NASCAR: Hendrick Motorsports dominates historic day at Dover

Hendrick Motorsports ruled the day at Dover International Speedway, as Alex Bowman took home the team’s 267th victory.

No matter how well your weekend’s going, it’s probably nothing compared to what Hendrick Motorsports enjoyed on Sunday afternoon.

A new kind of monster took over Dover International Speedway, best known as the Monster Mile, as HMS Chevrolets led all but 18 of 400 laps of the Drydene 400. It was Alex Bowman’s No. 48 that led the final 97, using fast service on pit road to his advantage en route to his second victory of the season. His teammates completed a clean sweep of the top four, with Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and William Byron following him. Larson’s No. 5 led the most laps on the after (258). It marked the first time a single team swept the first four spots in a race since Roush Racing did so at the end of the 2005 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bowman’s win, the fourth of his career, was also the 267th visit to victory lane for team owner Rick Hendrick. The next will tie Richard Petty for most wins amongst Cup Series owners.

Larson appeared to be well on his way to his own second victory of the season, as only pit cycles interrupted his stranglehold on the lead for a majority of the race. He first took the lead after pit stops during a competition caution at lap 37 and led all but three of the next 267 circuits.

The No. 48 team seized its opportunity after the caution waved for Aric Almirola’s wrecked No. 10 Ford with just under 100 to go. Bowman brought his Chevrolet down pit road for a stop that lasted 12.1776 seconds, the fastest four-tire service in the 2021 season to date. He would go on to lead the final 97 laps to create his first-career multi-win season and set up the Hendrick quartet.

“If we don’t beat the 5 off pit road, we probably don’t beat him in the race. I give (the crew) all the credit for the win there,” Bowman said. “I think without them we wouldn’t have gotten it done. So appreciate (crew chief Greg Ives) and all those guys working so hard throughout the week to continue to get better. They’ve been super fast all year.”

With restrictions in place due to the ongoing health crisis slowly being loosened, Bowman was allowed to celebrate the win with his crew in victory lane. The team also won at Richmond last month, becoming one of two drivers to win multiple races in 2021 (the other being three-time winner Martin Truex Jr.)

Winning at Dover resumes an unofficial tradition of sorts for HMS’ No. 48 Chevrolet. The prior occupant, seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, won a career-best 11 races at the mile-long speedway, including a sweep of the two races in his rookie season in 2002. Bowman, previously driving the No. 88 for the team after being handpicked by Hendrick Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the role, was chosen to fill in.

Bowman was happy to not only vindicate Hendrick’s trust in him to fulfill an iconic ride but to win at Dover using tips he gained from Johnson during his first year in the No. 88.

“To come to a place like Dover, where the 48 has had so much success, get a win here, (I’ve) never won here with Mr. Hendrick here, so it’s so cool to be able to do that,” Bowman said. “I feel like throughout my career I’ve had my fair share of doubters. To be able to get two wins here to start off the season, be having a good start to the year, is really cool.”

Hendrick entered the Cup Series in 1984 and has won 13 Cup Series titles, the last coming with Elliott’s triumph last year. Even though Elliott has yet to win a race in 2021, each Hendrick car would be a playoff participant midway through the 26-race regular season. Byron has been particularly impressive, earning top ten finishes in each of the last 11 events while piloting the No. 24 Chevrolet previously repped by four-time champ Jeff Gordon.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday, as the series will make its debut at the Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin for the EchoPark Texas Grand Prix (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Joey Logano was the top non-Hendrick finisher, rounding out the top five in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford.

 

  • Points-leader Denny Hamlin finished seventh.

 

  • In the last two spots of the top ten, Daniel Suarez and Cole Custer each earned their second such finishes of the year. They beat out Bubba Wallace, who came home 11th, the best finish to date for his No. 23 23XI Toyota squad.

 

  • Josh Berry finished 30th in his NASCAR Cup Series debut. Berry took over for Justin Haley in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet after the Xfinity Series regular was ruled out due to COVID-19 protocols. Berry was the runner-up in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Dover, driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick denies Jimmie Johnson playoff berth in historic win

Kevin Harvick wasn’t letting NASCAR nostalgics get in the way of his seventh win of the season, which made history for his manufacturer.

Kevin Harvick wasn’t going to get the feel-good potential of a Jimmie Johnson victory lap get in the way of his own personal history in the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ doubleheader in Delaware.

Just over 24 hours after Denny Hamlin tied him in the first segment, Harvick won his series-best seventh race of the season at the Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway. Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford passed Johnson with 17 laps remaining, denying Johnson a chance to clinch a berth in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The final race of the regular season comes next weekend at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.

With the win, Harvick clinches the Cup Series’ regular-season championship, which affords him 15 bonus points. Between his seven wins and stage victories each (including two more at Dover on Sunday), Harvick has a 57-point advantage over the first cutoff line, which eliminates the 13th through 16th-place drivers after the first three races.

“It’s something that we’ve never done before, so any time you can do something for the first time is definitely fun to accomplish, and I think in this instance, it definitely pays dividends in the playoff points,” Harvick said of the regular-season title. “That’s really what you want to accomplish in the regular season is to gain as many playoff points as you can. We’ve done that by winning races.”

Harvick also moves into a ninth-place tie with fellow former champion Kyle Busch on the Cup Series’ all-time wins list with 56. Next up on the list is the late, legendary Dale Earnhardt. Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, began his Cup career by taking over for Earnhardt after the latter’s death in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s also the 700th victory for manufacturer Ford, second-most in series history behind Chevrolet.

“It’s an honor just to be up there on that list,” Harvick said. “I feel like it’s definitely a huge responsibility to be up there and be around those guys. Hopefully, we can keep this thing rolling and make up some ground on the next gap. But it’s been a lot of fun at Stewart-Haas Racing, and you’re only as good as the race cars that you have, and it’s been an honor to drive the race cars and be able to take those race cars and have success with them and capitalize on winning like we did today.”

Harvick began his conquest by stealing the first 75-lap stage from Ryan Blaney on the final stanza. From that point forward, Harvick went on to dominate the event, leading all but 19 of the remaining 236 circuits.

The biggest threat to his authority came with just over 20 laps to go, when his massive lead was erased by a caution flag brought out by the slow car of Corey LaJoie. All 16 lead lap cars came to pit road for service, including Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson, the seven-time champion retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season, was running a strong race in fighting for playoff position. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team had a three-point advantage on teammate William Byron entering the second half at Dover, but a speeding penalty on pit road after the first stage allowed the No. 24 to retake the spot. Johnson worked his way back toward the front after Byron earned points by finishing ahead of Johnson in each of the first two stages.

But on these final stops, Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels opted to take only two tires, leading to a quicker stop. The move allowed the No. 48 to take the lead for the final 17-lap dash. A win for Johnson would’ve clinched his spot in the playoffs.

He’s one of the few drivers ahead of Harvick with 83, but the No. 4’s pass extended the longest drought of his career to 118. Dover had played host to 11 of those prior victories.

I knew he was at a huge deficit,” Harvick said of Johnson’s two-tire endeavor. “I think as you saw the restart there, he had a little bit of trouble getting grip, and my main goal was to just try to be beside him as we got off of turn two and he pushed up the racetrack.”

“I felt like we were still in a really good position, and obviously Jimmie has had a lot of success here, I feel like, over the last several years. If it weren’t for knocking the dang valve stems out of it, there would have been three or four more opportunities to have won races. It’s been a really good racetrack for us and felt good about the position that we were in at the end.”

Johnson and Daniels’ gutsy decision was not all for naught. Martin Truex Jr. passed him for the runner-up spot but Johnson held off Byron and another teammate, Alex Bowman, to finish third, his best finish since May’s race at Bristol. Byron holds a four-point advantage headed into the Daytona finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, NBC).

Race Notes

  • Truex finished in the runner-up spot in each of the weekend’s  Cup Series events at Dover. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished no worse than third in eight of the past nine races (albeit with no wins).

 

  • The race endured a red flag period that lasted just over 12 minutes to repair a portion of the concrete surface.

 

  • Aric Almirola (7th), Kyle Busch (11th), and Kurt Busch (13th) each clinched playoff spots via points. Clint Bowyer (14th in points) is 57 points over the cutoff.

 

  • Matt DiBenedetto started on the pole after a 20th-place finish on Saturday with the field’s first 20 starting positions determined through an inversion of the prior running order. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford led the first 11 laps but a 17th-place finish leaves him only nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff.

 

  • Bowman’s top-five finish was his first since the series made its return from the coronavirus-induced pause at Darlington Raceway in May.

 

  • Saturday’s winner Denny Hamlin was relegated to a 19th-place finish after being forced to pit from second for a loose wheel at lap 227 of 311.

 

  • The days of Chase Elliott and Joey Gase ended in the opening laps when they got caught up in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spin on the sixth lap. Stenhouse was eventually able to run enough laps to finish 37th.

 

  • Austin Dillon capped off a successful return to the track in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with a top-ten finish (9th). Dillon missed last weekend’s event at Daytona’s road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19 and was replaced by Kaz Grala. The No. 3 led 46 laps on Saturday and finished 15th.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Maglioccheti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson prepares for a fight in his final stretch

Three races remain in Jimmie Johnson’s final NASCAR playoff push. The series heads to one of his favorite haunts for a weekend doubleheader.

There will more than likely be no documentary for Jimmie Johnson’s “last dance” in NASCAR. Social distancing procedures perhaps crush such a concept for the retiring Johnson before it can truly begin.

Cameras and eyes alike, however, will be attached to Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet over the next two weeks. With his final full-time NASCAR Cup Series tour entering its final third, the seven-time champion has three more opportunities to make one last playoff trip. Johnson is currently 25 points out of a postseason spot with three events left before the ten-race playoff begins next month.

One win would a playoff spot. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be an issue for Johnson, whose 83 wins are tied with Cale Yarborough for fifth-most in NASCAR history. But Johnson is currently mired in the longest winless streak of his 18-year career, his last visit to victory lane coming 117 races ago.

The opportunity for a storybook ending has been set this weekend at Dover International Speedway, which hosts the final doubleheader of the Cup Series season this weekend. Not only did Dover host Johnson’s last victory back in June 2017, but Johnson is the winningest driver in the track’s history. The No. 48 has visited the Dover winner’s circle on 11 occasions. His closest competition (Richard Petty and Bobby Allison) has seven victories each.

The first of matching 311-lap races around the mile-long course, each labeled the Drydene 311, comes on Saturday late afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Johnson will start sixth thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula which eschews the random draw for an equation that factors in standings position and performance/speed in the prior event.

“I love the track, obviously. I’m very optimistic about how we’re going to run,” Johnson said of the upcoming doubleheader in Delaware on Friday morning. ” I never wanted to have a winless drought or have a winless season. But I’ve worked through so many of those emotions over the last couple of years and also understand that there are factors that I can’t control that have affected my performance.”

Dover is one of several tracks on the circuit that hosts two Cup Series events (this pair customarily runs for 400 laps/miles). The second race, and often held in the thick of the playoffs, has served as an energizer for Johnson’s championships. Johnson reflected on his successful visits during his Friday availability.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t a championship-preceding win that Johnson looks upon the most fondly. He instead flashed back to his rookie season of 2002.

Johnson had won the first race at the so-called “Monster Mile” in the spring (the second win of his career). He kept the relative consistency going, but a return trip to victory lane proved elusive. That changed at Dover’s MBNA All-American Heroes 400, where a historic push to the top began. Starting 19th, Johnson made it to the lead by lap 204 of 400 and went on to lead a race-high 170 laps. He held off Mark Martin overall a final stretch of 72 green-flag circuits to become the first rookie in series history to win two races at one track during their debut.

One week later, a top ten finish at Kansas allowed Johnson to become the yellow-striper in NASCAR history to lead the Cup Series’ points standings. He eventually finished fifth in the final rankings, but Johnson’s march to greatness had officially begun.

“A pattern that developed after my rookie year in how I grew to count on that fall Dover race to really give our team the shot in the arm by winning and running well,” Johnson explained. “When I look back, I can of smile now and I had no idea the foreshadowing of that year, of that track and what that would mean. So, I kind of look back to that.”

In this final stand, Johnson enters fighting for his playoff life. Last season’s playoffs were the first to not include the No. 48 on the bracket and he’d certainly like a chance to go out on top and earn a record-breaking eighth Cup Series title. Everyone at Hendrick Motorsports is pulling out all the stops to ensure that Johnson can join his teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman in the playoffs. Even his primary sponsor, Ally Bank, opted to ditch their normal, darker shades and give Johnson a brighter paint scheme for the final four races of the regular season. This rebranded, brighter Chevrolet finished fourth in its debut race at Daytona International Speedway’s road course event won by Elliott last weekend.

But in a twist conjured by perhaps the most poetic of racing gods, Johnson’s main competition for the final playoff spot involves friends turned (hopefully only temporary) foes behind the wheel and atop the pit box.

The 16th and final Cup Series playoff seed is currently held by William Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet. It was that vehicle’s most famous occupant, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, that discovered Johnson during the latter’s endeavors on the NASCAR Busch (now Xfinity) Series at the turn of the century. Gordon has even been listed as a part-owner of the No. 48 and the two staged some classic battles on the track. The modern No. 24’s endeavors are overseen by Chad Knaus…Johnson’s former crew chief and partner for 81 of his Cup Series victories and all seven of his championships.

Johnson admitted the process of seeing such familiar, friendly sights, both human and vehicle, as fiery competition, will be “odd” going into the crucial doubleheader.

“It’s odd. It’s unfortunate, as well. But it’s the situation that we’re in. With Chad on the box there, you just think of the layers of how it’s odd and we’re all fighting for that last spot in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “William is a great student. He’s really increased his game at Dover, so I don’t think it’s going to be easy to get points on him or especially a lot of points on him. For all of us out there, Dover is a track where you can get caught up in stuff and have a lot of cars affected.”

“The one caveat to that is the driver I’m focused on has Chad Knaus on the box, and he’s a student, friend, somebody I’ve mentored and kind of taught how to drive good there and be competitive there. So, it is a very unique situation to be in and I wish it wasn’t a Hendrick teammate that I was fighting for that last spot with.”

The regular season finale will take place at Daytona’s more traditional oval next weekend. Johnson’s Daytona finishes have been relatively decent, but the track can be a wild source of unpredictability as a place for drivers outside of the top 16 in points to swipe away postseason capital. It makes the final waltzes at Dover all the more crucial.

A victory and playoff berth would certainly provide some levity to Johnson’s final year, which has been defined by the unpredictable. Johnson was fifth in the standings after the fourth race of the season in Phoenix. The sport’s return from the coronavirus induced pause has been one of bad luck for Johnson, who was once described by competitor Kevin Harvick as “(having) a golden horseshoe stuck up (his rear end)” after a comeback victory at Fontana in 2010 (the first of six victories en route to his fifth title in a row).

Johnson was set to win the opening stage in the first race back at Darlington but crashed on the penultimate lap of the frame. A runner-up finish at the famous Coca-Cola 600 two races later was wiped out by failed inspection. Incidents beyond his control, like an unintentional bump from Harvick as the two fought for a win at Talladega, have ruined otherwise strong showings. All of these calamities failed to take into account the fact that Johnson missed last month’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at Indianapolis after he became the first driver to test positive for coronavirus. The calamities, which have cost Johnson a chance to bid farewell to the fans at NASCAR’s national venues, having done nothing to convince Johnson to stay for one more year, though he does plan new racing endeavors in sports cars and the IndyCar circuit (and possibly select NASCAR races).

Johnson, however, isn’t looking toward the future, at least not immediately. The past is in the past, whether it’s the positives of the championships or the more recent negatives, like the positive COVID-19 test that cost him an unknown number of points at Indianapolis. Johnson isn’t pinning a potential playoff miss on the protocols, saying that the “bed has been made”. He’s not even sure if he’ll ever really know if his test was a false positive.

But whatever opportunities NASCAR has left, Johnson is ready to embrace them head-on, providing a rare, reliable custom in this season full of surprises.

“With time running out, I feel like something that does help me is that this isn’t a hard stop for me in motorsports and I know there are wins still out there for me,” He said. “That’s just the glass is half full point of view that I have and I guess maybe the way I manage some of the disappointment over the last few years, but I need to make the most out of each opportunity that I have ahead of myself.

“I will certainly do that.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags