NASCAR: Denny Hamlin avoids playoff chaos, finally earns a win in 2021

Denny Hamlin got the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs off to a strong start, capturing his first win of 2021 as other contenders faltered.

The Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is no longer considered NASCAR’s “throwback” race, that honor instead being bestowed to the legendary track’s spring event. Sunday night’s winner, however, provided perfect throwback vibes as a victory lane staple finally got to hoist another trophy.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finally earned his first race of 2021, holding off championship favorite Kyle Larson to win the opening race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Hamling stood atop the regular season standings for most of the year, but his lack of victories allowed Larson to take over.

As several other playoff contenders dropped out due to on-track incidents, Hamlin stayed out of trouble and held off a furious last-lap push from Larson to secure the win, his fourth at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”. Hamlin also earned automatic advancement to the second round of the Cup Series playoffs, which began with 16 drivers on Saturday night. The bottom four in the playoff grid will be eliminated after the upcoming race at Bristol on Sept. 18.

Non-playoff driver Ross Chastain finished third, while Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

FedEx Toyota finally delivers a win

Hamlin winning the regular season title seemed like a certainty, as he sat atop the points standings for nearly six months despite failing to visit victory lane. Entering last season’s playoffs, Hamlin and the No. 11 group had won six races before appearing amongst the championship-contending quartet in Phoenix. He maintained general consistency throughout this season (he remains the only driver in the Cup Series that has run and finished all 27 races) but saw his points lead evaporate thanks to Larson’s five victories in his return to the circuit.

The streak finally ended on Sunday night at a familiar locale. He needed no guidance toward victory lane, as he earned his fourth career victory at the legendary Darlington. That breaks a tie with Harvick for the most amongst active drivers and he becomes the eighth driver to win at least four times at a locale that has hosted NASCAR events since 1950.

Hamlin won the first of two 115-lap stages and was running second before some late damage at the end of the latter shuffled him to fourth. The No. 11 crew earned a chance to set up Hamlin for a victory when pole sitter Ryan Blaney’s spin at lap 318 of 367 brought out the caution. Hamlin beat out Chastain for the lead and then secured it for good on the restart.

“We had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races…For us, it certainly is significant,” Hamlin said of his win. “I’m not going to downplay the significance of it. It’s not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.”

The No. 11 team now has a pair of consequence-free opportunities to tinker with their Camry before the playoff field is sliced down to a dozen.

“We didn’t have the playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these playoffs,” he continued. “There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.”

Drive Stuck at Five

Eager to earn another win, Larson gave Hamlin everything he could handle on the final lap. Catching up to the No. 11 by running close to Darlington’s famous wall, eventually getting too close for comfort on the final lap. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the start/finish line in a shower of sparks but managed to finish second.

“We got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something,” Larson said with a smile, admitting he went for the video game-style finish. “Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave (him) everything I had.”

Larson nonetheless owns a healthy 80-point lead above the 12th spot occupied by Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, a lead built through a series-best five victories and the 15-tally bonus offered to him through winning the regular season title.

Ross Is Boss Amongst the Remainders

Chastain missed out on the Cup Series playoffs but nearly disrupted the postseason party on Sunday night. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was leading at the time of Blaney’s spin after a strong green flag pit stop situated him in front of Larson with 67 laps to go.

Chastain and his teammate Kurt Busch are looking to send CGR out on a strong note. The team is set to shut down its NASCAR operations at the end of the season, having sold its assets to Trackhouse Racings (where Chastain will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet next season). Busch, the current driver of the No. 1, is seeking his second Cup Series title. He led 13 laps on Sunday and finished sixth to establish a 26-point lead ahead of the cutoff.

“This McDonald’s car, I think it was the fastest car here tonight,” Chastain said. “It’s humbling to come with this CGR group these final 10 races here, a place where my career kind of took a totally different trajectory three years ago and to have people like Clover and the Moose (Fraternity) and Advent Health on board supporting me and still letting me race three years later, it means the world. I’ve just got to clean up some more, though.”

Lady in Black Scorns Playoff Drivers

Darlington lived up to its reputation as The Track Too Tough to Tame, claiming the vehicles of several playoff drivers…

  • Larson’s runner-up finish salvaged a brutal night for Hendrick Motorsports: Bowman made contact with the wall at lap 16, damaging teammate William Byron’s car in the process. Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed to finish after a blow tired put him into the wall at lap 200, dropping him to 34th in the final running order and 15th in the playoff standings, nine points behind Reddick and Bowman’s cutoff. Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished the race in 26th, four laps down.

 

  • Defending series champion Chase Elliott, another HMS rep, was not immune to the struggles. His No. 9 Chevrolet was forced to make another stop after clipping a tire being held by a crew member from James Davison’s No. 53 stall at lap 28. Like Byron, a downed tire ruined Elliott’s day, as contact with Christopher Bell cost him his steering and relegated him to 31st.

 

  • Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell’s quest to shock the NASCAR world in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford was derailed by when he got loose coming out of Turn 2. His subsequent meeting with the inside wall pushed to dead last in 37th. Now 22 points away from advancement, McDowell may need another surprise victory to keep his Cinderella run alive.

 

  • Kyle Busch got loose in Turn 2 while racing Austin Dillon for the 12th position, putting his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall. A disgruntled Busch immediately went to the garage area and finished 35th, pitting him two points behind the cutoff.

 

  • Truex, the winner of May’s Darlington event, undoubtedly earned his top five finish. An unscheduled pit stop to fix a loose wheel put him a lap down before a late speeding penalty on pit road possibly cost him a chance at the win. Such a strong finish put Truex in third place, 36 points ahead of the cutoff.

 

  • Blaney finished 22nd after his spin.

Ware Released After Carbon Monoxide Scare

Cody Ware retired from the race early after reportedly showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. His No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet was previously involved in a stage one incident with teammate Davison and spent an extended stay in the infield care center. Ware was in good spirits on Twitter after the race and thanked both the Darlington medical staff and well-wishers.

What’s Next

The second leg of the Cup Series’ opening playoff round comes at the short track at Richmond Raceway, where drivers will compete in the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This will be the second visit to Richmond this season, as Bowman earned his first victory in the No. 48 Chevrolet, passing Hamlin on a restart with 10 laps to go in securing the victory. Kyle Busch is by far the most accomplished driver at the track, earning six Cup Series wins (his last in September 2018).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup: Chase Elliott falls short in heroic effort at Watkins Glen

The fastest car in racing doesn’t always win.

That, unfortunately, was the case for Chase Elliott on Sunday, who finished second in the NASCAR Cup Series at Watkins Glen after a whirlwind race. Elliott was expected to start the race in 11th place; however, a failure in prerace inspection sent him to the rear to start the race. Additionally, Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, was ejected for the race and the team was docked 10 driver and owner points.

Elliott wasted no time making up ground, driving his No. 9 car all the way up to 8th place in 20 green flag laps for three stage points. He made a pit stop on lap 12 during the competition caution as well as another pit stop during the stage break.

However, Elliott was forced to make an unscheduled stop midway through the second stage. He flat-spotted his tires and was forced to make a trip down pit road, losing all of the time that he made up.

“[I need to] make less mistakes,” Elliott said. “[I can’t] flat spot the tires. That was ultimately the straw that broke it. It was my bad, completely my fault”.

Elliott fell many seconds behind the leader until the stage two caution allowed him to catch up. He was forced to start stage three towards the back of the field and race through traffic once again to catch the leaders.

With 15 laps to go, Elliott was within striking distance of leader Kyle Larson and second place car Martin Truex Jr. Elliott shaved nearly four seconds off Truex Jr. with eight laps to go, but lapped traffic gave Larson enough of a cushion to hold off Elliott.

“He was really fast,” Larson said. “[I was] just trying to judge the gap in my head and manage it and not make as many mistakes, and hopefully he wouldn’t be on my back bumper”.

Elliott’s second place finish at Watkins Glen is his third consecutive podium finish at the track, winning in both 2018 and 2019. He also scored his 13th top-10 finish of the 2021 season.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

NASCAR: Chase Elliott reclaims road course crown at Road America

Elliott’s seventh road course win is good for sole possession of third place in NASCAR Cup Series history.

It had been a long time since the NASCAR Cup Series descended upon Elkhart Lake’s Road America road course in Wisconsin. Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, made sure the uniqueness was kept to a minimum.

As the Cup Series held its first event at Road America since 1956, Elliott reclaimed his road course crown by passing Kyle Busch on lap 46 of 62 to take home the Jockey Made in America 250. Christopher Bell got by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to finish second while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, another Gibbs Toyota, rounded out the top five at the 4.048-mile circuit.

The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion has now won seven races on road courses, good for sole possession of third place in the circuit’s history. Only Jeff Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8) have won more. Elliott previously won in May at the rain-shortened event at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. HMS Chevys also returned to victory lane after a one-race pause at Pocono last Sunday, having now won seven of the last eight points-paying events.

Elliott’s latest road course triumph was an uphill battle. During Sunday morning’s qualifying session, the No. 9 failed to finish a full-speed lap in the allotted window, forcing him to start in the 34th position. He was able to move up to 10th by the end of the first 14-lap stage (won by HMS teammate William Byron), assisted by some teams that pitted late for strategy purposes. The No. 9 led its first laps at the onset of the third and final segment, passing Matt DiBenedetto at lap 38.

Kyle Busch briefly got back out front when a majority of the field made its final pit stop under caution at lap 44, a sequence initiated by Anthony Alfredo’s spin into the gravel in Turn 1. Elliott quickly resecured the lead and coasted over the final 17 laps of green flag racing, beating out Bell by a 5.7-second margin.

At over four miles, Road America is one of the most daunting visits on the NASCAR circuit. But the only time the distance affected Elliott’s No. 9 group was through his celebration. Eager to greet the fans at every turn, Elliott indulged those in Turn 5 with a victorious burnout, one that wound up tearing up his tires to the point he not only needed a push from the track’s safety crew but an impromptu pit stop at the stop finish line so his winning vehicle could make it to victory lane. The joyous reactions from his crew, however, were more than enough proof that the extra work was completely worth it.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 500 presented by Walmart (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For full Sunday results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson continues to dominate, wins return to Sonoma

Kyle Larson helped Hendrick Motorsports expand the all-time wins record with his second consecutive victory in NASCAR’s return to Sonoma.

Last weekend at Charlotte, Kyle Larson helped Hendrick Motorsports set the record for most victories for a single team in NASCAR Cup Series history. On Sunday, Larson helped HMS get to work in making sure that they’ll never be caught.

The Cup Series returned to Sonoma Raceway this weekend after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Larson’s No. 5 HMS Chevrolet once again dominated the proceedings, leading 55 of 90 laps at the Toyota/SaveMart 350. Rick Hendrick’s vehicles have now won four consecutive races while Larson joined Martin Truex Jr. as the only three-time winner this season.

Larson sat on the pole for the return to Sonoma, a familiar spot for him at the Wine Country-based road course. He had started first in each of the last three visits to Northern California but led only 11 laps in six previous visits, his best finish being 10th in 2019.

On Sunday, however, the No. 5 was clicking on all cylinders, as the victory was earned through a complete team effort. A rare threat to Larson’s supremacy came with 18 laps to go, when the No. 00 Chevrolet of Quin Houff lost its engine and stalled on the racetrack. When a majority of the lead lap cars visited pit road for tires and fuel, Larson’s crew got him out quickly, setting him up in fifth-place and top car on fresh tires.

“All these wins are team wins,” Larson said of his No. 5 squad. “My relationship with (crew chief Cliff Daniels) and everybody on the No. 5 car is great…This series is so tough that you can easily get knocked back down and be struggling. We just have to continue to work hard. The pit crew has been doing a great job. Cliff and everybody out at the shop on all the cars have been doing great.”

It took Larson only two laps to retake the lead, passing Joey Logano right before another yellow flag for a multi-car get-together. Larson then overcame several other on-track incidents to hold the lead on multiple restarts before holding off teammate and defending series champion Chase Elliott for the win in an overtime finish.

HMS driver William Byron saw his day end in one of those wrecks (his first DNF since Martinsville last November) but Larson continued to carry the torch. With Larson winning and teammate Chase Elliott finishing second, HMS vehicles have also finished in the top two spots in four consecutive races. Such a streak had not been achieved in NASCAR since 1956, when Carl Kiekhaefer’s vehicles pulled it off.

Between Larson, Elliott, Byron, and Alex Bowman, Hendrick Chevrolets have united to win seven of the 16 points races on the Cup Series docket.

I feel like you have to race each other a little bit differently. You don’t want to run into each other and damage their car or damage yours take out two opportunities for our organization to get a win,” Larson said of racing his teammates for big positions. “It’s been cool to get to race really hard with Chase. William and Alex have been doing a great job this year. To have us all getting wins and battling upfront, all throughout the race, it’s awesome.”

“We all want to see each other do good, so we work really well together. I think we all learn something off of each other each week.”

Martin Truex Jr., the winner of the last two Sonoma visits, finished third, while Logano and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.

Following the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway next weekend, the Cup Series returns to action on Sunday, June 20 for its maiden voyage at Nashville Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • After only one incident-induced caution (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s wreck a lap 32) over the first 70 laps (not counting two stage endings and a competition flag at lap 10), the final 20 featured several wrecks that induced damage to several renowned names.

 

  • With Byron failing to finish the race (his wreck also involving Alex Bowman, Kevin Harvick, and Christopher Bell among others), only Denny Hamlin (8th), Austin Dillon (13th), and Chase Briscoe (17th) have been running at the finish in all 16 races this season.

 

  • After Sunday’s race, Larson moved into second place in the points standings and now sits 47 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. Larson trailed Hamlin, who has yet to win this season, by 135 points after the Richmond race seven weeks prior. The Cup Series’ regular season champion earns 15 bonus points to start the opening playoff round at Darlington in September. Ten events linger before the postseason cutoff.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

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 wins chaotic, shortened maiden voyage at COTA

Chase Elliott braved the elements and some early chaos to reclaim his crown as NASCAR’s road course king en route to his first win of 2021.

Chase Elliott’s rain-shortened victory at the Echo Park Texas Grand Prix was historic in several ways. Not only did the defending Cup Series champion win NASCAR’s first visit to the Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin, TX, but he also captured the 268th Cup Series win for Hendrick Motorsports.

HMS is now tied for the most team victories in Cup Series history, tying Richard Petty’s Petty Enterprises. It’s also the 800th victory for manufacturer Chevrolet. Elliott’s teammate Kyle Larson finished second, while Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top five.

Obviously that’s just a huge win on multiple fronts,” Elliott said after the race. “Win number 800 for Chevrolet. They’re a great partner to me personally. They’ve played a massive role in the success of Hendrick Motorsports past and present. They’re a great group to work with so I’m super proud of them.

“To tie (Petty Enterprises) obviously is (also) a big one. The boss has been on us heavy about that record. He wants that record. So super glad that we could help with that today.”

With Elliott’s win, each of team owner Rick Hendrick’s drivers has won a race in 2021. He joins Larson, William Byron, and Alex Bowman, the latter-most of whom won last weekend’s race at Dover. HMS vehicles swept the first four spots.

Hendrick has enjoyed his share of success in the Cup Series, as his 268 career victories have been accompanied by 13 championships, the most recent earned by Elliott last season. Jimmie Johnson won seven in the No. 48 now occupied by Bowman, while Jeff Gordon won four in the No. 24 piloted by Byron. Laron’s No. 5 hosted Terry Labonte’s championship in 1996.

But Hendrick has a strong appreciation for the current run, as there’s a possibility that his quartet could all be racing for a championship come November’s season finale in Phoenix.

“We usually had one or two (contenders). Jeff’s dominating, Jimmie’s dominating. Now the sport is so competitive,” he said. “But to have four that can show up and win any weekend, that’s a testament to the effort that all those people back in the shop are putting into this program.”

The win also allowed Elliott to reclaim his monopoly on road courses. He had previously won four in a row at such tracks, seeing that streak end in February at Daytona. Elliott has now won six road course races, tied for third-most all-time with Petty, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, and Bobby Allison. Only Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8) have won more. COTA is the second of a record seven road courses on the 2021 schedule, the next being scheduled for Sonoma Raceway on June 6.

It’s safe to say that this one at COTA, which often plays host to Formula 1 and Sports Car races, will definitely be among the most unique. Special rain tires were used as downpours struck the Austin area. Unfortunately, the tires did little to combat visibility issues that plagued the early portions of the race and eventually led to its cancelation with 14 to go in the 68-lap event. 

NASCAR has run full races on road courses in the rain before, including an Xfinity Series race at the Charlotte roval last fall. But several drivers were displeased after several violent wrecks plagued the first two stages. In a dangerous wreck that brought out a red flag on lap 25, Martin Truex Jr. slammed into the back of Michael McDowell’s Ford before his own No. 19 Toyota was plowed into by Cole Custer on the fast backstretch.

Six laps earlier, the days of Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, and Bubba Wallace all ended due to visibility issues. Harvick, who failed to finish a race for the first time since September 2019, minced no words about the situation. 

“It’s the most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car by a lot.  You can’t see anything down the straightaways.  These cars were not built to run in the rain,” the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and 2014 Cup Series champion said. “We don’t have any business being out in the rain, period.  All I can say is this is the worst decision that we’ve ever made in our sport that I’ve been a part of, and I’ve never felt more unsafe in my whole racing career, period.”

Sunday’s race became considerably tamer as the rain let up. NASCAR also mandated single-file restarts for the rest of the event. Elliott took over the lead at lap 50, when several leaders (including Bowman, Chastain, and Kyle Busch) went to pit road. The No. 9 team projected that they would be unable to finish the race without making another stop of their own and advised Elliott to simply build a lead that would procure a strong finish.

The return of heavy rains led to visibility issues resurfacing and standing water in the backstretch, allowing Elliott to secure the 12th win of his career.

“I’m super proud just of our whole group,” Elliott said. “I feel like we really kind of persevered through multiple challenges today. I didn’t think we started the day off great, but we were able to kind of fight back, get to where we had a lot of pace there at the end. I’m really proud of that.”

Prior to Elliott’s statements, NASCAR announced that Hendrick and Petty would sign and auction off part of Elliott’s No. 9 car from the race with proceeds benefitting the Victory Junction Gang, a charity that aids terminally ill children. The charity was formed by Petty and his son Kyle in honor of fourth-generation racer Adam Petty, who tragically perished at the age of 19 in a crash during a 2000 practice run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns next Sunday for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET, Fox). This Memorial Day Weekend tradition is the longest event on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles (400 laps around the 1.5-mile oval).

Race Notes

  • Alas for HMS, the early stoppage caused one streak to come to an end. Coming home 11th, Byron saw his streak of consecutive top ten finishes severed at 11.

 

  • Allmendinger’s fifth-place finish was the best in five races for Kaluig Racing. He is currently competing for an Xfinity Series title for Kaulig, sitting third in the standings. Allmendinger’s lone Cup Series win came with JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 in 2014 at Watkins Glen.

 

  • Rookie Chase Briscoe posted his best career finish in sixth.

 

  • Sunday’s starting lineup was set by traditional qualifying, which has mostly been cast aside to compact race weekends into a single day during the ongoing health crisis. Tyler Reddick earned his first career pole with a time of 2:12.911.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in inaugural EchoPark Texas Grand Prix

This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series heads south to Austin, Texas for the inaugural EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at COTA. No driver in the field has ever run the Formula 1 designed course, setting things up for an interesting weekend. Since nobody in the field has ever raced this track before, this weekend’s event is one of the few with practice and qualifying in 2021.

Sunday’s race is scheduled for 68 laps/231 miles around the 20-turn, 3.4-mile road course. Here are three drivers to watch in the EchoPark Texas Grand Prix:

Chase Elliott (+240)

You can’t go to a road course without throwing Chase Elliott’s name into contention. 5 of his 11 victories have come on road courses, including back-to-back wins at Watkins Glen in 2018 and 2019 as well as back-to-back wins at the Charlotte Roval in 2019 and 2020. Elliott also won last summer at the Daytona Road Course, showing he can adapt to new tracks on the NASCAR schedule.

Although he hasn’t scored a victory in 2021, Elliott’s seven top-10 finishes have placed him seventh in the Cup Series standings. He finished third last weekend in Dover, contributing to Hendrick’s 1-2-3-4 finish. Elliott is a massive favorite this weekend, so expect him to be in a position to secure his first victory of the season.

AJ Allmendinger (+2800)

AJ Allmendinger, making his second Cup Series start for Kaulig Racing, is also a major road course favorite. He has a ton of experience in both IndyCar and IMSA, making him out as one of the best road course racers in the field. Allmendinger’s lone NASCAR Cup Series win came at Watkins Glen in 2014, and he also has four Xfinity Series victories on road courses.

Although he’s only running a part-time Cup Series schedule, Allmendinger is actually running a full-time Xfinity Series schedule. He has a win and six top-5s in 10 races this season, putting his name well into Xfinity Series title contention. Expect Allmendinger to have a chance to pull off an upset on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (+900(

Denny Hamlin’s having one of the best yet one of the weirdest seasons we’ve seen in a long time. Despite failing to pick up a win through 13 races, Hamlin leads the standings by over 100 points. He has nine top-10s and five stage victories to help maintain his high points position.

Although he isn’t known as one of the best road course racers, Hamlin knows how to race them well. He won at Watkins Glen in 2016 and has seven top-10s on the circuit. Hamlin also has six top-10s at Sonoma Raceway in California. Sunday would be a great opportunity for Denny Hamlin to pick up his first win of 2021.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Buschy McBusch Race 400

After an eventful Talladega race, the NASCAR Cup Series makes a stop in the Midwest at Kansas Motor Speedway. The race will last 267 laps, equivalent to 400 miles. Last week’s winner Brad Keselowski rolls off from the pole position while last fall’s winner Joey Logano starts 29th after a crash at Talladega. Here are three drivers to watch on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr. (+650)

To no one’s surprise, Martin Truex Jr. has had a lot of success at Kansas Speedway. Living up to his name of “Mile and a Half Martin”, Truex Jr. has two wins and 12 top-10s in 25 starts on the circuit. Both of his wins came in 2017, the year he won the Cup Series Championship.

2021 has so far been kind to the Truex Jr. and the No. 19 team. With wins at Phoenix and Martinsville, Truex Jr. is the only Cup Series driver with multiple wins on the season and is currently 2nd in points. Expect Truex Jr. to run up front on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (+600)

Much like Truex Jr., Kansas has been kind to Denny Hamlin over his career. He’s won three times at the track with 8 top-5s and an average finish of 14.5. Hamlin is also the winner of two of the last three races at Kansas.

Although Hamlin’s had massive success this season, he still hasn’t pulled out a victory. With top-10s in 8 of 10 races, Hamlin holds a nearly 90-point lead in the standings with many close calls and stage points this season. Sunday would be a great time for Hamlin to finally break through and secure his first victory of the season.

Chase Elliott (+800)

Someone who’s struggled a bit this season is defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He’s managed just 4 top-10s so far, however, he remains in 8th in the standings due to stage points.

Elliott’s had a good bit of success at Kansas, winning once with 6 top-10s in 10 starts at the track. He has an average finish of 11th and doesn’t have any DNFs. Don’t be surprised if Elliott breaks through for a big victory on Sunday.

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: Three drivers to watch on Sunday in the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix on Sunday for the Instacart 500 — the fifth race of the 2021 season. Sunday’s event is an important one, as the race is on the track that will host the season finale in November. Top drivers will focus on set-ups in Sunday’s race to be better prepared if they are in the Championship 4 later this season. Here are three drivers to watch in the Instacart 500:

Chase Elliott:

Coming off a win in Phoenix last fall to secure the championship, Chase Elliott is one of the biggest names to watch on Sunday. He’s finished in the top-10 in 6 of his 10 career starts in the desert. After a decent start this season, Elliott is due for a win. He’s finished in the top-10 once so far in 2021, however, he sits fourth in overall points. Expect Elliott to contend for the win on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick:

Phoenix Raceway has always been one of Kevin Harvick’s best tracks. He’s won there nine times over his career, and placed runner-up twice. This season, Harvick has finished in the top-10 in three of four races and sits seventh in standings. Harvick has gotten off to a strong start this season, and it’d be fitting for him to pick up his first win of 2021 in Phoenix

Aric Almirola:

2021 has been less than stellar thus far for Aric Almirola. Currently sitting 28th in points, Almirola has failed to finish within the top-10 and has just one top-20. He’s crashed in two of four races and hasn’t spent much time up front. Going into Sunday’s race, Almirola has six top-10s in 20 starts at Phoenix Raceway. Almirola could use a strong run this weekend to turn his season around.