NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals wild Talladega finish in overtime

Brad Keselowski took home a wild overtime finish in the NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega Superspeedway, his sixth win at the track.

Working overtime on Sunday paid off for Brad Keselowski.

The No. 2 Team Penske Ford stole a wild finish at Talladega Superspeedway’s GEICO 500, passing Matt DiBenedetto on the final lap to earn his 35th victory in the NASCAR Cup Series. Sunday’s race was extended for a two-lap overtime shootout after debris from Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota brought out a yellow flag. William Byron beat out Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell for the runner-up spot, while Kevin Harvick and DiBenedetto rounded out the top five.

Keselowski has now earned at least one win in 11 consecutive Cup Series seasons, one of only 16 drivers to hit that mark at the premier level. He also has six wins at Talladega, leading all active drivers and tied for second-most all-time with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. Jr. The all-time record is held by Dale Earnhardt Sr. with 10.

“I grew up loving the sport, still love the sport. We fight like husband and wife, but I still love the sport…It’s a hard sport. Any success you have means the world. To have my name on any list…that’s a pretty big deal,” Keselowski said after the win. “Dale’s record is so far out there. Yeah, I have a shot at it, but it’s a distant shot. You have to get to seven before you even think about ten. But it’s still cool to be on the same list as him.”

Sunday offered a bit of redemption for Keselowski after a heartbreak end to the season-opening Daytona 500, another prestigious superspeedway event. Late contact with teammate Joey Logano led to a race-ending wreck that allowed McDowell to sneak away with a victory.

The path to the final lap, the only lap Keselowski led on Sunday, was paved with typical fireworks usually associated with Talladega. Drivers were able to avoid creating “The Big One”, but the end of the first stage was marred by a big wreck that ended with Logano’s No. 22 Ford getting airborne while fighting for the lead. Logano was unharmed but called for changes to the racing package after landing on his roof. He compared the devastating airborne crash Ryan Newman suffered at the end of last season’s opener at Daytona. 

“I’m wondering when we’re going to stop because this is dangerous doing what we’re doing,” Logano said after the wreck. “I got a roll bar in my head. That’s not okay. I’m one hit away from the same situation Ryan Newman just went through. I just don’t feel like that is acceptable. A lot of it is the big spoiler and the big runs and all the pushing. It’s nobody’s fault…It’s a product of this racing. We have to fix it though.”

DiBenedetto ended up winning the first 60-lap stage and remained at or near the front with Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford took the lead from Erik Jones on lap 177 of 188 on a restart after Quin Houff hit the wall and brought out a caution. He held the lead with assistance from Ford teammates Keselowski and Blaney (whose Penske team also works with WBR through a technical alliance) but the field was pushed back together when Truex lost a tire, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.

The No. 21 led the penultimate lap, but Keselowski got a strong push from the Ford of McDowell to earn the win. As the field wrecked behind them, Keselowski took home his first win of the season, becoming the ninth victorious driver in ten races.

“I saw he was getting a run and I just prayed I got to the start/finish line before it was too late,” Keselowski said of McDowell’s final push in the end. “Matt went to block (Blaney) and I just barely got inside of him with a huge run.  I got a great push from Michael McDowell, which was really helpful and appreciated, so just a big day.”

As for DiBenedetto, he’s left with yet another moral victory. Having developed himself as a fan favorite after picking up respectable finishes in subpar equipment, DiBenedetto is still searching for his first Cup Series win after 222 career starts. He’s in a lame-duck situation in the No. 21, which is set to welcome in Penske’s defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric next season.

But DiBenedetto is instead opting to focus on the positives gleaned from Sunday’s events. After a brutal start to the season (sitting 34th in the standings after the third event of the season at Homestead-Miami), the No. 21 Ford has earned seven straight top 20 finishes and has failed to complete only one lap. He’s currently the first driver out of the current playoff bracket, 12 points behind current co-holders Chris Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. DiBenedetto’s stage win was his first in a points race, previously winning the last one in last summer’s All-Star Open to go to the main exhibition event.

“It was a solid day. We’ll take a top five and had a stage win, so that’s great,” he said. The car was really fast. All the Fords were super good. That was awesome. Our car led great. Ryan really pushed. Our Penske teammates did an excellent job helping us get that stage win, so that was huge. Big credit to them and big for our points situation, so just tough ending.  I jumped up in front of Ryan and he kind of got spit out and hung out and some people were grabbing his quarter panel and such.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway for the Buschy McBusch Race 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has earned top ten finishes in each of the last eight events.

 

  • Bubba Wallace earned a win in the second 60-lap stage, his first career stage win in a points race (previously winning one in the 2019 All-Star Open). Wallace brought home the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota home 19th, and is 33 points away from a playoff spot.

 

  • Stage two likewise ended in chaos, as Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott sustained heavy damage. Byron was likewise involved by recovered to finish in second.

 

  • Kaz Grala, making his third Cup Series start, finished sixth. Grala, driving the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, has earned two top ten finishes in his first three starts. It was a victorious weekend for Kaulig Racing, which owns two top ten finishes in three Cup starts this season (the other earned by AJ Allmendinger at the Daytona road course). Kaulig’s No. 10 Chevrolet won the rain-shortened Xfinity race on Sunday, as Jeb Burton earned his first career win on the circuit. Burton is the son of 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward.

 

  • Jeb’s cousin Harrison, son of former driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff, made his first Cup Series start, finishing 20th in the No. 96 Gaunt Bros. Racing Toyota. Harrison currently drives the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs on the Xfinity level, winning four races last season.

 

  • Kyle Larson completed only three laps in Sunday’s event, released to a last-place finish due to engine woes.

 

  • Rookies Chase Briscoe (11th) and Anthony Alfredo (12th) earned their best career finishes

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400

After a fun clash at Martinsville, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the other side of Virginia for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. Sunday’s event consists of 400 laps around the 0.75-mile circuit, evening out to be a 300-mile race. Here are three drivers to watch in the 9th race of the season.

Martin Truex Jr. (+350)

Fresh off a win at Martinsville, Martin Truex Jr. is one of the biggest names to look out for on Sunday. Sitting second in points, he’s the only Cup Series driver to have won multiple events this season.

At Richmond, Truex Jr. only has two career wins, but both of them came within the last three races there. He has 6 top-5s and 12 top-10s at Richmond with an average finish of 17th. Truex Jr. rolls off on the poll, so expect him to contend for the victory.

Kyle Busch (+800)

Richmond has always been one of Kyle Busch’s top tracks over his storied career. With six wins and an average finish of 7th, running up front isn’t anything new for him there.

Coming into this weekend’s race, Busch is looking to secure his first win of the 2021 season. After just one win last season, Busch is looking to put an end to his cold spell and silence the haters with a victory under new crew chief Ben Beshore.

Brad Keselowski (+400)

Brad Keselowski has had a lot of success at Richmond over his career, especially of late. He won last fall’s event and has placed in the top-10 in seven of the last eight races at Richmond. Keselowski’s average finish 12th with 12 top-10 finishes.

Similar to Busch, Keselowski is looking to secure his first victory of the 2021 season. He hasn’t finished within the top-10 since Phoenix, however, he’s currently ninth in points. Expect Keselowski to run up front on Sunday.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

The NASCAR Cup Series heads Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Sunday’s race is one of the longest events of the season: 325 laps and 500 miles. Tire ware will be key, as Atlanta’s old surface wears tires down significantly after just a few laps. Here are three drivers to watch:

Kevin Harvick

Atlanta Motor Speedway has always been one of Kevin Harvick’s best tracks. His first career victory came there in 2001 and he’s won two of the last four events at the track. Harvick’s finished in the top-10 in half of his races at Atlanta (15 of 30), and he has an average finish of 15.8.

Through five races this season, Harvick’s primarily ran up front with four top-5s but has yet to secure a checkered flag. Expect Harvick to contend on Sunday.

Brad Keselowski

Similarly to Harvick, Brad Keselowski has won two of the last four Cup Series events at Atlanta. He’s finished in the top-10 in 8 of 12 races at the track with an average finish of 14.6. Keselowski hasn’t finished outside of the top-10 at Atlanta since the 2014 fall race.

Keselowski has already picked up three top-5s this season, including a fourth place effort last weekend in Phoenix. He has yet to win this season, so expect Keselowski to be there at the end.

Matt DiBenedetto

Through five races, Matt DiBenedetto has had a lot of trouble putting things together in 2021. After three races finishing 28th or worse to start the season, DiBenedetto has picked up a pair of top-20s to advance into the top-30 of the standings.

Atlanta has by no means been DiBenedetto’s best track over his career, as he’s failed to place better than 25th in five races. However, with pressure mounting on him, expect DiBenedetto to finally piece together a good run and get back into points contention.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Team Penske

Team Penske accounted for half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ final four title contenders, but they feel they can do better.

2021 Team Penske Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Brad Keselowski 2 Jeremy Bullins Discount Tire/AutoTrader
Ryan Blaney 12 Todd Gordon Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Joey Logano 22 Paul Wolfe Shell/Pennzoil
Austin Cindric (part-time) 33 Brian Wilson Verizon

History

Well regarded for his endeavors at both the NASCAR and open-wheel levels, Roger Penske’s first trek into the former came in 1972. After moderate success with Bobby Allison throughout the 1970s (four wins and a pair of fourth-place finishes), Penske left the sport after the 1980 season but returned 11 years later to enjoy prosperity through the “Blue Deuce”. Back by sponsorship from Miller Lite and the talents of 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, the No. 2 Ford won 36 races between 1991 and 2001. During that time, Penske opened a second car, the No. 12, driven by Jeremy Mayfield (1998-2001) and later Ryan Newman (2002-08). A third car began racing in 2004, becoming the No. 22 seven years later.

Wallace retired after the 2005 season, leaving the No. 2 to fellow Cup champion Kurt Busch. Former Hendrick Motorsports protege Brad Keselowski ventured over to the No. 2 in 2011 and brought home the organization’s first Cup championship the year after. Another transfer, Joey Logano from Joe Gibbs Racing, brought the title back to Penske six years later in the No. 22.

2020 in Review

One of the most-discussed transactions in NASCAR last season was the great crew chief swap at Team Penske, Jeremy Bullins, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe all moving to different pit boxes. All things considered, the gambit paid off, especially in a season where on-track activities were mostly limited to the race itself.

Logano won two of the first four races of the 2020 season at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the coronavirus-induced pause put things on hold. Once things rebooted, it took a while for Logano to regain his form, but Ryan Blaney took the June race at Talladega while Keselowski won at Charlotte, Bristol, and New Hampshire, allowing all three Penske cars entry into the playoffs.

While Blaney was eliminated after the first round, Keselowski won a playoff race at Richmond and finished no worse than sixth in the three-race semifinal. Logano regained his championship and advanced to title contention at Phoenix with a win at Kansas (also winning that venue’s summer event). The No. 22 would lead all but two of the first 119 laps at the finale, but the Penske duo proved to be no match for champion Chase Elliott. Keselowski was the runner-up while Logano came home third.

Meet the Drivers

Brad Keselowski

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 34 (last: Richmond, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 2nd
Best standings finish: 2012 champion

Keselowski has quietly amassed quite the ledger since the 2016 season. He has won at least three races in each of the five seasons and has been in contention for the championship twice in that span. True to form in terms of showing up when it “matters”, Keselowski noted to the media this week that, after winning the 600-mile event in Charlotte last year, he has victories in each of NASCAR’s supposed “crown jewel” races…with the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500. The others are considered to be at Charlotte, Darlington, Indianapolis, and Talladega.

“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all, which is really cool and special for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me personally, so that’s definitely on the list is trying to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked, but I think the team is pretty good and really happy with a lot of people I’m working with. Jeremy has got an incredible attitude that is really healthy for our team and it was a really fresh, new challenge for me personally last year. I still have hunger and eagerness to achieve more results and that opportunity is coming up real quick here in the next few weeks, so nothing is taken for granted. Everything has to be earned.”

Keselowski’s fate was one of the most talked-about rumors in NASCAR last season, as many felt he was destined to return to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson was set to leave behind. But Keselowski re-upped with Penske for at least another year and there’s little to suggest that the relationship has deteriorated. Keselowski was particularly enthused by his relationship with Logano, as the two have collaborated in each of the last nine seasons.

“He immediately made me a better driver with a number of weaknesses I had,” Keselowski said of Logano. “I don’t think I was a very good qualifier. The things I was doing on the plate tracks some were good and some were bad, and he taught me a few good habits. He definitely made me up my game on restarts, so overall I think he’s made me better and I would hope that he would feel the same way that I challenged him to be better in other ways. So, I think that’s ultimately what would be your goal, is that you would have two teammates that make each other better.”

Ryan Blaney

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 4 (last: summer Talladega, 2020)
2020 finish: 9th
Best standings finish: 7th (2019)

It’s hard to complain about Blaney’s Cup Series career. The son of sprint car legend Dave, Blaney’s first win ended Wood Brothers Racing’s 16-year winless drought at non-superspeedway tracks. Last season, his win allowed him to become the first driver to win consecutive races at Talladega since Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 set (also becoming the first Ford representative to pull it off since Buddy Baker in 1975). He led a career-best 668 laps last season, good for seventh in the Cup Series and just ahead of defending champion Kyle Busch. But Blaney struggled throughout the summer, earning only a single top five finish in the 13 races after Talladega. Those struggles followed him into the postseason, and he was a surprise first-round elimination. Blaney did manage to close things on a strong note, earning top tens in all but one of the last seven races (including a runner-up at the penultimate race at Martinsville).

Blaney knows that it’s time to show more, especially if he wants to solidify his status as one of the faces of NASCAR.

“I’m 27. It’s time to get rolling here and winning multiple races throughout the season and try to make it to the (final four),” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done yet, so it’s definitely time to step up and I think we have all the right tools in place to do so, it’s just about applying all of them and really capitalizing on moments. Great athletes and great players, they capitalize on big moments. That’s just what we have to put in our heads and put in our minds.”

Joey Logano

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 26 (last: fall Kansas, 2020)
2020 finish: 3rd
Best standings finish: 2018 Champion

It feels like only yesterday that Logano entered the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread”. The Middletown, Connecticut native has more or less lived up to the hype behind such a name, winning the 2018 title and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three seasons.

Logano is ready to race “anything” as he goes into his 12th season on the full-time circuit. The biggest change in his repertoire has been his on-track confidence, which he spoke about in detail earlier this week. He’s also thankful for the tough times that have gotten him to this point in his career.

“As a younger driver or someone coming in, I went through (tough times) where I got my butt kicked and came in very confident thinking I was gonna be the man and then quickly realized I was not even the boy,” he said. “I was in trouble and being able to kind of overcome that has really helped me a lot now. I’m glad I’ve gone through that. Those are the experiences that I absolutely love that I had because it’s made me into who I am today, but in the moment it’s hard. It’s not fun, but it makes you stronger for sure.”

Austin Cindric (part-time)

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

Penske will field a part-time third car for Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion. Cindric will protect his title in Penske’s No. 22 Ford before joining the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022.

While Cindric’s full schedule is subject to change, he will definitely attempt to reach the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying events on February 11, three days before the engines fire for the main event. Cindric won’t be the only talented name fighting for a spot. He’ll be joined by fellow Xfinity finalist Noah Gragson and former Truck Series runner-up Ty Dillon, all while preparing for the 300-mile Xfinity opener on the same weekend.

“I think you always as a race car driver, whether you have a good year, a bad year, or the best year, you have to continue to better yourself whatever that level is because everyone else around you is gonna keep stepping that up,” Cindric said of his 2021 goals. “I have some great opportunities to run some Cup races and get a taste for what it means to race against the best, because ultimately that’s what I want to be one day, is to race against the best and the best of the best.”

Outlook

Keselowski and Logano will be constant contenders in 2021 and no one would be surprised if they reprised their roles in the final four. The real wild card is going to be Blaney, and if he can take the next step in his development. Winning multiple races, preferably prior to the playoffs, would be a great display of power, and there are high hopes he can do it relatively early. Blaney was the runner-up in last season’s Daytona 500 and placed third at Homestead-Miami, the site of the third event of the year.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Eight Cup Series events will feature practice/qualifying in 2021

Eight events on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series docket will feature practice and qualifying, including the season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR confirmed on Friday that at least eight events at the Cup Series level will feature practice and qualifying.

These pre-race activities were previously eliminated last season to consolidate race weekends into a single-day after NASCAR became the first American sports league to make its return to action amidst the ongoing health crisis. Only one race since the return, the 600-mile event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend, held qualifying to determine its race’s starting lineup, opting for mathematical formulas, random draws, or reversing the order of the top 20 in the previous race in all other cases.

The venues to hold practice and qualifying are mostly tracks that are new to the Cup Series circuit this year, including Circuit of the Americas (scheduled for May 23), Nashville Superspeedway (June 20), Road America (July 4), and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course (August 15). Last season saw one new track added to the circuit without practice or qualifying, the road course at Daytona in August. The race was held without a major incident, with future Cup Series champion Chase Elliott taking home the win.

Practice and qualifying will also be held at high-profile events like the season-opening Daytona 500 (February 14), the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (May 30), and the championship finale at Phoenix Raceway (November 7). There will also be pre-race stagings at the spring event at Bristol Motor Speedway (March 28) which will be run on dirt for the first time.

Several drivers noted their comfort with the lack of qualifying and practice during the season, either through its practicality or convenience.

“We’ve been so good with it the rest of the season that it’s become the new normal, and I’m cool with that. I’m just ready to go,” Brad Keselowski, one of the final four drivers up for the 2020 Cup Series title, said in November. “It feels so old school to me.  It feels like when we just started racing and you would just show up at your local short track Saturday at lunchtime and there would be a race at 5:00 or 7:00 at night or heat race and then a feature race and that was it, and then you loaded up and you were home by 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. It’s so much like that now.”

“I love everything that we’re doing right now,” Kevin Harvick added in August after a win at Michigan. “The shorter schedules, I think it mixes it up. I think it makes it exciting.”

Times and dates will these qualifying/practice sessions will be announced further down the line, as will the plans for any pre-race activities for NASCAR Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series events.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Championship Preview with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard

Kevin Harvick

As the cup series prepares to say goodbye to a legend and crown a champion this weekend, ESM’s NASCAR experts are here to break it all down and make their championship picks.

Turn 1: Kevin Harvick had been arguably the most dominant driver this season with 9 wins and a regular-season championship. Does him missing the final four say more about a poor stretch of performances in the round of eight or that the playoff format is flawed?

Nathan Solomon: More than anything, it just has to do with two poor performances. Harvick finished second in Kansas and put himself in good position to advance. However, in the round of eight, you can’t finish outside of the top-15 twice and expect to advance to the championship. The new playoff format was designed to give it a similar feel to a baseball or basketball playoff series. In the MLB, if you have a bad series, you won’t advance. A team with 110 wins won’t make it to the World Series if they don’t perform in the series before. That was the case for Harvick in the round of eight, and he, unfortunately, won’t see himself racing for a championship.

Dylan Price: This is a tough question to analyze for me. I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to this dilemma. With 9 wins, Harvick was dominant for the entirety of the regular season, but he was unable to perform up to the level needed in the round of eight in order to make the final four. See, my issue with Harvick being eliminated is that NASCAR is different than other playoffs like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. Yes, the destinations change each week for the playoffs, barring home-field advantage, but with NASCAR, when you go from track to track, it fundamentally changes your racing style.

I would contribute his elimination to his own rut but would say there could be a case made that the drivers like Harvick, who are in this case the #1 seed, should get more of an advantage because playoff points don’t do enough to reward drivers with 9 wins that much more than those with 2 or 3. Still, Harvick, just like high seeded teams that get beat by lower-seeded teams, did not perform up to the level needed to race for a title this weekend, and that is more about his performance over the last 3 weeks than anything else.

Geoff Magliocchetti: If anything, the NASCAR playoffs are a necessary evil, and there may be little malice in the first place. NASCAR needs to find a way to be different, unique, and competitive in the realm of a busy time on the American sports calendar, and the playoffs are the way to do that. To make a long story short, there’s never going to be a system that satisfies each and every fan. No playoffs leaves the threat of a meaningless season finale (as it was in four of the final five playoff-free seasons). Harvick is far from the first dominant driver to be bamboozled by a playoff system. Current contender Brad Keselowski spoke of the 2014 season when his No. 2 won 6 races but failed to earn the championship invite.

Some changes could probably be made…inviting 16 drivers is a tad much…but the case of Harvick (and Austin Hill in the Truck Series, for that matter) is not a make or break factor. The common complaints that the regular-season champion has no immunity to Phoenix only serve as contradictions. Fans who complain that the playoffs are too gimmick-field or manufactured want a way to manufacture a way for the regular-season champ to make it. The beautiful thing about playoff sports is that they’re unpredictable. Even the undefeated Patriots had to work their way to the Super Bowl…one they lost. Changes can be made, but the playoffs should be here to stay.

Turn 2: This Sunday will be the last time that one of the faces of the sport will race in Jimmie Johnson. With the legacy Johnson has left as a 7-time champion, where does he rank amongst the all-time greats of the sport?

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson may go down as the greatest NASCAR racer of all time. If he isn’t the greatest of all-time, he will certainly be in the top five. Regardless of the playoff/chase format, he’s won seven championships, and some people don’t realize how hard that is. He’s won at virtually every track and beaten some of the best in multiple generations of drivers. I’m excited to see how he runs in Indy Car, and I would love to see him run a few races in NASCAR here and there. I feel he may be the next driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 doubleheader, and that’d be really cool to watch. Congrats to Jimmie Johnson on a great career.

Dylan Price: I consider myself lucky to have witnessed Jimmie Johnson and his dominance in my lifetime. I was not alive to witness the greatness of guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but one thing is for certain about Jimmie Johnson, he had the IT factor. They say there is a certain aura around the great ones, and I think that was always felt with Johnson. Now, where does he rank amongst the greats is a separate question. I firmly believe that Johnson is one of the best drivers to grace the series, but is he THE best. I think Johnson is up there with Earnhardt and Petty on the Mount Rushmore of the greats of the sport. That fourth spot is firmly up for debate, but I think that the aura around Johnson is still there even though he has not performed at the highest level in the past years and will be for a long time. Congratulations 7-time, you had an incredible career, and I am excited to see what you do in your next endeavors!

Geoff Magliocchetti: Johnson will go down as a clutch performer and the driver of the playoff era. It hurts to see his last dance end like this…with all due respect to Ally Bank, they’re looking like the Wizards Jordan equivalent of NASCAR…but one can’t forget the sheer dominance we saw from Johnson’s No. 48 week in and week out during his prime. Time will tell if Johnson can ever solidify his face on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, but his accomplishments should not be forgotten. Congrats on a great career, Jimmie, and best wishes to you and your family.

Turn 3: Well, with exits comes the entrances of new drivers and lineup shakeups. So, which driver in a new ride will see the biggest improvement/make the biggest impact next season?

Nathan Solomon: I think it’ll be rookie Chase Briscoe making a big impact in 2021. He’s been insanely dominant in the Xfinity Series this year, winning nine times and the championship favorite this weekend. He’ll be going into a great ride where he’ll have everything he needs to win races right away. I feel that Briscoe will make the playoffs in his first season, pick up a few wins, and even make it as far as the round of eight. He’s incredibly skilled and knows how to win on every type of racetrack. Expect a big rookie season out of Chase Briscoe in 2021.

Dylan Price: Unlike other analysts, I am excited for a returnee in a new place. I do believe Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell are going to excel in their new homes, but I am watching for Kyle Larson. People forget, but before Larson was suspended for his egregious comments, he was a budding face of the sport. Larson was in a mid-level situation with Chip Ganassi racing, and I firmly believe with the resources Hendrick Motorsports can provide that Larson will take the #5 machine to a virtual residency in the playoffs and likely to a few trips in victory lane in the coming years.

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve seen some big moves this Silly Season, but I’m the most intrigued by Ross Chastain moving to the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet. Chastain has never been granted the best equipment but has gone on to have a lucrative career on NASCAR’s lower levels. He’s a driver that earned his keep through on-track endeavors. Frankly, the move to such a big-name Cup ride is well overdue, with Chastain mostly working in low-budget machines. We’ve seen him stick around at places like Daytona and Talladega and run respectably in his lower-tier equipment. With the resources of CGR, Chastain should truly take off.
Turn 4: Lastly, we are down to the final four drivers to decide the championship this Sunday in Phoenix. With Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliot battling for the title, who comes out on top?
Nathan Solomon: I’m going to go with Joey Logano winning his second title in three seasons. He won Phoenix in the spring before the coronavirus outbreak and is coming off a win in the round of eight. Two of his championship competitors, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, haven’t won at Phoenix before, although Denny Hamlin has. However, Hamlin is coming off a rough round of eight, and I just don’t see him turning it around. My prediction is that Kevin Harvick will win the race being that he’s been historically dominant at Phoenix, and Joey Logano will take the title, finishing second. 
Dylan Price: I am a big believer in momentum. Momentum can play more of an impact then things like experience at times, and I think that will show on Sunday. See, where Logano, Keselowski, and Hamlin have experience either winning the big race or being in it for all the marbles, Chase Elliot is the newcomer of the bunch. With 4 wins this year, Elliot has been one of the most consistent racers this year, and I firmly believe he will ride the wave of momentum he had from last Sunday to a championship.
Geoff Magliocchetti: Denny Hamlin gets his first title on Sunday.
King Kevin is gone, and in his wake, the successor is none other than Hamlin. This season has had a bit of an “If not now, when?” feel over in the No. 11 stables. Hamlin has never let off-track issues bother him, but he does appear to be a bit tired of the…well, tired…questions over whether this season is a disappointment without the title at the end. Hamlin has won nearly everything there is to win on a NASCAR Cup Series level, except the titular award at the end. That changes on Sunday in the desert.

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Brad Keselowski

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion is pulling out all the stops when it comes to earning an elusive second title.

Every working American knows what it’s like to crack open a celebratory cold one after a long, successful day at work. The suds may taste even sweeter when the beermaker more or less pays you to be seen representing their product.

Brad Keselowski perhaps provided the ultimate example of the after-hours refreshment back in 2012. It was Keselowski’s second season in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, which has joined consistent sponsorship from the Miller Brewing Company, primarily its Miller Lite beverage, for decades. Shortly after a 15th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway allowed him to clinch what was then the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, Keselowski emerged from the machine often referred to as the “Blue Deuce” and was immediately poured a great tasting, less filling Miller Lite in a tall, branded glass. The jubilant Keselowski quickly downed his beverage minutes before an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter and continued to drink while speaking to anchor Kevin Connors, admitting right from the start that he “had a little buzz”.

Keselowski has come close to a second title in the years since. Since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014, the No. 2 has twice been amongst the four drivers eligible for a championship at the season finale, including his third-place posting last season. A second championship, however, has proved elusive. The team is back in 2020’s contending quartet, who will fight for the Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway for the first time in the track’s history on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). To make sure there’s another frosty brew awaiting him at the end, the Keselowski family is taking matters into their own hands.

Speaking to reporters in the leadup to the Season Finale 500, Keselowski mentioned that he’s packing light for Phoenix, especially in the age of an ongoing health crisis. But with families invited to partake in the championship finale, Keselowski’s wife Paige is bringing over a special memento: the glass.

Keselowski is eager to leave the past in the past, but mentioned that Paige found the supposed Holy Grail in their home. But the glass sipped from on a South Beach evening that there was still beer leftover in it…beer older than his daughters Scarlett and Autumn combined.

“My wife has told me that she will prepare the glass as long as I promise to drink responsibly,” Keselowski said with a smile. “Those people that know me know that I like to leave things as they were, meaning that we located the glass from 2012. It still had beer in it a little bit on the bottom. Needless to say, that was not a pleasant sight, but it was authentic, so my wife is cleaning it as we speak, she’s going to wrap it up, put it in a nice bubble-wrapped box, and hopefully we’ll be getting it out Sunday night.”

Keselowski comes to the desert with momentum on his side. His playoff slate got off to a strong start with a win at Richmond in the second race of the postseason decalogue, a win that earned him automatic entry to the second round. Four consecutive finishes outside the top ten followed, placing him in a precarious position, though he did manage to reach the Round of 8 semifinals.

After finishing fourth at Kansas and sixth at Texas, Keselowski held a healthy 25-point lead over the cutoff at the onset of the Martinsville event to close things out. But with win-or-go-home contender Chase Elliott dominating the affair, Keselowski got caught up in a three-way battle for two spots…his adversaries being Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, the faces of 2020 with a combined 16 wins over the first 34 races.

Keselowski earned four wins, the driver immediately behind Hamlin and Harvick in that stat category. Yet their dominance overshadowed what was an impressive season, even by former Cup champion standards. His four wins and 23 top-ten finishes were his best since 2016, a season marred by a brutal showing in the Round of 12. In that season, Keselowski was a mainstay in the front row of the series standings, but a crash at Kansas and engine woes at Talladega doomed his title case. Two years prior, Keselowski had won a circuit-best six races but a gear problem at the first semifinal race..then held at Martinsville…doomed him from the start.

Playoff demons threatened to rise again at the Virginia-based short track last week. With less than 100 laps remaining, Keselowski had to go to the rear of the field when he was caught speeding off pit road. But he managed to work his way past both Hamlin and Harvick to earn a fourth-place finish, one that left him a handful of points ahead of the eliminated Harvick.

Keselowski knew about the heartbreak of playoff defeat and even said he felt sympathy for the eliminated Harvick. But he was proud of the way his team rallied to clinch a final spot, a team effort headlined by the help first-year crew chief Jeremy Bullins. This union was established by a game of Silly Season musical chairs, one that saw Bullins make his way over from his Penski neighbors at the No. 12 stall of Ryan Blaney. Keselowski and Bullins previously united for 46 races on the Nationwide/Xfinity Series circuit, winning 14 of them.

“I think probably the biggest thing I took out of the last round was from Martinsville itself,” Keselowski said in Round of 8 reflection. “I tried my best to treat Martinsville as though it was Phoenix. In that sense, it was a cutoff race, points were really close. I think I was only a few points behind Denny Hamlin, and I knew if I beat Denny Hamlin in points I would be okay to move on to next week, which was ultimately going to come down to stage points and the finish where this week is just the finish. Ultimately I treated the race weekend as though I was in Phoenix competing for the championship.”

“It felt a little bit like a dress rehearsal, and certainly learned a few things about me. I learned probably be careful on pit road towards the end of the race and don’t let your aggressiveness get to you, and beyond that, the resiliency that this team has to keep pushing when it counts.”

Keselowski certainly knows a thing or two about performing in big moments. His first Cup Series win came when he was driving a low-budget car for now-defunct Phoenix Racing in 2009, a year before he dominated the following year’s NASCAR Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series circuit, beating out established Cup star Carl Edwards by over 400 points for the victory. It’s part of a mental resiliency that Keselowski acknowledges is a major part of the championship formula.

“A large part of being a race car driver is mental. It’s the approach, the preparation, it’s the resiliency,” he said. “Those are mental things that manifest themselves into physical results. It’s hard for me to comment on any other driver’s preparation. I’ve got enough to prepare myself, let alone to critique against anyone else’s preparation, but I know that I feel good about it.”

Despite these championship traits, it feels like Keselowski continues to slip under the radar, the finale conversations dominated by contending companions Elliott (two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award), Hamlin (seeking his first title in 16 seasons), and his Penske teammate Joey Logano (a fellow former champion with a penchant for aggressive driving). It’s given him a slight underdog status he could potentially capitalize on.

Keselowski, however, defies the trope of bulletin board material, seeking to race only for competition and championship purposes…not because someone was doubting him, or because there’s an ice-cold, extra-large beer waiting for him in victory lane.

“I don’t really need external motivation, to be honest, and I really don’t feed off of it. I enjoy it when people have confidence in me. Certainly, that’s a pleasurable thing to experience, but it’s not motivating to me. What’s motivating to me is usually, like I said, looking at my family’s faces and knowing how excited they are to get to go to Phoenix, and that’s motivating to me. My team and seeing them work so hard and knowing that their heart is in a great place, that’s motivating to me. I think that’s probably where I take the motivation from.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski takes time to reflect amidst another title run

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion reflected on the past while veering toward a fast present and future leading into Sunday’s Kansas event.

Not long ago, Brad Keselowski was NASCAR’s prodigy, leaving the racing world waiting with bated breath to see his next move. Keselowski earned his first win at the premier Cup Series level in just his third start…more than a full calendar year before he took home the NASCAR Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series title. When the legendary Cup garages at Hendrick Motorsports provided no vacancy, Keselowski moved to another beacon of motorsports royalty in Team Penske. After his rookie season, Keselowski took over team owner Roger Penske’s famed No. 2 Ford (a car previously piloted solely by past champions Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch) and drove it to a title in 2012, his third full season of racing. Three years later, he made his feature film debut, uttering the outlandish subtitle of Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!. 

Now, it’s Keselowski who’s being sought after for advice to the younger drivers in the Penske stables…and not for acting advice.

Keselowski’s ongoing run for a second title comes at a busy time in his team’s stables. Through its technical partnership with Wood Brothers Racing, the team’s Xfinity Series driver, Austin Cindric, is set to make his full-time Cup Series debut in the Woods’ famed No. 21 Ford. Some have seen Cindric as the ultimate successor to Keselowski in the No. 2. He and the No. 22 Penske Xfinity team are in the midst of battling for that title after five wins this season.

“When I was in his spot in the sport there was a part of me that thought this was gonna last forever. It doesn’t,” Keselowski said of the best piece of advice he’d off Cindric. “The biggest advice I can give anyone like him is to soak it up. It’s probably the one and only time in your life that you’ll have a chance to run for your first NASCAR championship and it’s a unique feeling, it’s a special feeling.

“It’s a little bit like going to the Senior Prom. You only get one shot at a first championship or at least your first effort at it, and there are some things that probably aren’t gonna go your way and hopefully, there are some things that do, but you only get to do it once, so enjoy the ride. As far as the technical stuff, he’s got that. He doesn’t need any help from me.”

Keselowski was speaking earlier this week in the lead-up to Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Keselowski is one of eight drivers left in championship contention, sitting in third place as the Cup Series playoffs kick off its final elimination round. Four drivers will be eligible for the championship finale in Phoenix on November 8. A win over the next three races clinches a spot at the championship table for Phoenix, though Keselowski is currently 13 points ahead of teammate and Sharknado co-star Joey Logano in terms of making it on points.

But Keselowski isn’t concerned about points, at this rate. It’s hard to believe, but 2020 marks the 36-year-old’s ninth playoff trek, having reached the playoffs in all but two of his full-time seasons. With that experience and a title under his belt, he knows what it takes to survive in NASCAR’s postseason era.

Keselowski looked at his 13-point advantage over Logano only in terms of race day…meaning 13 points could be erased in the first two stages of the race.

“It’s like a two-stage cushion, so if I don’t score any stage points at Kansas, that’s pretty much we use up those 13 points,” he said. “But I know 13 up is better than 13 down, so I’m not complaining.”

Since NASCAR’s playoffs switched to an elimination format in 2014, Keselowski has made it to the championship finale once (when it was held at Homestead-Miami Speedway), doing so via point in 2016. But he knows how important a win can be in the semifinal opener. In two of the last four seasons, the winner of the Round of 8’s opener has gone on to win the championship (Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Logano in 2018).

“I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence,” he said. I think it’s a big advantage to win the first race in this semi-final round of the playoffs, but with respect to that it gives you a lot of time to prepare for the final race and I think that’s never a bad thing. Whether that’s allowing your team to kind of relax a little bit and focus on one car rather than three other cars to build, or engineering.”

Another Keselowski protege, Chase Briscoe, got to experience that phenomenon firsthand on Saturday night. With a dominant win in the Xfinity Series’ Kansas Lottery 300, Briscoe has earned a spot in the lower-tier playoffs’ championship quarter. Briscoe, currently driving No. 98 Ford Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity endeavors, got his NASCAR start at the now-defunct Brad Keselowski Racing.

Through his self-funded race team, Keselowski, whose early career included help from Dale Earnhardt Jr., paid the favor of NASCAR advancement forward through Camping World (now Gander RV & Outdoor) Truck Series seedings. Cindric and Briscoe each earned their start with the team, as did teammate Ryan Blaney. Other notable names to drive Keselowski trucks include Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick.

Keselowski remarked while he’s happy with his current situation, he “would certainly entertain” reopening BKR, potentially as a Cup Series team. The unit suspended operations after the 2017 season. His approach to a race team could well have been foreshadowed in describing his preview of the Round of 8.

“In some ways, it’s less stressful because you feel like you can control more of your own destiny,” Keselowski said of the Round of 8. “You can never control all of it, but more of it. That said, there are some really good teams, really good performers, and the other side I guess if you’re playing Devil’s advocate thinks to himself, ‘Hey, I’m really gonna have to step up and deliver in this round because nothing by chance is gonna work in my favor.’ So the rounds certainly have different feels to them, but I struggle to quantify if they feel easier or harder. I just feel like they all have their own challenges.”

The No. 2 Ford will start eighth on Sunday. Keselowski recently came home in the runner-up spot in the previous race at Kansas this summer, and has earned two wins at the 1.5-mile tri-oval, the most recent coming in last spring’s visit.

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

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