. Dillon wound finishing fourth behind Martin Truex Jr. and Logano, earning consecutive top-five finishes for the first time in his Cup Series career. Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.

Dillon owns a 36-point advantage over the cutoff line at 13th place, currently occupied by William Byron.

The opening round of the Cup Series playoffs ends next weekend with the Bass Pro Shops Night Race on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Keselowski won the first visit to Bristol back in May.

Race Notes

  • Playoff drivers occupied each of the top ten spots. Tyler Reddick was top finishing non-qualifier in 11th.

 

  • Hamlin (12th) never recovered from a speeding penalty of his own after the second stage, but he nonetheless mathematically clinched a spot in the Round of 12 with a 61-point advantage over 13th. Points leader Harvick (7th) clinched his spot with a win at Darlington last weekend.

 

  • Team Penske’s playoff trio had one missing link, as Ryan Blaney struggled for the second consecutive week. Blaney (19th) finished two laps down and currently sits in 16th and last place in the playoff standings, 27 points behind 12th man Clint Bowyer (10th). A win would help Blaney clinch automatically.

 

  • Save for stage pauses, Saturday’s race featured no caution flags. It’s the third such race since stages were introduced in 2017 and the first since the road course event at Sonoma in June 2019. The last, and likely final, race to be completely caution-free was the October 2002 event at Talladega.

 

  • Timmy Hill (mechanical) was the only driver who failed to finish.

 

  • Truex (2nd) had won each of the prior two events at Richmond. His runner-up finish is his third over the last five races.

 

  • Keselowski’s win at night capped off a strong day of racing for team owner Roger Penske. Earlier on the IndyCar Series circuit, Will Power led all but nine laps at the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to win his first race of 2020.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Late drama allows Kevin Harvick to steal another win

Kevin Harvick

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began the same way many races in the regular season ended: with Kevin Harvick in victory lane.

NASCAR’s annual Labor Day weekend excursion to Darlington Raceway has recently been celebrated by the unveiling of paint schemes that reference or pay homage to popular cars of the past. The most recent visit to the Myrtle Beach staple, however, kept a very modern trend going.

Drama at the front of the field allowed Kevin Harvick to win Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500, his eighth victory of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Harvick was running third when front-runners Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. incapacitated each other through contact with 13 laps to go. From that point on, Harvick held off Austin Dillon to win the 57th race of his Cup career. Such a victory puts him in sole possession of ninth place on the all-time wins list.

“When you start looking around the win list and you start seeing the names that you’re around, you just start thinking to yourself, man, these are some of the greatest drivers that ever came through our sport.,” Harvick said in his place in history. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. You’ve got to do your part and, hopefully, we can keep doing what we’re doing on the racetrack and keep climbing up there.”

He and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team also earn automatic advancement to the next leg of the NASCAR Playoffs, which began at Darlington with 16 drivers. Four will be eliminated after short track races over the next two weeks at Richmond and Bristol.

A tally of 57 playoff points during the regular season made sure that Harvick didn’t have to worry too much about securing points to make the next round. But that didn’t stop him and crew chief Rodney Childers. Harvick finished in the top ten in each of the first two stages, but different pit strategies from Childers allowed him to stay at the upper-half of the field. Properly timed cautions also played in the hands of the No. 4 team.

We’re more or less just trying to do what’s right for us and be consistent and do the best we can every week,” Childers said. “We just felt like that was the best thing for us.  With our car kind of falling off too much and cording the right rear, we really didn’t have another option. We were just trying to do what was best, and it kind of worked out in both of those last two stages and we got a caution when we were up there at the lead.”

Harvick was also pleased to win the race in front of an adoring public, as Darlington welcomed in a limited crowd to witness Sunday’s race. It marked his third win at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”, the prior one coming at NASCAR’s return from a coronavirus-induced pause in May. No fans were able to witness that win (his first of the 2020 season), so Harvick was sure to take the reaction in. It’s his first win in the Southern 500, an event that dates back to 1950.

“That’s the first race that I’ve won this year that anybody has been here,” Harvick noted. “But I think back to the first race here, and for me, that was really the moment that put it all into perspective of where we were and what we were doing and how drastic of a situation it was when you have all that enthusiasm to share with nobody and just dead silence.  It felt really, really good to have some cheering fans in the grandstands and be able to experience that again.”

Truex and Elliott united to lead 310 of the race’s 367 laps, the former’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota winning each of the first two stages. With Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leading after a caution to remove debris from the frontstretch, Truex made an aggressive move in search of his second win of the season. Attempting to close the door and clear the No. 9, Truex instead made contact, damaging each of their playoff rides. The encounter forced them each to pit road relegated Elliott to a 20th-place finish and Truex to 22nd.

It served as unfortunate deja vu for Elliott. A prior 2020 event at Darlington ended in an Elliott after he was bumped by another Joe Gibbs driver, Kyle Busch, while fighting for the lead in the race’s dying stages.

Dillon finished in the runner-up spot. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet worked its way to the front after being forced to start from the rear due to unapproved adjustments. Joey Logano finished third while Erik Jones was the highest-finishing non-playoff driver in fourth. Another playoff man, William Byron, rounded out the top five.

The second round of the Round of 16 will run on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Playoff drivers took 12 of the top 13 starts in the final running order.

 

  • It was a tough start to the playoffs for Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. Blaney was forced to start from the rear for failing prerace inspection due to an improperly-mounted ballast. The violation cost him 10 points and the services of crew chief Todd Gordon, who was suspended. Blaney finished a lap off the pace in 24th and sits 17 points behind the 12th-place cutoff.

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s transmission issues forced him to retire early, while John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford was lost to an accident. Corey LaJoie also sustained damage and was retired when he took his car directly to the garage area rather than pit road.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

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: Austin Dillon ends a victory drought, steals another playoff spot

A bold decision from Dillon and teammate Tyler Reddick allowed Richard Childress Racing to recapture NASCAR glory at Texas Motor Speedway.

How ’bout that cowboy?

Once known for his array of cowboy hats in the garage area, Austin Dillon took home a long-awaited in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Dillon and rookie teammate Tyler Reddick united to create a one-two finish for Richard Childress Racing.

“Having Tyler right there to work with, he has a teammate that he’s really working good with,” team owner Richard Childress said afterward. “To see both those guys racing for the win, I was hoping they didn’t wreck each other. It was pretty cool to see RCR in the front.”

RCR is perhaps best known for winning six NASCAR Cup Series titles with Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 Chevrolet. On Sunday, Dillon piloted the same car to victory lane for the first time in 88 races. Their previous victory came in the 2018 Daytona 500 and Sunday saw them sweep the top spots for the first time since October 2011 (when Clint Bowyer held off Jeff Burton to win the fall Talladega event).

Dillon, the grandson of Childress, has driven the No. 3 since 2014. His Chevrolet is the first to adorn the No. 3 since Earnhardt’s passing at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Sunday marked Dillon’s third win in the car, having previously won two of NASCAR’s crown jewels. He also won the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 via fuel mileage.

“Sports are sports. You got to have someone you don’t like,” Dillon said of fans’ perception of him. “Maybe it’s just my background, where I come from.  But I got a lot of people that love me, too.  It doesn’t bother me at all really. They can either get on the bandwagon and love me. It’s okay. It’s part of sports. Haters are going to hate sometimes, but we’ll be all right.”

Both Dillon and Reddick hovered in the middle of the pack for most of the 334-lap event. Reddick worked his way back from two laps down by the time the final, 124-lap stage rolled around. Ryan Blaney had won the first two segments, lasting 107 laps each, en route to leading a race-best 150 circuits. It appeared the race would come down to Blaney and Denny Hamlin as green flag pit stops cycled through, but Quin Houff’s accident with 28 laps set up a chance for teams who stretched their fuel runs (last pitting at circa lap 220) to pit under easier circumstances.

With Blaney, Hamlin, and other contenders still a lap down before the pit cycle was complete, both Reddick and Dillon enacted bold strategies for the finish. Reddick took fuel only, while Dillon opted only for left-side tires. The fresher wheels allowed Dillon to move ahead of his teammate and build a sizable lead.

Two separate incidents (both involving Hamlin) brought out the yellow flag twice, forcing Dillon to undergo the restart process all over again. He was able to re-establish his lead on each occasion while Reddick held off hungry contenders like Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. With the win, Dillon more or less clinched a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Logano came home third while Busch and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

A surprise winner rose to the occasion in the final laps for the second straight week, following up rookie Cole Custer’s win at Kentucky Speedway last weekend. Reddick and his No. 8 Chevrolet are currently 14 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final postseason spot.

The NASCAR Cup Series will enter the second half of its 36-race season with the Super Starter Batteries 400 on Thursday night at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Harvick made his 700th Cup Series start on Sunday, becoming the 18th driver to do so and second on the active circuit (joining Kurt Busch). He ironically began his Cup career at RCR in 2001, taking over for Earnhardt after his passing (in a rebranded No. 29 Chevrolet). Harvick leads the point standings by 91 points over Blaney at the midway mark.

 

  • The red flag came out on lap 220 for a multi-car wreck that ended the days of Custer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Martin Truex Jr. also sustained heavy damage.

 

  • Kyle Busch and Timmy Hill each partook in all three national series events at Texas this weekend. Busch in fact won the Xfinity and Truck races on Saturday, but had the former win revoked after his No. 54 Toyota failed postrace inspection (runner-up Austin Cindric was granted the win). Hill’s best finish was 17th in the Xfinity event, but he was honored by the speedway for winning the O’Reilly Auto Parts 125, part of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series held during the coronavirus-induced pause.

 

  • Hendrick Motorsports had a brutal day at Texas, with only Chase Elliott (12th) finishing the race. Johnson hit the wall and finished 12 laps down in 26th while William Byron’s day ended early after wrecking with Ty Dillon (Austin’s brother). Byron is two points behind Johnson for the final playoff spot. Alex Bowman, locked into the playoff after winning at California, crashed with Hamlin late in the race and finished 30th.

 

  • Pole sitter Aric Almirola led 35 laps and finished 10th, extending his streak of top decalogue finishes to seven.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Five underdogs who could steal Talladega

This Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will visit Talladega on the first day of summer. Is there a red hot upset in the making?

This weekend, Talladega Superspeedway’s 2.66-mile course will feature mischief and mayhem…and 5,000 of its closest friends will be there to witness it.

The NASCAR Cup Series will welcome back a select number of fans to the track as the GEICO 500 will run 188 circuits on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Talladega is one of several “superspeedways” on the NASCAR schedule and its longest track, one that has been known for big pile-ups and close racing. While Sunday’s race will feature a new technical rules package (one created to avoid scary wrecks like the one involving Ryan Newman at the end of the Daytona 500), Talladega’s penchant for tight racing (similar to Daytona) has often seen upset winners steal the show. Winners of NASCAR races are more or less afforded a spot in the NASCAR playoffs, provided they finish in the top 30 in points.

The Cup Series’ usual suspects (I.e. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, etc.) will undoubtedly be in play for GEICO glory. But there could be several underdogs on hand ready to seize their postseason moment…

Austin Dillon

To say it has been an eventful two weeks for Dillon would perhaps be the understatement of the year. He was forced to retire from last Wednesday’s Martinsville race early when the loss of crush panels in his car caused the interior to reach sweltering temperatures. Four days later, he and his wife Whitney welcomed their first child (a son named Ace) before he drove the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to a seventh-place finish. It’s been part of a solid return to the track for Dillon, who (the Martinsville incident aside) has finished no worse than 11th over the last five races. Such a performance has allowed Dillon to enter Talladega holding the final playoff spot. Ending his win drought at 83 races would certainly help him breathe a lot easier, that last win coming at the 2018 Daytona 500.

Brendan Gaughan

Gaughan has run one full-time Cup Series season (2004) but has kept active on NASCAR’s lower-tier national series. He has been a staple in the part-time car of Beard Motorsports, having run each Cup event at a superspeedway since 2017. The No. 62 Chevrolet has been reasonably competitive in such races, as Gaughan came home seventh in February’s Daytona 500. Last fall, he ran up front all day, posting as high as second at Talladega (after finishing eighth in the spring event) but an aerial wreck relegated him to 27th. Gaughan announced in February that 2020 would be his final NASCAR season. Could he earn an early retirement gift in his penultimate Talladega visit? As a part-time driver with no playoff burden, Gaughn will have zilch to lose on Sunday.

John Hunter Nemechek

The rookie Nemechek (second behind Tyler Reddick in the Rookie of the Year race) has remained competitive in his full-time Cup debut. His No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford has been running at the end of each of the first dozen events in 2020 and Nemechek has completed all but 12 laps on the circuit thus far. Nemechek also finished in the top ten in a pair of Xfinity starts at Talladega, including a sixth-place result last season. A Talladega steal from the mid-budget Front Row squad is not unheard of. The first win in team history came in 2013 when David Ragan and David Gilliland swept the first two slots in an overtime finish at the spring race.

Ryan Newman

It’s great to see Newman back in his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford after the scary incident at the end of the Daytona 500, but his return has been a bit of a struggle thus far. He has yet to finish in the top ten since his return and an early spin at Homestead long to a long day that ended in 30th. But a Newman victory at Talladega would make for an incredible headline. In addition to his last-lap crash in February, Newman was literal inches away from a victory at last October’s Talladega event, but he lost to Ryan Blaney by .007 seconds. If he’s going to race his way into the playoffs, Newman would have to break a 113-race winless streak. Talladega could present his best opportunity. In five events since October 2017, Newman has earned four top ten finishes, including a pair of runner-up postings.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Mired in a 21st-place hole in the standings, it may be a lot to ask Stenhouse to make up a 63-point playoff deficit, even with the regular season running through late August. Stenhouse has often gone the “wreckers or checkers” route at Daytona and Talladega. Back in 2017, he was able to swipe a playoff spot by winning at both tracks, including his first career victory at the latter, when he started on the pole and held off a furious challenge from Jamie McMurray for the win. If he and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty team have playoff aspirations, they might have to go all out on Sunday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags