NASCAR: Alex Bowman steals Richmond triumph, ends Hendrick drought

In a NASCAR race dominated by Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, Bowman took the lead from Denny Hamlin with 10 to go to earn a win for the No. 48 team.

A new driver may pilot the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but its propensity for dramatic victories apparently remains.

Alex Bowman, driving the vehicle Jimmie Johnson took to seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, earned his first win in the iconic machine, passing Denny Hamlin with 10 laps to go to win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Bowman began a final 12-lap stretch in third place before getting by Hamlin and Joey Logano to earn the victory, his first since taking over for Johnson. It was HMS’ first triumph at Richmond since Johnson won in September 2008.

Hamlin, who led a race-high 207 of 400 laps, finished second ahead of Logano, while Hamlin’s fellow JGR drivers Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five.

“It means a lot to get Ally a win, get the 48 back where it belongs,” Bowman said. “It’s been a rough start to the year, but Ally has been super committed…so cool to get them a win. It means the world to me. I’m appreciative for them to have faith in me.”

Bowman, 27, earned his third career Cup Series win, all coming at HMS. He burst onto the scene in 2016, taking over for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr in the No. 88. He earned full-time honors when Earnhardt retired after the 2017 season and was called upon to succeed Johnson in the No. 48 when “Seven-Time” moved on. Ironically, Bowman’s victory came on the same weekend that Johnson made his IndyCar debut, finishing 19th in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Despite dominance from the Gibbs Toyotas of Hamlin and Truex…combining to lead 308 of 400 laps…Bowman’s car lingered in the top ten for most of the day. Logano took over after Truex’s No. 19 for speeding at lap 294. As Hamlin and Logano waged war for the lead, Bowman’s opportunity came when Kevin Harvick lost his right-side tires and wrecked with 18 to go. The No. 48 emerged third after the lead lap cars came to pit road.

Bowman was able to beat Hamlin into the corner and take the lead with 10 laps to go in the dozen-lap shootout. The driver was shocked he was able to open and keep such a large lead; he mentioned that the No. 48 was not a good short-run car prior to that last stretch.

“When we drove away I was like, oh my gosh, what’s happening!” Bowman said with a smile. “I was super loose on the last couple of laps and did my best to get it back…we did a lot to improve the racecar and have it take off.”

Either way, Bowman became the eighth different winner in nine races this season. Two of Bowman’s Hendrick teammates…William Byron and Kyle Larson…are also among the winners, while Chase Elliott is the defending Cup Series champion.

The Richmond endeavor turned out to be another tough break for Hamlin, who has now earned top fives in all but one of the first nine races…though none have ended in victory lane. He continues to lead the NASCAR Cup Series points standings with a sizable 81-point lead of Truex, the only repeat winner so far this season.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Hamlin said of his 2021 season. “You’re upset in the moment. You feel you should capitalize when you have great cars…but we’re running very strong. It’s mixed emotions.”

The unpredictability of the 2021 season will likely be raised even further next weekend, when the NASCAR Cup Series descends upon Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Aric Almirola (6th) and Matt DiBenedetto (9th) earned their first top-ten finishes of the season.

 

  • Justin Haley was the only driver who failed to finish the race, completing only one lap due to engine issues.

 

  • Defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric made his first career Cup start on a short track, his third overall. He finished 28th.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series: Your guide and tracker to new rides in 2021

Jimmie Johnson, Williams Byron

When it comes to Silly Season, ESM has you covered with this updating list of offseason ride exchanges at the Cup Series level.

(This list will be updated)

No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (formerly No. 88)

IN: Kyle Larson
OUT: Alex Bowman

Larson returns to NASCAR after his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing over his use of a racist slur earlier this spring during an event on the iRacing platform. His efforts to rehabilitate since the incident were enough to satisfy both NASCAR (who will lift his indefinite suspension on January 1) and team owner Rick Hendrick, who has resurrected the No. 5 branding last used by Kasey Kahne in 2017. Previous occupants of the HMS No. 5 include Mark Martin, Kyle Busch, and Terry Labonte, who won the 1996 Cup Series championship in the car. The No. 88 identity will be retired after 13 seasons, it’s tenure represented by Bowman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Larson won six races over six full seasons at Ganassi, the most recent coming in 2019’s fall event at Dover.

No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet

IN: Corey LaJoie
OUT: New Car

Having purchased Leavine Family Racing’s assets, the low-budget Spire is hoping to take a big step forward by adding a second car to their stable (also fielding the No. 77, whose full-season plans will be announced at a later date). The new driver will be LaJoie, who spent the past two seasons in GoFas Racing’s No. 32 (which will now run as a part-time team), earning three top-ten finishes.

No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet

IN: Team folding
OUT: Ty Dillon

The midbudget team from Bob Germain had been racing at the Cup Series level since 2008. Success in the Cup Series proved elusive, but the team earned a pair of Truck Series titles with Todd Bodine behind the wheel (2006, 2010). The team was forced to shut down when longtime sponsorship partner GEICO opted not to renew their deal (though they will remain a NASCAR partner), shutting down the No. 13 machine. Dillon’s future remains uncertain, as he hopes to continue racing at the Cup level but would be open to a return to the Xfinity Series.

No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

IN: Chase Briscoe
OUT: Clint Bowyer

Bowyer’s retirement and subsequent transfer to the Fox Sports booth opened the door for Briscoe, who won 11 races at the Xfinity Series level (including a series-best nine this past season). It’s a dream come true for a Tony Stewart fan like Briscoe as he will occupy the car in which team owner Stewart won his third and final Cup title in 2011. Bowyer had operated the No. 14 car for four seasons, reaching the playoffs in each of the final three.

No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

IN: Christopher Bell
OUT: Erik Jones

After starring for Gibbs at the Xfinity level (15 wins over two full seasons), it seemed inevitable that Bell would be racing for the Super Bowl-winning coach at the Cup level sooner or later. He got his feet wet in the premier series with his rookie campaign at the smaller, Gibbs-affiliated Leavine Family Racing, posting respectable results (16 finishes in the top 20, first top 20 standings finish for LFR). Jones failed to live up to the reputation pushed ahead by No. 20 predecessors Stewart and Joey Logano, missing out on the playoffs entirely this season.

No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota

IN: Bubba Wallace
OUT: New Team

All eyes will be on this new endeavor from Wallace, Michael Jordan, and Denny Hamlin. The debut vehicle will bear the famous numerals that Jordan wore during a majority of his NBA days. Championship figures from other sports have entered into NASCAR endeavors before and there have been more misses than hits. For every Joe Gibbs Racing, there are multiple Hall of Fame Racings (headed by former Dallas Cowboys champions Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach). But Jordan’s acumen and resources…not to mention Wallace’s skills that were quite respectable for his equipment over at Richard Petty Motorsports…should certainly set this team apart from other start-ups. The team has secured a charter from the aforementioned Germain.

No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

IN: Ross Chastain
OUT: Matt Kenseth

Kenseth was never meant to be a permanent solution in the No. 42 after Larson’s firing, and that was confirmed with Kenseth more or less announcing a third retirement, calling his full-time racing days “over” earlier this week. Chastain was a strong, veteran solution with strong postings with equipment that wasn’t always the best at both the Xfinity and Truck levels. He made a three-race cameo in Ganassi’s Xfinity program (ironically also driving a car number 42) back in 2018, winning a visit to Las Vegas.

No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet

IN: Erik Jones
OUT: Bubba Wallace

Jones will take over the seat that Wallace left behind at RPM. Despite being dealt his walking papers from Gibbs, Jones, the 2015 Truck Series champion, managing to score four finishes in the top five over the ten playoff races. He has two wins at the Cup level, the last being the 2019 Darlington race. RPM is seeking their first win since 2014, when Aric Almirola drove the iconic No. 43 to victory lane.

No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

IN: Alex Bowman
OUT: Jimmie Johnson

For months, the 2021 status of the iconic No. 48 was in question with the retirement of seven-time Cup champion Johnson looming large over the entire season. Hendrick went in-house for the succession, calling up Bowman, the former bearer of the No. 88. Bowman made a strong case to take over Johnson’s seat with his strongest season to date. He finished a career-best sixth in the final standings and finished no worse than 16th over the final dozen races of the year, a stretch that included nine postings in the top ten.

No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports Ford

IN: BJ McLeod
OUT: New Team

McLeod will serve as the has entered into a new team endeavor with Matt Tifft, who returns to NASCAR after a seizure indefinitely ended his racing career in 2018. The team has obtained its charger from Go Fas Racing, whose No. 32 will be reduced to a part-time schedule next year. McLeod has run his vehicles at several NASCAR levels since 2016.

No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota

IN: Team folding
OUT: Christopher Bell

A technical alliance with Joe Gibbs and a strong performance from Bell (his 20th-place in the standings being the best in team history) wasn’t enough to save LFR. Previous drivers of the No. 95 include Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto. LFR’s assets have since been sold to Spire Motorsports, which is seeing an expanded role in the Cup for 2021 (their full plans have yet to be announced).

No. 99 Trackhouse Chevrolet

IN: Daniel Suarez
OUT: New Team

Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion and formerly of both Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, joins with this new team after a year with the No. 96 of Gaunt Brothers Racing (whose 2021 plans have yet to be revealed). The endeavor is headed by former road course ringer and current racing businessman Josh Wise and former Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive Ty Norris.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR brought out the best in sports…and America…in 2020

In a year of chaos, NASCAR’s stability and adaptation brought hope and joy to the nation. Maybe we can all take a lesson from the circuit.

Enough has been written about American chaos, lunacy, childishness, violence, depravity, callousness, and heartbreak in the year 2020.

Yet, with circa 50 days remaining in this year of struggle and reckoning, there’s still time to come out clean on the other side. Through perseverance, talent, and faith, the American people still have time to emerge with a sense of betterment, if only on a personal level. The country has struggled at times to live up to the principles it was founded on, those of freedom and opportunity. But there are still individual cases throughout the land that showcase these American ideals. After all, it’s more often than not no one in the White House that makes America great…it’s We the People.

Cruel as life can be, it does have the decency to imitate the art of these ideals and virtues, often doing so through the canvas of sports. After all, that’s what made the 2020 NASCAR season so intriguing and a beacon of hope in a chaotic landscape.

Last Sunday marked the end of the 2020 circuit, the proceedings wrapping with Chase Elliott, the modern face of NASCAR, hoisting the Bill France Cup in the deserts just outside of Phoenix to commemorate his first championship title in the premier Cup Series. Elliott’s dominance of the 500-mile finale made the final laps of the campaign a tad anticlimactic…his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet beating Brad Keselowski by a 2.74-second margin…but everything else was consistent with a storybook ending.

The Season Finale 500, NASCAR’s championship race, was held on its originally scheduled date at its originally scheduled location. Even a few loyal, socially distanced fans were welcomed into the facility to witness Elliott’s dominance. The event was the 36th points event of the Cup Series season…no different from the number attached to a full schedule in a year unhindered by masks and six feet.

“The year has been, in short, I would say extraordinary, although I could probably use 15 or 20 other words to try to get to something,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said prior to the Cup finale at Phoenix.It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport. I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.”

But through it all this industry…I believe this industry does adversity better than any sport.  If you think about it, we’re at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t own ourselves.  We’re not franchised, right?  We have independent contractors who come to race as one. What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable.  We can’t do what we did as a sport without coming together.”

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Return

NASCAR was not immune to the world getting turned upside down at the onset of the ongoing health crisis. The circuit ran four races before shutdown and quarantine protocols across the country forced them to take an indefinite break after, ironically, the first race at Phoenix Raceway, the FanShield 500 on March 8. Working with their business partners and local governments, the series was able to negotiate a return on May 17, with proceedings moving to a doubleheader at the historic Darlington Raceway.

Like the rest of the country, drivers and crews had to make do with the temporary new surroundings. One of the most accessible sports from a spectator standpoint endured empty stands and empty garages. The typical hustle and bustle of fans enjoying not just a day, but a whole weekend, at the track, and the colorful and lively sponsor hospitality tents had all vanished.

NASCAR was stripped down to almost bare essentials, with a weekend’s work confined to mere hours after practice and qualifying were wiped out. With the starting lineup determined by random order and later a mathematical formula that prioritized those ahead in the standings, drivers essentially went from their streetcars to their racecars on the day of the event. Further draining perhaps emerged from the potential of running three races over the span of seven days, as weekday events were added to the schedule in an effort to get the full docket in.

Other efforts to not only complete every race but include the variety of different tracks that NASCAR has become known for were made as well. With road course events at Sonoma and New York State’s Watkins Glen International unable to be salvaged, the Cup Series moved their proceedings to a strange land in familiar territory: the road course at Daytona International Speedway. No NASCAR career is complete without running Daytona at least once, but the road course was unchartered ground. Yet, the sport pushed through, with Elliott winning a relatively clean maiden race back in August.

“If you told us we were going to a road course and never have practice and we’re just going to line up and race, and you told us that in January or February, we’d think you were nuts, that would never happen,” Joey Logano, championship finalist and the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, said of 2020. “We have to have a test session, we have to have a bunch of practice. It’s not possible. (But) we did it, and it was a great race, right, down in Daytona.”

As American sports adjusted to new, makeshift surroundings, NASCAR was able to provide a sense of normalcy to the landscape. While motorsports perhaps provide the best opportunity to social distance, they’re impossible to stage in a bubble that worked so well for the NHL, NBA, WNBA, NWSL, and several others. The health crisis would only add further chaos to the situation, with the necessary travel only increasing the potential for positive COVID-19 tests.

But NASCAR was able to navigate the situation fairly well, as drivers and crews alike adhered to protocols. From a participants’ standpoint, only two drivers (Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon) missed time due to a positive test and each was cleared to return to the track after one absence. With the exception of the ongoing NFL season, NASCAR is the only major North American sport that managed to complete a full-time, regularly scheduled season. Despite some venue shifts, every one of the 36 Cup Series races was completed.

I would suggest that our sport did as well or better than other sports did with respect to how our protocols worked with our competitors.  We have a significant number of competitors, not just our drivers but our crews, our officials, the safety workers,” Phelps said of the safety and health protocols. “When we shut down heading into Atlanta, we had no idea when we were going to get back to racing.  It was our goal, and a stated goal, that we were going to run all races.  Tomorrow when we crown a champion in our Cup Series, we will have run all our races.  We did it through ways that frankly probably we didn’t think we could do, right? A bunch of midweek races. Three doubleheaders. No practice and qualifying. Things that were kind of significant in bedrock that we do, right?  You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you’re on your way, right?”

“For us to be the first sport back without fans initially on May 17 in Darlington, to the first sport back with fans, I think it’s an extraordinary achievement.”

Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Champion

Even though he’s set to turn merely 25 in two weeks, Chase Elliott has perhaps spent more years around a racetrack than some drivers have been alive. That’s what happens when your dad is Awesome Bill From Dawsonville. In layman’s terms, Bill Elliott was a NASCAR driver hailing from Dawsonville, GA, and an accomplished racer in his own right. Bill Elliott won 44 Cup Series races, the 1988 championship, and 16 Most Popular Driver Awards. 

NASCAR royalty appears to follow the younger Elliott wherever he goes. In addition to his parental ties, a good portion of Elliott’s NASCAR endeavors have come under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. Owned by Rick Hendrick, the team is more or less NASCAR’s answer to the Yankees, boasting 17 championships at the primary national levels, including 13 in Cup. Elliott also ran a pair of seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide/Xfinity Series with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team (winning the 2014 title) before making his transition to the premier league. When the time came, Elliott originally took over the No. 24 Chevrolet branding that the legendary Jeff Gordon left behind upon his retirement. That team made itself over to represent the No. 9 after William Byron earned a promotion of his own. Elliott had run that numeral in the minors and his father also ran it for the majority of his full-time Cup Series career. There, he has spent the past five seasons under the tutelage of teammate Jimmie Johnson, one of two seven-time Cup champions (alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt). In the commemoration of Johnson’s retirement from fulltime-time, Elliott’s “throwback” paint scheme at Darlington’s Labor Day weekend resembled the car the No. 48 drove to the 2009 title. His Phoenix vehicle bore a No. 9 dyed in the color of bright yellow digits that Johnson repped for nearly two decades.

But it’s almost a shame that Elliott’s story can’t be told without such prominent names attached to it, even if his support system was partly why his story can be so vital on a national landscape. The Dawsonville native and die-hard Atlanta Braves fan has built a sizable racing resume throughout his early 20s. His name already peppers the NASCAR record books as the youngest winner at several tracks on the circuit. He’s developed a reputation as a road course warrior, winning the last four races at such tracks (a mark bested only by Gordon). At NASCAR’s de facto victory lap at Bristol Motor Speedway’s All-Star Race in July (run in front of 30,000 fans), Elliott earned the literal million-dollar victory with a dominant effort. He’s even catching up with his father and former boss in Most Popular Driver Awards, earning the last two after Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement ended his reign at 15.

Yet, claims of nepotism, the belief that Elliott wouldn’t have the ride he had without his name persisted. Critics pointed no further than his lack of success in the NASCAR postseason’s semifinal segment, a Round of 8 curse that manifested itself through bad luck and factors that were often beyond his control. That trend showed early at several points this season. Late contact with Kyle Busch denied him a chance at victory at the Darlington reopener. An ill-advised decision to come to pit road during a late caution cost him victory at the 600-mile crown jewel at Charlotte. The Johnson-inspired car failed to capture victory at the late summer return to Darlington, making contact with Martin Truex Jr. in a furious battle for the lead. But Elliott still managed to create a strong season to the tune of wins at the Daytona/Charlotte hybrid tracks and another Charlotte win days after the Coca-Cola 600 miscue.

But the curse…the swing of eight, one could call it…nearly manifested itself yet again in the dying stages of the season. A pit road mishap in the middle event of the three-race segment at Texas Motor Speedway relegated him to a 20th-place finish at the worse possible time. It more or less put Elliott in a must-win situation, the standings too far spaced to hope to make it in through points.

Elliott would then go on to dominate the penultimate race of the season at Martinsville Speedway, a short track known for its chaos. But disaster nearly manifested with less than 100 laps to go. He was able to star as the first car with four fresh tires to leave, but NASCAR was set to send him to the rear of the field because they determined jackman T.J. Semke left the wall too early, necessitating a penalty. The No. 9 team would vehemently argue the penalty, reasoning that Semke made it back to the wall in time to escape without a foul. NASCAR reviewed the incident and determined that was indeed the case. Elliott got back on track and passed Truex Jr. to capture the necessary victory.

“This is a moment that we haven’t experienced together,” Elliott said after that race. “You just don’t know those emotions until you go through it, are able to experience it,” Elliott said after the Martinsville victory. “We obviously all put a lot of effort in to try to do our jobs to the best of our ability. T.J. made a mistake. He was heads up enough to go back and fix it, not to have to go to the back of the field. If he hadn’t have done that, I don’t think we’d have been able to win. There just wasn’t enough time left. That’s super heads up.”

“It absolutely is a team sport,” he continued. “We can’t do it on our own. I can’t do it by myself. No one on our team can do it alone. We recognize that. Feel like we have a great group, a group that’s capable of winning. I thought we showed that and proved that tonight.”

The curse, it appeared, felt like it hadn’t fully had its way with Elliott just yet, though. Going into the Phoenix finale, a failure of prerace inspection sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race. This time, there was no arguing the penalty, and Elliott indeed had to move things back to the rear of the field.

Between his youth and prerace misfortune, Elliott had a built-in excuse for emerging from his first final four without a trophy. Instead, the driver of the No. 9 rolled up his sleeves and smiled…far more worried about his losing the pit box closest to the exit than having no one in his rearview mirror at the start of the race.

“Starting position is great and all, whatever, I feel like from that standpoint, but that pit pick is huge,” Elliott remarked. “That starting position stays with you. It could potentially be done when you leave Turn 2, but that pit pick stays with you until the race is over.”

“The first thing that really kind of stuck in my head was, Dang, are we going to lose that, too? And once I realized we didn’t, I’m like, Okay, if we have our car good and our balance is right, who cares if you start at the back for the race? 312 laps, you know. That’s no excuse to not get the job done if your car is good.”

One thing that NASCAR could not check for was extra nuggets of inspiration. Elliott said in the Phoenix lead-up that he didn’t truly believe in the concept of bulletin board material. Thus, being Chevrolet’s first championship finalist in four seasons didn’t expand the hypothetical speedometer on the No. 9 machine.

But Elliott did say a special boost was waiting for him before lowered his window net before the green flag: a message from Johnson, whose seventh and final title came in 2016, when he likewise had to go the length of the field to earn a championship. Shortly after Elliott ran and led the 312th and final lap of the race, he and Johnson met on track for a high-five from their cars, unable to remember what they were saying due to the noise generated by the pure ecstasy of victory and revving of their respective Hendrick engines. It wasn’t the first time Elliott and Johnson celebrated a debut victory together. After Elliott’s first Cup win at the 2018 Watkins Glen even came through careful fuel management, Johnson’s No. 48 pushed the bone-dry No. 9 back to the front of the grandstands at the start/finish, where the celebration could officially begin.

This time, it wasn’t a push that kept the celebration rolling…it was a hug. Elliott, Johnson, and Hendrick shared a group hug the second the former pair emerged from their cars. With a fifth-place finish, Johnson was the best finisher amongst the non-championship contenders…an honor that was enough for his daughter Evie to tell him that he was also “a winner”. The familial themes were the perfect way to come full circle. One of the most recognizable images of sports in 2020 remains the shot of Ryan Newman being led out of a hospital by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn mere days after the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford endured a horrifying, airborne accident at the end of the Daytona 500.

“The last text message I saw before the race was from Jimmie. And he said, The road to the top…I forget what he said,” Elliott said with a laugh about his final steps into the championship car. “He said something about the road to the top can have some twists in it. I hate you guys are having to start in the back, but you can get it done. That was the last thing I saw before the race.”

“He’s a hero of mine. I think he’ll go down as the greatest to ever do this mess. For that type of guy to be reaching out lending support and genuinely wanting you to do good, hell, what else can you ask for?”

A championship American endeavor completed through teamwork and perseverance? That’s the type of story that everyone in this nation, civilian and politician alike, needs to read in these trying times. 

Alex Bowman, NASCAR
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Hope

One can fully admit that sports fandom is not a matter of life or death, and they rightfully took a backseat on several occasions this year. Yet, the role they can have on one’s psyche cannot be denied…even if it comes through something as simple as letting the folks at home know what day it is.

For some, the reality of the pandemic truly took hold when, one-by-one, sports leagues on both the professional and amateur levels began to shut down. NASCAR held on longer than some of their counterparts, but eventually hit pause hours before a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway was due to begin. Like many organizations, the shutdowns across the country stifled progress in a hopeful outlook. One of the biggest effects of the pause was the fact that NASCAR had to push back the debut of the “Next Gen” racecar by a year, as testing had to be shelved in the wake of lockdowns. The new car is now set to debut at the 2022 Daytona 500.

“What I would say is that on March 8th we were a sport that was coming back,” Phelps noted in reflection during his pre-race statements. “Our ratings had stabilized last year.  Our attendance was going in the correct direction.”

After two weeks of lingering, waiting, NASCAR was the first sport to return to television screens…literally turning to television screens of sorts to get things rolling. On March 22, drivers took the virtual confines of Homestead-Miami Speedway, running a shortened version of the event that was meant to be held that weekend on the iRacing platform.

iRacing had long held a role in NASCAR. Some drivers partook in the program for fun, others opted to use it for testing purposes. This time, it was united in a cause of hope. A new, exciting addition to the NASCAR circuit was well-received by audiences. Through the platform, fans got to see the objects of their modern adoration do battle with iRacing virtuosos and legends of the past who came out of retirement to partake (i.e. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bobby Labonte). The event at Homestead proved so popular that it became a new, temporary circuit of its own, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Lower-budget drivers, who previously accumulated strong hours on the platform got their time to shine. For example, Timmy Hill, driver of the No. 66 Toyota for microbudget squad MBM Motorsports, went to victory lane at a pixelated Texas with an expert bump-and-run on Byron. The series ended with a special event at a recreation of North Wilkesboro Speedway, a North Carolina short track that has fallen into disrepair since running its last NASCAR event in 1996.

Through these races, called by Fox’s lead broadcast team of Gordon and Mike Joy with a perfect blend of seriousness and snark, NASCAR was able to not only stay relevant and provide new content while other sports bided their time through replays of classic events, but to provide hope and assurance to their fans and sponsors. As they enjoyed the virtual proceedings, fans were allowed to sit back, relax, and pretend things were normal again, if only for a short while.

“What a wonderful thing that landed in a world of NASCAR and motorsports’ lap. It is almost like it was built and prepared for this pandemic,” Clint Bowyer said during the summer. “Without it, I don’t honestly know that NASCAR survives and are able to turn the switch back on after we did. Bridging that gap and keeping our sponsors in the limelight under ratings that are competitive with any sport was phenomenal for all of us in the world of motorsports and in particular NASCAR.”

Bowyer partook in the iRacing events and helped Joy and Gordon called the races on Fox. Formerly the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Bowyer announced late in the season that he would step away from racing to join the Fox Sports booth full-time. One thing that will always stand to him will be just how much the sport cares and provides for their fans.

“I enjoy it. I enjoy this sport. I love this sport. I am proud of this sport and proud to be a part of this sport,” Bowyer said. “It has always been fun for me over the years to sell this sport to the fans or whatever the case may be. Having that access to be able to reach a fan in a different way, over the years I have just gone out to the infield and interacted with fans and got to know them and tell our story.”

That love culminated on the weekend of May 17, when conditions were declared safe, though things were a bit different when resumption weekend began at Darlington. The weekend traditions of qualifying, practice, were eliminated. But it assured that there would be no asterisk whatsoever next to a championship title. In fact, one could argue that the lack of preparation, the aforementioned, immediate transition from streetcar to racecar, makes a 2020 championship even more special.

It’s partly why Kevin Harvick’s season will be long-remembered, even with no championship waiting at the end. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won an astonishing nine races, dominating the circuit until hard luck cut his championship trek short in the Round of 8. It may not have ended with a trophy hoist in victory lane, but nonetheless helped Harvick solidify himself as one of the more dominant drivers in the sport’s history.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Unity

The current health crisis has done major damage across the country for months, but another disaster has raged on for centuries: that of systemic racism. America has accomplished much since its founding, developing into a land of prosperity and opportunity, but our country’s promise of liberty and justice for all has gone by the wayside far, far too often.

Ideally, sports could be a realm where real world issues can truly be set aside, but such a luxury has been rendered no longer tolerable in 2020, as ignoring the ongoing reckoning with the dark portions of the past would be to deny the humanity of the athletes that entertain us. As professional and amateur sports alike have made their way back from their respective hiatuses, the biggest names have used their First Amendment right of free speech to advocate for change.

As the first sports to return to action eyes turned to NASCAR in the process, as no one could deny its status as a predominantly white sport. Its roots in the Southeast have caused a vocal minority of naive and immature critics to label the entire fanbase as racist and anti-intellectual. But problems with the sport’s diversity couldn’t be ignored, not only in the scale of the national picture but the narrower personal frame as well. Doing so would’ve been especially difficult when Kyle Larson, one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, used a racist slur during an iRacing event streamed on Twitch. Larson was removed from his high-profile ride at Chip Ganassi Racing after the incident, replaced by retired Cup champion Matt Kenseth.

Larson’s firing was justified, but further incidents of injustice across the nation amplified voices of protestors, turning the attention to NASCAR, one of the few forms of recreation operating. It perhaps would’ve been easy for the circuit to sweep things under the rug, hope for the best, and keep things relegated to racetrack matters. Instead, NASCAR addressed things head-on, making their statement at a moment where most eyes would be watching: right before the start of the race.

Prior to the start of the rescheduled Atlanta event on June 7, Phelps paused the 40 starters at the start/finish line and addressed NASCAR..and the nation…directly.

“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said in a radio message played over the race communication networks and the national TV broadcast. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”

“The time is now to listen, to understand, and to stand against racism and racial injustice.”

NASCAR’s stand was immediately put to the test. Three days after Phelps’ announcement, and hours before a weekday event at Martinsville Speedway, the governing body announced that displays of the Confederate battle flag would no longer be welcome at sanctioned events. The series’ southern roots led to close association with such a flag and many of its flyers claimed it was simply a display of southern pride. NASCAR had previously tried to distance itself from the display by offering a trade-in program that encouraged fans to display an American flag instead.

But this outright ban made it clear that a flag that stood for preserving the institution of slavery and literally cut itself off from the ideals and territory of the United States of America was no longer welcome at their events. With rare exception, drivers understood the flag’s departure.

“For some people, it has different meanings,” Tyler Reddick, rookie drivers of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, acknowledged. “But for those that were affected by it and generations of families that have been through hardships, slavery, all sorts of things, racism, I just don’t feel like there’s a place for it. So, I’m glad to see NASCAR put their foot down and like ‘alright, we didn’t really like it at the track, but we’re not allowing it anymore’. It’s well beyond time and it’s kind of crazy to even think, whether its statues or whatever it is around our country, that we’ve kept these things up as long as we have, considering how much negative meaning that a lot of those statues and things we have around our country meant to people that have been affected by it the most.”

“We need to not allow that banner to be at the racetrack, personally. I don’t really care how you can justify what it means,” Corey LaJoie said in an exclusive interview with ESM. “I think, if anything, you can justify it as being insensitive to people it offends. This might not be a practical analogy, but if my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts and I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, right? Just because it has the possibility to hurt him, physically. If there’s something that I consciously do to offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoy eating peanuts.”

“When it comes to supporting our sport, we need to have everybody feel welcome,” the driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford. “No one should feel offended by anything, no signage, no opinions by anybody. Really, we’re one community trying to entertain people and that’s what we love and what show up 36 weekends a year to do. We don’t want to exclude anybody, we want everybody to feel welcome coming to the NASCAR track.”

The ultimate display, one of the most inspiring, unifying displays in all of sports came at one of the sport’s most prominent, most beloved Southern hubs: Talladega Superspeedway.

Talladega is known for its tight racing, rising tempers, and multi-car get-togethers known as “The Big One”. It seemed only appropriate that the first of two events at the longest track on the circuit came on June 21…the hottest and longest day of the year. But racing activities were overshadowed by an apparent incident, one where a rope tied into a noose was discovered in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the Cup Series circuit. NASCAR immediately called an investigation in cooperation with the FBI, who eventually determined that no hate crime was committed.

But there mere thought of a threat brought the forces of NASCAR unity and brotherhood out in full force.

Prior to the start of the GEICO 500, moved to a Monday, drivers and crews alike walked alongside Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, pushing to the front of the field and stood alongside him during the national anthem and invocation. After prerace ceremonies were completed, each of Wallace’s competitors embraced him individually.

Alex Bowman was one of those drivers. He and Bowman had their prior shares of on-track confrontations, namely during last fall’s tilt at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. Their battle came to a head on pit road when Wallace dumped a bottle of water on an exhausted Bowman at the end of the race.

But when the time came for the series to rally around Wallace, Bowman showed no hesitation whatsoever. He said that such unity was vital in the day and also praised Wallace for his own comments calling for justice and action against systemic racism.”

“I think there’s no secret, we’re not best friends, right? We’ve had our fair share of run-ins and the on-track stuff is just going to happen – tempers are going to flare and if you run into the same guy a couple of weeks in a row here and there, it’s not going to go great for your relationship,” the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said. “But that’s as a racecar driver and that’s on the race track. As a human being, I have a big appreciation for him pushing us all to be better, speaking up and us do the same. It really comes down to, on the race track, we’re probably not going to be friends. But as a person, I appreciate what he’s doing and just wanted to show my support for him.”

True to NASCAR form, the Talladega unity was capped by an incredible show, one that came down to the wire. Ryan Blaney took the race by a .007-second margin at the finish line over Rickey Stenhouse Jr., as the field went six lanes wide in a final push to the finish.

Blaney remains a close friend of Wallace. The two have been racing together since they were 10 years old and are regularly seen commiserating during rain delays through video games. In his postrace statements from Talladega, Blaney made it clear that those who wish Wallace harm would be dealt with swiftly…the display at Talladega served as a de facto reminder.

“I think it’s great that everyone rose up, Bubba included, and really came together,” Blaney said of the prerace demonstration. “I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR. I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore.”

“You may not like each other all the time, may tick each other off on the racetrack from time to time. (But) at the end of the day, we’re going to support each other. What really got me was when we got Bubba’s car to the front there, he had to take a little bit to pause and compose himself because it was a very emotional moment for him. I think it was emotional for him because everyone was supporting him. It’s just something different that I couldn’t personally be a part of because I’ve never been in Bubba’s position, but I’m going to support him the best I can.”

Wallace remained an active voice in the calls for change. His No. 43 scheme at Martinsville bore a message of unity as well as the “#BlackLivesMatter” slogan. The winner of six races at the NASCAR Truck Series level begins a new opportunity next season, as he will headline the newly formed 23XI Racing team under the watch of Cup Series star Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, set to drive a Toyota bearing Jordan’s iconic No. 23.

He acknowledges that while the steps NASCAR has taken have been inspiring, more must be on the horizon.

“I think we just have to get out in our communities and we’ve created a group of us to be leadership at NASCAR as some key drivers to be a part of how we can put action to our words that we’ve been speaking and spreading the gospel,” Wallace said over the summer, acknowledging things might be hard with the confined settings of the pandemic. “Let’s focus on how we can continue to push the message of compassion and understanding and let’s help fight the good fight in what’s going on in the world today. And let’s get new fans out to the race track and encourage our fanbase now to welcome them with open arms and show them a good time. I think that’s one important piece that we can focus on right now.”

For his part, Phelps said that NASCAR is ready to dip further into social issues. Phelps acknowledged that he doesn’t see it as NASCAR getting involved in political matters…rather a human rights battle.

“What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about…human decency,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities. We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally, and socially. We want them to feel part of this community. It’s a fantastic community, it really is.”

I know when I go to a racetrack and I see people who are camping next to each other who are total strangers, that invite each other for a beer, do you want a hot dog, brat, whatever it is, that’s what our community is about.  We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome when they come to those facilities.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Nation

Calling upon NASCAR to solve the problems of a nation whose problems have not been subsided with the end of a bitter election process. Even things in their own house aren’t fully settled: some fans refuse to surrender the Confederate flag hill. Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli announced plans to leave the circuit, his reasons stemming from the ban. 

But the lessons this campaign, the most unusual season in the history of NASCAR, have taught us can truly allow us to begin the healing process.

The 2020 NASCAR season featured so much from a standpoint of perseverance and unity…such a concept ironically coming in the sport where it’s the easiest to social distance. For the record, NASCAR did that pretty well too with the low number of medical absences.

A driver that could’ve well skated by with the sheer number of legendary names attached to his career and dealt with bad luck conquered those weights in tremendous fashion. Perseverance and love came through several further forms of personal triumph: Newman’s relieving walk and Chase Briscoe’s Xfinity Series win at Darlington shortly after being told his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage stood out as well. After his apology, Larson took the next, bigger step through truly educating himself and working toward a better understanding of the consequences and effects of his slur. It was enough to earn a new full-time ride with the defending champion team of Hendrick Motorsports, driving their resurrected No. 5 Chevrolet. Wallace plans to continue to use his voice to amplify cases of change and fighting injustice.

NASCAR took a dire situation and provided a grieving national hope and guidance.

It’s a shame that some refuse to acknowledge the lessons brought forward. But, much like a car fighting for its lap back or navigating through a Big One at Talladega…they’re not going to stop on this drive.

“I would say the biggest thing that I have learned throughout all of this is that when you think something is impossible or are too scared to try, you should try it,” Logano said of the biggest lesson he’ll take away from this season. “Because it is usually not as bad as you make it out to be in your mind. Case in point, a few times this year in this sport. Who would have ever thought that we would go to a road course that we have never raced at before and just line up and race without practice? Are you kidding me? If you say that in January or February this year we would have said you were nuts and we would never ever do that. We have been forced to do things like that.”

“That is just one case in our sport. Imagine all the things that every company is going through right now. Trying to find ways to become profitable again, or at least cover their costs. You have to be creative, you have to think outside the box and you can’t be scared of trying anything. I think that alone is probably the biggest thing I have learned that I can take forward with me for years to come.”

It’s not a full-on solution…but these lessons and more could well be part of the pit stop our country sorely needs.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Championship Preview with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard

Kevin Harvick

As the cup series prepares to say goodbye to a legend and crown a champion this weekend, ESM’s NASCAR experts are here to break it all down and make their championship picks.

Turn 1: Kevin Harvick had been arguably the most dominant driver this season with 9 wins and a regular-season championship. Does him missing the final four say more about a poor stretch of performances in the round of eight or that the playoff format is flawed?

Nathan Solomon: More than anything, it just has to do with two poor performances. Harvick finished second in Kansas and put himself in good position to advance. However, in the round of eight, you can’t finish outside of the top-15 twice and expect to advance to the championship. The new playoff format was designed to give it a similar feel to a baseball or basketball playoff series. In the MLB, if you have a bad series, you won’t advance. A team with 110 wins won’t make it to the World Series if they don’t perform in the series before. That was the case for Harvick in the round of eight, and he, unfortunately, won’t see himself racing for a championship.

Dylan Price: This is a tough question to analyze for me. I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to this dilemma. With 9 wins, Harvick was dominant for the entirety of the regular season, but he was unable to perform up to the level needed in the round of eight in order to make the final four. See, my issue with Harvick being eliminated is that NASCAR is different than other playoffs like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. Yes, the destinations change each week for the playoffs, barring home-field advantage, but with NASCAR, when you go from track to track, it fundamentally changes your racing style.

I would contribute his elimination to his own rut but would say there could be a case made that the drivers like Harvick, who are in this case the #1 seed, should get more of an advantage because playoff points don’t do enough to reward drivers with 9 wins that much more than those with 2 or 3. Still, Harvick, just like high seeded teams that get beat by lower-seeded teams, did not perform up to the level needed to race for a title this weekend, and that is more about his performance over the last 3 weeks than anything else.

Geoff Magliocchetti: If anything, the NASCAR playoffs are a necessary evil, and there may be little malice in the first place. NASCAR needs to find a way to be different, unique, and competitive in the realm of a busy time on the American sports calendar, and the playoffs are the way to do that. To make a long story short, there’s never going to be a system that satisfies each and every fan. No playoffs leaves the threat of a meaningless season finale (as it was in four of the final five playoff-free seasons). Harvick is far from the first dominant driver to be bamboozled by a playoff system. Current contender Brad Keselowski spoke of the 2014 season when his No. 2 won 6 races but failed to earn the championship invite.

Some changes could probably be made…inviting 16 drivers is a tad much…but the case of Harvick (and Austin Hill in the Truck Series, for that matter) is not a make or break factor. The common complaints that the regular-season champion has no immunity to Phoenix only serve as contradictions. Fans who complain that the playoffs are too gimmick-field or manufactured want a way to manufacture a way for the regular-season champ to make it. The beautiful thing about playoff sports is that they’re unpredictable. Even the undefeated Patriots had to work their way to the Super Bowl…one they lost. Changes can be made, but the playoffs should be here to stay.

Turn 2: This Sunday will be the last time that one of the faces of the sport will race in Jimmie Johnson. With the legacy Johnson has left as a 7-time champion, where does he rank amongst the all-time greats of the sport?

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson may go down as the greatest NASCAR racer of all time. If he isn’t the greatest of all-time, he will certainly be in the top five. Regardless of the playoff/chase format, he’s won seven championships, and some people don’t realize how hard that is. He’s won at virtually every track and beaten some of the best in multiple generations of drivers. I’m excited to see how he runs in Indy Car, and I would love to see him run a few races in NASCAR here and there. I feel he may be the next driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 doubleheader, and that’d be really cool to watch. Congrats to Jimmie Johnson on a great career.

Dylan Price: I consider myself lucky to have witnessed Jimmie Johnson and his dominance in my lifetime. I was not alive to witness the greatness of guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but one thing is for certain about Jimmie Johnson, he had the IT factor. They say there is a certain aura around the great ones, and I think that was always felt with Johnson. Now, where does he rank amongst the greats is a separate question. I firmly believe that Johnson is one of the best drivers to grace the series, but is he THE best. I think Johnson is up there with Earnhardt and Petty on the Mount Rushmore of the greats of the sport. That fourth spot is firmly up for debate, but I think that the aura around Johnson is still there even though he has not performed at the highest level in the past years and will be for a long time. Congratulations 7-time, you had an incredible career, and I am excited to see what you do in your next endeavors!

Geoff Magliocchetti: Johnson will go down as a clutch performer and the driver of the playoff era. It hurts to see his last dance end like this…with all due respect to Ally Bank, they’re looking like the Wizards Jordan equivalent of NASCAR…but one can’t forget the sheer dominance we saw from Johnson’s No. 48 week in and week out during his prime. Time will tell if Johnson can ever solidify his face on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, but his accomplishments should not be forgotten. Congrats on a great career, Jimmie, and best wishes to you and your family.

Turn 3: Well, with exits comes the entrances of new drivers and lineup shakeups. So, which driver in a new ride will see the biggest improvement/make the biggest impact next season?

Nathan Solomon: I think it’ll be rookie Chase Briscoe making a big impact in 2021. He’s been insanely dominant in the Xfinity Series this year, winning nine times and the championship favorite this weekend. He’ll be going into a great ride where he’ll have everything he needs to win races right away. I feel that Briscoe will make the playoffs in his first season, pick up a few wins, and even make it as far as the round of eight. He’s incredibly skilled and knows how to win on every type of racetrack. Expect a big rookie season out of Chase Briscoe in 2021.

Dylan Price: Unlike other analysts, I am excited for a returnee in a new place. I do believe Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell are going to excel in their new homes, but I am watching for Kyle Larson. People forget, but before Larson was suspended for his egregious comments, he was a budding face of the sport. Larson was in a mid-level situation with Chip Ganassi racing, and I firmly believe with the resources Hendrick Motorsports can provide that Larson will take the #5 machine to a virtual residency in the playoffs and likely to a few trips in victory lane in the coming years.

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve seen some big moves this Silly Season, but I’m the most intrigued by Ross Chastain moving to the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet. Chastain has never been granted the best equipment but has gone on to have a lucrative career on NASCAR’s lower levels. He’s a driver that earned his keep through on-track endeavors. Frankly, the move to such a big-name Cup ride is well overdue, with Chastain mostly working in low-budget machines. We’ve seen him stick around at places like Daytona and Talladega and run respectably in his lower-tier equipment. With the resources of CGR, Chastain should truly take off.
Turn 4: Lastly, we are down to the final four drivers to decide the championship this Sunday in Phoenix. With Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliot battling for the title, who comes out on top?
Nathan Solomon: I’m going to go with Joey Logano winning his second title in three seasons. He won Phoenix in the spring before the coronavirus outbreak and is coming off a win in the round of eight. Two of his championship competitors, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, haven’t won at Phoenix before, although Denny Hamlin has. However, Hamlin is coming off a rough round of eight, and I just don’t see him turning it around. My prediction is that Kevin Harvick will win the race being that he’s been historically dominant at Phoenix, and Joey Logano will take the title, finishing second. 
Dylan Price: I am a big believer in momentum. Momentum can play more of an impact then things like experience at times, and I think that will show on Sunday. See, where Logano, Keselowski, and Hamlin have experience either winning the big race or being in it for all the marbles, Chase Elliot is the newcomer of the bunch. With 4 wins this year, Elliot has been one of the most consistent racers this year, and I firmly believe he will ride the wave of momentum he had from last Sunday to a championship.
Geoff Magliocchetti: Denny Hamlin gets his first title on Sunday.
King Kevin is gone, and in his wake, the successor is none other than Hamlin. This season has had a bit of an “If not now, when?” feel over in the No. 11 stables. Hamlin has never let off-track issues bother him, but he does appear to be a bit tired of the…well, tired…questions over whether this season is a disappointment without the title at the end. Hamlin has won nearly everything there is to win on a NASCAR Cup Series level, except the titular award at the end. That changes on Sunday in the desert.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview: Bank of America Roval 400 (Charlotte)

The twists and turns of the NASCAR Playoffs descend upon…the twists and turns of Charlotte Motor Speedways’ famous “roval”.

What: Bank of America Roval 400
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, NC
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Watch: NBC

Precipitation has left its mark on sports’ playoff proceedings. Snow has regularly blanketed Green Bay Packers playoff games at Lambeau Field. New York Jets fans are still haunted by their loss in the “Mud Bowl”, where South Floridian rains decimated the Orange Bowl field prior to their 14-0 defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins in the 1983 AFC title game.

Now, rain in North Carolina could have a significant role in how the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture shakes out.

Storms often force NASCAR events to be put on hold, but special rain tires and setups will be on-hand as the premier Cup Series prepares to hold an elimination race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “Roval”…a half-oval, half-road course behemoth featuring 17 turns that have made and broken playoff fortunes. After Sunday’s race, four races will remain on the 2020 Cup Series schedule. Four drivers from the remaining field of a dozen drivers will be eliminated from championship contention, giving way to the Round of 8 that gets underway at Kansas next weekend. Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin have clinched their spots into the next round through prior Round of 12 wins at Las Vegas and Talladega respectively. But six other spots are up for grabs as the season hits its twilight stages.

The potential for rain in the forecast only raises the potential for postseason chaos. Saturday’s Xfinity Series event was run in a storm and featured numerous incidents that shaped their own cutdown from 12 to 8 playoff drivers. Former Cup regular AJ Allmendinger wound up taking the victory.

Aric Almirola is one of the drivers on the outside of the advancement picture. At 48 points out, Almirola more than likely needs to win to keep his championship hopes alive. But he welcomes any form of additional chaos to the Roval setting, feeling confident he can avoid the pandemonium to earn his first win of the season.

“I think for us at this point the more chaos the better. It creates more opportunities and more chances for other people to have bad races and for us to capitalize on that,” said the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in a conference call earlier this week. “Where we’re at in points, if we have a bad race, so what? We are currently not in a position to make it anyway so we have to win. If there is rain or something else that is going to create more chaos and potential for more wrecks and more attrition, then that could potentially work out in our favor.”

The Track

First Cup Series Race: 2018
Length: 2.28 miles (109 laps, 248 miles)
Most Wins: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott (1)

The Roval is contained within the infield of the de facto hub of NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which sits a 20-minute drive away from the Hall of Fame. It contains portions of the traditional oval with the interior turns, its most treacherous being its chicane (a serpentine curve) in the backstretch. It has created an optimum spot for passing, but has also increased the potential for big wrecks.

They Said It

“We all care and I wouldn’t be continuing to go to the race track each and every week and pouring my heart and soul into this and taking time away from my family if I didn’t care. Obviously, there’s M&M’s and Interstate Batteries and Toyota and everybody else on my race car and at Joe Gibbs Racing that supports us that works as hard as they do and my team and my crew chief and all my guys, they don’t spend the time and effort that they do each and every week and all year long for the years that we’ve been together for one of us not to care. That’s tongue in cheek talk and should be known as that coming from me obviously, I say a lot of dumb s***. It is what it is and we’re going to go on into this week and fight like hell and try to make it through.”-Kyle Busch, 21 points from the cutoff, on his previous claim that he “didn’t care” about making the next round. 

“We had a really good season so far. To me, my focus won’t shift to the Round of 8. I’m still going to put in the same amount of work this week getting ready for the Roval as I would if I wasn’t locked in. But certainly, the stress level will be less. Certainly, we can be a little bit more aggressive with our strategy calls starting at the beginning of the race.”-Denny Hamlin on how he’s approaching the Roval 

Three To Watch

Chase Elliott (Starting 2nd)

If anyone was pleased about the inclusion of a record six road courses on the 2021 Cup Series schedule, it was Elliott. His No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been at the top of the leaderboard at the end of the last three road course events, including the most recent Roval event last fall. After a rollercoaster postrace session at Talladega last week…his fifth-place finish was rescinded then retained after possible rules violation…Elliott is relatively safe in the standings (44 points ahead of the cutoff), so he has some extra freedom in terms of strategies to protect his title. The No. 9 has had a strong season as is, but a strong display of power could well come at the Roval. 

Alex Bowman (Starting 5th)

Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate received some big news this week, as he’ll be the lucky driver taking over the iconic No. 48 Chevrolet upon Jimmie Johnson’s retirement at the end of the year. Bowman still has a chance to end his time in his current No. 88 incarnation on a most victorious note. He’s 22 points ahead of elimination and has finished in the top five in each of the first two Roval events (including a runner-up finish behind Elliott last season).

Clint Bowyer (Starting 11th)

Bowyer’s situation is almost a Bizzaro version of Bowman. Earlier this week, Bowyer announced that he be retiring from the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford at the end of the season to join Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage. He’s 38 points from the next round after a tough prior two races, but he likewise is riding a streak of good luck at the Roval, having finished in the top five in each of the first two events (he and Bowman are the only two to do so). Bowyer’s also had considerable success on road courses, having finished no worse than 11th in all but one of the past nine events held on such tracks.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Alex Bowman ready to follow in Jimmie Johnson’s footsteps

A familiar face will take over the iconic No. 48 Chevrolet when Jimmie Johnson moves on after the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Taylor Swift would probably be proud of the recent decision from NASCAR’s Hendrick Motorsports, as what they were looking for was there the whole time.

This week, HMS announced that the No. 48 Chevrolet set to be vacated by Jimmie Johnson will be occupied by his teammate Alex Bowman in 2021. Johnson, a record seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, is set to retire at the end of the 2020 season. He has driven team owner Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 on a full-time basis since 2002.

Ally Financial will be retained as the No. 48’s primary sponsor while Bowman’s crew chief, Greg Ives, will follow him over.

“I’m excited. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Bowman said in a teleconference after the announcement. “My initial reaction was just being excited and honored to drive the No. 48 car. Jimmie’s meant a lot to me throughout my career. Everything he’s done for me, whether it’s being a friend off of the racetrack and just being someone to get advice from or being a great teammate, it’s been awesome to get to work with him and get to know him.”

“To get to drive that car is an honor and I just want to go get it in victory lane and have a lot of fun doing it.”

Bowman, 27, currently drives the No. 88 Chevorlet for HMS. The shift to one of NASCAR’s most iconic rides is part of an incredible racing journey that began on the local short tracks of California and his native Arizona. His success was enough to warrant consideration at NASCAR’s lower levels, including a full-time Cup Series chance with the underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.

His first opportunity with HMS came in the latter stages of 2016. He and another Cup Series/Hendrick legend, four-time champion Jeff Gordon shared pilot duties of the No. 88 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. dealt with concussion issues. Bowman would take over the car full-time in 2018 after a retiring Earnhardt endorsed his takeover.

“I think the biggest thing when it comes down to ‘doing it right’ is to get the 48 back in victory lane, to go win races and contend for a championship” Bowman said. “I feel like we’re very capable of doing that. We’ve done that throughout the year this year, and hopefully we’ll continue to. In the 48 car we’re going to be up front, for sure.”

Johnson took to Twitter to express his approval.

Since then, Bowman has reached the Cup Series playoffs in each of his three seasons behind the wheel. He took home his first career Cup Series win in 2019 at Chicagoland and earned another this season at Fontana back in March, when he led 110 of 200 laps to win the Auto Club 400. Ironically, Johnson’s first win also came at the two-mile track during his rookie season. Bowman currently sits in seven place in the playoff standings, 22 points ahead of the cutoff to the Round of 8. The Round of 12 drivers ends on Sunday afternoon at the Bank of America Roval 400 in Charlotte (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

The move more or less amounts to Bowman’s No. 88 team rebranding as the 48. HMS still plans to run four cars next season, but it’s not clear who will drive the vacated 88 next season. Speculation has persisted that the car will revert to one of Hendrick’s former brandings like the Nos. 5 or 25. Terry Labonte drove the No. 5 to the Cup Series championship in 1996 and the number was last used by Kasey Kahne in 2017. Hendrick’s No. 25 has not raced on a full-time basis since 2007 with Casey Mears behind the wheel. It has since made brief appearances as a part-time car, hosting the Cup Series debuts of current stars Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott (who remains in the HMS stable in the No. 9 Chevrolet).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

Is now the right time for a Kyle Larson return?

Kyle Larson has been out of the NASCAR Cup Series since he used a racial slur in an IRacing event in April. Since then, Larson has been racing dirt and rebuilding his image. Everyone knows he was a successful driver. Larson has been to victory lane six times and was the 2019 All-Star Race winner. Along with a 2014 Rookie of the Year, Larson has the best resume of any free agent available. The thing is, is now the right time for Larson to return?

Will He?

Just a few days ago reports emerged that Kyle Larson was spotted meeting with Chevrolet executives in Philadelphia. The consensus is that Larson needs to repair relations with Chevy and NASCAR before he’d be cleared to sign with a team. He has already begun working on it with Chevy and it’s expected if he inks a deal, NASCAR would allow it.

The 28-year-old is one of the highest potential young drivers in the sport, and prior to his obscene language incident, one of the emerging stars of the sport. For a team to take a chance on him based on his previous success and popularity would make complete sense. The only thing that would hold teams back would be his reputation.

Yes, the slur used by Larson wasn’t okay by any means, but the situation fell into the laps of the sports media at a time when sports weren’t on the television. Networks and shows that would typically give very little if any time to a situation like this in the NASCAR world gave it a huge amount of spotlight. Analysts called for NASCAR to move swiftly and they did, getting Larson out of the sport.

Now, you can make the case the sport moved way too quickly on the decision and didn’t wait for things to settle down before re-evaluating Larson. Still, you can see how in a time of such social unrest, his comments as a face of the sport held immense weight.

When Could He Be Back?

Now, a few months later, Larson has had time to reflect and make a change. He’s begun to rebuild his image and now may be the prime time for him to do so. With Hendrick Motorsports looking for a talented and proven driver to fill Jimmie Johnson’s shoes, Larson sticks out amongst the pack. Compared to Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, and other rumored targets, Kyle Larson is clearly the most talented. Larson is a proven contender in the sport and from a racing perspective is the perfect replacement for a legend.

 Sponsors need to sign on to represent a driver who would stand as a reflection of the companies image. The only reason I could think of for Hendrick not naming a driver yet is that they’re jumping over those hurdles. I personally expect to see Larson be tabbed as the next driver for Hendrick. 

NASCAR “Silly Season” Predictions

With what NASCAR refers to as its “silly season” rapidly approaching, it’s time to make predictions on where the top drivers in the sport will be running in 2021. These are just some of my initial big predictions/thoughts, but things will change rapidly once the 48 machine’s new driver is announced.

Bubba Wallace to Hendrick Motorsports (#88)

Let’s start this one out with a bang; everyone wants to know who will replace Jimmie Johnson? Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, and Corey Lajoie were all viewed as contenders for this ride, but one guy stood out above the rest, Bubba Wallace. In no way is Bubba more talented than any of those four drivers. He is more marketable, though, and he is currently one of the biggest stars in the sport with his social justice stances. Bubba would bring an influx of sponsorship and notoriety with him to Hendrick, and it would make sense to add him. Though, I think Alex Bowman takes the prestigious 48 because of his success and fit within Hendrick Motorsports, and Bubba takes the ride known for one of the most marketable drivers in the history of the sport.

Erik Jones to Chip Ganassi Racing (#42)

Jones has a chance to lock this ride down rather quickly. Jones has been an inconsistent driver at the top level, but when he is on, he is very competitive. As a former winner and consistent playoff fixture, he fits the bill of what the team looks for in its drivers. Jones could easily be the guy to lock down the 48, but more than likely, he goes to a spot where he can stay competitive and partner up with a legend, Kurt Busch.

Chase Briscoe to Stewart Haas Racing (#14)

Briscoe’s scenario is a tough one. I could see him sticking in Xfinity for another year, but, let’s be honest, he is ready for the cup. Briscoe has been a force to be reckoned with all season and is ready for top-level competition. His racing style is eerily similar to that of Tony Stewart, and that would be poetic for him to pilot his old number. If Briscoe doesn’t land here, watch out for Kyle Larson.

Corey Lajoie to Richard Petty Motorsports (#43)

This ride is similar to the Hendrick scenario. Marketability wins, and that’s evident with Lajoie. Lajoie is a rising star who deserves a shot with better machinery. RPM isn’t a top tier team, but Lajoie could open some eyes and get to learn from the King, so it would be a no brainer for him. As for RPM, Daniel Suarez could be the guy here if Lajoie doesn’t get it.

Clint Bowyer to Fox Sports

This one is something I see truly brewing. Bowyer got to do some more commentary work progressively over the past few seasons. He has been phenomenal. The knowledge he has, combined with the comedic timing he holds, makes him a tour de force in the booth. He and Gordon have great chemistry, and he could slot in with Mike Joy and him to form an entertaining booth for the long term future.

Kyle Larson to Go Fas Racing (#32)

This one is a little strange. Larson seems like a way too talented driver for this ride on the surface, but if you dive into it, it makes sense. With Aric Almirola needing another big year next year to keep the ten car, and potentially openings emerging next year, Larson could take his shot to get back in the sport at a lower-tier team for a year. Go Fas Racing is a partner of Stewart Haas, and maybe this is how Larson can quietly reacclimatize to the sport without controversy and be groomed for a ride at SHR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags