NASCAR: Alex Bowman’s Underrated Season

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

Alex Bowman took over for one of the most famous drivers in Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2017. Alex Bowman had the opportunity to earn the job when Earnhardt has struggled with head issues. In that time, Bowman was able to prove himself well enough to earn a full-time ride in succession of Earnhardt Jr.

Bowman struggled early in his career, but towards the back half of last season, he truly broke through. At Chicagoland, after being the bridesmaid quite a few times, he was finally the bride when he won the Camping World 400. Bowman has since established himself as a much stronger force in the Cup Series.

Bowman’s Success This Season

Prior to the return of NASCAR, Bowman stood as one of the only winners from the season. After taking home the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway, he returned in impactful fashion as well. In one of the first races back Bowman was runner up at Darlington and nearly pulled off a win. Since then, at Martinsville, Pocono 2, and Talladega, Bowman had three top 10 finishes. Bowman has been able to put up very successful runs this year that have been cut short. He also sits in the top half of the points standings currently as well. He’s flown under the radar for the most part despite all of this.

The fact is, Bowman is still just 27. Although most of NASCAR pinpoints Chase Elliot as the lead driver of the future for Hendrick Motorsports, at the least, Bowman is growing into a formidable number two. Alex Bowman has continued to grow as a racer and I expect him to make some noise come the playoffs.

NASCAR is reinvigorated as new eyes shift to its incredible change

NASCAR was one of the first professional sports leagues to return following COVID-19. The desperate longing for sports and gambling has driven diehard sports fans to all forms of sports. Soccer has become a little more recognized by some that had ignored it in favor of NBA or MLB during the early summer.

The AFL and KBO have gained more mainstream notoriety in recent weeks as their fan bases expand to the United States. The sport that’s had the most successful return, NASCAR. NASCAR has experienced a reinvigoration in terms of both public image and ratings.

New Eyes On NASCAR

In the last few weeks since their return, over the span of 11 races, including some primetime week races, some races on FS1, and the usual summer dip, NASCAR has had an average of 3.08 million viewers per race.

In terms of comparison against pass races this time last year, the numbers are higher even if they’re on FS1. Publicly NASCAR being back also turned eyes to the sport with the uproar of the Black Lives Matter Movement and allowed them to take a vocal stance in support of the movement. More eyes are tuning into the sport, and more money is being spent on merchandise than before.

With that said, is it sustainable? As the NBA and MLB attempt to navigate their returns, those same fans that gravitated to NASCAR in the absence of sports may return to watching the more familiar sports. Not only that but as coronavirus spikes in the south, that’s not good for NASCAR, which has most team shops primarily based in North Carolina. Now, Jimmie Johnson has been diagnosed with COVID, and that could also spark some worries as the first case they’ve had since their return.

Still, with sports like MLB struggling to return and missing out on an opportune time to gain mainstream attention and the NBA trying to navigate the new normal, eyes will still be on the sport for now. At least for now, a sport that was deemed by some to be on the ropes just a short time ago has experienced a rejuvenation.

 

NASCAR: 700 starts later, Kurt Busch is still making an impact

Set to race a NASCAR Cup Series vehicle for the 700th time on Sunday, Kurt Busch looks forward to a continued impact on the sport.

New NASCAR fans seeking a primer on the circuit’s history could do far worse than simply studying the career of Kurt Busch.

Driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Busch is set to make his 700th start in the premier Cup Series at the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, NBC). Not only is Busch only the 16th driver to reach that precipice, but he’s gone through an auto racing roller-coaster that entire race teams may never experience.

Asked about the upcoming landmark start in a Wednesday conference call, Busch waxed nostalgic, thinking back to his father Thomas racing on the local tracks that began the racing journey that continues to this day.

“To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past. So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”

In Busch’s defense, few truly could’ve projected where this trek would take him.

Busch, 41, has been full-time racing in 2001. He’s one of only four active Cup drivers to have partaken in a race alongside the late Dale Earnhardt. Much like The Intimidator, Busch developed a bit of an antagonistic role and engaged in conflict with several other drivers, including one with his future teammate and team owner Tony Stewart during an event at Richmond in 2013. That came six years after Busch and his younger brother Kyle briefly stopped speaking after an incident at the 2007 NEXTEL All-Star Challenge in Charlotte, a feud that ended only weeks after the season when their grandmother intervened before Thanksgiving dinner.

His career has been a roller-coaster, one that has experienced the valleys of not just his confrontations, but a 2005 DUI and domestic violence allegations a decade later (charges were never filed). All in all, the “controversies” section on his Wikipedia page is over seven bullets long. On the track, Busch took home the 2004 Cup Series title (the first under a playoff format) but by 2012, his antics and inconsistency relegated him to low-budget exploits.

The time-honored, cutthroat auto racing concept of “rubbin’s racin'” and championship competition was well-personified by Busch. In addition to his historic championship, Busch has earned 31 Cup victories, including crown jewel triumphs in the 2010 Coca-Cola 600 and the Daytona 500 seven years later (in which hed led only the final lap). He’s even made a mark beyond NASCAR, winning 2003’s International Race of Champions title (beating out names like Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, and Helio Castroneves) and he even partook in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s more renowned event, the Indy 500, in 2014. He finished that race sixth before running the Coca-Cola 600 that night. To date, Busch is the last driver to attempt to run both the IndyCar and NASCAR events on Memorial Day weekend.

Busch had made no indications he wants to hang up his helmet any time soon. In fact, with NASCAR sharing IMS with the IndyCar circuit this weekend, he hinted that his future exploits may not just include his No. 1 Chevy. He was even considering running in the latter’s event on Saturday, but current events made that difficult.

“I looked at it and just with everything going on with COVID and the pandemic and lack of preparation, it just kind of shut everything down as far as the progress and the approach, because it takes a full effort of being tested and track time and being ready,” Busch remarked. “That’s something that I really put in when I ran the Indy 500 six years ago now. And so, everything just got shut down. But, it would have been fun to with Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Redemption soon awaited the Las Vegas native, as strong performances in the fledgling Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing machines showed the racing world he still had plenty left in the tank (literally and figuratively). Four years before Martin Truex Jr. had the wheel in a title run, Busch guided FRR’s No. 78 car to its first playoff berth. It caught the eye of Stewart’s ownership partner Gene Haas, who made him the original driver of the No. 41 in their Stewart-Haas Racing stable. He would miss the first three races of his sophomore drive with Stewart due to the aforementioned allegations but won his sixth race back.

Busch joined Gannasi after five years in the No. 41 and went to Gannasi’s No. 1 for what, appropriately, was set to be a final season. But a strong showing punctuated by a thrilling victory in which he held off Kyle by 0.076 seconds at Kentucky Speedway convinced Busch to sign on for at least two more seasons.

Now, Busch’s career is defined by consistency, not controversy. He’s firmly entrenched in the NASCAR playoff picture in 10th, and only Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin have earned more top ten finishes (9). Over the past dozen races, Busch has finished no worse than 18th, a fact he has attributed to a strong behind him. His return has also afforded him a return to action alongside Matt Kenseth. Nearly two decades after the pair won back-to-back titles under Jack Roush’s supervision, they reunited in the Gannasi stalls when Kenseth was called to drive the No. 42 Chevrolet mid-season.

“It takes a good team to have a driver’s ability to find the success. A team is the foundation,” Busch said of his longevity. “I’m having some of the best years of my career as far as consistency because I’m using that experience level. I’m using that calmness and that ability to project the future in the car, and that’s leading to good, consistent, and quality finishes. It’s just that we’ve got to cross over another barrier of sometimes you just throw caution to the wind and let it rip.”

Busch noted that he was part of a NASCAR revolution, one that began to rely on younger drivers. He himself ran his first race when he was 22, called upon to drive the No. 97 Ford for Roush. It was in that car where Busch won his first races and his monumental title, as well as where he saw Kyle enter the series at 18 in the early stages of that championship campaign.

Those days of youth may be long behind Busch, but he’s grateful that such a revolution has taken him on this lengthy NASCAR ride…one that shows little signs of stopping.

“The change, the shift, has happened for younger drivers to get in, and yet it’s still tough to go past 25 years is extreme. I don’t think we’ll ever see that anymore,” Busch remarked. “So that’s that window that we’ve all had this opportunity to race in, and I think it’s just a matter of age blended with the experience level and with a top-tier team. And when you see that, it’s usually in that 32 to 38 range that I would say could be the peak.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Two Underrated Drivers Had A Big Saturday

NASCAR, Christopher Bell

Yesterday featured the opener to a big weekend of NASCAR. Starting at 9:30 am est the Trucks roll-off, then the Xfinity series goes off after them, and then the finale of the weekend is the second cup race. The first day was a big one for two underrated drivers.

Christopher Bell Finished 4th

Bell has been a highly touted rookie. Coming off a master class in the Xfinity Series last year, Bell was handed a ride and expected to fare well. Although Tyler Reddick has stolen a lot of headlines, Christopher Bell has had some speed. Piloting the 95 machine, Bell was fast at Pocono and parlayed that into a top 5 finish. Bell took over the Leavine Family racing ride from Matt DiBenedetto in order to gain cup experience before likely jumping up to a ride at JGR. His speed yesterday will make him one to watch later today. At the very least though, his success Saturday is a strong building point for the long haul.

Michael McDowell Finished 8th

Whereas Bell is a rookie with high potential, McDowell is the underdog for a team with lesser equipment. At 35 years old, McDowell is likely in the back 9 of his career starting at 18. It’s always entertaining when he has success though. McDowell is a guy people like to see succeed because he’s counted out often. Today was a good day for the 34 team and they took advantage of good pit strategy and a fast car in order to get to the front of the field. It was a good race for the Front Row team and hopefully, they can continue to replicate that success.

It’s always encouraging to see two underdogs succeed and hopefully, they continue to have success. For Bell, success could nail a top tier ride for 2021. For McDowell, success could change his career trajectory. 

NASCAR: Can Kyle Busch steal a win on Sunday?

Kyle Busch, Nascar

Kyle Busch has shocked a lot of people in the past few weeks. Not because of success but because of lack thereof. Busch is coming off a championship season and is experiencing a bit of a slump.

Although Busch is a savvy vet, who is believed to be capable of taking any machine to the front of the pack, Busch has admittedly though, had trouble transitioning to the new normal in racing. He’s been quoted as saying things have been challenging for the 18 team to make adjustments without practice. He also said it’s been difficult for him and crew chief Adam Stevens to get on the same page with the car with short times to adjust. So, with the setup of this weekend, he could break his winless streak tomorrow.

Saturday Was Practice for Busch

Saturday offered an opportunity for Busch after falling behind the pack. When it seemed like Busch didn’t have a chance to win, it seemed more like he was running practice laps to qualify for Sunday. Despite that, he still finished 5th and had speed all day. Just like he’s had speed all season. By running laps on Saturday, he enters Sunday with the same car and a chance to make modifications overnight if need be. He talked about the similarities in a media release quoted on Yahoo Sports as Busch stated,

“‘The first race, there’s only going to be the Truck Series rubber, it’s only 60 laps, so there’s just going to be a little rubber down. Then, we’re going to put a lot of rubber down with our race. Then you’ll have the Xfinity race the next day, and then you’ll have our (second) race. Over the course of all those miles, I think the main similarities between the two days is going to be just that – they’re a day apart rather than a month apart. There’s a difference between the Pocono racetrack when it’s a month apart, but when it’s day one to day two, there are going to be big differences in day one to day two, so you have to take a lot of different things into account.’”

The quick transition is something better suited for a veteran. Busch and the team gained some experience on the track and can gain experience from the races before him. If Busch and Stevens can modify the car to play off the success they had today, the 18 team could be en route for a big day. 

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick wins in NASCAR’s Darlington return

NASCAR returned in style on Sunday, as Kevin Harvick became the 14th driver in Cup Series history to earn 50 wins.

Live, team-oriented sports returned in style on Sunday, as the NASCAR Cup Series circuit staged the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Kevin Harvick was the first victor, leading 159 of 293 laps en route to his first victory of the 2020 season/

Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, also earned the 50th victory of his career. He join an illustrious list of 13 other drivers to earn that tally on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

“When you look at a win like this today, this is an organizational win because you have to have your car dialed in when you get here in order to win a race like this,” Harvick said in a Zoom video conference call after the race. “Our guys have just done a great job of putting all the pieces together. Today we were able to capitalize on that and win a race.”

The win, despite the historic weight attached to it, came with a sense of hollowness for Harvick, the first winner in the unusual times for NASCAR.

Sunday’s event was, in racing terms, run under caution in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The stands were empty and media invitations were kept to a minimum. Practice and qualifying were canceled, so drivers were embarking on an endeavor at a locale known as “The Track Too Tough to Tame” with literally no on-track preparation. Harvick’s victory lane celebration was perhaps best labeled by his posing with the race trophy under the protection of a facemask and no one else around, contrasting the normally raucous, confetti-spewing antics that ensue after a win.

“Usually you get out of the car and the crowd is screaming and yelling, react. Today out of the car it was like, well, I don’t really know what to do here,” Harvick said with a smile. “I got in my car, drove to Victory Lane. There were two photographers there, no team guys. I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left Victory Lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it.”

“But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

But the veteran of nearly two Cup Series decades was proud to put on a show at a time the country needed it the most.

“There’s a lot of people that put a lot of effort into this,” he remarked. “I’m glad it went the way that it went. I hope people that watched for the first time liked what they saw. This is a unique racetrack here at Darlington. In the end, it’s just having that opportunity to present yourself to new people. Hopefully, you can make a lot of new fans as you go forward.”

Harvick has been by far the most consistent driver during the interrupted NASCAR season. He is the only driver to appear in the top ten in each of the five races run thus far and leads the points standings over Alex Bowman, whose No. 88 Chevrolet appeared in Sunday’s runner-up slot.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 17: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light #YOURFACEHERE Ford, leads Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 ChevyGoods.com NOCO Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It was Bowman who gave Harvick his biggest challenge of the afternoon. The Hendrick Motorsports star and winner of this spring’s race at Fontana lined up next to Harvick on what became the final restart after a caution for Ryan’s Newman’s spin on lap 254. Harvick’s No. 4 team won the ensuing race off of pit road before its driver held off a furious challenge from Bowman and Kurt Busch. The Busch Light-branded Ford then drove off to Harvick’s first Darlington victory since August 2014.

“I feel like watching it back, I could have been really aggressive and cut the corner into one a little bit and maybe cleared him. I was already pretty aggressive with that,” Bowman said in another Zoom call. “Maybe I could have acted like I was going to clear myself and got him to lift. If he doesn’t lift, we both crash. In three and four I got loose under him. He did a good job of getting on my door, taking some side force away.”

“That’s tough. You’re racing one of the best in the business at one of the most technical, hard racetracks we go to. Just to have the opportunity to race him hard and clean like that was a lot of fun.”

NASCAR will remain at Darlington as they continue a quest to run all 36 races on their docket. The lower-tier Xfinity Series win run on Tuesday night (8:00 p.m. ET, FS1) before the Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday with the Toyota 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). The 500-kilometer race will run for 228 laps around the 1.5-mile track.

Race Notes

  • The first lap of action provided instant fireworks, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s No. 47 Chevrolet spun and hit the wall before completing his opening circuit. It brought out the first of ten Sunday caution flags. Stenhouse wound up finishing dead-last in 40th.
  • Included in the yellow flags was a competition pause shortly after the 30th lap. The field was frozen, allowing the teams to get extended adjustments on pit road while neither gaining or losing position.
  • Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson nearly won the first stage of the race, but a crash right before its finale at lap 90 ended his day early. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet hit the way when he ran out room trying to put Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford a lap down. The 38th-place finisher announced earlier this month that the series’ pause would not change his plans to retire from full-time racing at the end of this season.
  • After Johnson’s wreck, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron took home the first stage. Byron’s day would likewise take a turn for the worse shortly after, as his No. 24 Chevrolet cut a tire and wrecked on lap 111. He would bring the car home in the 35th spot, 14 laps down.
  • The day wasn’t a total loss for Hendrick’s squad. Bowman finished in the runner-up spot while Chase Elliott finished fourth. Bowman recently signed a deal that would keep him with Hendrick through the 2021 season. He has driven the No. 88 Chevrolet full-time since 2018
  • Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took up three spots in the top ten. Defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin rounded out the first five while Martin Truex Jr. finished right behind him. Erik Jones pulled off the trifecta at eighth.
  • Rookies had a banner day at Darlington, with Tyler Reddick (7th) and John Hunter Nemechek (9th) pulling off top ten finishes. Nemechek’s posting in the No. 38 Ford was the first top ten finish for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since August 2017.
  • Veteran returns were a common theme as the series itself made a comeback. Matt Kenseth finished 10th in his first race in the No. 42 Chevrolet since replacing the disgraced Kyle Larson. Meanwhile, Newman recovered from his spin to finish 15th. It was his first race in the No. 6 Ford after being involved in a scary wreck at the end of February’s season-opening Daytona 500.
  • With qualifying canceled, the starting lineup for Wednesday’s event was set by inverting the top 20 finishers. Thus, 20th-place man Ryan Preece will lead the field to the green, while Ty Dillon (19th) lines up next to him. The positions outside the first 20 will be set by their Sunday finishing positions (i.e. 21st-place finisher Bubba Wallace will start 21st on Wednesday).

For full results, click here

For full Cup Series standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR announces updated schedule, starting lineup for Darlington

Set to return on Sunday, NASCAR updated their series schedule through late June. The slate includes visits to Bristol and Talladega.

As NASCAR inches closer toward returning, its front office announced its moves beyond May.

NASCAR unveiled a schedule update on Thursday afternoon, with each of its three national series set to continue action into late June. This second stage of revival will come after NASCAR completes a series of seven races over eleven days at Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway. The premiere Cup Series division is set to make its return from the COVID-19 pandemic pause on Sunday afternoon with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

“As we prepare for our return to racing at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, the industry has been diligent in building the return-to-racing schedule,” NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said in a statement. “We are eager to expand our schedule while continuing to work closely with the local governments in each of the areas we will visit. We thank the many government officials for their guidance, as we share the same goal in our return – the safety for our competitors and the communities in which we race.”

The racing body has remained committed to running every race amongst its three national levels in the wake of the pandemic. Darlington and Charlotte are each set to host a pair of Cup races over the next two weeks, while the “minor league” Xfinity Series will run a single race at the respective tracks. Another lower-tier set, the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, will return on May 26 at Charlotte. The Cup Series has 32 races remaining on its slate, having run the first four prior to the virus-induced hiatus.

Under this new schedule, the series will descend upon tracks at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami, and Talladega. Much like the events at Darlington and Charlotte, these events will be run without spectators. In accordance with the new schedule, events in Kansas, Michigan, and Mid-Ohio were postponed and those at Iowa Speedway were canceled. The June visit to Talladega also sets up a return for the top division Automobile Racing Club of America, another lower-tier was bought out by NASCAR in 2018.

In addition to the schedule news, NASCAR also unveiled the starting lineup for the first race of the revival. Drivers were chosen at random in tiers based on their spot in the car owners’ standings. For example, the top dozen were assigned the top twelve positions, followed by those in the 13th through 24th-place slots. NASCAR has eschewed qualifying as it returns to action, but an exception will be made for the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on May 24.

Brad Keselowski was the lucky winner of Sunday’s pole position, meaning he will start first at the Real Heroes 400. The driver of Roger Penske’s No. 2 Ford is currently tied for eighth with Matt DiBenedetto in the points standings. He has finished no worse than 15th in each of his last five Darlington Cup events, which includes a win at the 2018 Bojangles’ Southern 500. Alex Bowman will start alongside him in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

Other notables in the Darlington field include Matt Kenseth at 12th. The 2003 Cup Series champion will be making his first start since November 2018 in place of the disgraced Kyle Larson in the No. 42 Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman will start 21st in his first start in the No. 6 Ford since missing three races with injuries sustained in a scary crash at the end of February’s Daytona 500. Points leader Kevin Harvick will start in the sixth position.

For the full starting lineup, click here.

Updated NASCAR Schedule
Series Date Location Time (ET) TV
Cup May 17 Darlington 3:30 p.m. Fox
Xftinity May 19 Darlington 8:00 p.m. FS1
Cup May 20 Darlington 7:30 p.m. FS1
Cup May 24 Charlotte 6:00 p.m. Fox
Xfinity May 25 Charlotte 7:30 p.m. FS1
Truck May 26 Charlotte 8:00 p.m. FS1
Cup May 27 Charlotte 8:00 p.m. FS1
Xfinity May 30 Bristol 3:30 p.m. FS1
Cup May 31 Bristol 3:30 p.m. FS1
Truck June 6 Atlanta 1:00 p.m. FS1
Xfinity June 6 Atlanta 4:30 p.m. Fox
Cup June 7 Atlanta 3:00 p.m. Fox
Cup June 10 Martinsville 7:00 p.m. FS1
Truck June 13 Homestead-Miami 12:30 p.m. FS1
Xfinity June 13 Homestead-Miami 3:30 p.m. Fox
Xfinity June 14 Homestead-Miami 12:00 p.m. FS1
Cup June 14 Homestead-Miami 3:30 p.m. Fox
ARCA June 20 Talladega 2:00 p.m. FS1
Xfinity June 20 Talladega 5:30 p.m. FS1
Cup June 21 Talladega 3:00 p.m. Fox

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

The 2020 NASCAR season: 10 things you need to know as the sport returns

NASCAR is one of the first major North American sports leagues to return to live action. Here’s what you need to know as the season resumes.

Live sports are back, America, at least those of the pistoned variety.

NASCAR will be among the first major American sports leagues to return to live-action as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. All three of the organization’s national circuits will return to action in the coming days, beginning with the premiere Cup Series. Proceedings get underway with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). The Cup Series will run two races at Darlington (the other coming on Wednesday night) with a lower-tier Xfinity Series race commencing on Tuesday. Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host all three national realms (including the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series) next week, complete with the Cup Series’  traditional running of the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.

The appetite of the American sports fan may lead to many new viewers for the sport. ESM has primed up what you need to know as things get back underway…

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

1. The First Lap in Sports’ Return

While NASCAR is indeed making a return, the comeback won’t exactly be a fully typical day at the races. 

In adherence to ongoing social distancing policies, the scheduled races will predictably be run sans spectators. Media attendees will be kept to a minimum and there will be no qualifying or practice sessions. The starting lineup for Sunday’s race will be determined by random drawings through divisions via car owner points standings (i.e., a random drawing of the top 12 will make up the first dozen spots). Qualifying will still be run for the 600-mile race on May 24. 

Pit stops will also look different, especially during competition yellow flags that will be thrown at a specific point in the race (it will come on lap 30 of Sunday’s event). During these caution sessions, cars will not gain or lose positions, provided they beat the pace car out of pit road. Teams are also limited to no more than 16 individuals at the track.

Sacrifices are already being made. Several tracks (including Sonoma Raceway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Richmond Internation Raceway) had to give up their dates as NASCAR intends to run full schedules.

It’s certainly not the perfect storm, but drivers are looking forward to the challenges presented and are confident that they will be able to adapt to the necessary changes.

“We’re going to be able to do this and it should be pretty effective,” Denny Hamlin said in a conference call last weekend. “Obviously there will be a huge microscope on how we’re doing things, making sure it’s done in a safe manner. For all of us, it’s just the unknown of making sure we’re doing it the right way. After the first week, I think it will be easier and people will have a better understanding. Certainly the first week there will be some questions that I’m sure drivers will have.”

2. Getting Finer in Carolina

NASCAR’s return comes in familiar territory, its hub of the Carolinas. Two of its most familiar tracks will host the opening, with Myrtle Beach’s Darlington dropping the green flag next Sunday and Wednesday before Charlotte duplicates the process further north next week. Both tracks hold special places in the hearts of fans and drivers alike.

Darlington is renowned for its treacherous semi-egg shaped track, earning a reputation as “The Track Too Tough to Tame” thanks to drivers’ repeated encounters with the wall and each other. It has hosted NASCAR races since 1950. Nearly seven decades of exciting races have ensued. One such occasion was the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, when Ricky Craven held off Kurt Busch in the closest finish in NASCAR history (0.002 seconds).

The unusual layout of Darlington often makes preparation and practice imperative, but that’s not possible in the current environment.

“The team aspect of things is going to be difficult because those guys are going to have to turn cars around, and your shop efforts are going to have to be really exceptional to prepare good cars,” William Byron said in another conference earlier this spring. “I think that, honestly for me as a driver, I’m just going to have to manage my time really well. I’m going to have to be in good physical shape but not be too worn out training too hard or anything like that.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what that is like. I know our team on the 24 will do a good job of preparing and adapting to the circumstances, so I’m just looking forward to seeing how that plays out.”

After the Darlington events, the circuit shifts to Charlotte, the site of NASCAR’s headquarters and its Hall of Fame. Fans who are getting into the sport for the first time will certainly have their fill after the Coca-Cola 600. The race has annually been run on Memorial Day Weekend since 1961 and is the longest race on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles (400 laps around the 1.5-mile track).

3. Feelin’ 22

If you’re looking for a name to root for, it’s probably not too late to jump on Joey Logano’s bandwagon. After all, it’s hard to top the year the 2018 Cup Series champion has been having so far.

The No. 22 Ford won two of the first four races on the Cup slate (including the most recent event in Phoenix) before its driver welcomed his second son alongside his wife Brittany last week. Logano holds the runner-up spot in the standings, a single point behind Kevin Harvick.

4. Hello, Newman!

The 2020 season began in February. as it always does, with the running of the Daytona 500. Hamlin’s third win in the event was overshadowed by a scary last-lap crash involving Ryan Newman. The No. 6 Ford was leading the race when it was inadvertently spun out by the No. 12 Ford of Ryan Blaney. Newman hit the wall hard, before his car flipped into oncoming traffic. After Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 machine slammed into Newman head-on, he crossed the finish line upside down in a shower of sparks.

After several tense hours, it was revealed Newman had sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries. Less than 48 hours after the crash, he walked out of Halifax Medical Center alongside his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. Newman would miss the next three races to recover while Ross Chastain temporarily took over his Roush Fenway Racing car. Darlington will mark his first time back in the No. 6 car since the accident.

The pause has left Newman in a manageable position in terms of the playoffs. He restarts competition 54 points out of a playoff spot, though a win would certainly solidify his case.

5. A Familiar Face in An Unfortunate Case

Newman isn’t the only NASCAR star of the 2000s returning to the track. Matt Kenseth has emerged from retirement to pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. The ride was vacated after regular driver Kyle Larson used a racial slur during a streamed iRacing event.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, has 39 Cup wins under his belt, including two triumphs in the Daytona 500. Ganassi’s No. 42 has been rather successful with top ten finishes in each of the last four final standings. His most recent race was the 2018 season finale (subbing for the fired Trevor Bayne in Roush Fenway’s aforementioned No. 6), but his competition is wary that it won’t take much for Kenseth to rediscover his racing groove.

“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want him back,” said Hamlin, a teammate of Kenseth’s at Joe Gibbs Racing for five seasons. “I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse, but just different. So I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush towards the end. He’s my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point!”

6. See You Again

It’s obviously the least of our concerns at this point, but the pause created a level of awkwardness in the final season of full-time racing for Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time Cup champion confirmed that 2020 would still be his final season in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 Chevrolet, refusing to budge from a plan established last November.

Johnson well might’ve been saving the best for last. After struggling over the past two seasons (his last win coming in June 2017 and missing out on the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career last year), the No. 48 began to resemble its old, victorious self. A late crash took him out of contention at Daytona but he followed it up with three consecutive finishes in the top dozen. That stretch includes a seventh-place showing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, the El Cajon native’s de facto home track and site of his first victory in 2002. Johnson was honored before the race and his family got things started by waving the green flag.

7. Cups by Hendrick

Johnson’s resurgence is only one of the positive stories coming out of the Hendrick Motorsports stables these days. The iconic race squad has amassed 16 NASCAR titles since its 1984 inception but had fallen on hard times in recent years. Granted, they were results other teams would potentially salivate over, but Hendrick cars have finished in the final standings’ top five only once since Johnson’s last title in 2016.

However, the team was on a roll at the time of the temporary shutdown. Hendrick’s quartet has united to lead 313 laps (led by Chase Elliott’s tally of 186) over the first four races and three of those drivers appear in the top five of the standings. Such a resurgence was prominently on display in Fontana, where Alex Bowman’s No. 88 led 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. While William Byron (currently 19th in the standings) may be struggling in the iconic No. 24 car, he was able to build momentum during simulated iRacing events that helped fill the void of sports in the pandemic’s early days. Byron won three of the seven virtual races run during the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series. His teammate Bowman likewise earned a win at pixelated Talladega.

8. King of the Hill

Speaking of iRacing, no one emerged from the simulated circuit better than Timmy Hill.

Standings were not kept in the Pro Invitational Series, but mathematics and NASCAR’s point system determined that Hill emerged as the de facto champion of the temporary circuit. He finished every race on the lead lap and finished no worse than 11th. His success probably should’ve come as no surprise, as he’s closing in on making 1,700 iRacing starts.

Hill’s actual racing career has been far less illustrious. Trapped in racing purgatory of microbudget teams, his best finish to date is a 14th place showing at the 2017 Indianapolis race. But his iRacing showcase may have been his ticket to at least start to turn the corner. His MBM Motorsports team is simply looking to finish the season, a task that became incredibly more difficult when they were forced to let go 30 employees during the shutdown. However, his performance allowed them to gain some extra sponsors for both Hill’s No. 66 Toyota and the Xfinity program. Hill probably won’t be contending for a title any time soon, but his success in the iRacing proceedings and how a small-budget team performs in these uncertain economic times will certainly be worth watching.

9. Minor League NASCAR

If you’re really looking to fill the live sports void in your life, you might want to keep track of the lower-tier national circuits as well. Thus far, the Xfinity series (the NASCAR equivalent of AAA-level baseball) has been dominated by a legacy selection. 19-year-old Harrison Burton (son of former driver Jeff) has finished in the top five in each of the first four races so far, part of a torrid start to his early NASCAR career (which includes a 12th-place finish in last season’s Truck standings). He’s pursued closely by Chase Briscoe at three points behind.

The Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series was only able to run two events before the shutdown. Grant Enfinger won the season-opening event at Daytona, besting Jordan Anderson by 0.010 seconds. Of note, Natalie Decker made history in that same race, as her fifth-place posting was the best by a female driver in Truck Series history. Veteran Truck Series driver Austin Hill currently leads the points in his No. 16 Toyota.

2020 NASCAR Cup Series Standings (After 4 of 36 Races)
Driver Points/Behind Wins Car/Primary Sponsor
1. Kevin Harvick 164 0 #4 Busch Ford
2. Joey Logano -1 2 #22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford
3. Chase Elliott -20 0 #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet
4. Alex Bowman -26 1 #88 Valvoline Chevrolet
5. Jimmie Johnson -33 0 #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet
6. Ryan Blaney -41 0 #12 PEAK Ford
7. Kyle Larson (out) -43 0 N/A
8. Aric Almirola -43 0 #10 Smithfield Ford
9. Matt DiBenedetto -46 0 #21 Menard’s Ford
10. Brad Keselowski -46 0 #2 Miller Lite Ford
11. Denny Hamlin -53 1 #11 FedEx Toyota
12. Kyle Busch -53 0 #18 M&M’s Toyota
13. Clint Bowyer -59 0 #14 Rush Trick Centers Ford
14. Chris Buescher -62 0 #17 Fastenal Ford
15. Martin Truex Jr. -68 0 #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota
16. Kurt Busch -74 0 #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet
NASCAR PLAYOFF CUTOFF LINE (Points behind 16th)
17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr, -2 0 #47 Kroger Chevrolet
18. Bubba Wallace -3 0 #43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet
19. William Byron -3 0 #24 Axalta Chevrolet
20. Austin Dillon -13 0 #3 Dow Chevrolet
21. Erik Jones -13 0 #20 SportClips Toyota
22. Cole Custer (R) -17 0 #41 Haas Automation Ford
23. Corey LaJoie -22 0 #32 RagingBull.com Ford
24. Ty Dillon -22 0 #13 GEICO Chevrolet
25. Tyler Reddick (R) -22 0 #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet

10. The Standings and the Playoff

Now a good a time as ever to update you on the NASCAR playoff picture.

As has been customary, the current plan is to run 26 “regular season” races. After such races, 16 drivers are invited to the ten-race “playoff” session. The easiest way to reach the playoffs is by winning races and finishing in the top 30 in points. If there are fewer unique winners than playoff spots, the rest of the field is filled via points. Once the playoff begins, each qualified driver’s point total rests at 2,000.

Drivers are seeded by a number of combined factors that accumulate into playoff points. These special tallies are earned via individual victories (five points each) and winning in-race stages (one point). The regular season champion also earned an additional 15 playoff points.

Once the playoff begins, elimination rounds are held in three-race increments. Drivers can automatically advance to the next round by winning one of three races in the interim. Four drivers per round are eliminated leading up to final, tenth race in which the best finisher wins the title.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: iRacing winner Denny Hamlin feeling confident as NASCAR nears return

Denny Hamlin completed a bookend of victories in NASCAR’s virtual setup. Afterward, he talked about the circuit’s return to real racing.

Denny Hamlin has accomplished plenty over 16 seasons of FedEx-branded racing in the NASCAR Cup Series. His trophy case holds three Harley J. Earl Trophies (earned by the winner of the Daytona 500), the 2006 Cup Series Rookie of the Year Award, and the laurels from 54 other races over NASCAR’s three national series. He added another victory on Saturday afternoon, winning the North Wilkesboro 160 virtual event on the iRacing platform.

His most cherished racing memory, however, might be a last-place finish.

The moment came when the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was competing in an eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race at a recreation of Talladega Superspeedway last month. Hamlin’s day was ended by no competitor, but rather someone bearing his name.

His seven-year-old daughter Taylor accidentally turned off Hamlin’s monitor during the race, putting him off the pace and relegating him to a posting of 39th in the event labeled the GEICO 70.

Taylor’s gaffe, as well as her father’s exaggerated reaction, immediately went viral. On Saturday, Hamlin declared he wouldn’t have traded the comedic sequence for anything on the track.

“To see Taylor’s shenanigans reaching huge media outlets in L.A., here, everywhere, on TMZ, that’s good,” Hamlin said in a conference call. “Even though I’m (angry) because my day is over, I wouldn’t have traded that moment for anything. I would take that moment and keep it versus winning Talladega.”

“To me, it was just something that I enjoy talking about. Taylor gets such a kick watching it, the highlights and everything that’s been put together about it. It’s just a life moment that, hey, even though we didn’t win, it didn’t turn out well results‑wise, it still was a life moment that was really good for both of us.”

The eyes of the nation will turn to NASCAR under more serious circumstances this week. Most North American sports organizations have been mired in “one step forward, two steps back” stagnance as the continent tries to reclaim some semblance of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR, on the other hand, has embarked on an ambitious plan to move forward.

Over the next few weeks, the NASCAR Cup Series will descend upon two of its most renowned tracks to restart its engines. The reopening begins on Sunday afternoon at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Myrtle Beach’s Darlington will host a second race next Wednesday night before the circuit holds another pair of races at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Among the latter track’s offerings will be the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24, continuing a Memorial Day weekend tradition dating back to 1961. The race is the longest event (600 miles) on the Cup Series ledger. NASCAR also plans to run races from its lower-tier national circuits, the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, at the tracks as well.

 (Photo by Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Hamlin knows the series will be watched with great scrutiny as one of the first major leagues to return on the wake of the ongoing situation.

“I have two kids. They run a temperature all the time. It’s a little nervous for me knowing that you could get a fever or something like that, and it maybe will scare you into thinking you have something that you don’t,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, there will be a huge microscope on how we’re doing things, making sure it’s done in a safe manner. For all of us, (there is) just the unknown of making sure we’re doing it the right way.”

The Ultimate Fighting Championship showed just how hard a return can be. While many fans relished the proceedings in Jacksonville on Saturday night (held in an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena), not everything went off without a hitch. Champion fighter Ronaldo Souza and two of his cornermen each tested positive for COVID-19 but the event was able to press on.

While on-track racing will make its return, it’s apparent the events over the next two weeks are the first phase of a full-on welcome back. After all, using Darlington and Charlotte as de facto bases of operation eliminated events at tracks like Sonoma Raceway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway.

The races will be run sans spectators and there will also be no qualifying (with the exception of the 600-mile Cup race) or practice sessions. Social distancing protocols will continue to be maintained. Hamlin, in fact, joked that the required six-feet of separation may be perfect for aggressive racing, as the heated confrontations seen after on-track get-togethers may have to be put on hold until the health situation is further under control.

“If there’s ever a time to be aggressive, probably ruffle some feathers, this is probably the time to do it,” Hamlin said with a laugh. “You don’t have to face consequences right after the race.”

Jokes aside, Hamlin’s confidence was a common theme of his call.

Directly declaring that “we’re going to be able to do this and it should be pretty effective”, Hamlin stated that NASCAR is a bit of advantage due to its status as a non-contact sport…at least in terms of bodies and not sheet metal.

“I’m pretty certain that no matter what, we’re in an advantage because we’re a non‑contact sport, especially with the players themselves,” he said. “I’m confident that we can go from our street car that we drive to the racetrack, into our racecar, not be within six feet of anyone, except for the person that is on the window net.”

Hamlin currently sits 11th in the Cup Series standings with 32 races remaining on the 36-event docket. He’s more or less guaranteed a spot in this fall’s postseason thanks to a win in February’s Daytona 500. Kevin Harvick is the current leader by a single tally over Joey Logano.

The virtual proceedings gave Hamlin a bit of momentum going into the resumption. Saturday’s victory allowed Hamlin to sandwich the Pro Invitational Series with a pair of victories, having also won the opening event at Homestead-Miami Speedway’s recreation back in March.

It should be perhaps no surprise that Hamlin was one of the more successful drivers during the simulations. He had made over 160 starts and had won 30 prior races before iRacing went mainstream.

Virtual races allowed NASCAR to maintain an audience on the networks of Fox Sports during the shutdown of sports. The Food City Showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 5, for example, drew 1.3 million viewers. With team budgets rendered meaningless on iRacing, several new faces breached the top of the leaderboard. For example, Timmy Hill was the de facto “winner” of the Pro Invitational Series, determined to have been leading the points standings had they been kept. Hill is the driver of the No. 66 Toyota for the underfunded MBM Motorsports and has over 1,600 iRacing events under his belt. He finished in the top three (including a runner-up finish at North Wilkesboro) in all but one race.

iRacing also briefly brought some legends of the circuit of retirement. Four-time Cup Series champion and current Fox commentator Jeff Gordon ran the Talladega and North Wilkesboro events, while 2000 Cup champ Bobby Labonte worked as Hamlin’s teammate in a return to Joe Gibbs Racing. Other popular competitors included Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle. North Wilkesboro itself was another blast from the past, given a virtual resurgence after hosting its last NASCAR in 1996.

Hamlin believes the competition during the pixelated races will only up the excitement factor on the track.

“Throughout the entire week, guys are running hundreds and hundreds of laps at these tracks to get better because they want to put on a good showing, they want to be competitive. That’s what drives us to be the racecar drivers that we are in real life, is the fire to want to be better.”

“You have to use the same techniques that make you good in iRacing that make you good in real life. It’s not like playing Madden or NBA 2K where you’re using your hand‑eye coordination pushing the buttons. You’re using the gas, brakes, running two at the same time, steering wheel. Everything is the same.”

“I take pride in that. Hey, if everything is equal, I’ve won a couple of times, I feel pretty good about where I’m at as a driver. Certainly, I think there’s some confidence that will spill over for a few weeks.”

The real track will look a bit different once we get back underway. Returning to the track will be Ryan Newman, who restarts in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford. Newman was involved in a scary wreck at the end of the aforementioned Daytona 500 but walked away with relatively minor injuries.

Also due for a return is 2003 Cup Series victor Matt Kenseth, but his return comes under less pleasant circumstances. Kenseth will take over Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet after its regular driver, Kyle Larson, was caught using a racial slur during an iRacing streaming event.

Hamlin, a close friend of Larson’s, condemned his comments while mentioning there could be a spot for his return in the future.

“Obviously he put himself in a really bad spot saying something that was totally inappropriate. But, you know, people make mistakes. A lot of people make mistakes. Hopefully, he’s back in Cup racing sooner than later,” he said. “I think if he wants to come back, there is a path for him back. He’s been doing all the right things as far as what I’ve heard.”

But the focus is now on the present, where Hamlin will look to chase down an elusive Cup Series title. He has finished in the top four of the final standings in four separate years, including a fourth-place finish last year.

The championship can wait for now. He’s only looking forward to the first laps at Darlington, as a green flag will signal not only the start of the race, but a potential step forward for a reeling nation looking for any semblance of good news.

“I trust my crew chief and team with Joe Gibbs Racing, we have enough smart people that we feel like this is a place where we can get an advantage,” he said. “Everyone thinks that, with all organizations. Hey, I trust my guys, and I like the unknowns.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags