NASCAR: Ryan Blaney steals another as playoff field is set

Blaney’s second consecutive win came in the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season finale at the hallowed ground of Daytona.

Ryan Blaney’s spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs was well-secured, but that didn’t stop him from going all-out for the win in the regular season finale on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

As the victor in an overtime finish, Blaney has won consecutive Cup Series races for the first time in his career after last week’s triumph at Michigan. The win at this weekend’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 makes him one of only four drivers to win at least three races this season, joining Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., and Alex Bowman.

Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford beat out several drivers who desperately needed a win to qualify for the Cup Series playoffs, which begin next Sunday at Darlington Raceway. As late wrecks dominated the final stages of Daytona’s summer event, Blaney took the lead from the winless Chris Buescher before holding off a final challenge from other trophy-seekers like Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain, and Daniel Suarez. Chaos eventually erupted behind Blaney, as one final wreck that took out several contenders shut down the affair.

Buescher finished in the runner-up spot, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman, and Ryan Preece rounded out the top five in the 400-mile event originally scheduled for 160 laps.

Blaney lingered in the upper half of the field for most of the evening, which was a mostly peaceful affair before desperation took over. The first two stages, 50 circuits apiece, were taken by Chase Elliott and Blaney’s Penske teammate Joey Logano. Blaney, Logano, and the other Ford Mustangs in the lead pack topped off on fuel with 37 laps to go. Chevrolets and Toyota were expected to pit shortly after but neither group made it to pit road when Garrett Smithley’s No. 53 Chevrolet spun, collecting Rick Ware Racing teammates Joey Gase and Cody Ware. The Fords jumped back out to the front of the pack while the other lead-lap cars pitted.

Two separate multi-car wrecks at laps 146 and 157. The latter saw Matt DiBenedetto miss out on his first career victory once again, as the 238th career start of his Cup career ended when he got together with leader Chase Elliott. Other notable vehicles involved included Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Christopher Bell.

That latter incident set up the overtime finish which allowed Blaney to capture his third win, as well as the second seed in the Cup Series playoff bracket, earned through victories and stage wins throughout the 26 regular season races.

Other big winners on Saturday were Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick. Larson (21st) clinched the regular season championship, which affords him an extra 15-point advantage in the playoff standings while Reddick (6th) beat out his teammate Dillon (18th) for the final postseason slot. View the whole Cup Series playoff grid below:

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Michael McDowell follows up win with strong comeback

McDowell’s Daytona defense got off to a brutal start, but he recovered to set a new landmark in his NASCAR Cup Series career.

The phrase “what have you done for me lately” makes the professional sports world go round. The greatest achievements can be quickly disregarded with poor follow-ups.

NASCAR’s Daytona 500 seems to situate its winner in a compromising position. Eternal motorsports glory accompanies the Harley J. Earl Trophy, but the race’s status as the opener to the NASCAR season put pressure on the winner to keep the good vibes going. Some winners never regain that swagger. A decade ago, for example, Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of the event at 20 years and a day…he never visited victory lane again and last ran a full Cup Series season in 2017.

Michael McDowell is the latest winner of the prestigious race, executing a last-lap pass for the lead as a fiery pile-up erupted behind him in the wee hours of last Monday morning. The victory likely propelled his mid-budget Front Row Motorsports team into a playoff spot and McDowell spent the past week on a victory tour, appearing on nationally-aired talk shows like Fox & Friends and Live with Kelly and Ryan.

There quietly seemed to be a foreboding sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop for McDowell and the No. 34 Ford. After all, McDowell had been winless in the 357 races prior to last week’s win. Only Michael Waltrip, the winner of the star-crossed Daytona opener in 2001, had raced longer before visiting victory lane for the first time. His FRM equipment has never been able to consistently run with the circuit’s larger names. Save for a brief playoff appearance by Chris Buescher in the 2016 playoffs (earned through a rain-shortened win at Pocono), McDowell’s 23rd-place posting in 2020 was the best standings finish for an FRM vehicle.

Sure enough, McDowell’s day appeared to be headed south right from the get-go when NASCAR returned to Daytona on Sunday to the Cup Series’ O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 on the facility’s road course. Living up to his team name, McDowell’s performance from last weekend on the oval afforded him a starting position in the front row next to defending circuit champion Chase Elliott. But issues during the pace laps cost McDowell his steering, causing chaos in the first turn of the race that ate at his tires. The tire later fell off of the No. 34 entirely, bringing out the first caution flag of the day.

“We had a flat tire there coming to the green. I knew something was wrong,” McDowell said in recalling the incident, per quotes provided by Ford Racing Performance. “I should have just pitted, so I screwed that up and that hurt us a little bit.”

But, over the course of the 70-lap event, McDowell would go on to live up to the name many of his respectful competitors bestowed upon him after his Daytona victory: a grinder.

After all, McDowell has maintained consistent work in the Cup Series despite working with less-than-stellar equipment throughout his career. It’s led to some dubious history, including the record for the most last-place finishes in Cup Series history. But McDowell, a man of strong faith, continued to work with the hands dealt to him. It paid off over two events at Daytona.

“He’s been grinding his whole career and he finally won one and it’s the biggest race ever,” Joey Logan, a fellow Ford driver and road course race runner-up said of McDowell. “I’m ecstatic for him and he should be over the moon (about the win).”

Over the rest of the road course race, McDowell avoided trouble and used some strong strategy in conjunction with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer to create something out of nothing. As several contenders faded, McDowell worked his way back into the top ten and eventually brought the No. 34 Ford home in eighth-place. It marks the first time that McDowell has earned consecutive top ten finishes in his Cup career, which began with Waltrip’s race team in 2008.

McDowell’s name also appears alongside some elite company, and not just through his victory last week. He is one of three drivers to earn top ten finishes in each of the first two 2021 races (joining Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Preece) and is one of only three to finish in the top ten at each of the two races held at Daytona’s road course (Hamlin and Logano).

“Pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong today, but this is what our team is all about. Front Row Motorsports, we grind it out and we fought hard,” McDowell said. “We just kept the fight in it and ended up with another top 10, so it’s pretty crazy how that all went down.”

“It was another great run.  I’m really excited to keep this momentum going.  We’ve got to clean it up a little bit, but not a bad night altogether.”

McDowell and the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Busch steals exhibition win in wild Busch Clash finish

A last-lap get-together between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney allowed Kyle Busch to steal the NASCAR Cup Series’ season-opening exhibition.

Kyle Busch took advantage of chaos on the final lap of the NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Busch Clash exhibition at Daytona International Speedway’s road course on Tuesday night, stealing the opening victory when Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney made contact in the final turn.

Busch was running third in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota when Elliott tried to take the win from his close friend Blaney got together toward the final turn. With the cars ahead of him disabled, the two-time Cup Series champion took full advantage.

First run in 1979, the Busch Clash exhibition is typically considered the unofficial start of the NASCAR season. It is often run the weekend before the Daytona 500, but DIS’ Speedweeks festivities have been condensed to a weak to work with health protocols. The event was run on the speedway’s road course for the first time, nearly six months after the circuit ran a regular-season race for the first time. Criteria for entry into the event constantly changes, though this season’s event welcomed playoff drivers, race winners, stage winners, and pole sitters from on-track qualifying last season.

NASCAR will return to the road course on February 21, one week after Sunday’s main event on the oval (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox), for a points race.

Busch becomes the 11th driver to earn multiple Clash victories, previously winning on the traditional oval in 2012. This victory comes after a disappointing title defense in 2020. Busch won only a single race and failed to appear in the top four of the final standings for the first time since 2014. He also captured a win with new crew chief Ben Beshore, a former JGR engineer who served as Harrison Burton’s pit boss at the Xfinity Series level last year. Beshore was also Busch’s interim crew chief for three races during the 2017 season.

It was nearly deja vu all over against for Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Elliott came in as a popular pick for the Clash title, having won each of the last four races held on a road course (including August’s maiden voyage at Daytona). However, he was forced to start the rear of the field for the 35-lap event, a penalty for making unapproved adjustments to his Chevy. Elliott was previously sent to the rear at the last points event back in Phoenix in November. He’d brush to off to not only win the event, but his first Cup Series championship as well.

Elliott had made his way to third by lap 28 when leader Martin Truex Jr. wrecked in the sixth turn. The No. 9 would assume the lead when leaders Blaney and Denny Hamlin pitted. Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford won the race off pit road, situating him behind Elliott and five others who stayed out. Armed with fresher tires, Blaney took the lead from Elliott with two to go before engaging in a furious final lap. As they came to the frontstretch, Elliott bumped the No. 12, spinning him into the wall. Elliott tried to get back up to speed as Busch approached, but it was no use. As Busch celebrated in front of a limited crowd at the start/finish line, Elliott and Blaney shared a conversation on pit road.

Joey Logano recovered from a pit road penalty to finish third, while Tyler Reddick and William Byron rounded out the top five.

Preparation for the Daytona 500 will continue on Wednesday through single-car qualifying (7 p.m. ET, FS1) that will determine the front row for Sunday. The rest of the starting lineup will be settled through the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday night.

Race Notes

  • A common complaint from Tuesday’s event was that mud crept onto the track from the infield. Several cars needed their grilles scrubbed on pit strops to remove the intrusions.

 

  • 23XI Racing, the team founded by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, unofficially debuted its No. 23 Toyota on Tuesday. Though regular driver Bubba Wallace did not qualify for the Clash, the team welcomed in veteran Ty Dillon for a one-off deal. Dillon finished 18th and will next attempt to race Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota into the 500 on Thursday. The former driver of the No. 13 for defunct Germain Racing will also pilot the 96 at the return to the road course in two weeks.

 

  • Other drivers in new rides included Alex Bowman in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (7th) and Erik Jones in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet (8th). Bowman is taking over the No. 48 for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson while Jones, defending champion of the Clash, replaces Wallace.

 

  • Busch’s win is the record 10th Clash victory for Joe Gibbs Racing and second in a row after Jones won in the No. 20 Toyota last season.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson likely won’t partake in preseason Clash at Daytona

This Saturday night, the UFC makes it's long anticipated return to Las Vegas with UFC on ESPN 9 which will be headlined by a welterweight contest between former champion, Tyron Woodley,

Jimmie Johnson will return to Daytona International Speedway in 2021, but he won’t be piloting a NASCAR vehicle.

Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR departure hasn’t even begun, but fans are already clamoring for a return.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, 45, retired from full-time racing after the 2020 season. He spent his whole career in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, winning 83 Cup races (tied for fifth-most all-time). No storybook ending awaited Johnson, who missed out on the Cup Series playoffs and finished 18th in the final standings, but he nonetheless qualified for February’s Busch Clash, the unofficial opener to the NASCAR season at Daytona International Speedway. The 2021 Busch Clash will be run on Tuesday, February 9, five days before the Daytona 500.

However, Johnson more or less eliminated any hope that he would come back to NASCAR earlier this week.

Johnson has returned to Daytona this week as he prepares to partake in the Rolex 24 endurance race (also known as the 24 Hours at Daytona). He has also begun an IndyCar endeavor with Chip Ganassi Racing, which also fields a pair of entries in the Cup Series. But questions about his NASCAR availability inevitably rose, especially with the Clash moving to the Daytona’s road course for the first time. The road course will also host the Rolex 24 and the second event on NASCAR’s national series calendars (replacing Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California).

But Johnson, who has previously left the door open to making cameo appearances in NASCAR, dashed the hopes of any fan hoping to see him return. Not only did he say that no teams have inquired about his Clash availability, but Johnson would turn any offers down to focus on his fledgling IndyCar career.

“I feel like just in pure transparency that I need to not drive a stock car for a while to really reprogram my senses and my brain to drive downforce,” Johnson said. “It’s just a totally different way to get through a center of the corner.”

“The season is going to be here before I know it. Of course, there’s going to be a big spotlight on me and how I’m going to perform in the car, with the testing being so little. I got a lot I need to do so I can be on pace.”

The Busch Clash has been run annually since 1979 as an exhibition race prior to the renowned 500-mile event. All playoff drivers from the 2020 season are eligible to partake, as are 2020 race winners, stage winners, and pole sitters from on-track qualifying and from Daytona 500s past. Previous Clash winners are also invited if they have raced full-time the year before (a caveat that is also enforced with the Daytona pole sitter entry). Johnson is eligible through multiple victories in the 500 (2006, 2013), the Clash (2005, 2019), and a stage win at the late spring Martinsville race.

Though Johnson’s traditional No. 48 seat has been filled by former teammate Alex Bowman, it was possible he could briefly take over a car one of his other teams had available. Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet is available with newcomer Kyle Larson ineligible for the Clash (having partaken in only four races before being dealt a suspension for uttering a racist slur during a virtual race), as his Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet. That car, driven by Larson at the start of 2020, was taken over by temporarily unretired former Matt Kenseth for the rest of the year. Xfinity and Truck Series veteran Ross Chastain will take over the car starting with the 500. Obviously, none of these ideas would be attractive to Johnson as inches closer to his IndyCar debut.

Kenseth and another recent retiree, Clint Bowyer, are also eligible but neither has shown interest in competing. Bowyer, former driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, would be more likely to call the exhibition for Fox Sports, as he is set to join Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the network’s racing booth next season. Ty Dillon is also eligible, but has been left without a ride after his No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet team shut down.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: William Byron earns playoff berth in wild Daytona regular season finale

William Byron’s first NASCAR Cup Series couldn’t have come at a better time, but a late wreck ruined Jimmie Johnson’s playoff chances.

The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet returned to the familiar settings of victory lane, but a victorious sendoff for another iconic ride was not meant to be.

William Byron had perfect timing for his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, taking home the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. A win in the regular-season finale allows Byron to earn a last-minute berth into the NASCAR playoffs, which begin next weekend at Darlington Raceway.

“I feel incredible.  On Cloud 9 for sure,” Byron said after the race. “There was a point in that race that I didn’t really think things were going to work out in our favor to make the Playoffs, really have an opportunity next week. This was kind of one of those do-or-die situations. Kind of crossed that fork in the road tonight. We were able to be aggressive and make it happen.”

Saturday marked the first time that Daytona hosted the regular season finale, moved from a July 4th weekend schedule slot its 400-mile race had held since its inception in 1959. The track’s propensity for tightly-packed racing, speed in excess of 200 miles per hour, multi-car wrecks, and first-time winners made it a perfect site for the 26th and final race before the playoffs.

Byron becomes the 21st Cup Series driver to win his first race at Daytona, a circuit record.

“You couldn’t have picked a more pressure-packed race,” Byron said of making Daytona the season finale. “When you’re at a superspeedway, the running order changes every two laps practically, it’s incredible to put that much pressure on a couple of points. You really can’t points race, which I think is probably what they want us to do. They want us to go for wins, try to compete hard. It was a perfect format for that.”

Byron entered Daytona in the 16th and final playoff seed, five points behind Matt DiBenedetto and four points ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Had Byron retained the 16th seed, he could’ve been eliminated if a winless driver behind him won the race. His first career victory locked his spot up without further drama.

The jubilation for Byron, the first driver representing the No. 24 banner to win a Cup Series race since Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville in 2015, was countered by personal heartbreak for Johnson his No. 48 Chevrolet team. One of three winners of a record seven Cup Series titles, Johnson is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the season. He ran well for a majority of the evening and earned precious playoff real estate through a dozen stage points.

But with two laps to go, Johnson got caught in a wreck that began when Joey Logano, the winner of the first two stages, made contact with Denny Hamlin and bumped into an attacking Bubba Wallace who was leading a third lane for the lead. Chaos ensued, taking out several drivers seeking a crucial win, including Matt Kenseth, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, and John Hunter Nemechek.

Johnson’s crew was able to repair the car to the point it was able to meet minimum speed standards, but by then it was too late. Johnson finished 17th and missed out on the playoffs thanks to Byron’s win and DiBenedetto’s 12th place finish.

DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, makes the playoffs for the first time in his career.

With the race going into overtime, Byron held off a challenge from Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott and a recovered Hamlin over a two-lap dash to earn his first win in his 98th Cup Series start. Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth while Wallace also recovered to finish fifth.

The 16-driver playoff will begin next Sunday night at Darlington’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Three races await in the first leg of the playoffs, with dates at Richmond and Bristol filling out the remainder.

Race Notes

  • Prior to the race, Kevin Harvick was presented the Regular Season Championship. Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won seven races and beat out Hamlin by 134 points entering Saturday’s race to win it. He will enter the playoffs as the top-seeded driver thanks to 57 playoff points earned through seven race wins (five points each), seven stage wins (one-point each), and a 15-point bonus for the regular-season crown. Harvick finished 20th at Daytona after getting caught up in an incident on the final lap.

 

  • Incidents were kept to a minimum, with only cautions for the first 143 laps coming for a competition caution and stage pauses. The first yellow for an on-track incident came when James Davidson and Brendan Gaughan made contact.

 

  • The first big wreck of the night came at lap 153 of 160, when Reddick’s block on Kyle Busch ignited a big wreck that took out both Busch and his brother Kurt, as well as Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Newman, making his first start at Daytona’s oval since a scary wreck at the end of February’s 500-mile opener, was critical of Reddick in an interview with NBC Sports, declaring that “the No. 8 ran out of talent”.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags