NASCAR: Kyle Larson domination secures Hendrick Motorsports record

Through Larson’s dominant win at the Coca-Cola 600, Hendrick Motorsports became the winningest team in NASCAR Cup Series history.

Hendrick Motorsports made history in a familiar way: together in dominant fashion.

Rick Hendrick’s race team became the winningest team in NASCAR Cup Series history on Sunday night, as Kyle Larson dominated the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to earn the group’s 269th victory, passing Richard Petty’s Petty Enterprises. Larson led 327 of 400 laps in the longest event on the NASCAR circuit (600 miles).

HMS Chevrolets have now won three consecutive events to tie and break Petty’s record. Larson took home his second win of the year, with his teammates Chase Elliott, William Byron, and Alex Bowman finishing second, fourth, and fifth respectively. Only third-place Kyle Busch broke up on the HMS monopoly in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

“It’s perfect. Everything down to the way they mow the lawn. It looks amazing. They put a level of pride and effort into everything…(Hendrick) has built such an amazing empire. Everyone there loves to work there,” Larson said of working with HMS. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. Getting to see the level of respect everyone has for him, how they love to work for him, it shows how great of a person he is…there’s a lot to be learned off of him.”

Hendrick, 71, made his fortune as the owner of several Chevrolet dealerships. He entered NASCAR ownership in 1984 and his team has gone on to win 13 Cup Series titles and over 300 races in the three national touring series. Elliott earned the most recent championship last season in the No. 9 Chevrolet.

Sunday’s win was almost thematic in its timing. Not only is Charlotte a five-minute drive from HMS headquarters in Concord, but the No. 5 Chevrolet currently driven by Larson also raced to Hendrick’s first victory back in 1984 with Geoffrey Bodine behind the wheel at Martinsville.

Hendrick had a little bit of pride in capturing the win at Charlotte but would’ve been happy with any of his quartet reaching victory lane.

“I really wanted to do it in Charlotte,” Hendrick said. “(But) I didn’t care who broke the record, I just wanted to win it. Any one of them, I pull for them all the same. It’s tough when they’re battling each other for the lead, but the objective in this race was winning…It’s like having a bunch of kids. You love them all the same, each one of them has different strengths and characteristics. But at the end of the day, they work well together.”

The Charlotte dominance was Larson’s second win in the No. 5, which also played host to Terry Labonte’s Cup Series title in 1996. Finishing off dominating performances has been a struggle for Larson. He previously led at least 200 laps in six prior events but came out winless each time. Additionally, he is by far the 2021 leader in laps at the front with 1,105. It wasn’t hard for Larson to get the lead early on. This weekend’s events held qualifying at the 1.5-mile oval and Larson’s time put him on the pole next to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the front row.

He closed the deal on Sunday, holding a final margin of over 10 seconds on Elliott. The No. 5 led the way for HMS, whose four vehicles led all but 17 laps on Sunday. It wasn’t hard for Larson to get the lead early on. This weekend’s events held qualifying at the 1.5-mile oval and Larson’s time put him on the pole next to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the front row. Elliott and Byron were third and fourth right behind them at the start.

HMS Chevrolets have now won each of the last three races, with Bowman previously winning at Dover and Elliott winning last week at the Circuit of the Americas. Byron, piloting Jeff Gordon’s No. 24, has finished in the top ten in all but one of the past 13 races and set a new career-best with his sixth top-five finish of the year on Sunday.

“It’s a great problem to have,” Larson said of racing his teammates for victories. “We’ve done a great job of racing each other hard, but yet not putting each other in a bad spot either so. We all want to see each other succeed for Rick and we all work great together during the week and even on the weekends…we’re racing with respect.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Sonoma Raceway’s road course for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (4 p.m. ET, FS1).

 (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Race Notes

  • Hendrick vehicles last won three consecutive races in 2015, when Gordon, Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. respectively won at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix.

 

  • Only two cautions emerged for on-track incidents. Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Chevrolet had a belt issue that eventually leaked oil on the track at lap 174 while Ryan Newman lost a tired and hit the wall at lap 297. All other cautions signaled the end of three 100-lap stages (all won by Larson).

 

  • Busch’s bad day was part of a brutal outing for Chip Ganassi Racing, as Ross Chastain likewise had a problem in his No. 42. The day was not a total loss for CGR, as Alex Palou placed second in the Indianapolis 500.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott continues road course dominance on the Roval

Chase Elliott punched his Round of 8 playoff ticket in style, winning his fourth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series road course event.

The new sensation of NASCAR racing in the rain was countered with the familiar sensation of Chase Elliott visiting a road course’s victory lane.

Elliott defended his title at the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading 27 of 109 laps to capture victory in the Bank of America Roval 400. The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has now won each of the last four races held on road courses. Only four-time champion Jeff Gordon has done better in that regard (six from 1997-2000).

“We definitely don’t show up just expecting to be good,” Elliott said of his team’s road course dominance. “We show up trying to be better than we were last time. I thought we did that today. I thought our car was better than it was here last year.  I thought I was better than I was last year. Didn’t pile drive the barriers this time. That was good. (We were) able to finish it off the right way, which is always encouraging.”

Elliott previously took home the win at Daytona Internation Speedway’s road course in August after sweeping the traditional pair at Sonoma and Watkins Glen last season. NASCAR will return to that pair and the Charlotte Roval (half-oval, half-road course) next season, but NASCAR has placed three additional road courses on the 2021 schedule, including the Circuit of the Americas, Road America, and the course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But Elliott is more concerned about the upcoming Round of 8, as he tries to make his first championship round since making his full-time NASCAR entry in 2016.

“(I’m) excited to have the opportunity. I think it’s going to be a really big challenge for us to move on, as I think it is for everybody in this round unless you just have a bunch of wins,” he said. “I think today’s win is big.  Getting those extra five points can be the difference.  We just have to bring our A-game, push ahead, really try to execute three solid weeks.”

Elliott’s streak appeared to be in jeopardy after the second stage. He had finished second to Ryan Blaney, but a loose wheel on the ensuing pit stop forced him to revisit as the field went back to green, shifting him back to 38th. But a mere 30 laps later, Elliott had the lead back from teammate Alex Bowman.

He had to let it go shortly after with a caution emerging for debris on the track, but he later passed Erik Jones with 17 laps to go, holding it for the rest of the way. His final trek included another restart after Brennan Poole’s stalled car brought out another college, but he was able to clinch the victory by a healthy 3.895-second margin over Joey Logano. Jones finished third ahead of previous playoff clincher Kurt Busch, while Blaney, the winner of the inaugural race in 2018, rounded out the top five.

Elliott’s success echoed his endeavor from a year prior, when he overcame a wreck in the treacherous first turn of the Roval to capture the victory. This time, he dealt with the loose tire and rain in the forecast, forcing teams to use a special tire with more grip throughout the afternoon. Unlike the relatively flooded Xfinity Series event, the Charlotte rains were relatively calm throughout the race, though there will still numerous spins and on-track incidents that helped determine the rest of the playoff picture.

The Cup Series’ Round of 8, the last elimination stage before the final at Phoenix, gets underway at Kansas Speedway’s Hollywood Casino 400 next Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Defending Cup Series Kyle Busch was eliminated from contention. Contrasting pit strategies allowed Busch to take the lead with 19 laps to go, but he lost it to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Jones a lap later. Busch was running in the top ten before fuel woes forced him to pit on the penultimate lap. Busch is the first defending champion to miss the Round of 8 since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014.

 

  • Elliott joined Kurt Busch (Las Vegas) and Denny Hamlin (Talladega) as Round of 12 race winners who clinched through a race victory. Logano, Martin Truex Jr. (7th on Sunday), Alex Bowman (8th), Kevin Harvick (11th), and Brad Keselowski (18th) all joined them through points. Harvick maintains the series’ point lead, 13 tallies ahead of Hamlin.

 

  • Among those eliminated was Clint Bowyer, days after he announced he would retire from the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to join the Fox Sports booth. Bowyer lost his power steering early in the race, but still managed to earn a 10th-place finish. He was sent to the infield care center due to exhaustion but was checked out shortly after. Bowyer is one of five drivers to post top-ten finishes in each of the first three visits to the Roval (joining Elliott, Blaney, Logano, and Bowman)

 

  • Aric Almirola (16th) and Austin Dillon (19th) were likewise eliminated from championship contention.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview: Bank of America Roval 400 (Charlotte)

The twists and turns of the NASCAR Playoffs descend upon…the twists and turns of Charlotte Motor Speedways’ famous “roval”.

What: Bank of America Roval 400
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, NC
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Watch: NBC

Precipitation has left its mark on sports’ playoff proceedings. Snow has regularly blanketed Green Bay Packers playoff games at Lambeau Field. New York Jets fans are still haunted by their loss in the “Mud Bowl”, where South Floridian rains decimated the Orange Bowl field prior to their 14-0 defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins in the 1983 AFC title game.

Now, rain in North Carolina could have a significant role in how the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture shakes out.

Storms often force NASCAR events to be put on hold, but special rain tires and setups will be on-hand as the premier Cup Series prepares to hold an elimination race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “Roval”…a half-oval, half-road course behemoth featuring 17 turns that have made and broken playoff fortunes. After Sunday’s race, four races will remain on the 2020 Cup Series schedule. Four drivers from the remaining field of a dozen drivers will be eliminated from championship contention, giving way to the Round of 8 that gets underway at Kansas next weekend. Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin have clinched their spots into the next round through prior Round of 12 wins at Las Vegas and Talladega respectively. But six other spots are up for grabs as the season hits its twilight stages.

The potential for rain in the forecast only raises the potential for postseason chaos. Saturday’s Xfinity Series event was run in a storm and featured numerous incidents that shaped their own cutdown from 12 to 8 playoff drivers. Former Cup regular AJ Allmendinger wound up taking the victory.

Aric Almirola is one of the drivers on the outside of the advancement picture. At 48 points out, Almirola more than likely needs to win to keep his championship hopes alive. But he welcomes any form of additional chaos to the Roval setting, feeling confident he can avoid the pandemonium to earn his first win of the season.

“I think for us at this point the more chaos the better. It creates more opportunities and more chances for other people to have bad races and for us to capitalize on that,” said the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in a conference call earlier this week. “Where we’re at in points, if we have a bad race, so what? We are currently not in a position to make it anyway so we have to win. If there is rain or something else that is going to create more chaos and potential for more wrecks and more attrition, then that could potentially work out in our favor.”

The Track

First Cup Series Race: 2018
Length: 2.28 miles (109 laps, 248 miles)
Most Wins: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott (1)

The Roval is contained within the infield of the de facto hub of NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which sits a 20-minute drive away from the Hall of Fame. It contains portions of the traditional oval with the interior turns, its most treacherous being its chicane (a serpentine curve) in the backstretch. It has created an optimum spot for passing, but has also increased the potential for big wrecks.

They Said It

“We all care and I wouldn’t be continuing to go to the race track each and every week and pouring my heart and soul into this and taking time away from my family if I didn’t care. Obviously, there’s M&M’s and Interstate Batteries and Toyota and everybody else on my race car and at Joe Gibbs Racing that supports us that works as hard as they do and my team and my crew chief and all my guys, they don’t spend the time and effort that they do each and every week and all year long for the years that we’ve been together for one of us not to care. That’s tongue in cheek talk and should be known as that coming from me obviously, I say a lot of dumb s***. It is what it is and we’re going to go on into this week and fight like hell and try to make it through.”-Kyle Busch, 21 points from the cutoff, on his previous claim that he “didn’t care” about making the next round. 

“We had a really good season so far. To me, my focus won’t shift to the Round of 8. I’m still going to put in the same amount of work this week getting ready for the Roval as I would if I wasn’t locked in. But certainly, the stress level will be less. Certainly, we can be a little bit more aggressive with our strategy calls starting at the beginning of the race.”-Denny Hamlin on how he’s approaching the Roval 

Three To Watch

Chase Elliott (Starting 2nd)

If anyone was pleased about the inclusion of a record six road courses on the 2021 Cup Series schedule, it was Elliott. His No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been at the top of the leaderboard at the end of the last three road course events, including the most recent Roval event last fall. After a rollercoaster postrace session at Talladega last week…his fifth-place finish was rescinded then retained after possible rules violation…Elliott is relatively safe in the standings (44 points ahead of the cutoff), so he has some extra freedom in terms of strategies to protect his title. The No. 9 has had a strong season as is, but a strong display of power could well come at the Roval. 

Alex Bowman (Starting 5th)

Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate received some big news this week, as he’ll be the lucky driver taking over the iconic No. 48 Chevrolet upon Jimmie Johnson’s retirement at the end of the year. Bowman still has a chance to end his time in his current No. 88 incarnation on a most victorious note. He’s 22 points ahead of elimination and has finished in the top five in each of the first two Roval events (including a runner-up finish behind Elliott last season).

Clint Bowyer (Starting 11th)

Bowyer’s situation is almost a Bizzaro version of Bowman. Earlier this week, Bowyer announced that he be retiring from the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford at the end of the season to join Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage. He’s 38 points from the next round after a tough prior two races, but he likewise is riding a streak of good luck at the Roval, having finished in the top five in each of the first two events (he and Bowman are the only two to do so). Bowyer’s also had considerable success on road courses, having finished no worse than 11th in all but one of the past nine events held on such tracks.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Shortened weekday races earning rave reviews

Shortened, weekday NASCAR races have become a necessity as the circuit tries to complete its full slate. But drivers are loving the change.

Unlike their NFL counterparts, NASCAR’s attempts at Thursday night proceedings earned some positive reviews.

With the circuit emerging as the first North American team sports unit to return from its coronavirus-induced hiatus, NASCAR has embarked on an ambitious plan to complete its full schedules. Such an endeavor required the premier Cup Series, as well as the lower-tier Xfinity and Truck circuits, to run races beyond their normal weekend timeslots. The latest endeavor came on Thursday night, as a busy week at Charlotte Motor Speedway wrapped up with the Alsco Uniforms 500 at the Cup level. Weather played a factor in the Thursday scheduling, as storms from Tropical Depression Bertha washed out the original date on Wednesday. CMS had previously played host to the Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday as well as Xfinity and Truck races earlier in the week.

Fans old and new have been treated to the exciting racing NASCAR has become known for, but there have been some changes. To turn race weekends into single-day events, qualifying has been mostly eliminated, as has practice. These races have also been run sans spectators and in front of limited in-person media. Social distancing mandates have also limited the number of team personnel at the track.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The plan, while ambitious, was rife with concerns. Was it right to subject drivers to such a workload? How would drivers work without on-track practice? Could social distancing realistically be maintained?

So far, NASCAR has been able to alleviate these concerns, giving other sports a model to follow as they slowly start to make their own plans toward a revival. They might be learning a thing or two about their own sport along the way.

Weekday races haven’t been perfect. The weather has been a bit uncooperative (a Cup event at Darlington Raceway ended early and both Charlotte races featured delays) and there have been some early on-track incidents in the early going of some races (i.e. Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase wrecking on Thursday’s opening lap). But, in rare unanimity amongst participants, the drivers are responding well.

“I feel really good,” Thursday winner Chase Elliott said about the short turnaround time in a postrace Zoom conference call. “I feel like I tried to stay biking and doing things throughout those two months off, and honestly coming back and going back to Darlington where it was hot and then coming into the 600, it kind of just threw us back right to the wolves, and I think that was really a good thing just to really get some hot races and some long races in right off the bat and just jump right to it.  I feel good, and I’m certainly tired, it’s been a long week, but I’m going to rest these next couple days and get ready for Bristol.”

One of the most glaring differences in the weekday events is how long they last. Whereas most races operate by miles, often those seen in the race’s label, the races run during the week have gone by titular kilometers. The Alsco Uniforms 500, good for 208 circuits around a 1.5-mile oval, was the shortest-ever Cup Series event held at Charlotte, which is best known for hosting the longest race in NASCAR (the aforementioned Coca-Cola 600).

Everyone loves to go racing, but some drivers actually prefer the short lengths. The difference has also been seen on a different kind of stopwatch. Thursday’s race, removing the circa 75-minute rain delay, took just over two-and-a-half hours to finish. Thursday’s runner-up Denny Hamlin likened such a runtime to a regulation NBA contest.

“Heck with tradition; you’ve got to advance with the times,” said Hamlin, the winner of the Cup Series’ previous weekday event at Darlington’s Toyota 500. “I think that keeping people’s attention span for three hours is a good thing. It’s a very good thing. These cars are different now than what they used to be.  It used to be a battle of machine, you’re going to wear out your tires and your brakes and whatnot. They just don’t wear out anymore, so essentially it just becomes a long race after that.”

Elliott himself felt that the shortened race raised the on-track tenacity, in contrast to the time-biding strategies often seen in lengthy events like Sunday’s 600-mile competition.

“I think it’s great. I think it ups the intensity. I think you have to have your car driving really well from the start, and if it doesn’t, you have to make those big swings early.  I feel like it just ramps up the intensity and everything that comes with that. Just the clock is ticking and you don’t have a lot of time to do much of anything.”

The pace of play argument has become prevalent across major sports. Baseball has perhaps led the way with numerous time-saving proposals (including pitch clocks and opening extra innings with a man on base. One of the XFL’s tenets before its cancellation was maintaining a manageable game length.

Weekday races could well become the new norm, even when sports and society begin to revert to even more familiar settings. It could be one of the ways NASCAR maintains the newfound popularity it has discovered through fans perhaps biding their time until their usual favorite sports return.

NASCAR’s season is far longer than its competition, beginning with candies on Valentine’s Day and running until its end breaches the Thanksgiving turkey’s territory. It’s good to leave an impact on the calendar, but with such a long season comes the challenge of making every single portion relevant. NASCAR’s biggest event remains the season-opening Daytona 500 but its ten-race playoff proceedings happening in the heat of fall’s jam-packed schedule. Basketball on both the professional and amateur levels is reopening, as is the NHL. The NFL season is in full swing, and their college counterparts are battling for bowl and playoff positioning. The fact that a majority of NASCAR events are held the weekend during popular exploits on the gridiron can serve only as a detraction. Even in NASCAR’s supposed southern hubs, viewership isn’t guaranteed. It’s cruel to convince a fan in, say, Alabama to choose between Talladega and Tuscaloosa.

Weekday races could be a way to create autumn separation.

If anything, NASCAR’s status as one of the only major professional team sports leagues operating gives it a chance to experiment as they continue to roll out their slate. The Cup Series enters more familiar territory with a Sunday race at Bristol Motor Speedway this Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox), and there’s at least one experiment coming. On Wednesday, June 10, Martinsville Speedway will host its first-ever night race. That event is currently the last weekday event on the slate (with the exception of some previously scheduled Truck races) but the modern flexibility afforded (NASCAR currently has races confirmed through June 21) could change that.

If the drivers’ comments are any indication, they’ll certainly hope for some revisions.

“I certainly like the change, and on a weeknight time slot that we have, it’s got to be tightened up anyway, so I think this was a good taste of it,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “They’ll gather the data and figure out what’s best for them in the future.  Maybe it’s keeping them long, I’m not sure. Let the people that know a lot more about it speak on it.”

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: Chase Elliott reflects on costly Charlotte flaw

NASCAR contender Chase Elliott has lived up to the prestige of his family name, but bad luck on the track has stifled his true potential.

Over the past week, Chase Elliott’s NASCAR Cup Series endeavors have been the “My Plans vs. 2020” meme personified.

Elliott and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet are on solid ground. He and his team sit fourth in the Cup standings and he has earned four top tens over the first seven races of the 2020 season. Elliott himself has turned himself into an icon of modern NASCAR. The son of 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill, the 24-year-old Elliott has lived up to the hype to the tune of a NASCAR Xfinity Series title and six Cup Series victories. Playoff appearances have come in each of Elliott’s four full-time Cup seasons.

But this week has been a cruel reminder that there could’ve been so much more.

NASCAR’s healthy dose of races, holding two per week in the early stages of its return from the COVID-19 pause, has provided nothing but heartbreak for Elliott thus far. The No. 9 had a healthy lead toward the end of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but a late caution (brought out by Elliott’s own teammate William Byron) with two laps to go, brought the field together. Offered the chance for service on pit road, Elliott opted to come down with a handful of the other lead-lap cars.

Forced to restart on the cusp of the top ten, Elliott rallied back to finish third (which was later upgraded to second after another teammate, Jimmie Johnson, was disqualified after failing postrace inspection). But it was of no consolation to the pride of Dawsonville, Georgia. Brad Keselowski took home his first win of the season after staying out.

“You just make the best decision you can based on the information you have,” a somber Elliott said after the race. “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 move comes less than a week after the racing deities denied Elliott another victory with a heartbreaking blow. He had a chance to win the Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway last Wednesday, but contact with Kyle Busch put his Chevy into the wall while chasing down leader Denny Hamlin on the final lap of green flag racing. Though Elliott displayed his middle finger to Busch after the wreck and members of his crew confronted Busch afterward, the No. 9 driver took responsibility for the incident. 

Bad luck is hardly new in Elliott’s garage. Several other victories have been snatched from his grip through circumstances beyond his control. Just last season, he was denied a spot in the “championship four” (NASCAR’s equivalent of the Final Four with four drivers racing for a championship at the last race of the season) after two crashes and a mechanical issue in the three-race round beforehand.

“We’ve had some tough losses in my career, for however many years I’ve been doing this, five, six years, unfortunately. It is what it is,” Elliott said in an attempt to take the disappointment in stride. “I hate it for both myself and my team, our sponsors, the whole nine yards, unfortunate.”

“(We’ll) just try again. That’s all you can do. I mean, there is really no other option. I can’t rewind time. There’s no other choice.”

If there’s any consolation, bittersweet as it may be, it’s that runner-up finishes are disappointments to the No. 9 team rather than goals to aspire to. His competitors have recognized Elliott’s skill and know that he’s going to be a threat to the very end.

He’s been through some tough ones already,” Johnson said in another call. “He does a nice job of getting away and letting the frustrating things that happen roll off his shoulders. He is a younger guy, but he is an old soul.”

“He’s been around racing his whole life. He’s watched his dad go through stuff. He’s lived and experienced a lot on his own right. He’ll just come back more motivated and hungry. Alan Gustafson is about as good as they get in the garage area. With Alan’s leadership, they’ll dust themselves off and be back on Wednesday and be ready to roll.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday for the Alsco Uniforms 500, the second half of a doubleheader at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET, FS1). Elliott will start 19th with the top 20 Sunday finishes inverted in the starting lineup.

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