NASCAR: Kevin Harvick wins first half of Michigan doubleheader (Highlights)

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).

Race Notes

  • 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.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Four Turns with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard, Michigan/Road America

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…

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.

Michigan/Road America Predictions

Race Cup 1 Cup 2 Xfinity Trucks
Geoff Magliocchetti Kevin Harvick Kyle Busch Austin Cindric Austin Hill
Dylan Price Joey Logano Alex Bowman AJ Allmendinger John Hunter Nemechek
Nathan Solomon Brad Keselowski Chase Elliott Daniel Hemric Grant Enfinger
Standings
Rank Points (behind) Wins
1. Nathan Solomon 212 1
2. Dylan Price -4 0
3. Geoff Magliocchetti -20 1

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski dominates New Hampshire’s final stage

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

The NASCAR Cup Series returned to action in front of spectators at New Hampshire, where Brad Keselowski beat out Denny Hamlin for the win.

With spectators welcomed back into the stands on a limited basis, Brad Keselowski gave the New England faithful a show on Sunday afternoon.

The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford led the final 81 laps of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to clinch his third victory of the 2020 season. He joins Kevin Harvick and Sunday’s runner-up Denny Hamlin at the only three-time winners this season.

“(We) just had a great car and a great team effort,” Keselowski said in a postrace Zoom conference. “I was able to get into a really good rhythm at certain points in the race, just kind of take control. That felt really good. Third win of the year, but first kind of win where we’ve been able to kind of take control of the race.”

Keselowski had a healthy 1.6-second margin of victory over Hamlin, but the pair held the lead for all but 25 circuits of the 301-lap event. Hamlin, who wound up leading 92, threatened to take Keselowski lead over the final third of the race, which saw three quick cautions thanks to incidents involving Matt Kenseth and John Hunter Nemechek.

Once Keselowski was able to pull away from Hamlin, however, he coasted to victory, the 33rd of a Cup Series career that began in 2008.

“I thought we put on a great race. I was really proud of it,” Keselowski said of his battle with Hamlin. “I’m proud of it for our sport and for our team, proud for our sport because we got away from rules that didn’t make for good races and we went to rules that I think made for good driver battles. Denny and I had a heck of a driver battle.”

Starting the race in fourth, Keselowski took the lead from pole-sitter Aric Almirola on the third lap and never truly looked back. Hamlin had won the first 75-lap stage and nearly took the second one lasting 115. But Keselowski’s pass on a two-lap shootout brought out by Kenseth’s first incident more or less served as permanent momentum shifter.

Chase Elliott spent some time out front while Keselowski and Hamlin pitted, but the No. 2 settled things after Nemechek’s crash.

The win comes just as the Cup Series descends upon Michigan International Speedway for a doubleheader next weekend. Keselowski, who is set to be a free agent after this season, has yet to win at his “home” track, which is 90 minutes away from his birthplace of Rochester Hills. The first half comes on Saturday afternoon in the form of the FireKeepers Casino 400 (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“I’m pretty pumped. We’ve been really running well,” he said. “I haven’t quite executed perfectly until this weekend. I think we have a great shot of doing just that at Michigan. Competition is going to be really tough.  I think we all know how good Harvick is on those really big tracks. I’m going to have to be perfect to beat him.”

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. recovered from a pit road penalty to finish third. Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano was fifth while Harvick rounded out the top five.

Race Notes

  • It was another tough day for Kyle Busch, whose No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota came home last in 38th. Busch lasted only 15 laps, as he made hard contact with the wall after losing a tire.

 

  • Almirola’s streak of consecutive finishes in the top ten was extended to nine after a seventh-place finish.

 

  • Rookies Cole Custer (8th) and Tyler Reddick (10th) each earned top ten finishes.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin opens Cup Series’ second half with win at Kansas

Denny Hamlin took home his NASCAR Cup Series-best fifth victory and second straight at Kansas Speedway on Thursday night.

Joe Gibbs never had success as a head coach in the Kansas City area as a head coach, losing both career trips to Arrowhead Stadium as a head coach.

His drivers are ensuring his visits are a NASCAR team owner are going a lot better.

Denny Hamlin passed Kevin Harvick with 13 laps to go in the Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway, earning his series-best fifth win of the NASCAR Cup Series season. It also marks Hamlin’s second straight win at Kansas, having won the playoff race there last fall.

“I think we’re doing a great job of putting ourselves in good position to win races. We really could have a boatload of wins right now. It’s incredible,” Hamlin said in a postrace Zoom call. “We’re executing.  ‘m not making really many mistakes behind the wheel right now. We’re putting ourselves in contention.”

After Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski won the first pair of 80-lap stages, Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota avoided several big wrecks during the final 107-circuit segment to put himself in position for the win. When Corey LaJoie hit the wall to bring out the caution on lap 236 of 267, Hamlin was the first car off pit road with four fresh tires. Situated behind Alex Bowman and William Byron (the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets having taken two tires), Hamlin fell behind Harvick and fellow Gibbs driver Martin Truex Jr. when another yellow came out for John Hunter Nemechek’s spin.

Hamlin got around the Hendrick cars and overtook fellow four-time winner Harvick. Keselowski made another push in the race’s dwindling laps, but the No. 11 held him off by a final margin of 0.510 seconds.

“This is a well-executed race. We won today with probably not the best car,” Hamlin admitted. “We’re doing a better job.  We’re doing a really good job obviously of adapting to no practice.”

Thursday’s win was the 42nd in Hamlin’s Cup Series career and his 11th since teaming up with crew chief Chris Gabehart last season. Some feel like Hamlin’s dominant season won’t be complete without an elusive championship, as only Junior Johnson (50) has won more Cup races without a Cup title. The Kansas visit opened the second half of the premiere Cup Series’ 36-race slate. 

Hamlin, however, is pleased with the progress he has made this season, even if he feels his Toyota is capable of so much more.

“We run well everywhere. There’s not one track we don’t run well at,” Hamlin said. “We can win every single week. I know my equipment is good enough to do it. I still need to get better at some racetracks. But, certainly, I think I go to the racetrack every week thinking that we can win. As long as I don’t make a mistake, we have what we call on our No. 11 team a green race, where no mistakes are made, we typically are always in the top five with a shot to win. It’s on me to make sure we have green races.”

Truex finished third in front of the pole-sitter Harvick, while another Gibbs Toyota, Erik Jones’ No. 20, came home fifth.

The NASCAR Cup Series returned to action on August 2 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which will host the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Aric Almirola (6th) finished in the top-ten for the eighth consecutive race, continuing a career-best streak.

 

  • The bottom of the NASCAR playoff standings saw some major tremors with Jimmie Johnson (32nd) and Matt DiBenedetto (36th) dropping out of the race due to separate incidents. Johnson fell out of the 16-driver playoff bracket, replaced by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Byron (10th).

 

  • The race briefly underwent a red flag after Ryan Preece took a hard hit to the wall in an accident also involving Ryan Newman and Christopher Bell. Preece emerged from the car unscathed.

 

  • Byron took the lead after a Newman spin brought out another caution at lap 197. The No. 24 Chevrolet took over first-place after opting not to come down pit road with the rest of the leaders. Byron wound up leading a season-best 27 laps and holds the final playoff spots by 10 points over Tyler Reddick.

 

  • Defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch earned his first playoff point of the season by winning the first 80-lap stage. Busch finished 11th after dealing with a downed tire late in the race.

 

  • Thursday marked the final weekday race on the Cup Series circuit this season. Kansas is set to host an Xfinity Series race on Saturday evening (5 p.m. ET, NBCSN) as well as a doubleheader in the Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR: Two Young Guns Flying Under The Radar to Become New Stars

NASCAR, Tyler Reddick

As Jimmie Johnson prepares to join former Hendrick teammates, Dale Jr., and Jeff Gordon, in retirement, another star leaves the sport. NASCAR built its fan base around those 3 among other stars.

As every sport does, NASCAR is seeing new stars emerge as faces of the sport. Veterans like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, and other stars continue to lead the way. Along with younger guys like Chase Elliot, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, among others, taking over the limelight, more stars continue to emerge. As NASCAR undergoes a landscape shift in terms of star power, two young drivers have had a strong start to their careers.

Tyler Reddick

Tyler Reddick was an up and coming driver when JR Motorsports tapped him to take over for William Byron. Reddick won the season opener at Daytona in the closest finish in the history of NASCAR.

Although he didn’t win again until the final race of the season, his consistency allowed him to remain in contention. He then pulled off an upset and won his 1st Xfinity title in his rookie season.  Reddick then made the surprising move to jump ship to Richard Childress Racing. The move was made to speed up the process to the Cup Series in Reddick’s eyes. In 2019, Reddick dominated the series. With six wins, he, Christopher Bell, and Cole Custer shined above the rest.

When Homestead came, Reddick shined again. He won his 2nd title in 2 years in the series. This was the end of his Xfinity career. He took over Daniel Hemric’s ride in the 8 machine. He’s already flashed his skill with solid performances, including a 7th place finish in Darlington and an 8th place finish in the Coke 600. Reddick is a guy who has been labeled by some as a future star, and he could jump from RCR if Hendrick or Stewart-Haas targets him. Reddick has a bright future and is one to watch.

John Hunter Nemechek

The Front Row Motorsports machines tend to struggle to maintain a competitive machine. More often than not, a top 15 finish for them is a good day. Their newest addition, 22-year-old John Hunter Nemechek, has the potential to change that.

In his Truck Series career, in 101 races, Nemechek had 6 wins and 50 Top Tens. Nearly half of the races Nemechek ran, he was in the top 10. In the Xfinity Series, Nemechek raced in 51 races with 1 win and 30 Top Tens. Nemechek has been the picture of consistency in his career to this point. Now at 22, he has been impressive in the 38 machine.

He’s brought the machine towards the front with good runs. He’s had 1 Top Ten in 9 races and an average finish of 19th. That may seem low, but prior to this season, David Ragan never drove the 38 machine to a higher average finish than 22.9. Nemechek has the potential to vault himself into a premier car at some point if he can continue to be consistent. 

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals a wild Bristol race

For the second straight Sunday, Brad Keselowski stole a NASCAR Cup Series race in its final stanzas, benefitting from chaos upfront.

It was deja vu all over again for the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday. Whereas Brad Keselowski welcomed it with open arms, Chase Elliott probably could’ve done without it.

Keselowski once again benefitted from Elliott’s misfortune at Bristol Motor Speedway. When Elliott’s battle for the lead with Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano ended in contact, Keselowski took advantage, passing them both to win the Supermarket Heroes 500 presented by Food City.

Just a wild, wild day,” Keselowski said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom. “One of those days that you look at and you think of going back, being a part of Bristol lore for a long time to come.  Glad we were able to win it.”

“So much beating and banging, oh my goodness. We’ve all been cooped up in our houses too long, came to Bristol and took out some aggression I guess.”

Last Sunday, Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend after Elliott’s puzzling decision to pit prior to a two-lap overtime shootout. This time, it was a pit decision from Keselowski’s crew that put him in position to win a wild showdown in Tennessee.

Awarded the pole position from a random draw, Keselowski led 117 of the first 203 laps before getting caught in the middle of the pack while Elliott took home playoff points by winning the first two stages of the 500-circuit event. Keselowski was able to keep his car relatively clean in a race that featured 17 caution flag incidents. When Gray Gaulding hit the wall with 41 laps to go, Keselowski was one of a select few to visit pit row for fresh tires. He made the fateful stop at the advice of crew chief Jeremy Bullins and hoped to salvage a top ten finish with the adjustments.

Jeremy called a really good race,” Keselowski said. “I’m super proud of him and this team, the way they’ve come together, and keep coming together.  It’s a special group.  I feel like we’re all trying to find each other’s full potential.  We’re just starting to do that. We were getting real close to that before the pandemic happened.  Kind of slowed us down.  Now we’re really pushing each other hard and that’s a very good thing.”

Further incidents allowed Keselowski to think bigger. A multi-car incident that took out several contenders (including Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola) moved the No. 2 into the top ten. When leader Denny Hamlin got bumped but Logano with ten laps to go, Keselowski had moved into fifth and was in prime position to take the victory.

Antics between Elliott and Logano allowed him to do so.

Elliott and Logano broke away from the pack when the race got back underway with six laps to go. The two pounded away at each other until a little too much tension had them both rubbing against the wall. Keselowski scooted past the chaos to take home his second win of the season and the 32nd of his Cup Series career.

I think with 41 to go, I was quite honestly just hoping to get a top ten,” Keselowski recalled. “Once we broke in the top 10 I thought, I have a real shot at the top five. Next thing I know we’re running fifth.  I think the 11 car got turned around, something happened there. Now we’re running fourth. Now we have the preferred lane on the restart.”

“Then the restart we clear and get third.  I’m watching Chase and Joey (thinking) this is not going to be good. It was just such a turn of events.  I felt like I was sitting in Vegas, playing poker, and I got all the turns. They call it the river. All the turns went my way. I went from having a bad hand to having a full house real quick.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The tension between Elliott and Logano capped off an eventful day at Bristol, the 0.533-mile short track known for close racing, big wrecks, and flared tempers. Several big wrecks removed several big names from the proceedings. Another Keselowski teammate, Ryan Blaney, saw his day end on a disastrous spin during the second stage, putting his No. 12 Ford on a collision course with Ty Dillon. Blaney had been running second and chasing down Keselowski for the lead at the time. The race was also briefly paused at lap 231 to clean up a big wreck that collected several cars, including those of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, and Tyler Reddick. 

Logano and Elliott respectively finished at the tail-end of the lead lap in the 21st and 22nd positions. The two confronted each other on pit road after the final incident and were able to keep things civil. It’s the latest chronicle in a roller-coaster return to racing for Elliott. The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been in the top three during the final ten laps of each of the past four Cup Series races. Elliott was able to earn a win at the second half of a Charlotte doubleheader last Thursday, but incidents with Kyle Busch at Darlington and now Logano at Bristol have marred an otherwise stellar year.

Clint Bowyer was able to take the runner-up spot, while Elliott’s Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson came home third. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Erik Jones rounded out the top ten.

The NASCAR Cup Series will now go through a customary full week off before returning to action next Sunday for Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Fold of Honors QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Kevin Harvick retained his lead in the points standings but saw his streak of consecutive top-ten finishes come to an end at 13. Harvick was involved in a late incident with Jones and lost track position after he visited pit road to repair damage. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford came home 11th.
  • Rookie Christopher Bell tied his career-best finish at 9th in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota.
  • Austin Dillon came home sixth in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to earn his first set of back-to-back top ten finishes since November 2018.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

For better and worse, the Coca-Cola 600 proved NASCAR is a team sport

Drivers get the glory, especially in this social distancing era, but Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 proved that NASCAR operates as a team sport.

When Kevin Harvick won The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway last week, he was directed to victory lane after performing victory burnouts near the grandstands. Numerous emotions rang through the head of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford’s driver. After all, not only had he just become the 14th driver to win at least 50 NASCAR Cup Series races, he was the first driver to win after the circuit’s coronavirus-induced hiatus came to an end at Myrtle Beach.

But asked which one emotion rang through his head as he got to Darlington’s iconic winner’s circle…one previously graced by legends like David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon…Harvick had a response that’s usually reserved for high school students asking their dates to prom this time of year: “awkward”.

Harvick was more than understanding as to why he was met by only two photographers and Fox Sports’ pit reporter Regan Smith (himself a former Darlington winner) and two photographers were waiting for him. The joyful congestion of victory lane, often crammed to the gills with relatives, crew members, representatives from teams and sponsors, has been sacrificed so NASCAR can run these races and give American sports fans appetizing morsels as their athletics begin to work their way back into their lives.

But it didn’t take away the pain Harvick felt that member of his No. 4 group couldn’t savor the victory with him.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left victory lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it,” Harvick remarked after the race. “When you look at a win like this today, this is an organizational win because you have to have your car dialed in when you get here in order to win a race like this. Our guys have just done a great job of putting all the pieces together. Today we were able to capitalize on that and win a race.”

The lack of a victory lane prescience at Darlington…and beyond…does nothing to dispel a notion that was proven in Charlotte, a lesson that many new viewers of NASCAR are learning, even if they’re only holding themselves over until their usual favorites return: auto racing is a team sport.

Consternation reigned on Twitter during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The marathon event, the longest on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles, saw its early portions dominated by big leads. It was a race that saw its first pass for the lead under the green flag come at lap 225 of the originally scheduled 400.

But what Sunday did show was a fantastic mix of teamwork and driver finesse that makes NASCAR churn out racing excitement on a weekly basis. Sure, it’s probably not a race that will be displayed in whatever NASCAR’s equivalent of the Louvre is, but it served as a good reminder to its new viewers that NASCAR efforts go far beyond the ones behind the wheel.

It’s a shame, perhaps, that no child will ever have a poster of Michigan natives Greg Ives or Scott Brzozowski in their bedroom. But those two played a bit part in changing the early momentum as the respective crew chief and front tire changer for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Alex Bowman. When rain brought out a yellow (and a red) flag shortly after the first 50 laps, Bowman crew changed the course of the race with a two-tire pit stop, one that got Bowman out way ahead of the prior leader as he jumped from 13th to the top spot. The No. 88 would go on to dominate the next stanzas of the race, almost exclusively leading the next 170 laps thanks to Bowman’s on-track prowess and the service he received off of it.

Bad luck befell Bowman in the final stages (though his 20th-place finish will allow him to start at the front of Wednesday’s Cup Series event, also at Charlotte). but the night’s victors perfectly showcased the power of teamwork as they pulled off an improbable win.

Keselowski originally qualified ninth for Sunday’s event, but made some unapproved repairs to the car that cast him back to the rear of the field. It’s not like Keselowski’s woes on the No. 2 Ford could be remedied throughout the course of a normal race weekend. Much like victory lane, Charlotte’s garage was likewise light on activity. Teams have maintained social distancing standards to keep the sport rolling, which limits the personnel teams can have at the track. Not only did Keselowski have a limited crew on location to pull things, but he was also short on time; the Coca-Cola 600’s green flag dropped mere hours after qualifying was run.

The marathon-nature of the 600 allowed Keselowski to bide his time. By the time the rain came, he resided in 16th place. But solid pit strategy from crew chief Jeremy Bullins allowed Keselowski to keep relative pace with the top names. A two-tire stop of their own allowed them to catapult into the lead, one he held as the race engaged in an overtime finish.

But when Keselowski spoke after earning a victory on a race often described as one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, he emphasized the role his team played in their rise from worst to first.

“Obviously, I have a very good team right now,” Keselowski remarked in victory. “We’ve got a race win at a major on a team that’s really just starting to click together.  This team has a lot of potential.  My goodness, on pit road today, they were on fire.  They put us in a spot to win.”

His crew chief Jeremy Bullins earned a moment of glory, representing the group responsible for the No. 2’s speed after the race.

“The social distancing part, it’s really strange,” Bullins said of the current situation. “We’re in Charlotte. This is a race where normally when you win here, you have not only the driver’s wife and family, so many the team guys’ wives, families, girlfriends, moms and dads, all kinds of people here with you to celebrate. Not to mention having no fans. It’s a little bit of a surreal experience.”

“(But) I’m super proud of this team. I feel like I got one of the best teams in the garage. I’ll put them up against anybody. Got the best engineers in the sport, the mechanics, the pit crew, I’ll put them up against anybody.”

The team aspect can, alas, play far differently in certain situations. One such occasion arose on Sunday when Chase Elliott opted to pit when a caution flag erased his healthy lead with two laps to go. Elliott acknowledged that his subsequent visit it pit lane was a team decision, one they regretfully couldn’t take back. An individual effort from Elliott nearly pulled off a miracle…he rallied back to finish third (later moved up to second after original runner-up Jimmie Johnson failed postrace inspection)…but his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet squad was left with a sense of what might’ve been.

Fortunately for the No. 9 group, they’ll have a chance to rewrite their Charlotte story when the Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday night for the Alsco Uniforms 500 (8 p.m. ET, FS1). Further team innovations and insight may well be required to win the 208-lap, 500-kilometer event, especially with the track also being used for lower-tier competitions on the Xfinity and Truck circuits.

NASCAR is undoubtedly gaining fans and they continue to be the most prominent North American team sport back in business at the moment. Hopefully, as newcomers choose their new favorite driver, they’ll take the time to get to know not only the person in the race car, but the group on the outside that makes that thing go 180 miles an hour into the Charlotte straightaway.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals the Coca-Cola 600 in overtime

A perplexing decision by Chase Elliott in the final stanzas of NASCAR’s longest event gave Brad Keselowski his 31st career Cup victory.

Memorial Day weekend saw the No. 2 Ford become No. 1.

Brad Keselowski took advantage of a puzzling decision by Chase Elliott and his team to earn his first-ever victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night into Monday morning. The race, run annually on Memorial Day weekend since 1961, is the longest on the NASCAR’s premier Cup Series circuit. It’s the first such victory for Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion.

“This was a big one along the way,” Keselowski said in a postrace Zoom video conference call. “I feel like I’ve had the shot to win this race probably four or five times. In 2011, I got caught up in a wreck at the very end. I think 2014, I had a loose wheel at the end. Last year, we led a bunch of this race, probably were the favorite to win it late, had a loose wheel. It just didn’t come together for whatever reason.”

“But today it came together and I’m super, super thankful. (I) hope we can do it again. I hope everybody that watched enjoyed it and remembers the reason why we get to do great things like this.”

Already known for its marathon tendencies, the 600-mile race ran deeper into Sunday night due to a 68-minute rain delay after 51 of 400 laps. Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet, seemingly had the win wrapped up, maintaining an insurmountable lead over Keselowski with two laps to go.

However, Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron spun out after a tire went down on his No. 24 Chevrolet, bringing out a caution at the last possible moment. The resulting laps run under the yellow flag forced NASCAR to engage in overtime procedures, a two-lap dash to the finish.

Offered the chance to visit the pits before the final sprint, Keselowski stayed out while Elliott and a handful of the 19 remaining lead lap cars opted for service. Elliott’s shocking decision put Keselowski in the lead as the field realigned for the climax at the 1.5-mile oval.

Keselowski got off to a solid restart and managed to hold off another Hendrick Chevy, four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner Jimmie Johnson, for the 31st win of his Cup Series career. Johnson’s runner-up finish was later erased when the No. 48 Chevrolet failed post-race inspection.

“I just thought about getting the best launch I could get,” Keselowski said of his final restart. “Coming up in front of him down the backstretch, once we were clear, getting draft, that push, it all came together.”

The win also comes at an interesting time in the career of Keselowski, as he is in the final year of his contract with team owner Roger Penske. Keselowski has raced with Penske since 2009 and has driven the team’s iconic No. 2 Ford since 2011.

“I wish I had more news, but I don’t,” Keselowski said of his current situation. “I hope to continue to compete at a very high level and be able to win races for a long time.”

“I hope that I get to take and make something of that for years to come.  But it’s not all up to me.  A lot of things have to come together, whether it’s sponsors or whatnot, management things.  That hasn’t happened yet.  I hope it does because this is my 30th win at the Cup level with Team Penske.  That’s pretty special.  I think I got another 30 left in me.  I’d like to have the chance at that.”

Elliott rallied back to finish third behind Johnson, but is left with more lingering questions centered on what might’ve been. The Charlotte decision comes mere days after he was inadvertently spun out by Kyle Busch on the final green flag lap of Wednesday night’s competition at Darlington Raceway. Busch, who came home fifth, was later seen consoling Elliott in the race’s immediate aftermath.

“You just make the best decision you can based on the information you have,” Elliott said in another Zoom call. “When you’re leading the race like that, people behind you are going to do the exact opposite of what you do. That was the situation we were put in. (Crew chief Alan Gustafson) made the decision, we stuck with it, and it didn’t work out.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will run the Alsco Uniforms 500, the second half of a Charlotte doubleheader, this Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, FS1). 205 laps (310.6 miles/500 km) will be run.

Race Notes

  • Yet another Hendrick car, the No. 88 Chevrolet of Alex Bowman, dominated the early portions of the race. Bowman took the lead from polesitter Kurt Busch immediately after the rain delay with a two-tire pit stop and went on to win the first two stages and lead the most laps (164). A poor final restart, however, relegated Bowman to a 19th-place finish, albeit one that came with a silver lining. With NASCAR eliminating qualifying procedures in its effort to keep post-coronavirus pause events to a single day, he will start in the front row on Wednesday with the 500-kilometer race’s first 20 starters determined by an inversion of Sunday’s final running order. Byron will start on the pole.
  • With a fifth-place finish, Kevin Harvick continues to be the only driver to finish in the top ten in every 2020 Cup Series event thus far. Harvick maintains a 23-point lead over Joey Logano, who finished 13th after winning the third stage after a two-tire stop.
  • NASCAR did host a qualifying session hours before Sunday’s race to determine the starting lineup. This is the only event scheduled to hold traditional qualifying as they resume racing. Kurt Busch (lap time of 29.790 seconds) won the pole and led the first 54 laps en route to a seventh-place finish.
  • Sunday was a wash in more ways than one for Denny Hamlin. The winner of Wednesday’s Darlington event was immediately mired in an inescapable hole when a piece of tungsten flew out of his car during the prerace pace laps. Tungsten ballasts are often added to cars to meet NASCAR’s minimum weight requirement. Removal of tungsten results in an automatic four-race suspension for the offending car’s crew chief, which doesn’t bode well for Chris Gabehart. Hamlin eventually brought the car home 29th, seven laps off the pace.
  • Keselowski and Logano’s Penske teammate Ryan Blaney finished third.
  • Rookie Christopher Bell earned the first top ten finish of his Cup Series career (9th). He finished right behind fellow first-year Tyler Reddick, who earned his second top ten over the last three races.
  • Clint Bowyer’smoky wreck on lap 96 brought out the first incident-related caution and relegated him to least-place finish before Johnson’s disqualification (39th). His No. 14 Ford was one of three cars that failed to finish the race along with Bubba Wallace (brakes) and JJ Yeley (damage clock).

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags