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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Chase Elliott reflects on costly Charlotte flaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson ready for his last dance at Charlotte

Jimmie Johnson, Nascar

If Johnson is going secure a playoff spot in his final NASCAR season, there’s no better place to clinch than this week’s Charlotte couple.

Unlike, say, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, Jimmie Johnson needs to earn his retirement gifts as he makes his final visit across NASCAR venues across the country.

NASCAR will continue its revival tour on Sunday night at its Charlotte hub (6 p.m. ET, Fox), the first half of a doubleheader to be completed on Wednesday. The opening event is the Coca-Cola 600, a Memorial Day weekend tradition dating back to 1961 and the longest event on the circuit at its titular 600 miles.

Such an event is perhaps the perfect counterargument to the idea of NASCAR not being a sport. A test of skill and endurance, the race features 400 laps around the 1.5-mile track and a runtime that would make Yankees-Red Sox games blush. It’s enough to make even the toughest drivers shake in their boots.

Johnson, however, has spent nearly two decades defying NASCAR norms. His final season of full-time racing isn’t about to change that.

His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been a mainstay atop the Charlotte leaderboards since his 2002 arrival. In terms of mid-2000s dominance, Johnson had a better stranglehold on CMS than USC had on major college football. His name appeared in the top three of eight straight Charlotte races. That includes a streak of four consecutive wins during the pair of visits during the 2004-05 seasons. Most drivers, in comparison, are lucky to get eight total top three finishes throughout the course of their entire careers.

“There is no doubt I’ll have a flood of emotions when we start our engines these next two races,” Johnson remarked to Jeff Wackerlin of Motor Racing Network. “I’m going to miss it.”

NASCAR is set to return Charlotte later this fall during the postseason, but that race will come at its “roval” configuration (part-oval, part-road course). Johnson has made a name for himself at the full-on oval with eight wins overall, the most in the track’s history.

Much like the popularity of Von Dutch and Justin Guarini, Johnson’s mid-2000’s dominance has struggled to translate in the decades beyond. His last win in the 600-mile event came in 2014 and he has gone home empty-handed in four straight Charlotte visits. The track is more recently known as the site of one of Johnson’s most heartbreaking moments. With the track in its roval setup for the first time on the Cup Series circuit, Johnson was battling to move forward in the 2018 NASCAR playoffs. Running second behind Martin Truex Jr. in the dying stages, Johnson was relatively secure in points.

It was never like Johnson to be satisfied with second place. Alas, that will and desire cost him nearly on the final laps of the Bank of America Roval 400.

Contract with Truex put them both sideways, and Johnson was forced to partake in the remainder of the playoffs as an on-track observer. It’s been part of an uncharacteristic win drought for Johnson. The No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t visited victory lane in 101 consecutive events, the last celebration coming in the Dover spring event in 2017. Johnson has 83 Cup Series victories to his name, which ensnares him in a tie for fifth-most all-time with Cale Yarborough.

“Took myself out of a shot at the championship and obviously affected their day which I feel bad about,” Johnson told USA Today’s Michelle R. Martinelli at the time. “I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive, but we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me.”

Now, it’s all about the win.

Even with the COVID-19 enforced delay, Johnson has spent 2020 making things right and creating an opportunity to go out on the right note. Entering his final week at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval incarnation, Johnson sits in 12th place in the Cup Series point standings. Flashes of his former brilliance have been on display in the circuit’s early stanzas. A late crash took him out of contention at the Daytona 500, but Johnson has followed it up with four finishes in the top dozen over the last five races.

The lone exception was the first Darlington event last Sunday. Johnson had the lead at the end of the first stage, but contact with Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford put him into the wall and a 38th-place finish. He recovered to finish eighth in the second half of the visit to Darlington later in the week.

“It was a good rebound from a few days before; I wish I could have that weekend back,” Johnson said to Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports after the race. “I really felt like we had things going our way there and could have capitalized. But it’s nice to be back. Good finish in the top-10.”

The pause of live sporting events causes us to forget that they have a way of using timeliness to create uplifting moments. If Johnson can earn himself a playoff berth by winning at the track he formerly held a monopoly on, it would be perhaps the loudest announcement yet for the return of athletics, as well as a moment the sports-loving public can enjoy as a collective unit.

A win would more than likely put Johnson back into the NASCAR playoffs. If it comes on Sunday, Johnson would tie the legendary Darrel Waltrip for fourth the all-time wins list and at the top of the list of Coca-Cola 600 trophies. 

Johnson is certainly off to a good start this week at CMS. With NASCAR holding qualifying prior Sunday’s even, the No. 48 Chevrolet posted a time of 29.799, good for a front-row situation. Kurt Busch (29.790) was the only one quicker than Johnson, putting his No. 1 Chevrolet on the pole.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Kyle Busch is what NASCAR and other sports need right now

Kyle Busch, Nascar

Kyle Busch’s (inadvertent) Darlington heel turn was just what NASCAR needed as it leads the charge back from sports dormancy.

For many, The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday was a lot like a television pilot.

Millions flocked to the screen as NASCAR became the first North American team sport to return to live competition as the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Of that sports-starved public, thousands, possibly upwards of a million, admitted that they had never partaken in a NASCAR event.

A television pilot must accomplish several tasks if it hopes to go beyond its premiere night. It must establish the major players. It must define some traits and characteristics of said players. A goal or endgame to the debut season, or perhaps the series itself, is established. Perhaps a catchphrase or two is uttered.

NASCAR achieved that and then some. Viewers met some of the popular drivers the series had to offer. They learned of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s propensity for attracting trouble on the very first lap. They cheered when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson took the lead toward the end of the first stage and bemoaned his wreck on the last lap of the portion. Rookie young guns Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek posted top ten finishes. Finally, Kevin Harvick made series history by becoming the 14th driver to win 50 Cup series races by getting to the finish line first.

In a quest to carry out the entirety of its schedule, the second half of a Darlington doubleheader went down on Wednesday. That’s when the new legion of fans met their villain.

It’s not unusual for pop culture to be patient in introducing their main antagonist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, waited ten movies to give Thanos a speaking role. Wednesday’s race, the Toyota 500, took 200 laps.

A storm was brewing over Darlington and it wasn’t just in the clouds. On the track, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott battled for the right to take the lead away from Denny Hamlin before the skies opened. As their machines crossed the start/finish line, Elliott’s pass of Busch ended in disaster, as the latter’s No. 18 Toyota clipped the back of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The No. 9 car spun and hit the inside wall and his top five finish became 38th in the blink of an eye.

Social distancing measures might’ve prevented a brouhaha from being staged in the No. 18 pit. Those seeking confrontation saw their fight dreams partially fulfilled when Busch was approached by Alan Gustafson. Elliott’s crew chief knows Busch from a peaceful time in his career, serving as Busch’s own pit boss for the first three years of his Cup career (2005-07).

Behold the villain.

NASCAR fans can’t seem to agree on much these days. Rare unanimity is formed when misfortune befalls Busch’s Joe Gibbs Toyota. During the 2018 race at Watkins Glen, for example, the Finger Lakes roared when fan-favorite Elliott passed him en route to his first Cup Series victory.

Wednesday’s incident with Elliott is fairly minimal in the list of Busch encounters. After all, Busch repeatedly denied intentionally spinning the No. 9 and Fox’s commentary duo Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon agreed that there was little else the Toyota could do to avoid the unfortunate occurrence. That didn’t stop Elliott’s fervent fanbase from sending plenty of unfriendly salutations to Busch’s social media account after the race. Elliott, after all, is the son of NASCAR royalty (his father Bill was part of the 2015 Hall of Fame class) and a two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award that has backed up the hype (top ten standings finishes in each of his first four seasons).

Elliott’s fans might not want to hear it, but Busch’s villainy, inadvertent as it may have been, was just what NASCAR, and the rest of live sports, may have needed as they gradually return.

Busch is the driver that often elicits the most boos on race weekend. The word “incident” appears on his Wikipedia page 16 different times. Elliott is far from the first prominent driver to engage in unpleasantries with the Las Vegas native. He incurred the wrath of another massive NASCAR factions, House Junior, when he spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. toward the end of a 2008 event at Richmond. During a Truck Series race in 2011, a displeased Busch slammed into Ron Hornaday during a caution (which netted him a suspension for the Cup Series race two days later). Even Busch’s own brother Kurt wasn’t spared from his wrath. A get-together during the 2007 All-Star Race led to the siblings not speaking for nearly half-a-year until their grandmother intervened during Thanksgiving dinner.

Fans have taken issue with Busch’s supposed bending of racing rules as well. The first of two Cup Series titles came in 2015 after he missed the first 11 races due to an injury sustained during an Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Speaking of racing in NASCAR’s lower tiers, fans have often taken issue with Busch running in such events. After all, it’s not like you see Aaron Judge spending his off-days with the New York Yankees playing AAA-ball in Scranton.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Most drivers would shrug and try to move on from focus on such topics. Busch does the opposite.

Part of Busch’s appeal as a NASCAR heel is his willingness to accept and embrace his role. When booed during driver introductions at the All-Star festivities after the Earnhardt incident, Busch responded only by cupping his ears. When he pulled off a contact-heavy victory over Kyle Larson at Chicagoland Speedway in 2018, Busch feigned tears when fans were less than pleased with the result.

When it became clear that fans were going to blame him for the Elliott incident even if there was little he could do to avoid it, Busch engaged in his trademark snark and might’ve only hinted at anticipation of the No. 9 team seeking revenge.

“Obviously I just made a mistake, misjudged the gap, sent him into the wall. That was entirely unintentional,” Busch said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom on Wednesday night. “I’ll definitely reach out to him and tell him I’m sorry, tell him I hate it that it happened.”

“That doesn’t change the outcome of the night.”

Much like LeBron James during his Miami Heat tenure, Busch is taking his role as the villain and running with it. It creates a perfect setting for NASCAR’s new fans. Deeper into the call, Busch was asked whether he saw Elliot give him the middle finger after exiting his downed car. Busch dryly replied “I thought we had protocols where we’re not supposed to do that, so okay”…conveniently leaving out the fact he likewise got into hot water for making the same gesture to a NASCAR official during a 2010 race at Texas.

Team sports are often filled with squads or players that you love to hate. The Golden State Warriors picked up where the Heat left off after James went back to Cleveland. Championships earned through reportedly illicit strategies only amplify the hatred, as any fan of the New England Patriots or Houston Astros will tell you.

That’s another part of what makes Busch so effective as an antagonist. Even his staunchest detractor can’t deny Busch has skill and poise behind the wheel. When NASCAR granted him an injury waiver and conditions (reaching the top 30 in points in addition to learning the necessary win for a playoff berth) to compete for the 2015 title, Busch fulfilled them with no qualms. When the haters called that title illegitimate, Busch partook in all 36 races and put up an average finish of 8.9 en route to a title last season.

In terms of his lower-tier endeavors, NASCAR has tried to put a slight kibosh on it by having drivers compete for points in only one series (he was far from the only offender) and putting quotas on how many races Cup regulars could run. Busch has only responded by making the most of the opportunities he takes. Since 2016, he has run 65 races on the Xfinity and Truck circuits. 33 have ended in victory lane.

(Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As organized, professional team sports gradually start to return from the coronavirus hiatus, Busch has become America’s new polarizing figure, his No. 18 team drawing jeers moving forward. Fans are often not satisfied unless they have a cause to root against. Silly as it sounds, some people just aren’t satisfied with a concept unless there’s a villain to root against. There’s a reason that you rarely see a movie where every character is likable. How else would the supposed hero’s triumph be earned or vindicated? Thus, villainy has a number, and its numerals are 18.

As for Busch, the bearer? As you can tell by now, he doesn’t mind it one bit.

“I can say whatever I can say. I’ve never been a very good politician anyways. His fan base is going to have the hatred for me anyways. I just deal with what I got to deal with. Rowdy Nation will have my back and we’ll go after it after that.”

Much like Tom Hiddleston as Loki or David Bowie as Labyrinth‘s Goblin King…the villain is perfectly cast. 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags