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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson, William Byron prepare for Daytona battle

Jimmie Johnson, Williams Byron

As NASCAR’s regular season winds down, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron are in a “weird” situation.

NASCAR has changed a lot since Jimmie Johnson began his full-time Cup Series career in 2002. He has raced under the Winston, Nextel, Sprint, Monster Energy, and plain old Cup Series banners. His record-tying seven championships have been won under four different playoff formats. The entire full-time journey, set to end at the end of the season, has been spent in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: Johnson is locked in an intense battle with a Hendrick teammate driving the No. 24 car.

It was Jeff Gordon, the man most associated with the No. 24, that personally scouted Johnson and got his Cup career rolling. Subsequent battles between the two have had lasting implications on NASCAR history and altered the Cup Series’ postseason picture. The battle ended upon Gordon’s retirement in 2015 but reignites in the most dramatic and sensational fashion at Daytona International Speedway.

The World Center of Racing’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 will host the NASCAR regular season final for the first time on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Johnson enters a familiar place on the schedule in the most unfamiliar spot: on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. He’s four points out of the 16th and final seed…held by third-year driver William Byron, the new bearer of the No. 24. Only adding to the drama is the fact that Byron’s crew chief is Chad Knaus…who was atop the No. 48’s pit box for each of its seven titles.

The reality of the situation only hit Knaus through a conversation with Johnson after last weekend’s doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.

“I was like ‘man, it’s so weird that I’m going to be battling the No. 48 car going into Daytona’,” Knaus recalled when speaking with the media this week. “Then the next morning, at like 8 a.m., he sent me a text. He’s like ‘man, isn’t it weird that we’re competing with one another for this?’ So, we had a text right there and then we had a phone conversation a little bit later in the week. And hey, it is what it is. We’re both professionals here. We understand what’s going on. It’s racing. It’s competition.”

“Chad and I are great friends and have stayed really close through all that’s happened,” Johnson would say of the conversation. “Sure, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun at some different points here recently, but I wish him the best. We talk often. I want the best for Chad and his family, and for Chad and his race team.”

“We certainly both look at the year and know there are moments that could have kept us both from being in this position, but it is what it is and we’re going to Daytona, which makes it even more awkward. We’ll see how things play out.”

Unlike Johnson’s relatively quiet Cup Series arrival, Byron entered the Cup Series with a fair amount of hype. He won a rookie record seven races in the Camping World (now Gander RV & Outdoor) Truck Series’ 2016 campaign and then took home the Xfinity Series title at the age of 19. When Hendrick Motorsports rebranded their No. 5 Chevrolet to be the iconic 24, it was Byron who was called upon to take over.

Nearly three years in, a combination of bad luck and strong competition has Byron still searching for his first Cup Series win. If it came at Daytona on Saturday, it would clinch his second consecutive playoff berth. He won a qualifying event at the track for the Daytona 500 back in February, but an early accident relegated him to a last-place finish in 40th. The No. 24 car has shown speed throughout the season, the development stifled by factors beyond Byron’s control. For example, he had the lead at Indianapolis in July and won the first stage, but a lost tire relegated him to a 27th-place finish.

Johnson, stuck at 83 wins in the midst of a career-long 119-race winless streak, was quick and eager to note the improvements Byron has made in his third year behind the wheel.

“He’s a true student of the sport and his life is dedicated to racing,” Johnson said. “With his interest in sim racing, he can literally day in and day out learn tracks, drive cars, think about racing, think about setups, interact with his team on that level. During my generation, we could go test quite a bit and we did a lot of that. But still, I think he can get more reps in today’s world than the world that I grew up in and it’s been really interesting to watch him grow in his path. I think he probably has the fastest path to a NASCAR Cup car in the history of our sport.”

“Hats off to him. He’s doing a great job and I know he’s going to be a tough competitor at Daytona.”

Knaus was moved to Byron’s garage after the latter’s rookie season. The driver, a Charlotte native, grew up watching Johnson dominate the Cup Series circuit. A childhood incident only adds to the Daytona intrigue. As a child, Byron trick-or-treated at Johnson’s home in Charlotte…dressed as Jeff Gordon.

Now, Byron can deal the cruelest trick of all: denying Johnson a playoff berth in his final full-time season.

“I think it’s a great storyline. Jimmie is the guy that I looked up to as a kid,” Byron said. “I was really a 48 fan through and through. I’ve got a lot of 48 stuff at my parent’s house and a lot of different diecast cars.”

But with the Hendrick competition topping the list of Daytona storylines, Byron has no intention of actively kicking Johnson out of the playoff bracket. In fact, he’s hoping that both cars can partake in the first postseason party on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway. Their HMS teammates, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, have already clinched their playoff spots through wins.

“I really don’t look at it as me versus him. I know that’s what the bubble is right now, but it really is an opportunity for both of us to get in,” Byron continued. “I’m trying to look at it (like) that. That’s ultimately the goal: to get both of us in. Jimmie is an awesome competitor and somebody I really look up to.”

“Hopefully, we both get in, you know?” Knaus asked rhetorically. “We both run really well at superspeedways. Hendrick Engines and the guys at the shop build some amazing race cars. So, hopefully, we can get out there and get some stage points and race well and get both the No. 24 and the No. 48 into the playoffs.”

Both Byron and Johnson can still get in on points, which would come at the expense of 15th-place Matt DiBenedetto (nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff). But the Daytona factor looms large over the proceedings.

As long as he’s competing for Cup Series points and is placed in the top 30 of the standings, Saturday’s winner will be partaking in the playoffs. Daytona’s propensity for tightly-packed racing and multi-car wrecks has created the perfect formula for surprise winners. Just last summer, in the most recent version of Daytona’s 400-mile event, Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley navigated his way through a big accident and a Floridan summer storm to earn an unlikely victory in the microbudget No. 77 Chevrolet of Spire Motorsports in just his second Cup start. Saturday’s field is rife with talented drivers that can steal the final spots. Both competitors are aware of the danger presented…both in the standings and on the track…but they’re loving every minute of it.

“It’s going to be great from a fan’s perspective,” noted Byron. “It’s going to be stressful in the car, but sometimes those are the most fun times and the most rewarding times in the race car, those times where you’re under pressure. It should be fun.”

Johnson is also excited, but perhaps a more accurate way to describe his Daytona mindset is one of peace. As he discussed with Knaus, opportunities were there to secure a playoff berth. There’s nothing he could’ve done about the Indianapolis event, sidelined due to a positive test for coronavirus, but a runner-up finish and the points that came with at Charlotte’s renowned Coca-Cola 600 in May was wiped out due to a failure at postrace inspection.

The calamities that have befallen 2020 have done nothing to change Johnson’s mind of retirement from full-time racing. His resume nonetheless continues to expand, adding the duty of professor to his resume through home-schooling his daughters Evie and Lydia. Having recently spoken on several societal issues since NASCAR’s return from the coronavirus-induced pause, Johnson expressed concern about the current state of the country but hopeful of what he’s seen from his children.

“At times, I’m discouraged by where we sit as a nation, as a world, and just how divided we all are,” Johnson admitted. “But then when I see my kids, their questions, and their genuine concern about the future of our country, of our environment, of racial inequality issues, gender-related issues, I do become encouraged. To hear a ten-year-old and a six-year-old weigh in on some conversations really has blown my mind. So, I do have some optimism for the future.”

On the track, Johnson isn’t looking to get sentimental. Whereas some see his final start at Daytona and what could be his final start in a “playoff” race, Johnson just sees an opportunity to drive his iconic Chevrolet again. That’s the way he wants it.

“We have a lot at stake and, again, it could be a great storybook ending for my last full-time race or race on an oval at Daytona. We all understand the storylines. I’m excited, I’m ready to go. I’m not one to spend too much time getting overly sentimental. I’m more excited about the opportunity to go racing and drive that 48 car. So, I’m just excited to get there and get to work.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Four Turns with ESM’s Eastern Speed Board; Daytona

ESM’s NASCAR experts return to debate the hot topics heading into the final Cup Series regular season race at Daytona.

ESM’s panel of NASCAR experts is back to debate the sport’s hot topics as the Cup Series ends its regular season in spectacular fashion in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The Xfinity and Truck Series likewise inch their way toward the playoffs with respective events on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Sunday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, FS1).

Which do the four turns take the ESB this weekend? Read on for their predictions and thoughts…

Turn 1: For the first time in NASCAR history, Daytona will host a regular season finale, eschewing its traditional July 4th spot. Thoughts?  

Geoff Magliocchetti: I was a bit wary of the prospect in the beginning. July 4th weekend at Daytona was a fun, midsummer tradition in the win of the MLB All-Star Game. It felt almost sacrilege to deny The World Center of Racing an American tradition. But, looking at the standings, it’s impossible to deny just how smart it was to give the unpredictable Daytona the final race of the regular season. Daytona desperation is a new kind of chaos, one that can create pulse-pounding moments in the grandstands and behind the wheel. It’s insanely poetic as it is that three drivers at the end of the playoff picture are separated by only nine points. But combine that with Daytona’s propensity to produce unexpected winners…remember Justin Haley last season?…and we could see an unexpected playoff man rise to the occasion. If you think drivers go all-out to win February’s Daytona 500…the first race of the season…just imagine what they’ll do to win a race that determines the NASCAR playoff bracket.

Dylan Price: I love the move. Daytona is always the most unpredictable track on the circuit. Yes, intense bubble racing is fun, but what about everyone remotely close to the bubble giving it their all for a win. Everyone has something to prove with the playoffs a week away. Who knows, we may even see a driver come out of nowhere to make the playoffs for the first time in their career.

Nathan Solomon: I think that having Daytona as the season finale is overall a good move. It gives anyone that isn’t already in the playoffs a chance to get in with a win and puts more pressure on drivers and spotters. It should also boost ratings since it’s, well, Daytona. On the other hand, someone could get lucky and win and take away a playoff spot from someone already in the hunt. But, the new playoff format has always favored wins, and a win gets you in.

Turn 2: Yet ANOTHER win for Kevin Harvick at Dover; where’s he going to rank in terms of the greatest drivers ever when all is said and done?

Geoff Magliocchetti: What Harvick has been doing since the return to the track is not a Hall of Fame case. That was probably happening long before this season began. Instead, it’s a case to be included in the top ten greatest drivers off all-time. One cannot effectively tell the story of American auto racing without Kevin Harvick. The start to his Cup career…replacing the late Dale Earnhardt…was enough pressure to live up to as it was. He had made a strong impact on both the Cup and the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series levels. But for him to go out and continue to not just run strong in, but straight up dominate, race in this new era of no practice or qualifying is nothing short of extraordinary. He’ll perhaps need another championship or two to truly warrant consideration for NASCAR’s “Mount Rushmore”, but the second could very well come this fall at Phoenix.

Dylan Price: Harvick has written a hell of a chapter in the book that is his career in 2020. With seven wins and still 11 races to go, Harvick is on pace to contend for the record books in terms of single-season wins in the modern era (since 1972). Not only that, but he and Denny Hamlin are the clear favorites for the championship.

Nathan Solomon: Harvick will no doubt be one of the best the sport has ever seen, and likely a unanimous first ballot hall-of-famer when it comes time. He seems to get better and better each year at Stewart-Haas. His seven wins are so impressive, and all have come after the coronavirus stoppage. This year is a big year for him, as another title would certainly cement his legacy. If he keeps racing for a long time, he may be one of the winningest drivers in history.

Turn 3: Three years, still no win for William Byron. What do you make of his Cup career thus far?

Geoff Magliocchetti: To call Byron a downright “bust” would be cruel. His Cup Series debut has been laden with expectations. The hype alone can derail otherwise promising careers and only exacerbate struggling careers…remember Casey “The Next Jeff Gordon” Atwood under Ray Evernham? Additionally, his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is not Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet, but rather the declining No. 5 that Kasey Kahne left behind with a fresh coat of (Axalta) paint. Thus, it’s not fully appropriate to get down on Byron, who has also been a constant victim of bad luck. But it’s fair to say he could be on some sort of hot seat next season (his fourth at the Cup level and third with Chad Knaus) if he doesn’t get a win. Such a finish at Daytona would certainly go a long way in soothing some concerns.

Dylan Price: To this point, William Byron has not even close to filling the shoes left behind by Jeff Gordon. Byron has yet to tap into his true potential and finds himself on the bubble of the playoffs this year. Rick Hendrick and Gordon supposedly both think very highly of Byron. With that said, on track production is needed and that means a win or at least consistent finishes. So, I’d say Byron is at a point where he’s underperforming and could find himself looking for a new ride if he doesn’t step up by the end of next season at the latest.

Nathan Soloman: William Byron needs to step it up a little bit in he wants to stay at Hendrick for a long time. That all starts this weekend if he can secure a birth into the playoffs. Has he had some bad luck? Yes, he absolutely has. But that’s no excuse since he’s in the same cars that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon had extreme success in. Byron could use a win at a track like Daytona and has won a Duel race there in the past. Could luck finally be on his side this weekend?

Turn 4: Which driver outside of the top 16 has the best chance to steal a playoff spot at Daytona?

Geoff Magliocchetti: The thing about this Daytona field is that there are so many talented drivers that can steal a playoff spot. Perhaps the most attractive underdog driver is one who has no chance at the playoffs…Ross Chastain is back in a Cup car, taking over the same No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Haley navigated to victory last July. Chastain, who is competing for Xfinity Series points, was running well in the same car during February’s Daytona 500, but a late crash took him out of contention. He has run two other races in the No. 77, finishing on the lead lap in the latter at Indianapolis. A strong run at Daytona would give him some well-deserved exposure and a chance to impress potential suitors for a new, better-equipped ride next season.

Dylan Price: I have a lot of guys I’d love to eye with this pick. I really would love to see an underdog come from out of nowhere and win. Especially a back of the pack guy like Corey Lajoie could use a career-defining win. Still, outside of the top 16, one guy sticks out to me: Erik Jones. Jones is now without a ride for next season and he’s racing like a man with nothing to lose, and that’s scary. Jones could win this race and likely lock down a top tier ride for next season, so I’ll go with him outside of the top 16.

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson is outside the top 16, but could still easily make it in on points. However, I see either Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Ryan Newman stealing a win to get into the playoffs. Both are known to be pretty good plate racers, and now they have one final chance on the last day of the regular season. Plus, what an awesome story it would be for Newman to win his first plate race back at Daytona after his horrific crash in February.

Predictions

Race Cup Xfinity Trucks
Geoff Magliocchetti Ryan Blaney Ross Chastain Sheldon Creed
Dylan Price Martin Truex Jr. Brandon Jones Matt Crafton
Nathan Solomon Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Ryan Sieg Grant Enfinger
Standings
Rank Points (behind) Wins
1. Geoff Magliocchetti 288 3
2. Nathan Solomon -3 1
3. Dylan Price -36 0

Matt DiBenedetto reflects on his NASCAR journey while on the playoff bubble

In the midst of the vaunted Hendrick Motorsports battle, Matt DiBenedetto is fighting for his own playoff life…and he couldn’t be happier.

Matt DiBenedetto has enough to worry about at Daytona International Speedway as is.

The track’s reputation for tightly-packed racing is exhilarating in the grandstands but nerve-wracking behind the wheel. Multi-car get-togethers are common, be it via pushes for position or the Big One…or Big Ones…that seem to strike in the race’s most crucial stages.  His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford also starts Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC) in the 15th position, so he has some work to do if he wants to secure the first win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

Oh, and he’s also fighting for the first playoff berth of his NASCAR career…and members of one of NASCAR’s most lauded teams will do anything to keep him out.

For the first time, the unpredictable asphalt of Daytona will sort out the Cup Series’ 16-driver playoff field. The 400-mile race held a midseason spot on July 4 weekend since its inception in 1959, but the switch over to the regular-season finale slot has cast even more drama on one of the circuit’s most unpredictable races.

“I don’t know if it’s excited or anxious or what the emotion is,” DiBenedetto said on Thursday morning. “It’s definitely different going to Daytona with so much on the line than if we were going to a regular short track or whatever you want to call it.”

Ten drivers are already in the playoffs by virtue of a victory over the previous 25 races. Three more have reserved a spot through points. Barring complete disaster, Clint Bowyer (57 points above the cutoff) likely has his ticket punched. Any winless driver that remains in the top 30 in points can earn a ticket with a win. Daytona is the ideal place to it, as the track has produced a Cup Series-high 20 first-time winners. Otherwise, the fight for the final two spots is down to DiBenedetto, and the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and William Byron.

DiBenedetto has the current 15 seed and is nine points of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, the first car out. Byron is five points behind DiBenedetto in the 16th spot…one that would automatically turn over to a driver outside the top 30 that stole a win. Such a concept is hardly outlandish. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., trapped in 23rd place, earned his most recent win at Daytona in 2017. Down in 25th, Ryan Newman was mere feet away from winning February’s Daytona 500 before getting involved in a scary accident on the final turn.

The Hendrick duo would likely be the playoff seeds that draw ratings and headlines. Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion, is looking to end his career on the right note. It’s awkward enough that Johnson is fighting a teammate, one of the heirs to Jeff Gordon’s iconic No. 24 Chevrolet, for a playoff spot. But Johnson is also battling the crew chief that helped him win all those titles, Chad Knaus, who oversees the No. 24’s matters now.

Frankly, there’s a bit of disappointment on DiBenedetto’s end. A visit to victory lane has yet to materialize, but DiBenedetto had been one of the series’ more consistent drivers in 2020. He has been running at the finish in all but one race this season and his average finish of 15.2 is tied with Ryan Blaney and ahead of Johnson and Byron, as well as playoff drivers like Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, and Cole Custer. July saw DiBenedetto take part in his first All-Star Race, winning the All-Star Open at Bristol to gain entry.

After a third-place finish at Kentucky, DiBenedetto had a healthy 84-point on the playoff’s cutoff line. But tough finishes, including a brutal doubleheader at Dover last weekend, doomed him to standings watching at Daytona.

“Our intention is going to be focused on those guys that we’re racing for the playoff spot, and also knowing that there could be a surprise winner in there, too,” DiBenedetto said when asked if he wants constant updates on the standings during the race. “Somebody could jump in the playoffs as well that’s outside of it right now. Daytona is known for situations like that, so there’s gonna be a lot of variables and things, but that will be a big part of the focus is maybe coming to the end of stages, where those guys are, and then obviously towards the end of the race.”

“It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” he continued. “He’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing, where they’re at, if they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona so we’ll probably do that what you asked within reason.”

The Hendrick group certainly wouldn’t mind any route that allows them both to earn playoff glory. If it means DiBenedetto has to be the odd man out, so be it.

“I think we have a chance and an opportunity to get both Hendrick cars in and be able to bump the No. 21 out,” Byron said in another session on Thursday. “That’s kind of our goal and, hopefully, it works out that way.”

It’s more than likely not personal, but DiBenedetto’s No. 21 will have a huge, invisible target on its back come Saturday. But that’s perhaps just the way he likes it.

“A lot of normal people would probably be freaking out and on edge, kind of like my wife is,” the driver affectionately referred to as “Dibby” or “Matty D” said. “That would be normal. She’s having a normal reaction. She’s kind of a basket case every day and having heart failure and just can’t wait until Saturday night gets here and praying every day that we make the playoffs.”

“Those are normal human reactions to this type of stressful situation, and I think I’ve just been groomed and been through so much stress and crazy situations to fight to get here that being in this really tough situation has made me extremely mentally tough and prepared for something like this to where I’m able to stay very focused.”

DiBenedetto, 29, has earned a bit of a following for working his way up to one of NASCAR’s longest-running rodes. Save for a seven-race stint as a teenager with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series program, DiBenedetto has rarely, if ever, had strong equipment to work with. His full-time Cup career began with stints at the mid-to-low-budget efforts at BK Racing (which closed in 2018), Go Fas Racing, and Leavine Family Racing (which is set to close at the end of this season).

Throughout his career, DiBenedetto showed flashes of brilliance. In 2016, he brought home BK Racing’s first top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega in their history with a sixth-place finish at Bristol. A year later, he recorded the first top finishes for Go Fas’ No. 32 Ford.

If anything, DiBenedetto knows he’s in a much better spot than he was last season. LFR’s No. 95 Toyota offered potential for exposure through a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs. But a tough start to the season, which placed him at 23rd in the standings by mid-August, led to LFR informing him that they’d be going in another direction at the end of the year.

“Luckily, I don’t think anything quite matches the emotion I was going through around this time last year when I was unsure if I had a job or anything. That was next level,” DiBenedetto said. “My situation last year and all that is what’s made me a lot mentally tougher to come up on instances like this, where there’s a lot of pressure and a lot on the line, going into Daytona, which is crazy, and trying to make the playoffs and your whole season basically rides on right now.”

Two days after his de facto firing, DiBenedetto led a career-best 93 laps in the annual Bristol night race. He was passed by Denny Hamlin with 11 laps to go, but it left a lasting impression on the NASCAR world. Hamlin even said he felt sorry for passing DiBenedetto and denying him an elusive first victory.

The runner-up finish, the best of his career, was part of a streak of nine consecutive top 20 finishes for the No. 95. Overall, they finished in the top 20 in all but two of the final 19 races, good for LFR records. DiBenedetto earned a career-best seven top-ten finishes. That was caught the attention of Wood Brothers Racing, who chose DiBenedetto to fill in the seat the retiring Paul Menard left behind.

“It’s a big deal for us, for the 21 team, for the Wood Brothers, for us to be fighting,” he said. “To make the playoffs would be an amazing accomplishment for us and for the team most importantly. It’s so cool to be having this opportunity.”

Daytona always carries the potential to turn dreams into nightmares. DiBenedetto knows that better than most, especially in more recent times. The No. 95 led the most laps (49) at the 2019 Daytona 500 but it got caught up in a big wreck (ironically thanks to contact initiated by the No. 21 driven by Menard) with ten regulation laps to go, ending any chance at victory. Another crash in the most recent edition in February denied him a stronger finish, pushing him to 19th.

But DiBenedetto knows that no matter the result on Saturday, he’s pleased where his NASCAR journey has taken him. No one, even any of his detractors watching this weekend, can take that away from him.

“I think just my path and my journey to get here has been so out of the ordinary and so tough, where I fight and claw, it’s just taught me that all I can do is worry about what I can control,” he said. “There are always going to be things that are out of my control that I really just can’t sit and worry about too much, and my path to get here has taught me that because I have pushed and pushed and pushed as hard as humanly possible and dedicated my entire life to it.”

“But even aside from all the hard work, a million different things out of my control had to happen for me to still be here and this playoff situation is another one of those instances that my whole career has been packed full of is there’s gonna be things that are out of mine and our control because Daytona is just kind of a crazy race. You can’t be in control of what everybody does in the field that can affect you, so as my dad put it this week he was like, ‘Do the best you can and the rest of it is gonna be in God’s hands, so don’t sit and worry about it too much all week.’”

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

NASCAR: Four Turns with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard, Michigan/Road America

NASCAR’s “silly season” just got a whole lot zanier. The Eastern Speed Board covers it all in their latest edition.

The NASCAR offseason’s moves and shake-ups are often referred to as “silly season”. 2020 as a whole could well be described that way, but Joe Gibbs Racing put a particularly impactful twist on the upcoming proceedings.

JGR announced the Thursday that Erik Jones would exit the team’s No. 20 Toyota, which appears set to be filled by Christopher Bell. A former Xfinity Series standout in a Gibbs Toyota, Bell has been working with JGR satellite team Leavine Family Racing in his first full Cup Series campaign. He became available when LFR was sold earlier this week. The team’s No. 95 Toyota will run the remainder of the 2020 season before shutting down operations. This leaves Jones, a two-time Cup Series race winner and 2015 Truck Series champion, without a ride heading into 2021.

Additionally, Brad Keselowski had an incredible week on and off the track. Sunday saw the 2012 Cup Series champion win his third race of the season at New Hampshire Motorspeedway. Less than 24 hours later, it was revealed that former free-agent-to-be Keselowski would continue his endeavors in Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford for at least another year. This removes Keselowski from the No. 48 sweepstakes, as the legendary Jimmie Johnson is prepared to step away from the Hendrick Motorsports vehicle.

What’s the takeaway from everything? ESM’s NASCAR experts on the Eastern Speed Board investigate…

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 1: Big week for Brad Keselowski; thoughts on his new deal?

Geoff Magliocchetti: To quote Newman…the postal employee, not the driver…what took you so long?

Keselowski finishing a Hall of Fame career in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 always seemed too good to be true. Besides, as cool as it would’ve been to see him finally earn a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, it wouldn’t have felt right. Images of Keselowski in No. 48 gear would’ve been included on the same lists and galleries of Brett Favre in a New York Jets jersey or Teresa Weatherspoon in Los Angeles Sparks colors. It’s rare to see any driver end their career in the same car that began it. Keselowski has been, in another Seinfeld reference, Penske material for all of his full-time Cup career. It’s nice to see that one of NASCAR’s longest-running partnerships will continue. For Keselowski to earn his new deal after a dominant weekend joining Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as the only three-time winners this season makes it even sweeter.

Dylan Price: I think this was something that made too much sense not to happen. Brad would’ve been a fit in the 48, but he’s been putting up impressive showings in the 2 for Penske. He could ultimately bolt next year if Austin Cindric is ready and he doesn’t want to stay with Penske any longer, but I believe this was a move that made sense for both parties and I’m glad it got done.

Nathan Solomon: I’m happy to see Brad Keselowski signing an extension with Penske. He just seems like the right man for the car and it makes sense to keep him as the driver. He’s obviously been very successful driving the No. 2 car, winning a championship, and a lot of races along the way. I had a lot of trouble seeing anyone but Brad in the car. Congrats to him on the extension, and I bet he will remain at Penske for the rest of his career.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Turn 2: RIP Leavine Family Racing. How does Christopher Bell’s upcoming sub-in for Erik Jones shake up the “silly season” landscape?

Geoff Magliocchetti: Drastically, and this might only be the beginning.

First off, Leavine Family Racing will be missed. In an era more or less dominated by “superteams”, the group had formed a solid single-car foundation with their No. 95 Toyota. Their evolution from start-and-park squad to respectable racer (particularly with Bell and Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel over the last two seasons) was nothing short of impressive.

Bell’s departure and the subsequent demise of his No. 95 team alters the landscape for both veterans and newcomers alike. For one thing, if JGR wanted to bring up Harrison Burton, their satellite squad in LFR is no longer there. Ditto, perhaps, if Stewart-Haas Racing wants Chase Briscoe to drive the No. 14. Now pending free agent Clint Bowyer has one less ride to turn to if he wishes to continue his career. Sure, Bell benefits from the get-go, but it could end Jones’ career of contention before it truly begins. Look no further than the case of Daniel Suarez, who went from Xfinity Series champion at Joe Gibbs to racing for the underfunded No. 96 at Gaunt Brothers Racing in just five years.

But that might not be a problem now that Gibbs’ maneuvering has set a new plan into motion. We already have vacant spots at JGR (No. 20 Toyota), Hendrick Motorsports (No. 48 Chevrolet), and Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 42 Chevrolet, currently piloted by fill-in driver Matt Kenseth). Time will tell just how many ripples the bombshell of the Jones/Bell switch made on the Cup Series surface.

Dylan Price: First, I am very disappointed to hear that LFR is shutting down because I felt they had the potential to be the next Furniture Row-esque “come out of nowhere and win it” team.

Christopher Bell being out of a ride truly changes the “silly season” landscape. He’s one of the highest potential young drivers in NASCAR. At this time JGR views Bell as the much stronger option for the No. 20 machine. That has officially put Erik Jones out of a ride, who would make sense in a number of places. He could be a fit with the No. 48. He could also go to Stewart-Haas if a ride opens there. That could then jeopardize the future of either Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola. So, it’s safe to say that Bell losing his ride and joining Joe Gibbs just changed EVERYTHING.

Nathan Solomon: Christopher Bell wasn’t on the market for very long as, within days of LFR’s announced shut-down, Erik Jones was dumped for him. So now Jones is the free agent looking for a new ride. All the same options I mentioned ion the previous question are still on the table. There’s an opening at Hendrick and an opening at Stewart Haas. Additionally, the No. 42 will be vacant for Chip Ganassi, and that could be another option for Jones. I think a lot in “silly season” now depends on whether Clint Bowyer will get offered an extension for Stewart-Haas.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 3: Keselowski’s return to Penske assured he will NOT take over the No. 48. So the question is…who will?

Geoff Magliocchetti: The favorite right now is probably Jones, but I’m going to throw a curveball here…Noah Gragson.

In some ways, Gragson’s potential ascension to the Cup Series mimics that of Keselowski’s…a talented driver at multiple levels whose aggressive racing style might rub some guys the wrong way (just ask Harrison Burton after the Xfinity Series event at Kentucky this year) but has the potential to impress both Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. while piloting a car for JR Motorsports. Gragson has certainly posted results worthy of a Cup ride. He was the runner-up in 2018’s Truck Series ledger (racing a Toyota owned by Kyle Busch) and has been a premier name on the Xfinity level with wins at Daytona and Bristol this season. A fiery rookie may be the ultimate counter to the mild-mannered, stoic Johnson, but such a contrast would be one of 2021’s most intriguing storylines.

Dylan Price: All signs now point to Erik Jones. who’s now out of a ride. I love Erik as a racer and I think he would fit well within the current trio at Hendrick Motorsports. I think he also is the kind of high potential driver that Rick and Jeff Gordon (who owns part of the 48) would really want within the organization.

With that said, I don’t think he should drive the No. 48 car. I think the car should switch back to No. 5 for Jones. Still, nothing is for certain and a guy like Matt DiBenedetto or Kyle Larson could be a surprise hire.

Nathan Solomon: There are a few options on who could drive the No. 48 next year. Erik Jones is the newest free agent, and with his time at Gibbs, I could see him driving that car. Clint Bowyer is also a free agent, but I don’t really see him driving for Hendrick, especially with his age.

The other option could be to turn to one of the guys at JR Motorsports such as Noah Gragson or Justin Allgaier. There’s also a pair of guys driving for Kaulig Racing in Justin Haley and Ross Chastain who would love an opportunity in a Cup Series car that has a chance to win every week.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 4: NASCAR has instituted some new changes, including new starting lineup and restart policies as we approach the playoffs. Thoughts?

Geoff Magliocchetti: While I disagree with the full-time “choose cone” being instituted at this stage of the season (the start of 2021 would’ve been more optimal), I’m eager to see how it plays out over these crucial final stages of the season. The All-Star Race was a good place to introduce it, but we didn’t get to see it truly go into action, to see a driver pick up several spots by choosing the lesser popular lane. Such a strategy could be the ultimate difference between advancement and elimination in the playoff chases this fall.

As for the lineup, consisting of a weighted system of standings and finishing positions/top speeds from the prior event, it’s great to see some welcome unpredictability added to the opening gride while ensuring that the best cars get the optimal starting position.

Dylan Price: I think it’s the right move. It really makes sense to do in my opinion in terms of adding value to the races. As seen in the All-Star Race, it makes for much more exciting restarts and incites much more competitive racing. To put it in NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller’s own words, the sport “felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure”.

Nathan Solomon: I really enjoyed the choose cone rule used in the All-Star Race, and I’m glad it’s being adapted in most races. It allows the driver to choose where they think is the best for them and their car, not just the traditional way of odd position numbers start inside and even numbers start on the outside, It adds more strategy, and potentially on-the-fly thinking. It will make the racing better and pit road safer, as drivers will be less likely to play games on pit road to jockey for starting positions. Kudos to guys like Austin Dillon who pushed to get this added to NASCAR.

Michigan/Road America Predictions

Race Cup 1 Cup 2 Xfinity Trucks
Geoff Magliocchetti Kevin Harvick Kyle Busch Austin Cindric Austin Hill
Dylan Price Joey Logano Alex Bowman AJ Allmendinger John Hunter Nemechek
Nathan Solomon Brad Keselowski Chase Elliott Daniel Hemric Grant Enfinger
Standings
Rank Points (behind) Wins
1. Nathan Solomon 212 1
2. Dylan Price -4 0
3. Geoff Magliocchetti -20 1

NASCAR: Four Turns with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard, New Hampshire

As the NASCAR Cup Series circuit hits Loudon, ESM’s Eastern Speed Board talks Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, and more.

Turn 1: How important was it that NASCAR was the first major sports league to return and how do you think they handled/are handling racing in these trying times?

Geoff Magliocchetti: It was tremendously important for NASCAR to be the first North American sports league to make its return. What was truly brilliant was the fact that they never truly stopped, remaining in the public consciousness through the iRacing Pro Invitational Series. When it was finally safe to trade-in pixels for asphalt, NASCAR succeeded even further.

The circuit was able to provide hope, giving a struggling public welcome normalcy every weekend, if only for a few hours at a time. Impossible to contain in a bubble setting, NASCAR has succeeded while traveling to its usual locales, with minimal reported positive tests of COVID-19 as they’re able to keep their seasons running. The fact they were able to hold an All-Star Race (albeit with a shift from Charlotte to Bristol) with a select number of fans should go a long way in showing just how well NASCAR was able to navigate a difficult situation. If only MLB had taken notes…

Additionally, NASCAR managed to go beyond the vicinities of the racetrack in addressing the current event on a national scale. The series and its drivers could’ve taken the easy way and out and sweep involvement in the national conversation under the rug and stick to racing. Instead, they embraced making a message by dealing with it at a point when everyone would be watching (prior to the start of the Atlanta race). When a mere thought of a threat of racist violence emerged against Bubba Wallace during the Talladega race weekend, NASCAR stood behind him and made it clear they would have his back. Wallace himself became a prominent voice in the ongoing conversation about race in America.

One could argue that perhaps not everything was handled perfectly in this process (i.e. labeling the Wallace incident at Talladega a hate crime before the FBI investigation was completed). But thanks to strong leadership and decent handling of the process, NASCAR is in a better place than it was at the start of the season.

Dylan Price: It was vital for NASCAR to be one of the first major sports to return in terms of making up for lost revenue and ratings, despite that  I had no expectation they would be one of the best to do it. NASCAR has had hiccups like a positive test for one of its biggest stars in Jimmie Johnson, but even he was back racing in a week’s time.

NASCAR has navigated the pandemic impressively and set a good precedent for other sports to follow. NASCAR also ended up timing their return fairly close to the social uproar that we experienced in June. This allowed NASCAR to truly prove how far they’ve come in terms of diversity and inclusion, and thus reinvigorate their reputation in the public eye.

Nathan Solomon: I think that it was huge that NASCAR was the first major sports league to return. Ratings are up and new people are discovering the sport and realizing that it’s so much better than their reputation shows. I think they are handling racing well for the most part, but you can tell that fewer people are complying with the coronavirus rules. It’s hard to not get excited and celebrate when you win or have a good pitstop, but people need to be following mask rules to potentially slow the spread of the virus in the NASCAR community and not look bad on TV.

This Saturday night, the UFC makes it's long anticipated return to Las Vegas with UFC on ESPN 9 which will be headlined by a welterweight contest between former champion, Tyron Woodley,
Mandatory Credit: Gerry Broome/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network

Turn 2: Thoughts on Jimmie Johnson’s IndyCar experiment? Can he make an impact in a new endeavor?

Geoff Magliocchetti: It’s great that Johnson finally got his long-sought opportunity to pilot an IndyCar in this topsy-turvy season. While there’s nothing wrong with going the broadcasting route in post-retirement endeavors (as his contemporaries Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have), opting for a new form of racing in an interesting, new thought. Perhaps we could once again see the rise of racing 1,110 miles on Memorial Day if Johnson’s willing to make a Charlotte cameo after his full-time NASCAR retirement. Auto racing of all forms enjoyed a nice little kickstart in the wake of resuming in the midst of the pandemic. If Johnson’s endeavors in IndyCar can help IRL keep some of that momentum, everyone wins.

Dylan Price: I think Johnson is at a point in his career similar to where Tony Stewart was when he left NASCAR. He’s crossing off bucket list racing endeavors and that begins with Indy Car. It’ll be very intriguing, even for the casual race fan to see how Johnson fares in an Indy Car if he were to truly go down that route, even for a race or two. With that said, I don’t see Johnson having a huge amount of success in an Indy Car if that’s the route he wants to take, simply because it would take a pretty decent amount of time for him to really break in and he’s at the end of his racing prime.

Nathan Solomon: It’s really cool that Jimmie Johnson finally tested an IndyCar. 2020 is his last season as a full-time NASCAR driver, so maybe he’ll try out some different series at different tracks that NASCAR goes to. My prediction is that within the next few years once coronavirus has come and gone, he will try to run the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 Memorial weekend doubleheader.

Turn 3: Kyle Larson has expressed interest in returning to NASCAR. When do you think he’ll get that 2nd chance?

Geoff Magliocchetti: Let’s be clear: Kyle Larson was wrong. His far too casual use of a racial slur was troubling. It felt like he was always going to get another opportunity, anyone who felt he shouldn’t have faced any punishment was completely misguided. Losing an elite ride at Chip Ganassi was the right move.

As a white male who has never, and likely never will, face racial violence, it’s not up to me to forgive Larson. But, if social media is to be believed, Larson appears to be working to right his wrongs, working with organizations like The Sanneh Foundation (a Twin Cities-based group that “serves the holistic youth development needs of the increasingly diverse…metro area) and also attended the funeral of George Floyd.

Larson is probably going to back sooner or later, perhaps as soon as next year. At no point should anyone say he “went through” anything (i.e. Riley Cooper), but he’s apparently doing what he can rectify an ugly situation of his own doing. Perhaps the biggest question will be whether Larson truly wants to recommit to a full NASCAR slate. He’s had big success on the dirt track circuit and, while he’s expressed interest in returning, who knows if he’ll want to leave the home he’s made in the dirt.

Dylan Price: The question to me isn’t about whether or not a team will give Larson the opportunity because some lower teams and even some teams like Stewart Haas are already rumored to be eying him. The situation really dissolves down to two key factors. The first and most important being sponsorship.

Kyle Larson is still a name that will attract sponsorship because of his talent and reputation. Still, what he said was something that sponsors could deem unforgivable or at the very least could be something that needs more time to be forgotten.

The second factor is that Larson is happy racing on dirt tracks right now. He hasn’t finished worse than sixth and he’s reiterated consistently how much fun he’s having doing it. I think Larson will be back within the next year, but it will likely be a controversial return.

Nathan Solomon: I bet that Kyle Larson gets a second chance this winter. He clearly made a huge mistake and deserved punishment, but people deserve second chances at things in life. He may have to start with a low budget team and work his way up to build trust, gain sponsors, and attract a manufacturer.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 4: We’re 19 races into the season and Kyle Busch STILL hasn’t won a Cup Series race. When is that win coming…if at all?

Geoff Magliocchetti: You have to think to that Busch’s long-awaited victory is coming sooner rather than later. Every race he runs is like a New England Patriots game in the new century: no matter how badly the odds are stacked against them, whether it’s a 28-3 lead or being two laps down at the midway mark, they almost always seem to figure it out. New Hampshire could be the place to do it, as he’s finished no worse than 12th over the last four races. With time dwindling toward the postseason, it would be wise of Busch to get a win before he goes to defend his championship. Expect a win at some this August.

Dylan Price: I really can’t see Kyle Busch not winning a race in this season. As much as I’d love to see him stay out of victory lane, it’s hard to count him out. He’s one of the most talented racers in this generation, yet he’s struggled to adapt to the changing circumstances surrounding the sport as they navigate the pandemic. I believe he’ll figure it out, but time is dwindling for him to stake his claim as a contender before the playoffs.

Nathan Solomon: It’s definitely alarming that Kyle Busch hasn’t been able to win a race this year. Unlike Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, having do practice is not helping him at all. When NASCAR has their upcoming doubleheaders at Michigan or Dover, look for him to get a win in the second race of each weekend.

New Hampshire Predictions

Geoff Magliocchett: Aric Almirola
Dylan Price: Denny Hamlin
Nathan Solomon: Joey Logano

Standings
Rank Points (behind) Wins
1. Nathan Solomon 168 1
2. Geoff Magliocchetti -14 1
3. Dylan Price -14 0

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Bubba Wallace Is Becoming The Tiger Woods of NASCAR

Racial integration is something that has been a fixture in our nation’s history for the longest time. In terms of sports, it was not easy. Barriers had to be broken down for African Americans to earn the opportunity to compete at the highest level in their respective sports.

Now, as the national climate changes, a traditionally caucasian dominated sport has found it’s newest star in trailblazer, Bubba Wallace.

Tiger Woods was a star golfer from a young age. From putting against Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show, his stardom has only blossomed. Yes, there have been many bumps in the road with injuries and controversy, but Tiger has done something that Bubba has begun to emulate.

Breaking into a white-dominated sport and having success. Tiger was able to do it and do it in a big way by becoming one of the best to ever do it.

Bubba has yet to win a race yet, but whilst driving the number 43 machine for the king, Richard Petty, he has had success. With a handful of top tens in the cup series, Bubba has continued to develop as a racer.

Although he hasn’t had substantial on-track success, off the track he has brought in a new fan base to the sport. African Americans are seeing Bubba as an inspiration and hopefully will flock to racing.

Right now, Bubba is not on the Tiger Woods level of success in terms of accomplishments. However, he could be soon. The notoriety Bubba has gained has made him a household name in mainstream media. He’s dominating the All-Star fan vote and becoming a serious merchandise seller. This revenue could lead some more successful teams with top tier machines to give Bubba a shot.

A team like Hendrick Motorsports could tap Bubba to replace Jimmie Johnson, in what would be a huge move. Or, even another top team like Stewart Haas or Chip Ganassi Racing could give him a shot. Despite significant on track success, Bubba is making a huge impact. Bubba is helping NASCAR make great strides in their continued mission to preach diversity and inclusion in racing as they truly modernize and adapt to society.

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson speaks about his return to the track

Less than a week after testing positive for COVID-19, Jimmie Johnson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday.

Prior to last Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer Powered by Big Machine Records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it had been nearly two calendar decades since Jimmie Johnson’s name didn’t show up on a NASCAR Cup Series scoring monitor.

The 2001 New Hampshire 300, the year’s season finale, was the race in question. It was a rare Friday afternoon excursion, rescheduled from its usual early fall spot after the tragic events of September 11. Of the 42 drivers who partook, four are still racing in the Cup Series full time and five had sons run in either the Cup or Xfinity Series events at IMS over the weekend. The circuit was still known as the “NASCAR Winston Cup Series” at the time. Among the sponsors adorning the machines…some of which were manufactured by Pontiac…were Kmart, Cingular Wireless, and Kodak.

Simply put, it had been a long, long time since Johnson didn’t run a race sanctioned by NASCAR premier series, 663 races to be precise. A positive test of COVID-19 brought upon his absence, revealed less than 48 hours before the green flag waved at Indianapolis.

Johnson took a different seat last Sunday, that of his couch from his home in Colorado. There, Johnson watched Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier pilot his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the first time someone else took over the car since it hit the track for the first time in 2002. In that vehicle, Johnson has won seven Cup Series titles (tied for the most all-time with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and made countless racing memories. This season is set to be Johnson’s final year of full-time racing, one that has already been interrupted by the virus’ initial outbreak. His diagnosis prevented him from a final victory lap at IMS, where he had won four times (most among NASCAR drivers other than Jeff Gordon).

Sunday wasn’t the hardest part, though. According to Johnson, the toughest stretch was the hours that preceded it.

“It was just such a weird set of events,” Johnson recalled in a Friday morning conference call. “I would say that Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing that I wasn’t going to be in the car. Sunday morning was still pretty tough, but I felt like Saturday night was probably the peak of the emotions that go with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end. Not being in the car, my final year, all the things that you would naturally think of, Saturday night was the peak.”

Johnson wouldn’t be at the hallowed racing ground of Indianapolis. But once he partook in the No. 48 team’s weekly prerace meeting, he knew things were going to work out.

He admitted that Sunday morning “wasn’t great”, but things drastically improved upon hearing the voices of his crew and encouraging them for the 400-mile test ahead. The only special advice he had for Allgaier was to “just to drive the wheels off of” the famed No. 48 machine.

“I was able to just hear the voices of my crew guys, pump them up, and just be involved in that team moment,” he recalled. “It’s crazy how it just relaxed me because I was convinced that I wasn’t going to watch the race. I was like I can’t do it. But having that moment to talk to (crew chief Cliff Daniels), all the guys, Justin was clearly on the call and to hear the words he had to say to the team, it let a lot of that go and I actually watched the race.”

The No. 48 didn’t last long on Sunday. Allgaier had to start from the back of the field and made up 11 positions by the time a competition caution came out on lap 14 of 160, but he got involved in a pit road pile-up that took out several competitors. A lost tire damaged the car beyond repair and relegated Allgaier to a 37th-place finish. Fortunately for Johnson, a good majority of his competition on the NASCAR playoff bubble likewise struggled on Sunday, leaving him a healthy 46 points ahead of the 17th-place cutoff in the standings.

Two negative tests and a physician’s approval later, Johnson will return to the track for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Johnson has drawn the 20th spot in the starting lineup for the 267-lap event. Kentucky is one of four venues on the circuit that has yet to host Johnson in victory lane. His 83 victories are most among active drivers and tied for fifth all-time with Cale Yarborough. The most recent of those victories, however, came back in June 2017 at Dover, 110 races ago. It’s by far the longest drought of his career.

Even if Johnson is forced to leave Sparta without a victory, the track holds a special, nostalgic place in his heart. The track hosted some of his early HMS tests prior to his Cup Series debut. Results, however, have been hard to come by. He has finished 30th or worse in three of his last four Kentucky visits and crashed in his lone Xfinity trek in 2001 (when it was known as the Busch Series). A trophy on Sunday would not only clinch a playoff berth but also help his career come full circle…and provide a storybook ending to what’s been one of the most challenging weeks of Johnson’s life.

“I have positive vibes from (the Hendrick tests), but my racing experiences there from the Busch Series days and even in the Cup car has just been demanding and tough,” Johnson said. “I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint. And then clearly what I’ve been through, what my friends and family have been through, what my fan base has been through in the last week, it would be nice to leave there with a trophy.”

A sense of family helped Johnson get through the process of recovery. Earlier this week, Johnson was one of several drivers who stood in defense of Bubba Wallace when U.S. President Donald Trump falsely accused the circuit’s only African-American driver of passing a noose found in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway last month off as a hoax. Johnson confirmed a post marked with the tag “#IStandWithBubba” and an image of the stylized No. 43 seen on Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.

Even more concerning to Johnson than the status of his No. 48 was how his family was coping with the diagnosis. Johnson confirmed he never experienced any COVID-19 symptoms but was tested after his wife Chandra experienced what she thought was seasonal allergies (Chandra has likewise been asymptomatic otherwise). Fortunately, neither of the couple’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, were said to be ill. The pair gave the command to start engines prior to the Pocono 350 two weekends ago and Johnson revealed on Twitter that Genevieve, nicknamed Evie, turned 10 on Tuesday.

“The kids are in a good place with it all, I think as good as they can be for their ages,” Johnson said. “But it is tough, they quickly forget how diligent they need to be. I guess ultimately, I know this is a point in time that their little minds will never forget what their parents went through.”

Even with all the delays and the potential of one last ride at Indianapolis delayed at the very least, Johnson has shown no signs of straying away from that path of a final full-time season. But he truly believes that his last season can be one of growth, learning, and understanding thanks to what he’s experienced in this process and the changing landscape across NASCAR.

Though the situation may appear dire at times, Johnson’s refusing to let these current affairs take his sense of positivity.

“It’s been an interesting year and at times wonder why it’s happened in my final full-time season in Cup. (But) when you turn on the news and look around and see how many people are really ill from this, the seriousness and the severity of the pandemic, it quickly fades out of my mind,” Johnson said. “This is a big problem, it’s a pandemic. So, I’ve really kept my emotions in check. I’m just trying to figure out how to keep my family safe and how I can ultimately learn from everything that’s going on.”

“We’ve dealt with a lot in the last four months as a nation and a world, so (we’re) trying to learn and grow, trying to teach and educate my children. Try to lead by example. I’ve been able to learn that my challenges are watched closely by my kids and how I deal with that adversity is ultimately teaching them. And with having a tough couple of years professionally and then now it’s ramped up to this level. Again, I just try to find the right spin on it. It’s easy to get into a dark headspace on all this. My wife and I are trying so hard to not let that happen and try to teach our children the best that we can.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags