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.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch for this weekend at the Daytona Road Course

After Michael McDowell’s upset victory in the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series once again heads to Daytona International Speedway. This time, NASCAR’s best will take on the Daytona Road Course in a 70-lap, 253-mile shootout. Here are three drivers to watch for this weekend who could contend for a win.

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott has proven to undoubtedly be the best full-time road course racer in NASCAR. Of his 10 career wins, five of them have been on road courses, including last summer at Daytona. Elliott has also won the last four Cup Series road-course races dating back to Watkins Glen in 2019.

Coming off a Cup Series championship, NASCAR’s most popular driver is looking to get on the board early in 2021 with a win.

AJ Allmendinger

After racing part-time in the Xfinity Series in both 2019 and 2020, AJ Allmendinger is back in the Cup Series. He’ll run a part-time Cup Series schedule with Kaulig Racing in 2021 and will run full-time with the team in the Xfinity Series.

Allmendinger is a road-course specialist; his only Cup Series victory coming in 2014 at Watkins Glen. Four of his five Xfinity Series wins have come at Road Courses and is coming off back-to-back wins at the ROVAL in 2019 and 2020. Allmendinger has also run the Rolex 24 at Daytona 15 times, meaning he has more experience on the track than any other driver.

With Allmendinger being in good equipment, expect him to contend for the win at Daytona.

Kyle Busch

After a disappointing one-win 2020 season, Kyle Busch started off his 2021 campaign strong with a win in the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on February 9. He’s won four Cup Series road-course races over his career and would like a fifth on a new track on the circuit.

With a new crew and a clean slate in 2021, expect Kyle Busch to contend for a win to punch his playoff ticket early.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR watch has ended at HMS. Are Chase Elliott and his teammates ready to follow in the steps of Johnson and Jeff Gordon?

2021 Hendrick Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kyle Larson 5 Cliff Daniels NationsGuard/HendrickCars.com
Chase Elliott 9 Alan Gustafson NAPA Auto Parts/Hooters/Llumar
William Byron 24 Rudy Fugle Axalta/Liberty University
Alex Bowman 48 Greg Ives Ally

History

In metropolitan terms, Hendrick Motorsports could well be the New York Yankees. Since North Carolina auto dealer Rick Hendrick entered the sport in 1984, some of the finest names in the sport have driven his Chevrolets…including fictional ones, as Hendrick provided the cars used in the NASCAR blockbuster Days of Thunder.

The early days at HMS were dominated by strong runs with names like Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, and Ken Schrader, but championships proved elusive. That all changed in 1995, when wunderkind Jeff Gordon, in just his third season on the Cup Series circuit, held off Dale Earnhardt to earn the 1995 championship with the No. 24 team. Hendrick vehicles took each of the next four championships, with Terry Labonte triumphing in the ensuring 1996 season before Gordon captured two more. The fourth and final championship for Gordon came in 2001. Each of his 93 Cup Series victories, third-best all-time, came in Hendrick’s No. 24.

Just when the circuit had enough of Hendrick dominance…Joe Gibbs Racing was rising to power through championships for Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart…Hendrick and Gordon unleashed the monster known as Jimmie Johnson unto the racing world in 2002, driving the newly formed No. 48 Chevrolet. It took a little more patience for Johnson to earn his first championship, but once he did so in 2006, his fifth full year in the Series, there was no stopping him. Johnson would go on to win five consecutive championships (2006-10) before adding two more (2013, 2016) to solidify himself as the driver with the most titles alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Like Gordon, Johnson won each and every one of his Cup Series races under a Hendrick banner, tallying 83 when all was said and done.

So, suffice to say…there’s a lot to live up to for Hendrick’s current crop.

2020 in Review

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as Semisonic routinely sang during Jeff Gordon’s heyday. That perfectly defined the Hendrick Motorsports mindset in 2020. As Jimmie Johnson struggled in a swan song, failing to earn one last win or a playoff berth in a tough season, Chase Elliott followed in his father Bill’s footsteps behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott had been consistent all season…his three-win tally entering the penultimate race at Martinsville could’ve been more than doubled if not for some bad luck along the way…but many were expecting him to perform to a higher standard with strong equipment and a legendary NASCAR pedigree.

But Elliott proved his mettle in historic ways during the final segments of the season. An advancement to the championship round thanks to a win at Martinsville was seemingly for naught when he was forced to start the title-clincher at Phoenix at the back of the field due to failed inspection. But Elliott looked at the best possible way a racer could: more cars for him to pass.

“The confidence level with Chase Elliott is unbelievable,” Hendrick told the media this week. “That’s something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me one time. He said you have to know when to race. He said you have to know how to race, but you have to know when to race. And Chase does that.”

Elliott not only worked his way up to the front at Phoenix, but he wound up leading a race-best 153 of 312 laps to clinch the title, the 13th in HMS’ treasured history. He and Bill also became the third father-son duo to take home matching Cup Series championships, joining the Jarretts (Ned and Dale) and Pettys (Lee and Richard).

Other drivers had their chance to shine for Hendrick as well. Alex Bowman, the internal successor to Johnson in the No. 48 Chevorlet, finished out his career under No. 88 branding with an appearance in the semifinal round of eight drivers, ironically dominating the California native Johnson’s final visit to Fontana early in the year. William Byron, bearing Gordon’s iconic numerals, earned his first victory at the regular season finale at Daytona.

Meet the Drivers

Kyle Larson

Experience: 7th full season
Career Cup Victories: 6 (last: Dover fall, 2019)
2020 finish: 34th
Best standings finish: 6th (2019)

By now, both the casual observer and the die-hard fan alike knows about Larson’s transgression that led to his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing, uttering a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Larson’s return was earned through not only undergoing mandated sensitivity training from NASCAR but lending his time and resources to several charitable causes to educate himself on modern affairs and to be a better person. It was enough to convince Hendrick that Larson had earned a new opportunity, one to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet that Labonte drove to a championship a quarter-century prior.

“When you look at the character of what he is; a lot of people do things and they say I’m sorry, right?” Hendrick asked rhetorically. “They just say I’m sorry and go right on running their life. And that’s all they have to do. And people say okay, we’ll give you another shot. This guy did ten times that. And he’s created an image and things in that community that people really respect him. So, I guess the answer to the riddle is that I’m a part of it, but it was Kyle’s heart and Kyle’s desire that got him back.”

There’s no denying that Larson has the talent to succeed in racing. He won six races driving CGR’s No. 42 (four during the 2017 campaign) and earned countless victories driving dirt cars during his suspension.

Chase Elliott

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 11 (last: Phoenix fall, 2020)
2020 finish: 2020 Champion
Best standings finish: 2020 Champion

It truly is a bit of a shame that Elliott’s career is connected to so many of the sport’s most memorable names. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, originally took over for Jeff Gordon after racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team in the Xfinity Series. Such connections have helped Elliott reach this point, but may be used by detractors to discount his incredible success. With his first championship under his belt, Elliott is now ready to truly leave a mark on the sport; he knows that NASCAR is a world of “what have you done for me lately”, a feeling he feels has permeated every professional sport. He compared it to those who asked Jimmie Johnson the same questions toward the end of his career.

“In any sport, it’s what have you done lately,” Elliott remarked. “I think about all the disrespect that Jimmie Johnson got toward the end of this career. It’s like everyone forgot about how great he is just because he had a bad race or a bad stretch of races. The lesson that taught me is that no matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, then they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently.”

“On the flip side of that, if you have a good run after being trashed for a year or something, everyone is going to be hyping you up, be excited for you and jumping on the bandwagon. It’s all about performance and all about what you’ve done lately. We want to push; we want to continue to do good for ourselves and push our team internally. That’s all that matters to me, and that’s all that matters to our entire group.”

Only making Elliott ever more dangerous this season? As the winner of the last four visits to road course events, perhaps no one is more excited to see a record seven on the 2021 slate than Elliott.

William Byron

Experience: 4th season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Daytona summer, 2020)
2020 finish: 14th
Best standings finish: 11th (2019)

Byron has had a little trouble racing up to the reputation that his numerals mandate, failing to finish in the top ten in any of his first four seasons. He did get one monkey off his back by earning his first career victory at the regular season finale at Daytona that punched his playoff ticket. Byron mentioned that going into the new year liberated from the burden of missing out on his first Cup win will work in the team’s favor.

“It’s great that there is not as much attention on that headline and not as much outside noise. For us, the goal is still the same – to win. Our goal has always been to win and now we can do it with some confidence. We can just focus on just doing our jobs.”

Alex Bowman

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Fontana 2020)
2020 finish: 6th
Best standings finish: 6th (2020)

To put things in metropolitan terms, Bowman replacing Johnson in the No. 48 is the equivalent of what Didi Gregorious went through when he took over the mantle of New York Yankees shortstop from Derek Jeter. It’s a spot that will feature increased eyes and heightened scrutiny, a challenge Bowman believes he’s handling well going into this fateful season.

Bowman is eager to fulfill those sky-high expectations but stays grounded by reminding himself that he’s working his way through NASCAR for himself.

“The biggest thing for me is there’s not a car number or situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I feel like all race car drivers are selfish but I’m really selfish,” he said. “I just want to win for me. Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible.

“But more so than any of that, I want to win for me. I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well and to run how we should. I think outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress on myself and too much pressure on myself at times, but it’s all from me because I care about how we run and because I want to run well. It’s not really because somebody is saying oh the No. 48 has to go win or needs to go win a championship. It’s because I want to win and because I want to win championships.”

Outlook

Elliott is obviously going to be someone to keep an eye on in the grand scheme of things, while it’ll be interesting to see how Bowman handles the newfound responsibilities that are attached to the No. 48. Both Byron and Larson will each face heightened expectations as well, as Hendrick Motorsports undergoes a youthful revolt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR makes early adjustments to 2021 schedule

The early portions of NASCAR’s 2021 schedule will have a strong Floridian feel, as the second weekend of the season will remain at Daytona.

For many, Florida in February is but a pipe dream. For NASCAR, it’s a new reality.

The auto racing circuit announced a pair of schedule shifts on Tuesday afternoon. Following the season-opening Daytona 500 for the premier Cup Series on February 14, the series will remain at the iconic Daytona International Speedway to run its second weekend of events at the venue’s road course on February 19-21. Each of the circuit’s trio of national series (Cup, Xfinity, Camping World Truck) will race on the road course for the second straight year. The second event of the season was originally a doubleheader between the Xfinity and Cup Series for Homestead-Miami Speedway, which will now move to the weekend of February 27-28.

Lost from the schedule is the annual trek to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, which has annually hosted a Cup Series event since 1997. A NASCAR statement states that moving from Fontana was necessary due to “challenges resulting from the ongoing pandemic and the need for significant advance planning”. The venue was set to host its final events on its traditional two-mile D-shaped oval, before undergoing renovations that turn it into a half-mile short track. These refurbishments have likewise been put on hold. Alex Bowman is the defending winner of the Cup Series’ 400-mile race at the track, while Harrison Burton took the Xfinity portion (300 miles).

NASCAR visited the Daytona road course for the first time in August due to Watkins Glen International’s date being lost due to health protocols in New York State. The course is 3.61 miles in its NASCAR incarnation and each of the national series partook. Daytona’s road course was recently announced to be hosting the Busch Clash exhibition, a season-opening showcase that is open to playoff drivers, race winners, stage winners, and pole sitters from on-track qualifying. The race will be held on Tuesday, February 9, five days before “The Great American Race”.

This shift will only add to a Cup Series-record in races on a road course in 2021, as the season is scheduled to visit seven such venues. In addition to the recurring visits in Daytona, Watkins Glen, Sonoma, and Charlotte, the Cup Series will also visit road courses at Indianapolis, Road America, and the Circuit of the Americas.

Homestead-Miami Speedway is a 1.5-mile oval in Homestead, a 40-minute drive from Magic City. The track hosted NASCAR’s season finales from 2002 through 2019, with that date since shifted to Phoenix. Denny Hamlin is the defending winner at the track, taking home the Dixie Vodka 400 in June.

The news of another road course should be welcomed warmly by defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team have won each of the last four races held at such tracks, including the inaugural visit to Daytona (the Go Bowling 325) in August.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR brought out the best in sports…and America…in 2020

In a year of chaos, NASCAR’s stability and adaptation brought hope and joy to the nation. Maybe we can all take a lesson from the circuit.

Enough has been written about American chaos, lunacy, childishness, violence, depravity, callousness, and heartbreak in the year 2020.

Yet, with circa 50 days remaining in this year of struggle and reckoning, there’s still time to come out clean on the other side. Through perseverance, talent, and faith, the American people still have time to emerge with a sense of betterment, if only on a personal level. The country has struggled at times to live up to the principles it was founded on, those of freedom and opportunity. But there are still individual cases throughout the land that showcase these American ideals. After all, it’s more often than not no one in the White House that makes America great…it’s We the People.

Cruel as life can be, it does have the decency to imitate the art of these ideals and virtues, often doing so through the canvas of sports. After all, that’s what made the 2020 NASCAR season so intriguing and a beacon of hope in a chaotic landscape.

Last Sunday marked the end of the 2020 circuit, the proceedings wrapping with Chase Elliott, the modern face of NASCAR, hoisting the Bill France Cup in the deserts just outside of Phoenix to commemorate his first championship title in the premier Cup Series. Elliott’s dominance of the 500-mile finale made the final laps of the campaign a tad anticlimactic…his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet beating Brad Keselowski by a 2.74-second margin…but everything else was consistent with a storybook ending.

The Season Finale 500, NASCAR’s championship race, was held on its originally scheduled date at its originally scheduled location. Even a few loyal, socially distanced fans were welcomed into the facility to witness Elliott’s dominance. The event was the 36th points event of the Cup Series season…no different from the number attached to a full schedule in a year unhindered by masks and six feet.

“The year has been, in short, I would say extraordinary, although I could probably use 15 or 20 other words to try to get to something,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said prior to the Cup finale at Phoenix.It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport. I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.”

But through it all this industry…I believe this industry does adversity better than any sport.  If you think about it, we’re at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t own ourselves.  We’re not franchised, right?  We have independent contractors who come to race as one. What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable.  We can’t do what we did as a sport without coming together.”

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Return

NASCAR was not immune to the world getting turned upside down at the onset of the ongoing health crisis. The circuit ran four races before shutdown and quarantine protocols across the country forced them to take an indefinite break after, ironically, the first race at Phoenix Raceway, the FanShield 500 on March 8. Working with their business partners and local governments, the series was able to negotiate a return on May 17, with proceedings moving to a doubleheader at the historic Darlington Raceway.

Like the rest of the country, drivers and crews had to make do with the temporary new surroundings. One of the most accessible sports from a spectator standpoint endured empty stands and empty garages. The typical hustle and bustle of fans enjoying not just a day, but a whole weekend, at the track, and the colorful and lively sponsor hospitality tents had all vanished.

NASCAR was stripped down to almost bare essentials, with a weekend’s work confined to mere hours after practice and qualifying were wiped out. With the starting lineup determined by random order and later a mathematical formula that prioritized those ahead in the standings, drivers essentially went from their streetcars to their racecars on the day of the event. Further draining perhaps emerged from the potential of running three races over the span of seven days, as weekday events were added to the schedule in an effort to get the full docket in.

Other efforts to not only complete every race but include the variety of different tracks that NASCAR has become known for were made as well. With road course events at Sonoma and New York State’s Watkins Glen International unable to be salvaged, the Cup Series moved their proceedings to a strange land in familiar territory: the road course at Daytona International Speedway. No NASCAR career is complete without running Daytona at least once, but the road course was unchartered ground. Yet, the sport pushed through, with Elliott winning a relatively clean maiden race back in August.

“If you told us we were going to a road course and never have practice and we’re just going to line up and race, and you told us that in January or February, we’d think you were nuts, that would never happen,” Joey Logano, championship finalist and the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, said of 2020. “We have to have a test session, we have to have a bunch of practice. It’s not possible. (But) we did it, and it was a great race, right, down in Daytona.”

As American sports adjusted to new, makeshift surroundings, NASCAR was able to provide a sense of normalcy to the landscape. While motorsports perhaps provide the best opportunity to social distance, they’re impossible to stage in a bubble that worked so well for the NHL, NBA, WNBA, NWSL, and several others. The health crisis would only add further chaos to the situation, with the necessary travel only increasing the potential for positive COVID-19 tests.

But NASCAR was able to navigate the situation fairly well, as drivers and crews alike adhered to protocols. From a participants’ standpoint, only two drivers (Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon) missed time due to a positive test and each was cleared to return to the track after one absence. With the exception of the ongoing NFL season, NASCAR is the only major North American sport that managed to complete a full-time, regularly scheduled season. Despite some venue shifts, every one of the 36 Cup Series races was completed.

I would suggest that our sport did as well or better than other sports did with respect to how our protocols worked with our competitors.  We have a significant number of competitors, not just our drivers but our crews, our officials, the safety workers,” Phelps said of the safety and health protocols. “When we shut down heading into Atlanta, we had no idea when we were going to get back to racing.  It was our goal, and a stated goal, that we were going to run all races.  Tomorrow when we crown a champion in our Cup Series, we will have run all our races.  We did it through ways that frankly probably we didn’t think we could do, right? A bunch of midweek races. Three doubleheaders. No practice and qualifying. Things that were kind of significant in bedrock that we do, right?  You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you’re on your way, right?”

“For us to be the first sport back without fans initially on May 17 in Darlington, to the first sport back with fans, I think it’s an extraordinary achievement.”

Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Champion

Even though he’s set to turn merely 25 in two weeks, Chase Elliott has perhaps spent more years around a racetrack than some drivers have been alive. That’s what happens when your dad is Awesome Bill From Dawsonville. In layman’s terms, Bill Elliott was a NASCAR driver hailing from Dawsonville, GA, and an accomplished racer in his own right. Bill Elliott won 44 Cup Series races, the 1988 championship, and 16 Most Popular Driver Awards. 

NASCAR royalty appears to follow the younger Elliott wherever he goes. In addition to his parental ties, a good portion of Elliott’s NASCAR endeavors have come under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. Owned by Rick Hendrick, the team is more or less NASCAR’s answer to the Yankees, boasting 17 championships at the primary national levels, including 13 in Cup. Elliott also ran a pair of seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide/Xfinity Series with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team (winning the 2014 title) before making his transition to the premier league. When the time came, Elliott originally took over the No. 24 Chevrolet branding that the legendary Jeff Gordon left behind upon his retirement. That team made itself over to represent the No. 9 after William Byron earned a promotion of his own. Elliott had run that numeral in the minors and his father also ran it for the majority of his full-time Cup Series career. There, he has spent the past five seasons under the tutelage of teammate Jimmie Johnson, one of two seven-time Cup champions (alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt). In the commemoration of Johnson’s retirement from fulltime-time, Elliott’s “throwback” paint scheme at Darlington’s Labor Day weekend resembled the car the No. 48 drove to the 2009 title. His Phoenix vehicle bore a No. 9 dyed in the color of bright yellow digits that Johnson repped for nearly two decades.

But it’s almost a shame that Elliott’s story can’t be told without such prominent names attached to it, even if his support system was partly why his story can be so vital on a national landscape. The Dawsonville native and die-hard Atlanta Braves fan has built a sizable racing resume throughout his early 20s. His name already peppers the NASCAR record books as the youngest winner at several tracks on the circuit. He’s developed a reputation as a road course warrior, winning the last four races at such tracks (a mark bested only by Gordon). At NASCAR’s de facto victory lap at Bristol Motor Speedway’s All-Star Race in July (run in front of 30,000 fans), Elliott earned the literal million-dollar victory with a dominant effort. He’s even catching up with his father and former boss in Most Popular Driver Awards, earning the last two after Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement ended his reign at 15.

Yet, claims of nepotism, the belief that Elliott wouldn’t have the ride he had without his name persisted. Critics pointed no further than his lack of success in the NASCAR postseason’s semifinal segment, a Round of 8 curse that manifested itself through bad luck and factors that were often beyond his control. That trend showed early at several points this season. Late contact with Kyle Busch denied him a chance at victory at the Darlington reopener. An ill-advised decision to come to pit road during a late caution cost him victory at the 600-mile crown jewel at Charlotte. The Johnson-inspired car failed to capture victory at the late summer return to Darlington, making contact with Martin Truex Jr. in a furious battle for the lead. But Elliott still managed to create a strong season to the tune of wins at the Daytona/Charlotte hybrid tracks and another Charlotte win days after the Coca-Cola 600 miscue.

But the curse…the swing of eight, one could call it…nearly manifested itself yet again in the dying stages of the season. A pit road mishap in the middle event of the three-race segment at Texas Motor Speedway relegated him to a 20th-place finish at the worse possible time. It more or less put Elliott in a must-win situation, the standings too far spaced to hope to make it in through points.

Elliott would then go on to dominate the penultimate race of the season at Martinsville Speedway, a short track known for its chaos. But disaster nearly manifested with less than 100 laps to go. He was able to star as the first car with four fresh tires to leave, but NASCAR was set to send him to the rear of the field because they determined jackman T.J. Semke left the wall too early, necessitating a penalty. The No. 9 team would vehemently argue the penalty, reasoning that Semke made it back to the wall in time to escape without a foul. NASCAR reviewed the incident and determined that was indeed the case. Elliott got back on track and passed Truex Jr. to capture the necessary victory.

“This is a moment that we haven’t experienced together,” Elliott said after that race. “You just don’t know those emotions until you go through it, are able to experience it,” Elliott said after the Martinsville victory. “We obviously all put a lot of effort in to try to do our jobs to the best of our ability. T.J. made a mistake. He was heads up enough to go back and fix it, not to have to go to the back of the field. If he hadn’t have done that, I don’t think we’d have been able to win. There just wasn’t enough time left. That’s super heads up.”

“It absolutely is a team sport,” he continued. “We can’t do it on our own. I can’t do it by myself. No one on our team can do it alone. We recognize that. Feel like we have a great group, a group that’s capable of winning. I thought we showed that and proved that tonight.”

The curse, it appeared, felt like it hadn’t fully had its way with Elliott just yet, though. Going into the Phoenix finale, a failure of prerace inspection sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race. This time, there was no arguing the penalty, and Elliott indeed had to move things back to the rear of the field.

Between his youth and prerace misfortune, Elliott had a built-in excuse for emerging from his first final four without a trophy. Instead, the driver of the No. 9 rolled up his sleeves and smiled…far more worried about his losing the pit box closest to the exit than having no one in his rearview mirror at the start of the race.

“Starting position is great and all, whatever, I feel like from that standpoint, but that pit pick is huge,” Elliott remarked. “That starting position stays with you. It could potentially be done when you leave Turn 2, but that pit pick stays with you until the race is over.”

“The first thing that really kind of stuck in my head was, Dang, are we going to lose that, too? And once I realized we didn’t, I’m like, Okay, if we have our car good and our balance is right, who cares if you start at the back for the race? 312 laps, you know. That’s no excuse to not get the job done if your car is good.”

One thing that NASCAR could not check for was extra nuggets of inspiration. Elliott said in the Phoenix lead-up that he didn’t truly believe in the concept of bulletin board material. Thus, being Chevrolet’s first championship finalist in four seasons didn’t expand the hypothetical speedometer on the No. 9 machine.

But Elliott did say a special boost was waiting for him before lowered his window net before the green flag: a message from Johnson, whose seventh and final title came in 2016, when he likewise had to go the length of the field to earn a championship. Shortly after Elliott ran and led the 312th and final lap of the race, he and Johnson met on track for a high-five from their cars, unable to remember what they were saying due to the noise generated by the pure ecstasy of victory and revving of their respective Hendrick engines. It wasn’t the first time Elliott and Johnson celebrated a debut victory together. After Elliott’s first Cup win at the 2018 Watkins Glen even came through careful fuel management, Johnson’s No. 48 pushed the bone-dry No. 9 back to the front of the grandstands at the start/finish, where the celebration could officially begin.

This time, it wasn’t a push that kept the celebration rolling…it was a hug. Elliott, Johnson, and Hendrick shared a group hug the second the former pair emerged from their cars. With a fifth-place finish, Johnson was the best finisher amongst the non-championship contenders…an honor that was enough for his daughter Evie to tell him that he was also “a winner”. The familial themes were the perfect way to come full circle. One of the most recognizable images of sports in 2020 remains the shot of Ryan Newman being led out of a hospital by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn mere days after the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford endured a horrifying, airborne accident at the end of the Daytona 500.

“The last text message I saw before the race was from Jimmie. And he said, The road to the top…I forget what he said,” Elliott said with a laugh about his final steps into the championship car. “He said something about the road to the top can have some twists in it. I hate you guys are having to start in the back, but you can get it done. That was the last thing I saw before the race.”

“He’s a hero of mine. I think he’ll go down as the greatest to ever do this mess. For that type of guy to be reaching out lending support and genuinely wanting you to do good, hell, what else can you ask for?”

A championship American endeavor completed through teamwork and perseverance? That’s the type of story that everyone in this nation, civilian and politician alike, needs to read in these trying times. 

Alex Bowman, NASCAR
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Hope

One can fully admit that sports fandom is not a matter of life or death, and they rightfully took a backseat on several occasions this year. Yet, the role they can have on one’s psyche cannot be denied…even if it comes through something as simple as letting the folks at home know what day it is.

For some, the reality of the pandemic truly took hold when, one-by-one, sports leagues on both the professional and amateur levels began to shut down. NASCAR held on longer than some of their counterparts, but eventually hit pause hours before a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway was due to begin. Like many organizations, the shutdowns across the country stifled progress in a hopeful outlook. One of the biggest effects of the pause was the fact that NASCAR had to push back the debut of the “Next Gen” racecar by a year, as testing had to be shelved in the wake of lockdowns. The new car is now set to debut at the 2022 Daytona 500.

“What I would say is that on March 8th we were a sport that was coming back,” Phelps noted in reflection during his pre-race statements. “Our ratings had stabilized last year.  Our attendance was going in the correct direction.”

After two weeks of lingering, waiting, NASCAR was the first sport to return to television screens…literally turning to television screens of sorts to get things rolling. On March 22, drivers took the virtual confines of Homestead-Miami Speedway, running a shortened version of the event that was meant to be held that weekend on the iRacing platform.

iRacing had long held a role in NASCAR. Some drivers partook in the program for fun, others opted to use it for testing purposes. This time, it was united in a cause of hope. A new, exciting addition to the NASCAR circuit was well-received by audiences. Through the platform, fans got to see the objects of their modern adoration do battle with iRacing virtuosos and legends of the past who came out of retirement to partake (i.e. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bobby Labonte). The event at Homestead proved so popular that it became a new, temporary circuit of its own, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Lower-budget drivers, who previously accumulated strong hours on the platform got their time to shine. For example, Timmy Hill, driver of the No. 66 Toyota for microbudget squad MBM Motorsports, went to victory lane at a pixelated Texas with an expert bump-and-run on Byron. The series ended with a special event at a recreation of North Wilkesboro Speedway, a North Carolina short track that has fallen into disrepair since running its last NASCAR event in 1996.

Through these races, called by Fox’s lead broadcast team of Gordon and Mike Joy with a perfect blend of seriousness and snark, NASCAR was able to not only stay relevant and provide new content while other sports bided their time through replays of classic events, but to provide hope and assurance to their fans and sponsors. As they enjoyed the virtual proceedings, fans were allowed to sit back, relax, and pretend things were normal again, if only for a short while.

“What a wonderful thing that landed in a world of NASCAR and motorsports’ lap. It is almost like it was built and prepared for this pandemic,” Clint Bowyer said during the summer. “Without it, I don’t honestly know that NASCAR survives and are able to turn the switch back on after we did. Bridging that gap and keeping our sponsors in the limelight under ratings that are competitive with any sport was phenomenal for all of us in the world of motorsports and in particular NASCAR.”

Bowyer partook in the iRacing events and helped Joy and Gordon called the races on Fox. Formerly the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Bowyer announced late in the season that he would step away from racing to join the Fox Sports booth full-time. One thing that will always stand to him will be just how much the sport cares and provides for their fans.

“I enjoy it. I enjoy this sport. I love this sport. I am proud of this sport and proud to be a part of this sport,” Bowyer said. “It has always been fun for me over the years to sell this sport to the fans or whatever the case may be. Having that access to be able to reach a fan in a different way, over the years I have just gone out to the infield and interacted with fans and got to know them and tell our story.”

That love culminated on the weekend of May 17, when conditions were declared safe, though things were a bit different when resumption weekend began at Darlington. The weekend traditions of qualifying, practice, were eliminated. But it assured that there would be no asterisk whatsoever next to a championship title. In fact, one could argue that the lack of preparation, the aforementioned, immediate transition from streetcar to racecar, makes a 2020 championship even more special.

It’s partly why Kevin Harvick’s season will be long-remembered, even with no championship waiting at the end. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won an astonishing nine races, dominating the circuit until hard luck cut his championship trek short in the Round of 8. It may not have ended with a trophy hoist in victory lane, but nonetheless helped Harvick solidify himself as one of the more dominant drivers in the sport’s history.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Unity

The current health crisis has done major damage across the country for months, but another disaster has raged on for centuries: that of systemic racism. America has accomplished much since its founding, developing into a land of prosperity and opportunity, but our country’s promise of liberty and justice for all has gone by the wayside far, far too often.

Ideally, sports could be a realm where real world issues can truly be set aside, but such a luxury has been rendered no longer tolerable in 2020, as ignoring the ongoing reckoning with the dark portions of the past would be to deny the humanity of the athletes that entertain us. As professional and amateur sports alike have made their way back from their respective hiatuses, the biggest names have used their First Amendment right of free speech to advocate for change.

As the first sports to return to action eyes turned to NASCAR in the process, as no one could deny its status as a predominantly white sport. Its roots in the Southeast have caused a vocal minority of naive and immature critics to label the entire fanbase as racist and anti-intellectual. But problems with the sport’s diversity couldn’t be ignored, not only in the scale of the national picture but the narrower personal frame as well. Doing so would’ve been especially difficult when Kyle Larson, one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, used a racist slur during an iRacing event streamed on Twitch. Larson was removed from his high-profile ride at Chip Ganassi Racing after the incident, replaced by retired Cup champion Matt Kenseth.

Larson’s firing was justified, but further incidents of injustice across the nation amplified voices of protestors, turning the attention to NASCAR, one of the few forms of recreation operating. It perhaps would’ve been easy for the circuit to sweep things under the rug, hope for the best, and keep things relegated to racetrack matters. Instead, NASCAR addressed things head-on, making their statement at a moment where most eyes would be watching: right before the start of the race.

Prior to the start of the rescheduled Atlanta event on June 7, Phelps paused the 40 starters at the start/finish line and addressed NASCAR..and the nation…directly.

“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said in a radio message played over the race communication networks and the national TV broadcast. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”

“The time is now to listen, to understand, and to stand against racism and racial injustice.”

NASCAR’s stand was immediately put to the test. Three days after Phelps’ announcement, and hours before a weekday event at Martinsville Speedway, the governing body announced that displays of the Confederate battle flag would no longer be welcome at sanctioned events. The series’ southern roots led to close association with such a flag and many of its flyers claimed it was simply a display of southern pride. NASCAR had previously tried to distance itself from the display by offering a trade-in program that encouraged fans to display an American flag instead.

But this outright ban made it clear that a flag that stood for preserving the institution of slavery and literally cut itself off from the ideals and territory of the United States of America was no longer welcome at their events. With rare exception, drivers understood the flag’s departure.

“For some people, it has different meanings,” Tyler Reddick, rookie drivers of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, acknowledged. “But for those that were affected by it and generations of families that have been through hardships, slavery, all sorts of things, racism, I just don’t feel like there’s a place for it. So, I’m glad to see NASCAR put their foot down and like ‘alright, we didn’t really like it at the track, but we’re not allowing it anymore’. It’s well beyond time and it’s kind of crazy to even think, whether its statues or whatever it is around our country, that we’ve kept these things up as long as we have, considering how much negative meaning that a lot of those statues and things we have around our country meant to people that have been affected by it the most.”

“We need to not allow that banner to be at the racetrack, personally. I don’t really care how you can justify what it means,” Corey LaJoie said in an exclusive interview with ESM. “I think, if anything, you can justify it as being insensitive to people it offends. This might not be a practical analogy, but if my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts and I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, right? Just because it has the possibility to hurt him, physically. If there’s something that I consciously do to offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoy eating peanuts.”

“When it comes to supporting our sport, we need to have everybody feel welcome,” the driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford. “No one should feel offended by anything, no signage, no opinions by anybody. Really, we’re one community trying to entertain people and that’s what we love and what show up 36 weekends a year to do. We don’t want to exclude anybody, we want everybody to feel welcome coming to the NASCAR track.”

The ultimate display, one of the most inspiring, unifying displays in all of sports came at one of the sport’s most prominent, most beloved Southern hubs: Talladega Superspeedway.

Talladega is known for its tight racing, rising tempers, and multi-car get-togethers known as “The Big One”. It seemed only appropriate that the first of two events at the longest track on the circuit came on June 21…the hottest and longest day of the year. But racing activities were overshadowed by an apparent incident, one where a rope tied into a noose was discovered in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the Cup Series circuit. NASCAR immediately called an investigation in cooperation with the FBI, who eventually determined that no hate crime was committed.

But there mere thought of a threat brought the forces of NASCAR unity and brotherhood out in full force.

Prior to the start of the GEICO 500, moved to a Monday, drivers and crews alike walked alongside Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, pushing to the front of the field and stood alongside him during the national anthem and invocation. After prerace ceremonies were completed, each of Wallace’s competitors embraced him individually.

Alex Bowman was one of those drivers. He and Bowman had their prior shares of on-track confrontations, namely during last fall’s tilt at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. Their battle came to a head on pit road when Wallace dumped a bottle of water on an exhausted Bowman at the end of the race.

But when the time came for the series to rally around Wallace, Bowman showed no hesitation whatsoever. He said that such unity was vital in the day and also praised Wallace for his own comments calling for justice and action against systemic racism.”

“I think there’s no secret, we’re not best friends, right? We’ve had our fair share of run-ins and the on-track stuff is just going to happen – tempers are going to flare and if you run into the same guy a couple of weeks in a row here and there, it’s not going to go great for your relationship,” the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said. “But that’s as a racecar driver and that’s on the race track. As a human being, I have a big appreciation for him pushing us all to be better, speaking up and us do the same. It really comes down to, on the race track, we’re probably not going to be friends. But as a person, I appreciate what he’s doing and just wanted to show my support for him.”

True to NASCAR form, the Talladega unity was capped by an incredible show, one that came down to the wire. Ryan Blaney took the race by a .007-second margin at the finish line over Rickey Stenhouse Jr., as the field went six lanes wide in a final push to the finish.

Blaney remains a close friend of Wallace. The two have been racing together since they were 10 years old and are regularly seen commiserating during rain delays through video games. In his postrace statements from Talladega, Blaney made it clear that those who wish Wallace harm would be dealt with swiftly…the display at Talladega served as a de facto reminder.

“I think it’s great that everyone rose up, Bubba included, and really came together,” Blaney said of the prerace demonstration. “I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR. I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore.”

“You may not like each other all the time, may tick each other off on the racetrack from time to time. (But) at the end of the day, we’re going to support each other. What really got me was when we got Bubba’s car to the front there, he had to take a little bit to pause and compose himself because it was a very emotional moment for him. I think it was emotional for him because everyone was supporting him. It’s just something different that I couldn’t personally be a part of because I’ve never been in Bubba’s position, but I’m going to support him the best I can.”

Wallace remained an active voice in the calls for change. His No. 43 scheme at Martinsville bore a message of unity as well as the “#BlackLivesMatter” slogan. The winner of six races at the NASCAR Truck Series level begins a new opportunity next season, as he will headline the newly formed 23XI Racing team under the watch of Cup Series star Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, set to drive a Toyota bearing Jordan’s iconic No. 23.

He acknowledges that while the steps NASCAR has taken have been inspiring, more must be on the horizon.

“I think we just have to get out in our communities and we’ve created a group of us to be leadership at NASCAR as some key drivers to be a part of how we can put action to our words that we’ve been speaking and spreading the gospel,” Wallace said over the summer, acknowledging things might be hard with the confined settings of the pandemic. “Let’s focus on how we can continue to push the message of compassion and understanding and let’s help fight the good fight in what’s going on in the world today. And let’s get new fans out to the race track and encourage our fanbase now to welcome them with open arms and show them a good time. I think that’s one important piece that we can focus on right now.”

For his part, Phelps said that NASCAR is ready to dip further into social issues. Phelps acknowledged that he doesn’t see it as NASCAR getting involved in political matters…rather a human rights battle.

“What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about…human decency,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities. We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally, and socially. We want them to feel part of this community. It’s a fantastic community, it really is.”

I know when I go to a racetrack and I see people who are camping next to each other who are total strangers, that invite each other for a beer, do you want a hot dog, brat, whatever it is, that’s what our community is about.  We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome when they come to those facilities.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Nation

Calling upon NASCAR to solve the problems of a nation whose problems have not been subsided with the end of a bitter election process. Even things in their own house aren’t fully settled: some fans refuse to surrender the Confederate flag hill. Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli announced plans to leave the circuit, his reasons stemming from the ban. 

But the lessons this campaign, the most unusual season in the history of NASCAR, have taught us can truly allow us to begin the healing process.

The 2020 NASCAR season featured so much from a standpoint of perseverance and unity…such a concept ironically coming in the sport where it’s the easiest to social distance. For the record, NASCAR did that pretty well too with the low number of medical absences.

A driver that could’ve well skated by with the sheer number of legendary names attached to his career and dealt with bad luck conquered those weights in tremendous fashion. Perseverance and love came through several further forms of personal triumph: Newman’s relieving walk and Chase Briscoe’s Xfinity Series win at Darlington shortly after being told his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage stood out as well. After his apology, Larson took the next, bigger step through truly educating himself and working toward a better understanding of the consequences and effects of his slur. It was enough to earn a new full-time ride with the defending champion team of Hendrick Motorsports, driving their resurrected No. 5 Chevrolet. Wallace plans to continue to use his voice to amplify cases of change and fighting injustice.

NASCAR took a dire situation and provided a grieving national hope and guidance.

It’s a shame that some refuse to acknowledge the lessons brought forward. But, much like a car fighting for its lap back or navigating through a Big One at Talladega…they’re not going to stop on this drive.

“I would say the biggest thing that I have learned throughout all of this is that when you think something is impossible or are too scared to try, you should try it,” Logano said of the biggest lesson he’ll take away from this season. “Because it is usually not as bad as you make it out to be in your mind. Case in point, a few times this year in this sport. Who would have ever thought that we would go to a road course that we have never raced at before and just line up and race without practice? Are you kidding me? If you say that in January or February this year we would have said you were nuts and we would never ever do that. We have been forced to do things like that.”

“That is just one case in our sport. Imagine all the things that every company is going through right now. Trying to find ways to become profitable again, or at least cover their costs. You have to be creative, you have to think outside the box and you can’t be scared of trying anything. I think that alone is probably the biggest thing I have learned that I can take forward with me for years to come.”

It’s not a full-on solution…but these lessons and more could well be part of the pit stop our country sorely needs.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Chase Elliott comes from behind to win 2020 NASCAR Cup Series title

Forced to start from the rear after pre-race inspection issues, Chase Elliott came front behind to earn his first Cup Series title at 24.

As one NASCAR legend ended on Sunday afternoon, another one may have started to write its first chapters.

Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, took home his first NASCAR Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway through his victory in the Season Finale 500. Elliott, 24, is the third-youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a Cup title, behind only Bill Rexford (1950) and Jeff Gordon (1995). He also joins his father Bill (1988) as the third father-son duo to earn a series title joining the Pettys (Lee and Richard) and the Jarretts (Ned and Dale)

His victory also comes in the final race of Jimmie Johnson’s full-time NASCAR career. Elliott’s teammate and the winner of a record-tying seven Cup Series championships has driven the No. 48 Chevrolet since 2002, missing only one race since the start of that season.

“This is a moment that, heck, I’ve only dreamt about, and something that, heck, I’m still not sure I completely realize what has exactly happened,” Elliott said of his historic victory. “I don’t feel like I’m a crier in these situations, but dang, I feel like there’s going to come a time where I’m probably going to break down and really lose it.  I feel like I kind of did there after the race, and then you get caught up in everything else that’s going on. I’m really looking forward to just kind of sitting back and looking at everything from a different perspective and just enjoying it.  But I’m also going to enjoy it as I’m living it because this is something that may not ever happen ever again, and I recognize that.”  

“It’s a moment and a time and an accomplishment that I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever take for granted. It’s a really big deal to me.

The two-time defending champion of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, Elliott was able to reach the finale’s contending quartet through a dominant win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. He was set to compete against previous Cup winners and Team Penske comrades Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, as well as perennial Joe Gibbs Racing contender Denny Hamlin.

But a major knock came before the tires ever hit the track when the No. 9 failed pre-race inspection twice in the lead-up to the event. The penalty sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race, forcing him to literally go from first to last. 

Elliott was able to work his way through the field, reaching the top-ten by the time a competition caution came out at lap 31 of 312. Ten laps later, he passed one of his fellow championship competitors for the first time when drove past Keselowski for fourth. He then bided his time while Logano dominated the early portions of the race, leading all but two of the first 117 laps.

I look at the guys who have achieved this honor as guys who perform in the toughest of situations. I felt like that’s been an area that we haven’t done a great job of over my first five years, really up until last week,” Elliott explained. “We had a tough situation, a perform-or-go-home type night there at Martinsville, and was able to step up and really get the job done. I thought that was the piece of the puzzle that we haven’t had. I really felt like we had everything else that we needed, and I really believed that.”

Lap 151 saw Elliott take the lead for the first time, but the party was briefly put on hold when the final incident-caution came out 13 laps later when James Davison got into the wall. Kurt Busch won the ensuing race off pit road when drivers came for service due to a far quicker two-tire pit stop, but Elliott immediately took advantage of a fresh four and engaged in a tight battle for the lead against Keselowski for the rest of the second stage. The battle ended with the conclusion with Keselowski on top of the 115-lap segment. But Elliott and company once against proved their mettle in a team sport.

The No. 9 team’s strong pit stop gave them the lead back to open the third and final stage, and only surrendered it when he had to make his final pit stop of the day under green flag conditions. Logano briefly got his lead back after stops cycled through, but Elliott made the final pass for the lead at lap 270, leading the final 43 laps to roll to victory. Keselowski beat out Logano for 2nd, while Hamlin came home fourth. Johnson rounded out the top five to conclude his NASCAR slate on a strong note.

“It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top five, finish in the top five, but my bucket is full. NASCAR has been so wonderful for me.  This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.”

The last couple of years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here. All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.”

After the race, several of Elliott’s competitors drove alongside him to send their congratulations. Johnson’s was extra special, leaving a “donut” on the side of Elliott’s No. 9. Neither driver remembered what they said to one another, recalling only Elliott’s joyous screams and a high-five they shared, one inspired by a similar situation in 2003. When Bill Elliott won the penultimate race of the season at Rockingham, he and crowned champion Matt Kenseth likewise shared a high-five while celebrating their respective victories, as Kenseth had clinched his Cup Series title that afternoon.

Once a celebratory Elliott returned to pit road, he shared a group hug with Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick before the celebration commenced. Many found the day as a symbolic passing of the torch from the point of view of HMS and the face of NASCAR. Each Hendrick Motorsports car saw their numbers revamped into the style of the neon yellow No. 48 that has been etched onto Johnson’s car since his Cup Series entry in 2002.

Elliott’s championship moment did appear to somewhat overshadow Johnson’s departure, but “Seven-Time” was perfectly fine with such proceedings.

Chase Elliott won his first championship.  I’m so happy for that guy.  Great friend, great family.  I’ve been friends with his mom and dad for a lot of years.  I can recall going snowboarding with Bill out in Colorado and Chase was maybe eight years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn’t say much.”

“To watch him grow up and to be around him and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me. Today I think more about him winning a championship more than anything is pretty awesome.”

Race Notes

  • Not only was this the final race for Johnson, but also for Kenseth and Clint Bowyer as well. Bowyer finished 14th in his final tour in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, while Kenseth finished 25th in his last race in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Rookie Chase Briscoe will take over Bowyer’s ride in 2021, while Ross Chastain will succeed Kenseth.

 

  • Sunday marked the first season finale race for Phoenix, which will likewise host the championship event in 2021. The finale was previously held at Homestead (2002-19).

 

  • Elliott’s title is the first one for a Chevrolet since Johnson won his seventh and final trophy in 2016. Ironically, Johnson had likewise come from the rear of the field to pull off the feat.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Championship Preview with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard

Kevin Harvick

As the cup series prepares to say goodbye to a legend and crown a champion this weekend, ESM’s NASCAR experts are here to break it all down and make their championship picks.

Turn 1: Kevin Harvick had been arguably the most dominant driver this season with 9 wins and a regular-season championship. Does him missing the final four say more about a poor stretch of performances in the round of eight or that the playoff format is flawed?

Nathan Solomon: More than anything, it just has to do with two poor performances. Harvick finished second in Kansas and put himself in good position to advance. However, in the round of eight, you can’t finish outside of the top-15 twice and expect to advance to the championship. The new playoff format was designed to give it a similar feel to a baseball or basketball playoff series. In the MLB, if you have a bad series, you won’t advance. A team with 110 wins won’t make it to the World Series if they don’t perform in the series before. That was the case for Harvick in the round of eight, and he, unfortunately, won’t see himself racing for a championship.

Dylan Price: This is a tough question to analyze for me. I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to this dilemma. With 9 wins, Harvick was dominant for the entirety of the regular season, but he was unable to perform up to the level needed in the round of eight in order to make the final four. See, my issue with Harvick being eliminated is that NASCAR is different than other playoffs like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. Yes, the destinations change each week for the playoffs, barring home-field advantage, but with NASCAR, when you go from track to track, it fundamentally changes your racing style.

I would contribute his elimination to his own rut but would say there could be a case made that the drivers like Harvick, who are in this case the #1 seed, should get more of an advantage because playoff points don’t do enough to reward drivers with 9 wins that much more than those with 2 or 3. Still, Harvick, just like high seeded teams that get beat by lower-seeded teams, did not perform up to the level needed to race for a title this weekend, and that is more about his performance over the last 3 weeks than anything else.

Geoff Magliocchetti: If anything, the NASCAR playoffs are a necessary evil, and there may be little malice in the first place. NASCAR needs to find a way to be different, unique, and competitive in the realm of a busy time on the American sports calendar, and the playoffs are the way to do that. To make a long story short, there’s never going to be a system that satisfies each and every fan. No playoffs leaves the threat of a meaningless season finale (as it was in four of the final five playoff-free seasons). Harvick is far from the first dominant driver to be bamboozled by a playoff system. Current contender Brad Keselowski spoke of the 2014 season when his No. 2 won 6 races but failed to earn the championship invite.

Some changes could probably be made…inviting 16 drivers is a tad much…but the case of Harvick (and Austin Hill in the Truck Series, for that matter) is not a make or break factor. The common complaints that the regular-season champion has no immunity to Phoenix only serve as contradictions. Fans who complain that the playoffs are too gimmick-field or manufactured want a way to manufacture a way for the regular-season champ to make it. The beautiful thing about playoff sports is that they’re unpredictable. Even the undefeated Patriots had to work their way to the Super Bowl…one they lost. Changes can be made, but the playoffs should be here to stay.

Turn 2: This Sunday will be the last time that one of the faces of the sport will race in Jimmie Johnson. With the legacy Johnson has left as a 7-time champion, where does he rank amongst the all-time greats of the sport?

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson may go down as the greatest NASCAR racer of all time. If he isn’t the greatest of all-time, he will certainly be in the top five. Regardless of the playoff/chase format, he’s won seven championships, and some people don’t realize how hard that is. He’s won at virtually every track and beaten some of the best in multiple generations of drivers. I’m excited to see how he runs in Indy Car, and I would love to see him run a few races in NASCAR here and there. I feel he may be the next driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 doubleheader, and that’d be really cool to watch. Congrats to Jimmie Johnson on a great career.

Dylan Price: I consider myself lucky to have witnessed Jimmie Johnson and his dominance in my lifetime. I was not alive to witness the greatness of guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but one thing is for certain about Jimmie Johnson, he had the IT factor. They say there is a certain aura around the great ones, and I think that was always felt with Johnson. Now, where does he rank amongst the greats is a separate question. I firmly believe that Johnson is one of the best drivers to grace the series, but is he THE best. I think Johnson is up there with Earnhardt and Petty on the Mount Rushmore of the greats of the sport. That fourth spot is firmly up for debate, but I think that the aura around Johnson is still there even though he has not performed at the highest level in the past years and will be for a long time. Congratulations 7-time, you had an incredible career, and I am excited to see what you do in your next endeavors!

Geoff Magliocchetti: Johnson will go down as a clutch performer and the driver of the playoff era. It hurts to see his last dance end like this…with all due respect to Ally Bank, they’re looking like the Wizards Jordan equivalent of NASCAR…but one can’t forget the sheer dominance we saw from Johnson’s No. 48 week in and week out during his prime. Time will tell if Johnson can ever solidify his face on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, but his accomplishments should not be forgotten. Congrats on a great career, Jimmie, and best wishes to you and your family.

Turn 3: Well, with exits comes the entrances of new drivers and lineup shakeups. So, which driver in a new ride will see the biggest improvement/make the biggest impact next season?

Nathan Solomon: I think it’ll be rookie Chase Briscoe making a big impact in 2021. He’s been insanely dominant in the Xfinity Series this year, winning nine times and the championship favorite this weekend. He’ll be going into a great ride where he’ll have everything he needs to win races right away. I feel that Briscoe will make the playoffs in his first season, pick up a few wins, and even make it as far as the round of eight. He’s incredibly skilled and knows how to win on every type of racetrack. Expect a big rookie season out of Chase Briscoe in 2021.

Dylan Price: Unlike other analysts, I am excited for a returnee in a new place. I do believe Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell are going to excel in their new homes, but I am watching for Kyle Larson. People forget, but before Larson was suspended for his egregious comments, he was a budding face of the sport. Larson was in a mid-level situation with Chip Ganassi racing, and I firmly believe with the resources Hendrick Motorsports can provide that Larson will take the #5 machine to a virtual residency in the playoffs and likely to a few trips in victory lane in the coming years.

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve seen some big moves this Silly Season, but I’m the most intrigued by Ross Chastain moving to the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet. Chastain has never been granted the best equipment but has gone on to have a lucrative career on NASCAR’s lower levels. He’s a driver that earned his keep through on-track endeavors. Frankly, the move to such a big-name Cup ride is well overdue, with Chastain mostly working in low-budget machines. We’ve seen him stick around at places like Daytona and Talladega and run respectably in his lower-tier equipment. With the resources of CGR, Chastain should truly take off.
Turn 4: Lastly, we are down to the final four drivers to decide the championship this Sunday in Phoenix. With Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliot battling for the title, who comes out on top?
Nathan Solomon: I’m going to go with Joey Logano winning his second title in three seasons. He won Phoenix in the spring before the coronavirus outbreak and is coming off a win in the round of eight. Two of his championship competitors, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, haven’t won at Phoenix before, although Denny Hamlin has. However, Hamlin is coming off a rough round of eight, and I just don’t see him turning it around. My prediction is that Kevin Harvick will win the race being that he’s been historically dominant at Phoenix, and Joey Logano will take the title, finishing second. 
Dylan Price: I am a big believer in momentum. Momentum can play more of an impact then things like experience at times, and I think that will show on Sunday. See, where Logano, Keselowski, and Hamlin have experience either winning the big race or being in it for all the marbles, Chase Elliot is the newcomer of the bunch. With 4 wins this year, Elliot has been one of the most consistent racers this year, and I firmly believe he will ride the wave of momentum he had from last Sunday to a championship.
Geoff Magliocchetti: Denny Hamlin gets his first title on Sunday.
King Kevin is gone, and in his wake, the successor is none other than Hamlin. This season has had a bit of an “If not now, when?” feel over in the No. 11 stables. Hamlin has never let off-track issues bother him, but he does appear to be a bit tired of the…well, tired…questions over whether this season is a disappointment without the title at the end. Hamlin has won nearly everything there is to win on a NASCAR Cup Series level, except the titular award at the end. That changes on Sunday in the desert.

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott is arguably the face of NASCAR. After breaking his Round of 8 curse, he’s ready to compete for a title to match his father’s.

Chase Elliott has literally driven a championship-winning machine during the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series postseason. In the opening at Darlington Raceway, Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet aesthetically resembled the vehicle his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson drove to the fourth of his record seven NASCAR titles. As the season ends at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Elliott’s traditionally blue numeral will don shades of yellow in tribute to the numbers that Johnson has represented on the Cup circuit since 2002.

As one era ends at Phoenix in 2002, another could potentially begin. Sunday will mark the final race of Johnson’s legendary career. A future in IndyCar Racing awaits him, as does de facto instant entry to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte as soon as he’s eligible. The duel in the desert also marks the first race that can potentially end with Elliott hoisting the Cup Series’ trophy in victory lane.

Set to turn 25 in three weeks, Elliott’s NASCAR resume to date is one that many older drivers would give an arm and a leg for. He has earned 10 Cup Series victories, sat on the pole for a pair of Daytona 500s, won at historic Darlington Raceway at a mere 18 years old, took home the latest All-Star Race, won a Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, and has developed a niche for road courses, winning the last four events at such tracks (a mark bested only by Jeff Gordon). Elliott is also the two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, breaking the 15-year stranglehold the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. held on the title.

“I don’t know because I’ve never done it,” Elliott said in the leadup to Phoenix earlier this week when asked about his legacy. “I hate to say that, but I just don’t. I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like or the emotions of it or what it would bring or wouldn’t bring or whatever because I’ve never achieved that before.”

“I just think to be thinking about those things and not the things that are going to make our car go fast on Sunday is just the wrong, in my opinion, my approach right now, is the wrong thing. I’m just all eyes. My mindset and focus is what is going to make you go fast. That is what matters on Sunday. That is going to be the thing that either gives you a chance or doesn’t. The rest of it right now just doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m at.”

Elliott’s success makes it almost a shame that his career is forever connected to legends of the sport. He’s been teammates with the semi-retiring Johnson since 2015, raced for Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide/Xfinity Series team (winning the aforementioned title in 2014). Of course, the first thing many know about Elliott is that he’s the son of Bill, a winner of 45 races on NASCAR’s national levels, the 1988 Cup title, and 16 Most Popular Driver titles.

“I’m very lucky. My dad obviously has had great success over the years, has been around this deal for a long time. Obviously, Jimmie is a great one to lean on, too,” Elliott said of the mentorship and help he has had over his career. “The big thing from talking to dad that I feel like he’s kind of mentioned is to just enjoy these moments because these aren’t things you can take for granted. You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right?”

Elliott has more or less shut down the idea that nepotism earned him a ride at one of auto racing’s most iconic organizations with his performance on the track. The ultimate sign of perseverance gained throughout his time on the Cup asphalt perhaps came in the Round of 8’s finale at Martinsville last week. This de facto semifinal round had often served as a thorn in Elliott’s side, an impenetrable barrier to the status of a legend. But he not only led 236 of 500 laps in last weekend’s Xfinity 500, but both he and his team also overcame what could’ve been a disastrous visit to pit road to recover for a win. The No. 9’s jackman was initially penalized for jumping over the wall too soon, but his quick reset and the team’s appeal caused NASCAR to rescind the penalty. Elliott would take care of the rest, leaving pit road fourth and later passing fellow go-or-go-home racer Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 44 to go.

No one could rationally fault Elliott for not earning a Cup Series title just yet. Some of the biggest young phenoms in the sport have struggled to get off to a fast start on the stat sheet…some never find it at all. Countless wunderkinder have been labeled “The Next Jeff Gordon” before fading away into racing oblivion. Elliott maintained early consistency, but it took more than two full seasons to earn his first Cup Series victory, finally doing so near the Finger Lakes at the Watkins Glen event in 2018. Being attached to so many legends of the sport only raised the temperature of Elliott’s pressure cooker.

Even in preparing for his first title, Elliott dealt with questions of the past. Irony has lingered over the No. 9’s pit box all weekend. Not only did Bill capture his Cup title in the same number, but it was a championship won alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers…each of whom took care of their end of the bargain in the World Series and NBA Finals respectively.

Elliott is more than likely used to these questions and has adapted by smiling and taking them in stride. He was impressed with the Los Angeles championship connection. But refused to comment…if only because he hasn’t earned one of his own just yet.

“I feel like it’s so hard. I just remember getting the question of, What is it going to feel like when you win that first race? What is that going to be like? How cool is that going to be to you?” he said.

“I always had a really hard time answering that because I’d never done it before. So I don’t know. I think that’s the same answer now. Until you achieve a moment like that, that obviously is very meaningful to you, I think it’s really hard to put a stamp of what it means or how it feels or the emotions that come with it. I think I’d be speaking out of turn to really give you an answer because I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Elliott has spent his career becoming his own racer, writing his own legend. It’s partially why he hasn’t leaned on the seven-time Johnson for advice in working through championship weekend, though he did take time to acknowledge Johnson’s footprint on the sport by calling him a “champion on and off the track”.

Even if Elliott comes up short on Sunday, he has a bit of a failsafe comeback in that there will probably be plenty of opportunities for him to have another go at it. But if he’s unwilling to use his racing tree as an excuse or a crutch, you can guarantee he won’t be using youth. Elliott is all too aware that his first trip to the final four could well be his last.

“You don’t know. Hell, I don’t know what tomorrow is. I don’t think anybody does,” Elliott said. “To sit here and promise myself things that I can’t promise myself, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball, right?

“I do know this is a moment you have to enjoy because you don’t know with your last race win is, you don’t know when your last day is, when the last Championship 4 is for you, all of the above. I’m just trying to enjoy the whole moment and make the most of whatever Sunday brings, put all the emphasis and preparation in the things that are going to give us the best chance on Sunday. To me, that’s my preparation for certain situations and probably most importantly the right decisions on the car to get our car balance as close as we can to start the race. All my emphasis is there, and just trying to enjoy and embrace this time, make the most of it.”

There are few guarantees on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. Chase Elliott not looking for a crutch and an excuse proves a rare exception on the asphalt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott earns a spot amongst championship quartet

Chase Elliott entered NASCAR’s final four for the first time with a dominant win at Martinsville Speedway while Kevin Harvick was eliminated.

Forced into a must-win scenario, Chase Elliott earned the biggest victory of his NASCAR Cup Series career, while the circuit’s regular season champion saw his luck run out.

Elliott and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team dominated the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway, the penultimate race of the 2020 season that set up the Cup Series’ quartet of drivers that will compete for a championship at Phoenix Raceway next weekend. The two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award advanced to the final four for the first time in his career. He joins Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin in the title-contending group, while Kevin Harvick, the regular season champion and winner of nine races in 2020, was eliminated.

“Obviously, (for) me personally, it’s a huge deal. (I’ve) ever been in this position before. That’s exciting,” Elliott said after the race. “But for everybody that is a part of our organization, obviously NAPA is a huge partner, super pumped to have them on the car tonight, a big moment. They’ve been a big piece of my career. Hendrick Motorsport, everyone that lays a hand on our cars. It’s a big deal for everyone to have a chance to win a championship.”

The NASCAR Cup Series’ ten-race playoff system was introduced in 2004, with elimination rounds arriving a decade later. This adjust system invites 16 drivers with four eliminated after every three races, leading to four drivers battling for a championship in the 36th and final race of the season. Drivers can earn automatic advancement to the next immediate round with a win, much like Joey Logano did at Kansas Speedway earlier this month.

Elliott entered Sunday’s event 25 points outside the top four, more or less necessitating a win for the No. 9. He started the race in eighth but worked his way to the lead for the first time at lap 89 of 500. His Chevrolet would go on to lead 236 of 500 laps, including the final 44 when he passed two-time defending Martinsville winner Martin Truex Jr., who likewise needed to win to advance.

His victorious moment, the 10th win of his Cup Series career, nearly never came. When debris from Timmy Hill’s damaged car brought out the yellow flag at lap 352, Elliott not only endured a slow pit stop that not only relegated him to fourth, but was nearly forced to go to the rear of the field when it appeared one of his pit crew members jumped over the wall too early, warranting a penalty from NASCAR. Elliott’s No. 9 team appeared with officials, noting that the crewman made it back to safety before Elliott’s car arrived. Officials agreed upon review and rescinded the penalty.

“This is a moment that we haven’t experienced together. I said that a few times tonight, Elliott said of his team. “You just don’t know those emotions until you go through it, are able to experience it. We obviously all put a lot of effort in to try to do our jobs to the best of our ability.”

“It absolutely is a team sport. We can’t do it on our own. I can’t do it by myself. No one on our team can do it alone. We recognize that. Feel like we have a great group, a group that’s capable of winning. I thought we showed that and proved that tonight  I think we can have a great shot next week.”

The pass for the lead came just at the right time, as he sped away from the rest of a field that erupted in clean chaos with other playoff contenders racing for points. Truex was later eliminated when he fell back due to a loose wheel, but other contenders needed to race their way into the title through points with Elliott racing away and non-playoff driver Kyle Busch winning the prior event at Texas.

The most prominent case was Harvick, who won nine races and took home the regular season title. He finished in the runner-up spot behind Logano at Kansas but struggled to a 16th-place posting at Texas last week. With Elliott and Truex, a pair of drivers behind him that were dominating the race (the two uniting to lead 375 of 500 laps), Harvick was forced into a desperate situation of his own. The feeling only increased when he lost a tire on lap 180 and the ensuing repairs put him two laps down. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was forced to scratch and claw its way back to the lead lap, finally earning the caution-induced free pass back to the lead lap granted to the first car lap down when the stalled car of James Davison bringing out the yellow flag.

Harvick was then embroiled in a three-way battle for two spots with Hamlin and Keselowski, the latter of whom started from the rear of the field after speeding during the Davison caution. But, like Elliott, he recovered from pit road miscues to reach fourth place and secure his spot alongside Logano and Elliott. With Hamling trying to hold off teammate Erik Jones in holding the 11th position, Harvick needed a mere point to reach the playoffs, owning the tiebreaker over Hamlin through wins. In desperation, Hamlin bumped Hamlin’s teammate Kyle Busch, the car just ahead of him, out the way to earn one final position, but wound up wrecking himself in the process. The endeavor relegated Harvick to the 17th spot, eliminating the 2014 Series champion.

Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman respectively finished fifth and sixth, but were likewise eliminated from contention through points. Ryan Blaney finished in the runner-up spot, while Logano came back third.

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series ends next weekend at Phoenix Raceway next Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). This is the first time that the season finale comes to Phoenix, after 18 years at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Race Notes

  • Elliott will appear in the championship four for the first time in his career. Keselowski and Logano are each looking for their second championship, having won the Cup Series title in 2012 and 2018. Hamlin is seeking his first Cup title, having finished in the top five on five occasions (including a fourth-place posting last season).

 

  • Elliott is the first Chevrolet representative in the championship four since teammate Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags