Late carnage yielded an unlikely winner at the NASCAR Cup Series’ maiden voyage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.
After the first 70-plus laps of Sunday’s Verizon 200 ran without major incident, a curb of calamity in the sixth turn took out numerous contenders in violent wrecks. In the end, it was A.J. Allmendinger, a NASCAR Xfinity Series regular running a part-time schedule that stole the victory in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. It’s the first win for Kaulig, an Xfinity team that is set to make the leap to the premier Cup Series next year, and Allmendinger’s first Cup win since August 2014 at Watkins Glen.
Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top five.
Sunday marked the Cup Series’ first road course endeavor at the legendary IMS, having run on its famous oval annually since 1994. Rumble strip curbs, made to prevent drivers from going into the trackside infield, in Turn 6 caused some trouble in yesterday’s Xfinity Series race. NASCAR removed one such rumble strip after that race but kept the rest of the curbing, including a relative “launchpad” that sent Kris Wright’s Xfinity car airborne.
The Turn 6 curbing was adjusted several times through the course of the race to clean up debris, but caused its biggest accident at lap 78. A 19-minute red flag period followed, during which a majority of the curbing was removed, though the launchpad stayed. Another wreck immediately ensued, setting up a second overtime session.
Rookie Chase Briscoe and Denny Hamlin led the field into the narrow first turn, during which Briscoe’s No. 14 Ford was sent through the nearby infield and back on the track. Briscoe was penalized for shortcutting the track but briefly continued to race Hamlin for the lead. In the ensuing battle, Hamin was spun out, giving third-place runner Allmendinger the opening he needed to steal the win. Briscoe and Hamlin shared a tense but ultimately peaceful confrontation on pit road.
The win was an emotional event for Allmendinger, who previously ran 11 years as a full-time Cup Series driver (2008-18). Allmendinger, made a name for himself as a professional racer on the open-wheel circuit, earning five wins on the Champ Car circuit. The 39-year-old is set to represent Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs this fall.
After consecutive weeks at road course, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to an oval next week at Michigan International Speedway’s FireKeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Two races remain in the Cup Series’ regular season, which will end on August 28 at Daytona.
A late incident involving Denny Hamlin allowed Kevin Harvick to emerge from Indianapolis with his fourth win of the NASCAR Cup Series season.
With the Colts, Pacers, and Fever on hiatus, Kevin Harvick was happy to provide Indianapolis with some late athletic heroics during the NASCAR Cup Series’ annual excursion to perhaps auto racing’s most hallowed ground.
Denny Hamlin led the race with eight laps to go, but when a lost tire slammed him into Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s wall, Harvick took advantage. Flanked by teammates from Stewart-Haas Racing, his No. 4 Ford held off fellow veteran and Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth over a two-lap shootout to win the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered By Big Machine Records.
The win was Harvick’s fourth of the 2020 season and his third in the 400-mile event at the track known as The Brickyard. He joins Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the only NASCAR drivers to win at least three times at IMS, which has hosted the Cup Series annually since 1994.
Harvick, who started the day in 11th via random draw, took his first lead of the day at Lap 17 of 160 in the midst of the race’s competition caution. Crew chief Rodney Childers brought the No. 4 down pit road shortly before the yellow flag waved.
The gambit paid off in more ways than one. Not only did Harvick take the lead when his competitors needed service, but he also avoided a pile-up at the narrow entrance that ended the day of several drivers including Ryan Preece, Corey LaJoie, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Zach Price, a tire-changer on Ryan Blaney’s pit crew, got pinched between his No. 12 Ford and Brennan Poole’s No. 15 in the chaos. Price was transported to a local hospital, but seemed to be in good spirits otherwise. NBC cameras showed him smiling and displaying the thumbs up as he was loaded into the ambulance.
William Byron took the first 50-lap stage, but Harvick fought back to take the second. It appeared that Harvick and Hamlin would once again be the drivers to beat after swapping the top-two spots during the doubleheader at Pocono last weekend. Over the final 60-lap segment, it appeared that would be how things shaped out. Hamlin would set himself up to take the lead from Harvick after pitting one lap before the No. 4. Kenseth, on a different pit cycle, would hold the lead from lap 123 through 134, when Alex Bowman lost a tire and hit the wall hard to bring out the caution.
Hamlin took the lead when Kenseth needed service during the Bowman caution and beat Harvick out on the ensuing restart. He had distanced himself from Harvick and Kenseth, who worked his way up to third, and seemed to be coasting toward his fifth victory of the year.
But going into the first turn, Hamlin lost a tire and took a hard hit to the wall, ending his chances at the win and setting up a two-lap, winner-take-all finish. Hamlin was one of several drivers who saw their days hampered or ended entirely due to tire issues, joining Bowman, Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, and Justin Allgaier.
Harvick assumed the lead next to Kenseth. Behind them were Harvick’s SHR teammates Aric Almirola and Cole Custer. He got off to a strong restart, aided by a strong push from the rookie Custer’s No. 41 Ford. From there, he was able to get into clean air and deny Kenseth his first Indianapolis title.
Kenseth has now finished in the Brickyard’s runner-up spot on four occasions. His second-place posting was nonetheless his best finish since taking over the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet from the fired Kyle Larson. Almirola would continue a hot streak in third, his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Brad Keselowski snuck into fourth, while Custer hung on to post first career Cup Series top five.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon for at Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1).
Sunday marked the first NASCAR Cup Series event without Jimmie Johnson since November 23, 2001, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion, was the first driver to test positive for COVID-19, though he has not experienced any symptoms. Allgaier is set to be the replacement driver until Johnson has two negative tests in a 24-hour span.
Sunday saw a major shakeup toward the bottom of the NASCAR playoff standings. Byron and Jones held the final two playoff seeds (15th and 16th respectively) entering the race, followed by 17th-place Austin Dillon. Each stayed out to earn valuable stage points at the end of the first segment (won by Byron). Dillon was able to slightly take advantage of Byron and Jones’ wrecks. Despite being relegated to an 18th-place finish after wrecking with Matt DiBenedetto on the final lap, Dillon currently holds the final playoff spot, ahead of Jones by six points. Johnson, currently in 15th, is 36 points ahead of Jones.
For the first time, IMS hosted NASCAR’s annual July 4th-weekend event. Daytona International Speedway’s 400-mile event had hosted the race from 1959 through last season. In another first, NASCAR also hosted shared a doubleheader with the IndyCar Series, which ran alongside the NASCAR Xfinity Series on the in-house road course on Saturday. Scott Dixon won the IndyCar event, while Chase Briscoe won his fifth Xfinity event of the season.
Michael McDowell finished seventh in the mid-budget No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford. It’s McDowell’s second top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega over the last three races after posting only one over his first dozen seasons.
In addition to Custer, the top 15 finishers featured three other rookies, including Tyler Reddick (8th), Christopher Bell (12th), and John Hunter Nemechek (15th).
Bubba Wallace (9th) tied his career-best with his third top-ten finish. He currently sits in 19th place in the standings, 42 points behind Dillon for the final playoff spot.
Martin Truex Jr. (38th) drew the eighth starting spot but suffered engine trouble in the early stages. He was later involved in the pit road accident and retired his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after 16 laps.
The NASCAR champion has lacked his usual speed since returning, but is hopeful going into Midwestern haunts in Indianapolis and Kentucky.
NASCAR’s offseason rumor mill is often given the label of “Silly Season”. Matt Kenseth believes that, in this most unusual and chaotic calendar year, the moniker could apply far beyond the whispers and speculation of auto racing free agency.
“This whole thing has been silly all year long, pretty much since the calendar changed,” Kenseth said with a smile when addressing reporters in a Zoom conference call. “Especially since March.”
Kenseth is one of many notable names up for discussion in the movement process. The 2003 NASCAR Cup Series champion returned from retirement earlier this year to take over the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet after the firing of Kyle Larson.
Kenseth got off to a good start in his new surroundings, earning a top-ten finish in the return for both he and the circuit at Darlington Raceway. He has yet to return since, done in by sheer bad luck and unforced errors alike. Finishes of 11th and 12th at the Pocono doubleheader last weekend marked the first times that Kenseth finished on the lead lap since the Bristol race in late May.
Armed with a “week-to-week” mindset, the current exploits of the No. 42 is all Kenseth is focused on right now. He was keen to reap the positive benefits last week’s exploits at the so-called “Tricky Triangle” had to offer.
“The fun part of racing is results and winning, gaining on it, and doing that stuff,” Kenseth said. “I haven’t performed the way I’ve expected to perform up to this point. (But) I’ve really enjoyed working with that whole team over at Chip Ganassi Racing and driving a Camaro.”
“I’m taking it one week at a time, trying to get the results that we know that we’re capable of and kind of going from there. There’s a lot of difficult things to navigate in today’s world, racing included. So we’re doing it one week at a time and hopefully, start to get some results, the ones we feel like we’re capable of.”
The only detailed look into the future Kenseth provided was a small hope that NASCAR, whose most recent track expansion was the Kentucky entry in 2011, would run a Cup Series race on the Milwaukee Mile, a track that’s about an hour from his Cambridge hometown. The Mile had previously hosted Xfinity and Truck Series events through 2009.
Kenseth perhaps expressed the most disappointment over the fact that his subpar showings would be unable to help Kurt Busch, his past and present teammate.
Busch, driver of Gannasi’s No. 1 Chevrolet, is set to make 700th Cup Series start on Sunday. He and Kenseth each earned their NASCAR start under the watch of team owner Jack Roush. The two combined for 38 Cup Series wins in Roush’s Fords and brought home consecutive titles in 2003-04. Busch’s most recent NASCAR win at last year’s Kentucky event, where he held off his brother Kyle by 0.076 seconds at the finish.
“Your hope with teammates is to help make both cars stronger and that’s always the goal,” Kenseth said. “He’s always been a great teammate from the first time around to this time around. It kind of surprised me when I found it was his 700th start. It doesn’t seem like that long, really.”
“He’s a great teammate, a great race car driver. I was there for his first start and I’m glad I get to be here for his 700th, as well.”
Stuck in 30th-place thanks to his late arrival, Kenseth nonetheless has a playoff waiver should he win a race and more or less lock up a de facto postseason berth this fall. Two big opportunities await, as the Cup Series descends upon two familiar spots for the Cambridge, Wisconsin native.
Sunday marks NASCAR’s annual visit to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as Kenseth will start 21st for the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records (4 p.m. ET, NBC). Kentucky Speedway awaits next week in the form of the Quaker State 400 as the regular season races toward its late August conclusion at Daytona.
Kenseth has completed all but one lap over eight Kentucky starts (2011-18). As for Indianapolis, he was intrigued by the Xfinity Series running on the in-house road course on Saturday but expressed interest in keeping the current oval settings.
One look at Kenseth’s statsheet makes it no shock as to why he’s feeling that way. His cars have finished no worse than 12th over his last six Indianapolis starts and even won the second stage of his most recent appearance when filling in at his old squad of Roush Fenway Racing in 2018.
Thus, the next pair of stops on the high-speed tour present good opportunities to get back on the right track.
“I feel like at Pocono, even though the results weren’t spectacular, off the charts, we really ran better. I think we learned some things about the car, and how I’m feeling. That might not transfer to other places, but I feel like we’ve been learning every week.”
“It’s been a steep learning curve (but) I think we’re ahead of where we were last month. There’s a lot of areas that we’ve been able to sharpen up on, mostly on my end. Each and every week, we’ll keep going at it, and hopefully, the results get better.”
Christopher Bell’s first NASCAR Cup Series starts have come during perhaps the most unusual stretch in the circuit’s history.
The 2020 NASCAR season has been unlike any in the auto racing circuit’s history. Drivers in the premier Cup Series have raced as often as three times in seven days as they provide a sports-starved nation enticing morsels in the midst of a health crisis. To adhere to social distancing mandates, drivers are often afforded little, if any, face-to-face time with their crews as they prepare their machines for race days. Grandstands have been kept empty save for a few lucky thousands invited to Cup events at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway (this month’s All-Star Race in Bristol is expected to welcome 30,000).
Now imagine making your first starts at the Cup Series in the midst of this chaos.
Such is the case for Christopher Bell, the rookie driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota. Bell finished third in last season’s Xfinity Series rankings and won the 2017 Truck Series to earn his promotion. Most up-and-coming NASCAR stars, like Bell’s fellow Rookie of the Year candidates Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek, often race in a handful of Cup Series events before making their debuts, but Bell wasn’t afforded such a luxury. He made his debut in February’s Daytona 500 and remains, by far, the least experienced full-time driver on the entry list.
“It started off with a pretty crazy turn of events,” Bell remarked with a smile in a Friday morning conference call. “With Donald Trump coming to the Daytona 500 and getting rained out, racing on Monday and then all of a sudden we’re taking a hiatus or whatever it was. 2020 has been one to remember, that’s for sure.”
Bell enjoyed the elite backing of Joe Gibbs Racing on the Xfinity circuit, but with their Cup stable full, he’s latched on to the mid-budget endeavors of LFR. The Texas-headquartered, family-owned squad is one of NASCAR’s few single-car teams, having regularly fielded the No. 95 since 2011. It has yet to visit victory lane, but gained speed over the years thanks to a technical alliance with Gibbs. Last season saw Matt DiBenedetto drive it to a team-best three top-five finishes, including a runner-up posting in the August race at Bristol.
The season’s opening saw Bell struggle to keep the momentum alive. A multi-car pileup on the penultimate regulation lap of his Daytona 500 debut set a foreboding pace to his Cup career before a slow day marred by postrace inspection penalties actually saw him leave Las Vegas Motor Speedway with negative points. By the time the Cup Series was forced into a two-month hiatus due to the ongoing health crisis after four race, Bell already had his first last-place finish under his belt (38th after an engine failure at Fontana) and sat a humbling 32nd-place in the standings.
He credited crew chief Jason Ratcliff for guiding him through the tough stretch. Ratcliff worked with Bell during top-five postings on the Xfinity level and won 14 races with Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota stall at JGR. The two earned 15 wins together in NASCAR’s AAA-baseball equivalent. Their seven in 2018 were good enough to set a record for an Xfinity Series rookie.
“Jason is obviously a guy that I have a lot of trust in,” Bell said. “He’s an A-caliber crew chief and I was fortunate enough to get my feet wet with him in the Xfinity side and I think that was kind of our goal was to train, I call it train, together in the Xfinity Series and get to know each other and get on the same page. It was all about making this transition to Cup. The first four weeks were a disaster, but it seems like we’re getting going and getting a lot better here recently.”
When the series was able to resume in May, Bell got off to a solid start with an 11th-place posting at the second race back at Darlington Raceway before earning the first top ten of his career in his first start at another crown jewel, the marathon Coca-Cola 600. Since the return, Bell has tallied four top-tens overall and his first top-five, a fourth-place posting at the first half of a Pocono Raceway doubleheader on Saturday.
“Ever since the break, we’ve been able to come back to the race track and be pretty competitive,” he said. “I feel like the first four weeks were definitely disappointing, but after the break my team has been doing great, bringing a lot better race cars to the track and we’ve been able to capitalize on that.”
The efforts to race in a confined, timely manner haven’t afforded Bell the opportunity to try out his Cup car on the track. So-called racing gods have apparently been all-too-keen to further complicate his quest.
With qualifying wiped out, Bell and the rest of the field are at the mercy of random draws in determining the starting lineup. The top dozen in car owners’ points get the corresponding spots. The next 24 are then separated into equal pools while the final four round out the field. Bell’s brutal start has placed him in the third pool, which is awarded the 25th through 36th positions. Prior to the second half of the Pocono doubleheader, Bell had started 32nd or worse in five of the prior six races.
With the Sunday race lineup determined by inverting Saturday’s final order, Bell started 17th, which might as well been pole position based on his luck. However, disaster came on lap 39 of 140, when a crash ended his day early and relegated him to a 39th-place finish. NASCAR’s latest travels haven’t done any good toward Bell’s starting lineup luck, as he’ll start 36th for Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET, NBC). The No. 95 is 17 points behind Nemechek and his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford for the final spot in the second pool (24th).
However, even as the lineup lottery fails to smile upon him, Bell is enjoying the change.
“Honestly, I’ve really enjoyed the no practice and no qualifying,” he said. “I feel like it fits what I’ve grown up doing and if you look at our performance, we’ve run exceptionally better since we stopped practicing for whatever reason that is. I really enjoy it.”
“As a rookie going to the race track, which my starting position, I’m not starting on the pole or the front row so I’m not having to go wide open into turn one and expect the car to stick or anything. I have enough time starting in the back that we’re able to just creep up on it and I feel like I’ve done a good job of not overstepping my limits and making sure I get to that first pit stop where we can tune the car to my liking and stuff like that.”
Time will tell where Cup Series endeavors take Bell. He’s impressing in LFR’s mid-budget ride thus far and has declared that he’d be interested to see where the car would be if not for their brutal luck in the early going.
But if this is what his rookie season is like, it’s certainly safe to say any post-yellow stripe campaigns should be a Sunday drive.
Set to race a NASCAR Cup Series vehicle for the 700th time on Sunday, Kurt Busch looks forward to a continued impact on the sport.
New NASCAR fans seeking a primer on the circuit’s history could do far worse than simply studying the career of Kurt Busch.
Driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Busch is set to make his 700th start in the premier Cup Series at the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, NBC). Not only is Busch only the 16th driver to reach that precipice, but he’s gone through an auto racing roller-coaster that entire race teams may never experience.
Asked about the upcoming landmark start in a Wednesday conference call, Busch waxed nostalgic, thinking back to his father Thomas racing on the local tracks that began the racing journey that continues to this day.
“To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past. So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”
In Busch’s defense, few truly could’ve projected where this trek would take him.
Busch, 41, has been full-time racing in 2001. He’s one of only four active Cup drivers to have partaken in a race alongside the late Dale Earnhardt. Much like The Intimidator, Busch developed a bit of an antagonistic role and engaged in conflict with several other drivers, including one with his future teammate and team owner Tony Stewart during an event at Richmond in 2013. That came six years after Busch and his younger brother Kyle briefly stopped speaking after an incident at the 2007 NEXTEL All-Star Challenge in Charlotte, a feud that ended only weeks after the season when their grandmother intervened before Thanksgiving dinner.
His career has been a roller-coaster, one that has experienced the valleys of not just his confrontations, but a 2005 DUI and domestic violence allegations a decade later (charges were never filed). All in all, the “controversies” section on his Wikipedia page is over seven bullets long. On the track, Busch took home the 2004 Cup Series title (the first under a playoff format) but by 2012, his antics and inconsistency relegated him to low-budget exploits.
The time-honored, cutthroat auto racing concept of “rubbin’s racin'” and championship competition was well-personified by Busch. In addition to his historic championship, Busch has earned 31 Cup victories, including crown jewel triumphs in the 2010 Coca-Cola 600 and the Daytona 500 seven years later (in which hed led only the final lap). He’s even made a mark beyond NASCAR, winning 2003’s International Race of Champions title (beating out names like Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, and Helio Castroneves) and he even partook in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s more renowned event, the Indy 500, in 2014. He finished that race sixth before running the Coca-Cola 600 that night. To date, Busch is the last driver to attempt to run both the IndyCar and NASCAR events on Memorial Day weekend.
Busch had made no indications he wants to hang up his helmet any time soon. In fact, with NASCAR sharing IMS with the IndyCar circuit this weekend, he hinted that his future exploits may not just include his No. 1 Chevy. He was even considering running in the latter’s event on Saturday, but current events made that difficult.
“I looked at it and just with everything going on with COVID and the pandemic and lack of preparation, it just kind of shut everything down as far as the progress and the approach, because it takes a full effort of being tested and track time and being ready,” Busch remarked. “That’s something that I really put in when I ran the Indy 500 six years ago now. And so, everything just got shut down. But, it would have been fun to with Chip Ganassi Racing.”
Redemption soon awaited the Las Vegas native, as strong performances in the fledgling Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing machines showed the racing world he still had plenty left in the tank (literally and figuratively). Four years before Martin Truex Jr. had the wheel in a title run, Busch guided FRR’s No. 78 car to its first playoff berth. It caught the eye of Stewart’s ownership partner Gene Haas, who made him the original driver of the No. 41 in their Stewart-Haas Racing stable. He would miss the first three races of his sophomore drive with Stewart due to the aforementioned allegations but won his sixth race back.
Busch joined Gannasi after five years in the No. 41 and went to Gannasi’s No. 1 for what, appropriately, was set to be a final season. But a strong showing punctuated by a thrilling victory in which he held off Kyle by 0.076 seconds at Kentucky Speedway convinced Busch to sign on for at least two more seasons.
Now, Busch’s career is defined by consistency, not controversy. He’s firmly entrenched in the NASCAR playoff picture in 10th, and only Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin have earned more top ten finishes (9). Over the past dozen races, Busch has finished no worse than 18th, a fact he has attributed to a strong behind him. His return has also afforded him a return to action alongside Matt Kenseth. Nearly two decades after the pair won back-to-back titles under Jack Roush’s supervision, they reunited in the Gannasi stalls when Kenseth was called to drive the No. 42 Chevrolet mid-season.
“It takes a good team to have a driver’s ability to find the success. A team is the foundation,” Busch said of his longevity. “I’m having some of the best years of my career as far as consistency because I’m using that experience level. I’m using that calmness and that ability to project the future in the car, and that’s leading to good, consistent, and quality finishes. It’s just that we’ve got to cross over another barrier of sometimes you just throw caution to the wind and let it rip.”
Busch noted that he was part of a NASCAR revolution, one that began to rely on younger drivers. He himself ran his first race when he was 22, called upon to drive the No. 97 Ford for Roush. It was in that car where Busch won his first races and his monumental title, as well as where he saw Kyle enter the series at 18 in the early stages of that championship campaign.
Those days of youth may be long behind Busch, but he’s grateful that such a revolution has taken him on this lengthy NASCAR ride…one that shows little signs of stopping.
“The change, the shift, has happened for younger drivers to get in, and yet it’s still tough to go past 25 years is extreme. I don’t think we’ll ever see that anymore,” Busch remarked. “So that’s that window that we’ve all had this opportunity to race in, and I think it’s just a matter of age blended with the experience level and with a top-tier team. And when you see that, it’s usually in that 32 to 38 range that I would say could be the peak.”