NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. survives Martinsville for second win in 2021

Truex survived several caution flags and a battle with a teammate to become the NASCAR Cup Series’ first two-time winner in 2021.

New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. became the first two-time winner on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday, taking home the Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The race began on Saturday night, but all but 43 laps were pushed to Sunday due to inclement weather.

Truex survived a seemingly endless barrage of caution flags to earn the victory, which featured a final pass of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin with 15 laps to go to secure the win. The No. 19 Toyota previously won at Phoenix and has earned a win at Martinsville in each of the past three seasons.

Defending series and Martinsville champion Chase Elliott finished second ahead of Hamlin, who led a race-best 274 laps. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.

Truex’s No. 19 was a rare clean vehicle in a race that featured 15 caution flags, all but five coming after the midway mark at lap 250. The most carnage occurred on lap 387 when a get-together between Kyle Busch and Chris Buescher blocked the entry into turn two caused major damage and ended the days of Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Brad Keselowski, and Michael McDowell. An ensuing red flag paused the race for just over 20 minutes.

The constant restarts allowed Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota, a strong short-run vehicle, to jump out to the lead on restarts, a gambit that allowed him to lead a race-best 276 laps. Truex gained the lead after the final caution of the day (Chase Briscoe’s spin in turn three) led to pit stops, but Hamlin quickly assumed it back.

But as the final 42 laps went green, Truex eventually realized that his car would be able to outperform the tightening No. 11. He eventually made the victorious pass with 16 laps to go and earned the win by a 1.9-second margin.

It was part of a strong day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which placed all four of its Cup vehicles in the top ten. Christopher Bell, another 2020 winner at the Daytona road course, finished seventh and led nine laps while Busch recovered to place tenth. In the Xfinity Series conclusion that ran before the Cup event, Gibbs had four cars in the top seven.

Truex’s victory continues a dominant stretch on short tracks. He has now won five of the last eleven events at short tracks (less than a mile long) and is one of two active drivers with at least three wins at Martinsville (the other being his teammate Hamlin with five). The win was also the 29th of Truex’s Cup Series career, breaking a tie with Carl Edwards and Hall of Famer Rex White.

NASCAR will return to Martinsville in October, as its fall event will serve as the penultimate race of the season.

A prime opportunity awaits for Truex to continue his short-track dominance. The series descends upon Richmond Raceway next Sunday for the Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Truex’s No. 19 team swept the pair of Richmond events during the 2019 season.

Race Notes

  • Ryan Blaney won the first stages, lasting 130 laps each. Blaney was in contention all day and led 157 laps, but a pit road miscue during the final stops relegated him to the rear of the field. The No. 12 Team Penske Ford recovered to finish 11th.

 

  • Pit strategy allowed Bubba Wallace to lead a career-best 23 laps. His No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota hovered around the top ten for a good portion of the latter stages, but late contract relegated him to a 16th-place finish.

 

  • Suarez, relegated to a 32nd-place finish after the wreck, endured a brutal weekend. The No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet was relegated to the rear of the field and lost crew chief Travis Mack after an illegal ballast issue was discovered during prerace inspection on Saturday.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Saturday’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500

Denny Hemlin

After an off week, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Saturday for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Beginning at 7:30 pm, it’ll be the first night race of the season and just the second in the track’s history. The event is 500 laps and 263 miles long with Joey Logano leading the field to green. Here are three drivers to watch in Saturday’s race.

Denny Hamlin

Over his career, Denny Hamlin has always performed well at Martinsville. He’s won there five times in the Cup Series and won three straight races there from 2009-2010. Hamlin’s average finish at Martinsville is an impressive 9.9 with 70% of his starts at the track resulting in a top-10.

Through seven races this season, Hamlin leads the points standings despite not yet winning a race. He already has six top-10s and his worst finish of the season is just 11th. Expect Hamlin to contend for the victory on Saturday.

Martin Truex Jr.

At one point, short track racing was an Achilles heel for Martin Truex Jr. But now, after winning two of the last three races at Martinsville, Truex Jr. has asserted himself as one of the best short track racers in the sport. He has 7 top-5s at the track and 13 top-10s for an average finish of 17th.

Truex Jr. secured his first win of the 2021 season a few weeks ago at Phoenix, and he’s looking for more. After winning just one race in 2020, the 40-year-old wants to bounce back in 2021 and become the first driver with multiple victories this season. Truex Jr. should most certainly run up front on Saturday.

Aric Almirola

2021 has been a season to forget thus far for Aric Almirola. Currently 28th in points, the 37-year-old has failed to place in the top-10 in this year with his best finish being 11th at Phoenix.

Historically at Martinsville, Almirola has been up and down. He has four top-5 finishes in his career, however, his average finish is 22nd thanks in part to several accidents and car failures throughout the years. To turn his season around, Almirola needs a strong run on Saturday, and he has the potential to do so.

How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Joey Logano wins historic dirt race at Bristol

Joey Logano held off off a final push from Denny Hamlin to win the NASCAR Cup Series first race on dirt in over five decades.

Joey Logano came out clean at the end of the first NASCAR Cup Series run on dirt in 51 years.

The No. 22 Team Penske Ford led the final 61 laps en route to victory at the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished second, while Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.

Bristol’s dirt endeavor, the first NASCAR Cup Series event held on dirt since 1970, was pushed back from Sunday to Monday after inclement weather flooded the parking lot and rendered the track inoperable. Thanks to a strong effort from the BMS crew, both the Cup and Camping World Truck Series were able to run their full events without issues.

Unlike several of his Cup peers, Logano did not run the Trucks race, instead calling the race for Fox Sports 1. Despite limited dirt experience, he was able to stay toward the front for a good portion of the day after starting 10th. He took care of business after the first 100-lap stage through a sixth-place finish while the Truck race winner Martin Truex Jr. dominated.

Logano first took the lead at lap 170 of 250, passing the upstart Suarez in the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet. He would go on to beat out Suarez for the stage two win before a ten-minute break commenced. By then, the middle stage of the race had thrown a new obstacle for the drivers: the return of single-file restarts, which hadn’t been seen on the Cup circuit since 2009. Early runs in the second stage were quickly stopped by multi-car get-togethers that damaged the cars of several contenders, including Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney.

With the track moistened for the final 50-lap stage, Logano held the lead despite a strong push from Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Mike Marlar’s spin just five laps from the checkered flag set up a two-lap overtime finish, but Logano was able to keep Hamlin and a charging Stenhouse behind him. Stenhouse had worked his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet up from eighth over the final 30 laps to secure his fifth career runner-up finish at Bristol.

Logano is the seventh different winner in seven different events to open the 2021 season, the first time the Cup Series has had seven unique winners to start since 2014. The series will go on hiatus during Easter weekend before returning for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Dirt track veterans and Cup regulars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell saw their days end on a wreck at lap 53, an incident that also took out Ross Chastain.

 

  • Truex dominated the Truck event earlier in the day, leading 105 of 150 laps and sweeping each stage in a Toyota Tundra owned by Kyle Busch. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was running in the top five at the end of the race, but lost a tire late and was relegated to 19th.

 

  • Another early incident involved Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Almirola failed to finish for the third time this season, matching his DNF total from all of last year. That wreck also ended the days of Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and Shane Golobic (a dirt veteran driving B.J. McLeod’s No. 78).

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s top ten run was ended after contact with Stenhouse created a tire rub that sent him spinning with 34 laps to go. Forced to pit road and unaided by a caution and finished 27th.

 

  • Suarez set a new career-high with 58 laps and earned his first top-five finish since November 2019 (Texas). Monday marked the seventh race for Trackhouse, which is led by owner, recording artist, and philanthropist Pitbull.

 

  • Newman survived an early spin (one that forced Kevin Harvick into rookie teammate Briscoe) to earn his first top five since October 2019 (Talladega).

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Hamlin and Harvick picking up where they left off in 2020

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

During last year’s unprecedented NASCAR Cup Series season, we saw Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin become the two most dominant drivers over the course of the season. Although neither won the championship, the duo combined for 16 wins and 38 top-5s.

And now, three races into the 2021 season, Harvick and Hamlin have picked up right where they left up. Both are winless thus far but have run up front in all three races of the Florida slate and currently lead in points.

To open the season, both drivers managed to avoid the last-lap crash of the Daytona 500 and placed in the top-5. Hamlin ran up front all day and won the first two stages of the race, but green flag pit-stops shuffled him to the back of the pack and out of contention. Harvick quietly ran towards the front all day, missing the lap 14 crash and other incidents.

A week later at the road course, Hamlin placed 3rd and Harvick placed 6th. Hamlin won another stage and ran up front, while Harvick didn’t make a push until towards the end of the race.

At Homestead, Harvick registered a 5th place finish while Hamlin finished 11th. Harvick was solid all-day, while Hamlin battled. Hamlin believed the car was losing power early and struggled, but got the car up front by the beginning of stage three. However, a pit road speeding penalty sent Hamlin to the rear, and could never recover.

Although they haven’t won yet this year, Hamlin and Harvick are by far the two fastest cars once again in 2021. They are the only two drivers to have placed consistent finishes this year and show promise at three different track types. As NASCAR heads to another intermediate track this weekend in Las Vegas, look for Hamlin and Harvick to run up front again and contend for the win.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Joe Gibbs Racing

Championships won and championships missed unite at JGR, whose drivers experienced a roller-coaster 2020 season.

2021 Joe Gibbs Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Denny Hamlin 11 Chris Gabehart FedEx
Kyle Busch 18 Ben Beshore M&M’s/Skittles/Snickers/Pedigree
Martin Truex Jr. 19 James Small Bass Pro Shops/Auto-Owners Insurance/DeWalt
Christopher Bell 20 Adam Stevens Stanley/DeWalt/Irwin/Rheem/Craftsman

History

Legendary NFL head coach Joe Gibbs opted for another championship venture during his days coaching football in Washington. As he closed in on his third and final Super Bowl title, Gibbs was starting his own NASCAR squad, starting things off with future champion Dale Jarrett. After Jarrett and another trophy-hoister in the making, Bobby Labonte, piloted the original No. 18 car to 10 wins over its first seven seasons, Gibbs expanded to a two-car operation, welcoming in the hot-headed but talented Tony Stewart to the No. 20. In the first year of the Labonte-Stewart tandem, the former finished second behind Jarrett, then driving for Robert Yates Racing, before winning a title of his own in 2000. Stewart would take home the championship two years, the first of two such celebrations in Gibbs’ No. 20 (the other coming in 2005).

The original Nos. 18 and 20 cars are now respectively piloted by Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell. Busch has brought home two further Cup Series championships (2015, 2019).

A third car, the No. 11, arrived in 2004 as a part-time unit before Denny Hamlin earned full-time duties just over a year later by closing out the 2005 campaign with five top 20 finishes in the final seven races. The gambit immediately paid off with a third-place finish in the final standings, the best by any Cup rookie in the modern era (since 1972). Hamlin has since gone on to win 44 races in Gibbs’ equipment, including three Daytona 500s (including the most recent two), and, with the exception of an injury-marred 2013, has finished no worse than 12th in the final standings.

Gibbs would often field a fourth car for research and development before that unit eventually became the No. 19 Toyota, originally driven by Carl Edwards in 2015-16. Edwards retired weeks before the 2017 Daytona 500, first leaving the Camry to Daniel Suarez for two seasons before championship driver Martin Truex Jr. came over after the shutdown of Furniture Row Racing.

2020 in Review

The closest Gibbs ever came to an undefeated season was the 1991-92 NFL campaign, winning his first 11 games en route to Super Bowl XXVI. Hamlin tried hard to duplicate the feat after the coronavirus-induced pause, winning seven races and running at the front of the standings with Kevin Harvick all season. Following a 28th-place finish at Indianapolis in July, Hamlin finished outside of the Top 20 in just one of the final 20 races. He advanced to the final four at Phoenix for the second straight season but came home fourth in the standings despite a run in the top five.

Despite Hamlin’s success, the biggest story at Gibbs was by far the Kyle Busch saga. The No. 18’s title defense did not as planned, as a topsy-turvy season often denied him victories through factors beyond his control. Busch eventually was able to score a win at Texas in the 34th weekend of the season.

Truex was relatively quiet in his second year in the No. 19 car after picking up seven wins and a runner-up posting the year prior. He earned a single, yet dominant, victory at the summer race at Martinsville and his 23 top tens led all Gibbs drivers (third in NASCAR overall). Despite a summer stretch where he earned a streak of nine top fives in ten races, Truex missed out on the championship quartet after a tough race at the penultimate event back at Martinsville.

Bell, the 2017 Camping World Truck Series champion, got his Cup feet wet in the No. 95 at now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, which shut down after last season despite a technical alliance with Gibbs. Erik Jones piloted the No. 20 car in each of the past three seasons, finishing no better than 15th and winning two races.

Meet the Drivers

Denny Hamlin

Experience: 16th full season
Career Cup Victories: 57 (last: Texas, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 8th
Best standings finish: 2015, 2019

There’s nothing wrong with going down in the same sentences as the legendary Mark Martin, whom Hamlin passed on the all-time wins list last season. But those comparisons are going to grow in a pejorative light if Hamlin continues to miss out on a title, unfair as they may be. Based on his on-track output, Hamlin may be closer to a title than ever before. Since Chris Gabehart took over as crew chief in 2019, Hamlin has won 13 races.

“Chris (has done) a great job of getting the most out of me each and every week,” Hamlin said prior to descending upon Daytona. “When he came in, a lot of it was me working on the driving aspect and giving him the free reign to go and do whatever he needed to do with the race car and us trusting each other. I think that whatever has happened, it’s clicked and it’s worked well, and we’ve gotten a lot of success from that.”

Undeterred by another close finish, Hamlin has kept busy this offseason. In addition to starring in a widely-aired Domino’s commercial, Hamlin has been busy running 23XI Racing alongside NBA legend Michael Jordan and competitor Bubba Wallace. Hamlin has been instrumental in the team’s formation but has assured fans of his No. 11 that his day-to-day involvement with 23XI (which will hold a technical alliance with JGR) is on hold for the time being. Hamlin solidified his commitment to the No. 11 with a newly granted extension.

“I’m really looking forward to going to the race track and then concentrating on one thing and that’s being a race car driver and getting the most out of it,” Hamlin said. “For myself, I felt like February 1 was the date and where I’m kind of done on the day to day for 23X1 and I just think that now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship. That’s where ultimately is going to be the best thing for me, in the long run, to continue to be successful.”

Kyle Busch

Experience: 17th full season
Career Cup Victories: 
2020 finish: 4th
Best standings finish: 2nd (2010)

By all accounts, there are many teams in NASCAR that would make ridiculous sacrifices to earn Busch’s 2020 ledger (1 win, 14 top fives, 20 top tens). But Busch knows that there’s far more expected of him. Following Jimmie Johnson’s retirement, Busch is the only active multiple-champion on the Cup level.

To kickstart 2021, the No. 18’s personnel underwent a bit of a reboot. A good bunch of Busch’s crew shifted over to the No. 20 inherited by Bell, including pit boss Adam Stevens, who helped Busch win each of his Cup Series titles. Busch’s Camry will carry the familiar, colorful insignias of M&M’s and Mars, Incorporated’s confectionaries, but he feels it’s a complete shift. He compared the shift to his original Gibbs arrival in 2008, when he moved into the No. 18 after his first three Cup seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. Busch would go on to earn his first eight wins in a Gibbs vehicle that season.

“I kind of feel like I got fired from the 18 car and moved over to the 20 guys,” Busch said. “There’s this whole thing mentally in my head that I kind of got fired and rehired. Maybe that’ll hold true with how it looked in 2007 to 2008 from Hendrick to Gibbs. And I went off and won eight races. It’s a new challenge, it’s a whole group, but looking forward to it.”

Engineer Ben Beshore will take over as Busch’s crew chief, having overseen four Busch wins at the Xfinity level in 2019. Beshore matched the output in a full season with Harrison Burton. The collaboration got off to a good start this week, as Busch took advantage of a battle for the lead gone awry between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to win the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on Tuesday night.

“We’ve had a lot of success together. We kind of know the language we’re both speaking,” Beshore said after the Clash victory. “To be able to start the year with some momentum, some positive momentum, get a win right off the bat here, it’s awesome. Especially with a lot of new team members on the car, just getting everybody tied together, pulling in the same direction. I think it’s huge.”

Martin Truex Jr. 

Experience: 16th full season
Career Cup Victories: 27 (last: Martinsville summer, 2020)
2020 finish: 7th
Best standings finish: 2017 Champion

Truex was another driver with a very consistent season that went somewhat by the wayside because we’ve grown accustomed to much bigger things. Going into last year, Truex had won 19 races over the prior three campaigns, winning the 2017 title and finishing in the runner-up slot in the other two seasons. Last season was Truex’s first without crew chief Cole Pearn since 2014. The Mayetta, NJ native had won all but two of his 26 Cup Series races with Pearn in town. Eventually, Truex found a rapport with new boss James Small, leading to their summer endeavors.

JGR brass obviously feels the collaboration is working. Truex and Small will work a second season together and Truex, 40, was recently signed to an extension that will keep him in the No. 19 Toyota.

“We’re always fired up and we are working hard to be better at things,” Truex said what was and what’s to come at JGR. “Last year did not go the way that we wanted. We had a lot of close calls and had some races we probably should have won, and things didn’t go the way we needed to, or we screwed them up. That always makes you angry and makes you want to go back and redo it or retry it. I think we are better prepared this year for sure as a unit.”

Christopher Bell

Experience: 2nd season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 20th
Best standings finish: 20th (2020)

Bell, the 2020 Camping World Truck Series champion, didn’t live up to his massive potential in his first season, probably due to underfunded equipment over at LFR. He did, however, put up some strong efforts in his debut. His 20th-place posting was the best by any LFR driver and he tied Matt DiBenedetto’s team record with seven top tens. Bell’s best finish was a third-place showing at Texas behind Busch. He now returns to Gibbs after placing their Xfinity program in the top five in 2018 and 2019 with Stevens as his crew chief. The pair got off to a strong start at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday, as Bell earned a runner-up result in a photo-finish with Aric Almirola.

Despite his familiarity and prior success in a Gibbs vehicle, Bell feels like there’s some pressure to perform in his return to the organization.

“I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it,” Bell said. Whenever you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing or any top organization, I think that the expectations are to be a championship contender. Coach provides all of the resources needed to have four championship-caliber teams and that is what the goal is. Anything short of that is not good enough.”

Outlook

JGR is an organization where each of its four drivers is more than capable of making the postseason, and they should be well expected to do so in 2021. The biggest question mark will probably be Bell, if only because he has yet to consistently prove himself at the Cup level yet. Either way, there’s no reason to believe that this team shouldn’t be contending for a championship.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: 23XI Racing

MJ is going from The Last Dance to his first NASCAR laps; what can we expect from his new venture with Bubba Wallace and Denny Hamlin?

2021 23XI Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Bubba Wallace 23 Mike Wheeler DoorDash/McDonald’s/Columbia/Dr. Pepper/Root Insurance

History

Michael Jordan’s exploits with one “Dream Team” have been well documented. He might have another one brewing in Mooresville, a half-hour drive from his current hardwood dominion in Charlotte.

After months of rumors, Jordan formally announced his NASCAR venture in September, bringing along the accomplished Denny Hamlin as a co-owner. Bubba Wallace will pilot a Toyota appropriately bearing the No. 23, Jordan’s number during his legendary NBA endeavors.

NASCAR’s efforts to better itself in the current American landscape, such as the banning of the Confederate flag at their events, drew Jordan to team ownership in the racing circuit. Wallace is one of the most prominent African-American drivers in NASCAR history and has been one of the most prominent athletic voices in calling for social change.

“The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me,” Jordan said on the team website. “Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

23XI (pronounced “twenty-three eleven”) made its unofficial debut during the Busch Clash exhibition on Tuesday night. With Wallace ineligible for the event, Ty Dillon drove the car to an 18th-place finish.

2020 in Review

Wallace’s activism worked alongside the best season of his Cup Series career. In his final year driving Richard Petty’s No. 43, Wallace more than doubled his career total with five top-ten finishes, including a fifth-place posting at Daytona last summer. His 22nd-place finish in the final standings was the best showing for the No. 43 since Aric Almirola came home 17th in 2015.

Wallace stated he often sets a goal at the start of the year to “not be a part of the headlines”. Obviously, circumstances forced to cast that quest aside.

“Every year I have that goal and I failed every year because there’s something that’s like, ‘Hey, I wanna, you know, not make any controversy.’ So something always happens whether it’s my doing or not, but it seems like it’s always my doing so,” Wallace said. Despite the active struggles, he believes the progress he created both on and off the track will lead to a brighter future on both a personal and circuit-wide level.

“I think we put NASCAR on the map in a lot of new areas with a lot of new fans looking to tune in this year, which is great. It’s important. It’s huge for all of us. We just need to keep the ball rolling.”

Meet the Driver

Bubba Wallace 

Experience: 4th full season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 22nd
Best standings finish: 22nd (2020)

As Wallace raised his voice beyond the track, his racing career has faced greater scrutiny. In an era where fans bemoan the idea that drivers have not “earned” their Cup Series rides, Wallace’s credentials cannot be questioned. He earned six victories at the Truck Series level and he was running fourth in the 2017 Xfinity Series circuit when his Roush Fenway Racing shut down due to sponsorship issues. He came home in the runner-up spot in his Daytona 500 debut a year later. Ideally, Wallace would be able to focus solely on his racing endeavors, but reality has reared its ugly head far too many times.

Despite the added scrutiny, Wallace is prepared to represent 23XI in a positive light. With the star power behind it, the team will undoubtedly be one of the most intriguing storylines for both diehard and casual fans alike. The ultimate judgment of the team will undoubtedly come through Wallace’s results, a challenge he’s more than happy to accept.

“I think I look at the races that we had driving the 43, the races where we were running up front and competing. We were strong,” I look at Indy two years ago and even last year, I know how to race against those guys. Do they expect me to be up there? No. And do they race me differently because of it? Yes. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s going to change for other drivers. It’s going to, hopefully, it’s like, ‘Okay, this kid, this guy, whatever, they call me, whatever, knows what he’s doing up here. And so we have to race him a little bit different.’

“I’m not expecting it to be a cake walk at all. We’re there to race and race hard.”

Outlook

With new fans, with big names comes undoubtedly high expectations. It’d be unfortunate, for instance, to see 23XI go the way of Hall of Fame Racing, a short-lived venture for Dallas Cowboys passing legends Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. But, fortunately for 23XI, it’s not like they’re starting entirely from scratch. They’re operating in the former shops of defunct Germain Racing (a mid-budget team that fielded the No. 13 car for over a decade) and are working with a technical alliance with Hamlin’s current employers at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Wallace himself admitted that trying to win every single race is an unrealistic goal, though he hinted that he’s often set landmarks at two wins in a season. He did end up creating a reliable barometer while meeting with the media prior to arriving at Daytona.

“Do I expect to jump in and win right off the bat? No, not at all. I know the sport. If it was that easy, a lot of people would be doing it, but it’s not that easy,” Wallace said. “We start to build a resume at Daytona and build off that and continue to get better for our team. It’s going to take a couple of races, just like any new team will to get everything underneath us and make sure like, ‘Oh, we missed that last week.’ Let’s make sure we don’t do that and prepare for the next and build on that. Then once we get going and get a couple of races under our belts, then we can really start to pinpoint our weaknesses or our strong points and build off those and grow from those and learn from everything.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: 23XI Racing debuts first paint scheme for Daytona 500

NASCAR’s newest team debuted their new look on Thursday, one that channels the aesthetics of Michael Jordan’s glory days on the hardwood.

Cue up The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius”, because No. 23 is ready to emerge in the starting lineup.

23XI Motorsports unveiled its first full paint scheme on Thursday morning, as the new team funded by NBA legend Michael Jordan and current NASCAR star Denny Hamlin nears its debut at the 2021 Daytona 500. Bubba Wallace will pilot the Toyota in its maiden voyage and beyond with sponsorship from DoorDash, a San Francisco-based food delivery service.

The car itself channels the red jerseys Jordan wore during the height of his NBA powers with the Chicago Bulls, complete with a black No. 23. Wallace and Hamlin each offered their praise on their social media accounts, the latter describing it as “Clean, not messy. Just like schemes used to be”.

The scheme will likely be seen at several points this season, but the team confirmed that it will first be seen at the season-opener at Daytona. Unlike some other new teams, the No. 23 is locked into the main events through purchasing a charter from defunct Germain Racing. Sponsorship deals are also in place with McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear, Dr. Pepper, and Root Insurance. Schemes and appearances with those sponsors will be released at a future date.

23XI (pronounced “twenty-three eleven”) is the latest business endeavor of Jordan, who is also the principal owner and chairman of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Jordan is the first Black principal owner of a NASCAR Cup Series race team since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott ran his own team over 13 seasons (1961-73), serving as the primary driver in that span. He enters the endeavor with Hamlin, the current driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and winner of 44 Cup Series races. Wallace, a six-time winner in the NASCAR Truck Series, is coming off a career-best season at the Cup level, earning five top-ten finishes and coming home 22nd in the final standings in his last season with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing announce founding partners

Monday morning, 23XI racing announced their founding five partners for Bubba Wallace and the No. 23 team for the 2021 season. DoorDash, Columbia Sportswear, and McDonald’s will continue to sponsor Wallace after sponsoring him at Richard Petty Motorsports. McDonald’s will also sponsor Chip Ganassi Racing cars in 2021.

In addition to the three returning sponsors, Dr Pepper and Root Insurance will join the No. 23 team, making the car fully funded for their inaugural season.

Wallace and team owner Denny Hamlin put out the following statements

“I’m pumped to get the season started. I wish Daytona was tomorrow. We’re heading in the right direction and we’ll be ready when we get to Daytona. As I’ve said before, this is an opportunity of a lifetime for me and there’s no more excuses. We want to go out and win and I know we’ll have everything we need each week to make that happen. To have great partners in DoorDash, McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear, Dr Pepper and Root Insurance come on board and show their support of me and this team is really cool. I’m excited for what we can do on the track, but at the end of the day, these partnerships and relationships are so much more than that. It’s about how we use our platforms to be better humans and help create a positive change. It’s about what we do Monday through Friday outside of the firesuit and that’s a really special thing for me. Knowing I have their support and this team behind me makes me really excited for this season to see what we can accomplish together.” — Bubba Wallace

“Today is a big day for us at 23XI Racing. To be able to announce the addition of five founding partners who are willing to join us in our first year and who share in our beliefs and values is such a great feeling. We’ve certainly had to make things happen fast to build this new team, and I’m excited to welcome each one of these partners and to get to know them better. I’m fortunate that during my time at Joe Gibbs Racing I’ve been able to have a great mentor and see how Coach, as an owner, is able to service each partner. That’s new for me – learning the owner side while still on the driver side, but I’m in for the long haul and will continue this far beyond my driving years. I’m passionate about this sport and I’m excited to bring new partners to the table and bring back others who have been in our sport in the past.” — Denny Hamlin

 

 

 

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.