NASCAR: Kyle Larson wraps Round of 16 with win at Bristol

As chaos erupted amongst his NASCAR Cup Series playoff competitors, Kyle Larson took home his sixth win of the season.

A ticket to the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, earned via points, did nothing to remove Kyle Larson’s competitive nature on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet passed Kevin Harvick with four laps to go in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race to earn his series-best sixth win of the season. His pass came as the playoff standings shuffled thanks to several late-race calamities, including a get-together between Harvick and Larson’s HMS teammate and defending Cup champion Chase Elliott.

The pair made contact fighting for the lead, leading to a flat tire for Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott was nonetheless was one of the dozen drivers to advance to round two, but that didn’t prevent a physical postrace confrontation on pit road with Harvick, who likewise advanced.

William Byron beat out Aric Almirola by two points to reach the Round of 12 with a third-place finish. Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch, and Michael McDowell were likewise eliminated from title contention. Fellow advancers Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman rounded out the top five.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Guess Who’s Back

Larson’s dominant season continued at Bristol, leading a race-best 175 of 500 laps en route to his sixth win of the season and first at the 0.533-mile Coliseum. In his first year at HMS, Larson has already matched the six victories he earned over his six full seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing.

With the application of the PJ1 traction compound and the moving of the race from late August to September, Larson’s 15th attempt at The Last Great Coliseum was different after he missed both editions last year. It was, however, not enough a variant to disrupt his success: Saturday was good for his eighth top-ten in 13 starts on Bristol’s asphalt.

“I thought (turns) one and two (were) a little bit slicker than normal, like harder to hit your marks,” Larson said of the track. Three and four I felt like was pretty normal around the bottom. The top probably didn’t build up as much rubber as I remembered either.”

“Either way, the characteristics are similar to how it always is. There’s always a little bit of a difference any time you go to any racetrack year to year. It was for the most part pretty normal.”

Larson battled Denny Hamlin for the lead for a good portion of the night, including a pair of showdowns for the victories of the first two 125-lap stages. It mirrored the fight they staged for the regular-season title and the 15-point bonus that came with it. Larson won that battle after the first 26 races while the pair exchanged stage wins. Hamlin, who had already advanced to the Round of 12 with a win at Darlington two weeks ago, fell out of contention when he lost a tire and hit the wall with 100 laps to go but manage to muster a top-ten finish (9th).

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Champions Fight at The Coliseum

Bristol’s cramped quarters and intense short-track racing often create flared tempers. That anger only intensifies with the new postseason implications attached. Cup Series champions are no exception to such fury.

Elliott and Harvick hadn’t earned the clinching victory that assured access to round two but they had relatively healthy cushions on the cutoff. Their ensuing battle for the win became the latest feud in annals of Bristol’s asphalt, joining previous great battles of Coliseum past like Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon vs. Matt Kenseth.

As the race dipped under 50 laps to go, Elliot, Harvick, and Larson broke away from the rest of the field. Elliott and Harvick ran into lapped traffic and made contact as they got around Josh Bilicki. The friction cut down Elliott’s left front tire, forcing him to pit road with 33 laps to go. Relegated to lapped traffic, Elliott bumped Harvick after the forced service. Their confrontation continued on pit road after the race and later moved to Elliott’s hauler.

According to Elliott, the battle between him and Harvick was several weeks in the making.

“Whether he did it on purpose doesn’t matter. At some point, you have to draw a line,” Elliott, the defending series champion, told NBCSN in the aftermath. “I don’t care who he is or how long he’s been doing it, I’m going to stand up for myself and my team and we’re going down the road.”

Harvick was searching for his first win of the season after earning a circuit-best nine last year. The 2014 champion didn’t mince words when speaking about his confrontation with Elliott after the race.

“I just told him it was kind of a chicken (expletive) move he did there at the end,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’re racing for the freaking win at Bristol, three-wide, he throws a temper tantrum. I was just trying to get the lead and race him hard. Then he pulls up in front of me and sits there till I lose the whole lead.”

“I’m ready to rip somebody’s freaking head off.”

Almirola, Reddick, Busch, McDowell Awakened from Playoff Dreams

Championship prospects ended for four playoff drivers on Saturday night. While the underdog McDowell was facing a win-or-go-home scenario (entering Bristol 38 points out of 12th), Almirola, Reddick, and Kurt Busch each had a chance to get in on points thanks to a roller-coaster evening from other playoff contenders.

Busch’s dream of delivering a championship for Chip Ganassi Racing’s swan song went by the wayside, as he fought an ill-handling No. 1 Chevrolet all night en route to a 19th-place finish. Reddick dealt with early radio issues and finished 12th, two points behind Byron in the final seed.

Almirola and his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing crew went through the most eventful evening. He entered the race three points above the cutoff and ran in the top 15 for most of the first part of the night. He was running 10th when his car started smoking, forcing a visit to pit road when a Turn 2 incident involving Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, and Cole Custer brought out the yellow flag. His crew found fluid in the left front tire and later discovered a broken oil line.

Despite several visits to pit road under the yellow, the No. 10 crew managed to keep Almirola on the lead lap. It wasn’t enough, however, to take down Byron’s third-place finish, one boosted by tire issues for Kyle Busch (21th) and Christopher Bell (29th). Both of those Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas nonetheless advanced, while Almirola finished two points shy of advancement.

“It was frustrating. (I’m) disappointed to have it end like that just because we had battled so much adversity throughout the night, got into a position where we were running top 10, doing what we were needing to do,” said Almirola, who finished 18th. “That’s not the way we wanted it to end. But we’ll keep going and battle it out the rest of the Playoffs and see if we can’t finish inside the top 10 in points.”

What’s Next

The Round of 12 opens next Sunday as Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s South Point 400. Larson earned his first HMS victory at the venue’s first event of 2021, the Pennzoil 400 in March. Sin City native Kurt Busch is the defending champion of the event.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Joey Logano wins historic dirt race at Bristol

Joey Logano held off off a final push from Denny Hamlin to win the NASCAR Cup Series first race on dirt in over five decades.

Joey Logano came out clean at the end of the first NASCAR Cup Series run on dirt in 51 years.

The No. 22 Team Penske Ford led the final 61 laps en route to victory at the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished second, while Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.

Bristol’s dirt endeavor, the first NASCAR Cup Series event held on dirt since 1970, was pushed back from Sunday to Monday after inclement weather flooded the parking lot and rendered the track inoperable. Thanks to a strong effort from the BMS crew, both the Cup and Camping World Truck Series were able to run their full events without issues.

Unlike several of his Cup peers, Logano did not run the Trucks race, instead calling the race for Fox Sports 1. Despite limited dirt experience, he was able to stay toward the front for a good portion of the day after starting 10th. He took care of business after the first 100-lap stage through a sixth-place finish while the Truck race winner Martin Truex Jr. dominated.

Logano first took the lead at lap 170 of 250, passing the upstart Suarez in the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet. He would go on to beat out Suarez for the stage two win before a ten-minute break commenced. By then, the middle stage of the race had thrown a new obstacle for the drivers: the return of single-file restarts, which hadn’t been seen on the Cup circuit since 2009. Early runs in the second stage were quickly stopped by multi-car get-togethers that damaged the cars of several contenders, including Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney.

With the track moistened for the final 50-lap stage, Logano held the lead despite a strong push from Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Mike Marlar’s spin just five laps from the checkered flag set up a two-lap overtime finish, but Logano was able to keep Hamlin and a charging Stenhouse behind him. Stenhouse had worked his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet up from eighth over the final 30 laps to secure his fifth career runner-up finish at Bristol.

Logano is the seventh different winner in seven different events to open the 2021 season, the first time the Cup Series has had seven unique winners to start since 2014. The series will go on hiatus during Easter weekend before returning for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Dirt track veterans and Cup regulars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell saw their days end on a wreck at lap 53, an incident that also took out Ross Chastain.

 

  • Truex dominated the Truck event earlier in the day, leading 105 of 150 laps and sweeping each stage in a Toyota Tundra owned by Kyle Busch. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was running in the top five at the end of the race, but lost a tire late and was relegated to 19th.

 

  • Another early incident involved Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Almirola failed to finish for the third time this season, matching his DNF total from all of last year. That wreck also ended the days of Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and Shane Golobic (a dirt veteran driving B.J. McLeod’s No. 78).

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s top ten run was ended after contact with Stenhouse created a tire rub that sent him spinning with 34 laps to go. Forced to pit road and unaided by a caution and finished 27th.

 

  • Suarez set a new career-high with 58 laps and earned his first top-five finish since November 2019 (Texas). Monday marked the seventh race for Trackhouse, which is led by owner, recording artist, and philanthropist Pitbull.

 

  • Newman survived an early spin (one that forced Kevin Harvick into rookie teammate Briscoe) to earn his first top five since October 2019 (Talladega).

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dirt

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

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

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

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

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

The Favorite 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unpredictability

Upsets began long before March Madness started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the full Cup Series lineup, click here

For the full Truck Series lineup, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott welcomes back fans with a win in the All-Star Race

As about 20,000 NASCAR fans descended upon Bristol for a historic night, Chase Elliott entertained them with a win in the All-Star Race.

NASCAR enacted all kinds of new features for its annual All-Star event. The race moved to Bristol Motor Speedway after over three decades at Charlotte. Door numbers on the competing machines were shifted backward. A “choose cone” setup allowed drivers to pick their restart lane. An “underglow” lighting system beneath each of the cars gave the race an aesthetic perhaps inspired by The Fast and the Furious.

But for all those changes, it was a familiar name that wound up taking the checkered flag.

Chase Elliott led the final 31 laps of the NASCAR All-Star Race, securing victory in the landmark exhibition event. He won each of the middle 35-lap stages after Ryan Blaney took home the first 55-lap portion before holding off Kyle Busch over the last 15-lap dash to set off the celebration. This the first time the event was held at a short track and only the second time in its 36-year history it was not held at NASCAR’s hub track of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“To me, this is one of those prestigious events that the Cup Series only has,” Elliott said afterward. “This is a special race on the schedule every year. There’s a lot of hype around it. The other thing about it is, you know, it’s something you have to race your way into. Luckily, we raced our way into this deal for life now. That means a lot.”

Ironically, the only other non-Charlotte All-Star event was won by Elliott’s father Bill in 1986 at Atlanta. The Elliotts, each driving a No. 9 car, are the second father-son duo to win the All-Star Race, joining the Earnhardts (Dale Sr. in 1987 and Dale Jr. in 2000).

Adding to the irony was the fact that Elliott, the back-to-back winner of the NASCAR Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, won when NASCAR welcomed about 20,000 fans back to the stands. It is the most populous sporting event in America since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Elliott revealed that he snuck into the stands to take in the NASCAR All-Star Open qualifying event

“To me tonight felt like an event again.  I feel like we’ve been missing that piece for a couple of months. It just felt really good to get NASCAR back,” Elliott said. “NASCAR is built on the fans. Once the race starts, it’s hard to engage with them because you can’t hear them. Before a race, the atmosphere was energetic again. I felt like the vibe was back. I felt like that fire and intensity in me was back even more so than it has been, a piece that had been missing.  I think that’s driven by the people, the cars pulling in, the prerace parties, and everything that you see.”

Busch came home in the runner-up spot, while Kevin Harvick moved up to third after opting for fresher tires before the aforementioned 15-lap stage. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five, while Blaney finished sixth after running the last 85 laps on older tires.

The Cup Series’ regular season resumes this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway with Sunday afternoon’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • With the win, Elliott earns automatic entry to the All-Star Race for as long as he races on a full-time basis. A Cup Series title is the other way to earn a permanent invitation. Drivers can also earn a spot by winning any points race from the prior season or the current campaign prior to the All-Star event.

 

  • Elliott’s win in the No. 9 Chevrolet is the All-Star-best ninth victory for Hendrick Motorsports. The team last won in 2013, the last of Jimmie Johnson’s record four victories in the No. 48. Johnson, set to retire from full-time racing after this season, finished 17th in his final All-Star Race.

 

  • Aric Almirola (9th), William Byron (12th), and Matt DiBenedetto (13th) each raced their way into the event by winning the three stages of the NASCAR All-Star Open. Clint Bowyer (15th) was also able to partake by winning the fan vote.

 

  • Tensions ran high in the open, as polesitter Michael McDowell got into the back of Bubba Wallace, sending the latter’s No. 43 Chevrolet into the wall. An incensed Wallace later left a piece of his wrecked car at McDowell’s hauler. McDowell’s No. 34 later made contact with the No. 37 of Ryan Preece, who spun out with the former’s teammate, John Hunter Nemechek.

 

  • New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara waved the green flag to open the main event. Kamara partook in 2015’s “Battle at Bristol”, when the track hosted a football game between Kamara’s University of Tennessee Volunteers and the Virginia Tech Hokies. Kamara scored a touchdown in Tennessee’s 45-24 victory.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

NASCAR: Fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto seeks to finally master Bristol

Bristol has hosted the brightest moments of Matt DiBenedetto’s NASCAR Cup Series career thus far. Could it soon feature his first win?

If and when someone gets their first career NASCAR victory during this fan-free period, it’ll come at the price of not being able to “properly” celebrate. The joyful congestion of victory lane has been temporarily erased so the sport’s return can adhere to continuing social distancing guidelines, an isolated atmosphere described by the original winner of the new normal Kevin Harvick as “awkward”. One can only imagine that the feeling would amplify fortyfold if a driver were to earn their first win during this process.

Matt DiBenedetto doesn’t care about that in the slightest. The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford just wants a mere visit to victory lane and is quite pleased with NASCAR’s protocols as it’s the first team sport to return in the wake of the current health crisis.

“I’ve actually been nothing but thoroughly impressed with how smooth everything has gone and how to a T every single person that you see in the garage is following every guideline because we’re all so on the same page and just so appreciative to be racing and willing to do whatever we have to do,” DiBenedetto said in a Zoom media conference call earlier this weekend. “Honestly, it’s gone ten times smoother than I could have possibly imagined and I’m just really, really proud of the effort of everyone. It’s amazing to see that big of a group of people all come together like family and be willing to do whatever, no complaining, just everyone happy to be following every guideline to be putting on a show for the fans.”

DiBenedetto has run 184 NASCAR Cup Series races, a majority of them with microbudget racing squads where merely running at the finish would be equivalent to a win. No wins have followed, but DiBenedetto’s ability to post respectable finishes in subpar equipment, as well as a racing journey that began by swapping his Little League baseball cap for a firesuit, has made him a fan favorite on the circuit.

The Wood Brothers (Leonard and the late Glen) and their iconic No. 21 (previously driven by names like David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, Dale Jarrett, and Ryan Blaney) have provided DiBenedetto the most stable car in his career to date. He has followed through on the potential the Woods saw in him. He currently places 11th in the NASCAR points standings and posted a runner-up finish at February’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas. It was the second runner-up finish of his career.

He returns to the site of the first on Sunday afternoon. The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Supermarket Heroes 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1). It will be the first visit to “The Last Great Colosseum” since DiBenedetto finished a most heartbreaking second in last year’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race last August.

Then driving Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota, DiBenedetto seem poised to earn that elusive first win as he took the lead with 104 laps to go around the half-mile short track. Such a win also would’ve allowed DiBenedetto to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs, which would’ve been a first.

Alas, contact made with the notoriously hard-to-pass Ryan Newman (whom DiBenedetto was trying to put a lap down) slowed the No. 95, allowing another Toyota, the big-budget machine of Denny Hamlin, to take over the lead with a dozen laps to go. Hamling even jokingly remarked that he was “sorry” that he passed DiBenedetto during his postrace interview with NBC.

That evening, one that produced his career-best finish to date, was a bittersweet affair for DiBenedetto. He mentioned that he hasn’t viewed the film from that monumental race.

“That was probably one of the biggest days for my entire career honestly, so that was a moment I’ll never forget, having all the support from the fans,” DiBenedetto said. “That was a crazy moment and I really didn’t even know how to feel because it was probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life, but also one of the most rewarding from the support we had from the fans and everybody. It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel, but ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

Less than a month after that Bristol event, Wood Brothers Racing announced that DiBenedetto would take over their Ford.

Bristol is a track for developing tempers even hotter than the tires. Known as “Thunder Valley”, the track’s cramped quarters can put you in the wall without warning. DiBenedetto, however, has seen his brightest NASCAR days at the track. He has completed over 99 percent of the maximum laps he could’ve run over ten visits. The stadium also played host to DiBenedetto’s first career top-ten finish, a sixth in the 2016 Food City 500. At the time, he was driving the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing.

DiBenedetto’s Bristol prowess could come up big on Sunday. To limit events to single-day proceedings, qualifying has been canceled at most of the events since the circuit came back from the coronavirus-induced pause. A random draw for starting position yielded a ninth-place spot in the starting lineup. Practice has likewise been canceled.

“I would say Bristol would probably be more of the nerve-racking ones of firing off with no practice,” he said. “I think at the mile-and-a-halves and some of these places, Darlington is a little treacherous but not too bad. I’d say the mile-and-a-halves are not too bad. Bristol, there’s just no margin for error. It’s really, really fast. It’s an insanely fast short track. You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in, so I’d say that one will be a little bit more nerve-racking for the drivers.

“It’ll be fine. It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and outpraying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive. If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track, a mile-and-a-half, and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

The series’ descent on Bristol comes at perhaps the perfect time for DiBenedetto. He has finished in the top 20 in each of the first four races since the return, but those finishes haven’t come easy. When qualifying was held at Charlotte Motor Speedway, DiBenedetto had to go to a backup car when he spun out during his timed run. On Thursday night, the second half of a CMS doubleheader, the No. 21 took the lead on the opening lap but a wreck between Joey Gase and Garret Smithley prevented it from getting into clean air and away from the field. The team wound up settling for a 14th-place finish.

Either way, DiBenedetto is well on his way to posting the best numbers of his career. He holds a 35-point cushion over 17th-place Tyler Reddick in terms of playoff positioning.

But DiBenedetto is confident that his group is capable of more. A 14th-place finish might’ve been cause for celebration in his earlier days, but his current Wood Brothers settings (which includes technical assistance from Penske Racing) have higher expectations…ones DiBenedetto anticipates meeting.

“We do have a little cushion right now, but we as a team have to get a lot better, in my opinion,” he said. “We have a lot of speed. We have great people. We’re just learning each other and we’ve got to close out these races a little better. We’ve got, for sure, the car speed and the people to do it, so it’s nice that we’re still sitting there in points when, honestly, we’re a little bit disappointed with some of our end results of these races because we know that we can do a lot better and we will do better moving forward, so I feel good about that part of it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags