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
Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Austin Cindric (part-time)
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
(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.
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.
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.
The 2020 NASCAR regular season concluded on Saturday night with the exciting Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. Three spots were still up for grabs, with Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto taking two of the spots on points. The third was taken by William Byron, scoring his first career Cup Series victory.
With Bowyer and DiBenedetto now in the playoffs, it will mean that eight fords will have the chance to compete for a championship. All four Stewart-Haas drivers made it, as well as all three Penske teams and the lone Wood Brothers driver in DiBenedetto.
As for Stewart-Haas, Kevin Harvick has ran the show all year. He has seven wins, the most of all Cup Series drivers and has the number one seed in the playoffs. Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have remained winless in 2020, but have ran up-front all year. Almirola has 14 top-10s, while Bowyer has seven. Although not nearly as many great finishes, Bowyer has collected a lot of stage points. For Cole Custer, he’s in because of his win at Kentucky Motor Speedway. He has six top-10s, but would likely not have made it to the playoffs if it wasn’t for the win.
On the Penske side of things, no one driver has really been more dominant than the other. Brad Keselowski has three wins, Joey Logano has two wins, and Ryan Blaney has one. All three drivers have ran up front all year and work together incredibly well together. Each of the three drivers has double-digit top-10s.
And finally, Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers. DiBenedetto has been great in the #21 car this year, and the alliance with Penske has paid off. He has seven top-10s and has scored a lot of stage points. The only concerning thing for him is that he has just two top-10s in the last nine points-paying races.
Ford has been the dominant manufacturer all year, and it shows as eight if its drivers will be competing for a championship. Will their dominance continue during the playoffs?
Kevin Harvick took home his fifth NASCAR Cup Series win of the season, holding off Brad Keselowski at the latter’s home track.
The Detroit Tigers weren’t at Comerica Park on Saturday afternoon, but a closer nonetheless took to a Michigan landmark’s final stages to steal the show and secure a win.
The FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway saw three restarts over its final 18 laps ended with Kevin Harvick capturing his fifth victory of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, also earned his fourth win at MIS and the 54th triumph of his Cup career tying him with Lee Petty for the ninth-most all-time.
Harvick was upfront for a majority of the event, leading 92 of 156 laps and winning each of the race’s three stages. He had his hands full as the race reached its latter portions.
Saturday’s race, the first of a weekend doubleheader at Michigan, was the first regular season event to use the choose cone rule, which allows racers to pick their lane on restarts. The format has been a staple in other sanctioned auto racing events and made its unofficial NASCAR debut at the All-Star Race exhibition at Bristol earlier this summer. With this rule, drivers can improve or sacrifice their spot on the leaderboard, though they get to get up to speed in the lane they prefer. The top lane at Michigan, treated with the PJ1 traction compound, was the preferred lane of Harvick and the rest of the leaders.
Chase Elliott used the rule to his advantage to take a late lead, but Harvick took the lead back after the yellow came out for Ryan Preece’s scrape with the wall. Two more incidents, including a multi-car pile-up involving Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman that sent the race to overtime, set up one final chance for the rest of the field. Harvick was able to hold off a furious challenge from Brad Keselowski, who was seeking his second straight win and swipe the victory by a .284-second margin.
Martin Truex Jr. went from eighth to third over the two-lap dash, while Ryan Blaney came home fourth. Kyle Busch got loose after a fierce battle for the lead with Harvick but recovered to finish fifth.
The second half of the Michigan doubleheader will come on Sunday afternoon in the form of the Consumers Energy 400 (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Bubba Wallace (9th) earned his fourth top-ten finish of the season, setting a new career-high.
Aric Almirola (16th) saw his streak of consecutive top-ten finishes end at nine.
The starting lineup for Sunday’s race will be determined by inverting the top 20 finishers and the rest set by directly by final spot. By finishing 20th, Chris Buescher will start on the pole.
John Hunter Nemechek was involved in three on-track incidents, including a wreck that officially sent him to the garage at lap 131.
A brief red flag came out after Cole Custer wrecked at lap 150, lasting just under six minutes as fluid was cleared off the track.
NASCAR’s “silly season” just got a whole lot zanier. The Eastern Speed Board covers it all in their latest edition.
The NASCAR offseason’s moves and shake-ups are often referred to as “silly season”. 2020 as a whole could well be described that way, but Joe Gibbs Racing put a particularly impactful twist on the upcoming proceedings.
JGR announced the Thursday that Erik Jones would exit the team’s No. 20 Toyota, which appears set to be filled by Christopher Bell. A former Xfinity Series standout in a Gibbs Toyota, Bell has been working with JGR satellite team Leavine Family Racing in his first full Cup Series campaign. He became available when LFR was sold earlier this week. The team’s No. 95 Toyota will run the remainder of the 2020 season before shutting down operations. This leaves Jones, a two-time Cup Series race winner and 2015 Truck Series champion, without a ride heading into 2021.
Additionally, Brad Keselowski had an incredible week on and off the track. Sunday saw the 2012 Cup Series champion win his third race of the season at New Hampshire Motorspeedway. Less than 24 hours later, it was revealed that former free-agent-to-be Keselowski would continue his endeavors in Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford for at least another year. This removes Keselowski from the No. 48 sweepstakes, as the legendary Jimmie Johnson is prepared to step away from the Hendrick Motorsports vehicle.
What’s the takeaway from everything? ESM’s NASCAR experts on the Eastern Speed Board investigate…
Turn 1: Big week for Brad Keselowski; thoughts on his new deal?
Geoff Magliocchetti: To quote Newman…the postal employee, not the driver…what took you so long?
Keselowski finishing a Hall of Fame career in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 always seemed too good to be true. Besides, as cool as it would’ve been to see him finally earn a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, it wouldn’t have felt right. Images of Keselowski in No. 48 gear would’ve been included on the same lists and galleries of Brett Favre in a New York Jets jersey or Teresa Weatherspoon in Los Angeles Sparks colors. It’s rare to see any driver end their career in the same car that began it. Keselowski has been, in another Seinfeld reference, Penske material for all of his full-time Cup career. It’s nice to see that one of NASCAR’s longest-running partnerships will continue. For Keselowski to earn his new deal after a dominant weekend joining Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as the only three-time winners this season makes it even sweeter.
Dylan Price: I think this was something that made too much sense not to happen. Brad would’ve been a fit in the 48, but he’s been putting up impressive showings in the 2 for Penske. He could ultimately bolt next year if Austin Cindric is ready and he doesn’t want to stay with Penske any longer, but I believe this was a move that made sense for both parties and I’m glad it got done.
Nathan Solomon: I’m happy to see Brad Keselowski signing an extension with Penske. He just seems like the right man for the car and it makes sense to keep him as the driver. He’s obviously been very successful driving the No. 2 car, winning a championship, and a lot of races along the way. I had a lot of trouble seeing anyone but Brad in the car. Congrats to him on the extension, and I bet he will remain at Penske for the rest of his career.
Turn 2: RIP Leavine Family Racing. How does Christopher Bell’s upcoming sub-in for Erik Jones shake up the “silly season” landscape?
Geoff Magliocchetti: Drastically, and this might only be the beginning.
First off, Leavine Family Racing will be missed. In an era more or less dominated by “superteams”, the group had formed a solid single-car foundation with their No. 95 Toyota. Their evolution from start-and-park squad to respectable racer (particularly with Bell and Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel over the last two seasons) was nothing short of impressive.
Bell’s departure and the subsequent demise of his No. 95 team alters the landscape for both veterans and newcomers alike. For one thing, if JGR wanted to bring up Harrison Burton, their satellite squad in LFR is no longer there. Ditto, perhaps, if Stewart-Haas Racing wants Chase Briscoe to drive the No. 14. Now pending free agent Clint Bowyer has one less ride to turn to if he wishes to continue his career. Sure, Bell benefits from the get-go, but it could end Jones’ career of contention before it truly begins. Look no further than the case of Daniel Suarez, who went from Xfinity Series champion at Joe Gibbs to racing for the underfunded No. 96 at Gaunt Brothers Racing in just five years.
But that might not be a problem now that Gibbs’ maneuvering has set a new plan into motion. We already have vacant spots at JGR (No. 20 Toyota), Hendrick Motorsports (No. 48 Chevrolet), and Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 42 Chevrolet, currently piloted by fill-in driver Matt Kenseth). Time will tell just how many ripples the bombshell of the Jones/Bell switch made on the Cup Series surface.
Dylan Price: First, I am very disappointed to hear that LFR is shutting down because I felt they had the potential to be the next Furniture Row-esque “come out of nowhere and win it” team.
Christopher Bell being out of a ride truly changes the “silly season” landscape. He’s one of the highest potential young drivers in NASCAR. At this time JGR views Bell as the much stronger option for the No. 20 machine. That has officially put Erik Jones out of a ride, who would make sense in a number of places. He could be a fit with the No. 48. He could also go to Stewart-Haas if a ride opens there. That could then jeopardize the future of either Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola. So, it’s safe to say that Bell losing his ride and joining Joe Gibbs just changed EVERYTHING.
Nathan Solomon: Christopher Bell wasn’t on the market for very long as, within days of LFR’s announced shut-down, Erik Jones was dumped for him. So now Jones is the free agent looking for a new ride. All the same options I mentioned ion the previous question are still on the table. There’s an opening at Hendrick and an opening at Stewart Haas. Additionally, the No. 42 will be vacant for Chip Ganassi, and that could be another option for Jones. I think a lot in “silly season” now depends on whether Clint Bowyer will get offered an extension for Stewart-Haas.
Turn 3: Keselowski’s return to Penske assured he will NOT take over the No. 48. So the question is…who will?
Geoff Magliocchetti: The favorite right now is probably Jones, but I’m going to throw a curveball here…Noah Gragson.
In some ways, Gragson’s potential ascension to the Cup Series mimics that of Keselowski’s…a talented driver at multiple levels whose aggressive racing style might rub some guys the wrong way (just ask Harrison Burton after the Xfinity Series event at Kentucky this year) but has the potential to impress both Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. while piloting a car for JR Motorsports. Gragson has certainly posted results worthy of a Cup ride. He was the runner-up in 2018’s Truck Series ledger (racing a Toyota owned by Kyle Busch) and has been a premier name on the Xfinity level with wins at Daytona and Bristol this season. A fiery rookie may be the ultimate counter to the mild-mannered, stoic Johnson, but such a contrast would be one of 2021’s most intriguing storylines.
Dylan Price: All signs now point to Erik Jones. who’s now out of a ride. I love Erik as a racer and I think he would fit well within the current trio at Hendrick Motorsports. I think he also is the kind of high potential driver that Rick and Jeff Gordon (who owns part of the 48) would really want within the organization.
With that said, I don’t think he should drive the No. 48 car. I think the car should switch back to No. 5 for Jones. Still, nothing is for certain and a guy like Matt DiBenedetto or Kyle Larson could be a surprise hire.
Nathan Solomon: There are a few options on who could drive the No. 48 next year. Erik Jones is the newest free agent, and with his time at Gibbs, I could see him driving that car. Clint Bowyer is also a free agent, but I don’t really see him driving for Hendrick, especially with his age.
The other option could be to turn to one of the guys at JR Motorsports such as Noah Gragson or Justin Allgaier. There’s also a pair of guys driving for Kaulig Racing in Justin Haley and Ross Chastain who would love an opportunity in a Cup Series car that has a chance to win every week.
Turn 4: NASCAR has instituted some new changes, including new starting lineup and restart policies as we approach the playoffs. Thoughts?
Geoff Magliocchetti: While I disagree with the full-time “choose cone” being instituted at this stage of the season (the start of 2021 would’ve been more optimal), I’m eager to see how it plays out over these crucial final stages of the season. The All-Star Race was a good place to introduce it, but we didn’t get to see it truly go into action, to see a driver pick up several spots by choosing the lesser popular lane. Such a strategy could be the ultimate difference between advancement and elimination in the playoff chases this fall.
As for the lineup, consisting of a weighted system of standings and finishing positions/top speeds from the prior event, it’s great to see some welcome unpredictability added to the opening gride while ensuring that the best cars get the optimal starting position.
Dylan Price: I think it’s the right move. It really makes sense to do in my opinion in terms of adding value to the races. As seen in the All-Star Race, it makes for much more exciting restarts and incites much more competitive racing. To put it in NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller’s own words, the sport “felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure”.
Nathan Solomon: I really enjoyed the choose cone rule used in the All-Star Race, and I’m glad it’s being adapted in most races. It allows the driver to choose where they think is the best for them and their car, not just the traditional way of odd position numbers start inside and even numbers start on the outside, It adds more strategy, and potentially on-the-fly thinking. It will make the racing better and pit road safer, as drivers will be less likely to play games on pit road to jockey for starting positions. Kudos to guys like Austin Dillon who pushed to get this added to NASCAR.