NASCAR: Alex Bowman wins at Martinsville as Championship 4 is set

Martinsville’s chaos stages a championship battle between Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing at NASCAR’s 2021 finale next weekend.

Hendrick Motorsports won Martinsville’s battle. But Joe Gibbs Racing has a chance to win Phoenix’s war.

Alex Bowman of the No. 48 HMS Chevrolet crashed the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff party at Martinsville Speedway’s Xfinity 500 on Sunday afternoon. Bowman’s fourth victory of the season came with a hint of controversy, as his winning move made contact with Denny Hamlin, sending the latter’s No. 11 Gibbs Toyota spinning into the wall with seven circuits remaining in the 50-lap event. The late incident required a two-lap overtime finish, which saw Bowman hold off a furious push from Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, each of whom needed to win to advance to the final four.

Hamlin nonetheless clinched a spot in the Cup Series’ Championship 4, an illustrious quartet that will race for a title at Phoenix Raceway in next Sunday’s season finale (3 p.m. ET, NBC). He’ll be joined by JGR teammate and 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr., who overcame late damage to his No. 19 Toyota to finish fourth and clinch his own spot.

HMS Chevrolets account for the rest of the group: defending series champion Chase Elliott finished 16th after contact with Keselowski but made it in through victories over the first two race stages. Kyle Larson (14th) had already clinched his Phoenix ticket with wins at the first two Round of 8 races at Texas and Kansas.

Hamlin was visibly displeased with Bowman, menacingly driving up to him as the No. 48 engaged in its victory burnout. He later called Bowman a “hack” in his postrace interview with NBC Sports.

The eliminated Busch and Keselowski finished second and third respectively while another Hendrick Chevy, the No. 24 of William Byron, rounded out the top five. Busch finished three points short of advancement Keselowski’s Team Penske teammates Joey Logano (10th) and Ryan Blaney (11th) likewise saw their championship dreams end.

The Greatest Showman

Bowman was eliminated after the Round of 12, as his postseason output has been tough to bear. Entering Sunday’s event, Bowman had only one top-five finish over the first eight playoff races (fifth at Bristol) and led only a single lap in that span,

This Martinsville triumph allowed him to cap off his first season piloting the legendary No. 48 car on the right note. Behind the wheel of the ride Jimmie Johnson drove to seven Cup Series titles, Bowman has earned career-bests in nearly every major stat category, primarily his aforementioned win total (he had two wins entering the 2021 season).

“These last couple of months have been painful. It’s been so frustrating,” Bowman admitted. “Honestly, our teammates have kicked our butts for quite a while now. I think Greg and myself have both been pretty down and frustrated…We weren’t doing things any differently. We weren’t approaching weekends differently. We just have been off.”

“To come to a place that was probably our worst place when we started together, have such a good day, get another win, it feels great,” he continued. “Obviously, four wins this year feels great. Wish we were in the Round of 4. We just need to figure out consistency and this team will be something really, really special.”

Bowman ran behind his teammates over the first 130-lap stages, finishing in the runner-up spot to Elliott in the latter. He lingered near the front during the third stage, the only delay coming on a slow pit stop when the leaders pitted at lap 380 during a caution induced by Daniel Suarez’s spin. The No. 48 quickly worked its way back up and competed with Hamlin for the win over the final stages.

Bowman continued to insist that the contact with Hamlin was nothing intentional during his postrace availability.

“I hate that we got into the 11,” Bowman said. “I just got underneath him and spun him out. I’d be mad, too. I get it. But he’s been on the other side of that enough to understand.”

“I understand why he’s mad. I’d be mad, too. I drove off into the corner, got loose, spun him out. At the same time, I didn’t do it on purpose. If I did, I’d tell you. That’s part of it.”

Team FedEx Fed Up

The incident with Bowman capped off an eventful afternoon for Hamlin: the No. 11 had to start from the rear after multiple inspection failures and was denied points on the first stage after he was caught speeding on pit road. He would rally back to take the lead at lap 389 from his teammate Truex and managed to keep it when the leaders pitted 56 circuits later during a caution for Austin Dillon’s encounter with the wall.

Alas for Hamlin, a third win was not to be but he managed to build a points cushion sizable enough to push him into the Championship 4 for the third straight season. But his postrace comments and display have stolen the headlines as the series moves on to the desert.

“He’s just a hack. Just an absolute hack,” Hamlin said of Bowman in the publicized interview with NBC. “He gets his (butt) kicked by his teammates every week. He’s (expletive) terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it.”

“We had a good, clean race. I moved up as high as I could on the racetrack to give him all the room I could, he still can’t drive.”

Yet another championship opportunity awaits Hamlin at Phoenix, as a Cup Series title hoist is perhaps the one thing missing from his NASCAR career. His 46 wins are second-most in Cup Series history amongst drivers without a championship (behind only Junior Johnson’s 50).

Martin’s Ville

Hamlin won’t be alone as he returns to the championship circuit, as he’s joined by Truex after a gutsy run in the No. 19. The Mayetta, NJ native ran near the front for most of the afternoon but went through an absolute rollercoaster over the last 150 laps.

Truex’s Camry slightly overheated before he took the lead from Dillon at lap 386. After losing the top spot to Hamlin, he held a consistent lead on the battle for fourth but contact with Byron damaged his left front corner. Further contact with Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch shot him up the track at lap 471, but a surplus of lead lap cars prevented him from coming to pit road. His damaged No. 19 managed to maintain a spot in the top five, giving him just enough points to send Keselowski and Kyle Busch home.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do other than drive,” Truex said of his approach to the final portions. “Thinking about it, worrying about it doesn’t do you any good. You just got to try to go, hit your marks, get the most out of your race car. Luckily, we were able to do that.”

Up Next

The Cup Series’ season finale returns to Phoenix for the second consecutive season after nearly two decades at Homestead-Miami. Elliott led 153 laps after starting from the back to capture his first Cup Series title and finished fifth in this season’s first desert outing back in March. Truex took home the victory in that race after leading the last 25 laps while Hamlin is one of five active drivers with multiple wins at the track, visiting victory lane in 2012 and 2019.

For full results, click HERE

For full standings, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Joe Gibbs Racing

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

2020 in Review

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

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

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

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

Meet the Drivers

Denny Hamlin

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Busch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Truex Jr. 

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

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

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

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

Christopher Bell

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

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

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

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

Outlook

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Denny Hamlin

Hamlin’s NASCAR championship moment has yet to arrive. Set to enter a new world of team ownership, will it finally be delivered on Sunday?

Enough has been said and written about how the year 2020 has been tough. Sports have done their part to ease the blow while trying to play a role in the changes the year’s sense of reckoning has brought to us. The championships the respective seasons have offered to us have provided their share of inspiring moments, particularly in well-deserving veterans earning their first championships. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble. Los Angeles athletes old (Clayton Kershaw) and new (Anthony Davis) brought the World Series and NBA Finals’ prizes back to the west coast.

Denny Hamlin could well be the next belvoed veteran to hoist a long-sough championship trophy at the NASCAR Cup Series’ Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Hamlin has been a Cup Series staple since 2005. Right from the get-go, it was clear that he was going to a force to be reckoned with on the premier circuit. A midseason replacement in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11, Hamlin earned three top-ten finishes in his first six career races. In his first full-time season, he was the first rookie to qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs (then known as the Chase for the Nextel Cup) and came home third.

Since then, he and the No. 11 team have accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish on the Cup Series level. He owns three victories in the iconic Daytona 500, including the most recent pair, and has been a playoff driver in all but one of his full-time seasons (the exception being an injury-shortened campaign in 2013). He even dominated the virtual Cup circuit, winning two races in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series held during the COVID-19-induced pause.

All that’s missing is an elusive Cup Series championship. We on the east coast know all about superstars earning all but that final trophy hoist. Rangers fans recently had to bid farewell to Henrik Lundqvist with a Stanley Cup celebration. Patrick Ewing came up short in a 1994 NBA Finals visit (missing another five years later due to injury).

It’s cruelly ironic that it seems like the more that Hamlin has accomplished, the more questions he has had to field about the vacancy in his trophy case. 2020 has truly been one for the ages when it comes to Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota team and missing out on this title would undoubredly sting. Seven races have ended with Hamlin in victory lane, second-best on the circuit to only Kevin Harvick’s nine. True to the “everything but a title” trope, Hamlin has come tantalizingly, deservedly close to a championship, only to be denied by misfortune or forces beyond his control. He won a season-best eight races and finished no worse than 12th over the first nine playoff races, but contact in the Homestead-Miami-based finale with Greg Biffle caused a spin that relegated him to a 14th-place finish. Jimmie Johnson went home in the runner-up spot, giving him enough points to overtake Hamlin for the title.

But Hamlin wants to make it clear: he believes that this 2020 season was a success no matter what happens on Sunday.

“It’s not whether you win this weekend or not,” Hamlin said earlier this week. “The championship is not necessarily an indicative measuring stick of your whole year. If you get to the final four, that is a measuring stick that you’ve had a successful year.”

“This is going to be a great weekend that we’re going to live with the result no matter what it is, and I just want to enjoy it and have fun with it.
It’s different, but we’ve adapted all year. It won’t hurt us to adapt for one more week.”

Hamlin further stressed that an appearance in the championship quartet is no cause for disappointment. This is the fourth time he has appeared in the group since elimination rounds were introduced to the postseason in 2014. That includes the two most recent editions, though Hamlin has been relegated to fourth each time.

“Certainly, I believe that there’s validity in saying that a Championship 4 appearance is a successful season. I know that it’s our goal for our 11 car when we put on the chalkboard of what we need to get done this year, it’s always make to it to the Final Four. It’s never win a championship. It used to be win a championship because you had to put all those other pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship because it was a 35, 36‑week body of work.”

“When you get to the Final Four, it means, okay, you’re in the top 16, you’ve made it through the rounds…It’s a very worthy four, but certainly, I think that our goal is always to make the Final Four. It’s never to actually win the championship.”

On the NASCAR circuit, Hamlin does have some strong company. Some have compared him to long-time racer Mark Martin, who came home in the Cup Series standings’ runner-up spot on five occasions. Hamlin moved passed Martin on the all-time Cup wins list with his 41st career Cup victory at Pocono Raceway back in June. In that same race, Hamlin joined Jeff Gordon as the only six-time winner in Long Pond.

True to this form of acceptance and determination, Hamlin sees any comparison to Martin, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, only as a compliment.

“I never would consider any comparison to Mark Martin an insult,” he said. “I’ll take those comparisons all day because the guy is a badass race car driver that nobody wanted to face week in and week ou. Nobody, not Dale Earnhardt, nobody wanted to face Mark Martin”

“I get it, (championships are) very, very important. It’s where I’m at the sport’s highest level, most people gauge your success level or how good you are off of championships, but I also know that my competitors will probably say that I’m one of the toughest competitors and toughest guys to beat and that’s all I really care about is having the respect of them and knowing that week in and week out I can go and compete for race wins, and knowing that over the last two years, ain’t nobody won any more. I like where I’m at.”

Hamlin is instead pleased to focus on team accomplishments that have put him back in the ranks of NASCAR’s elite. It starts at the top of the pit box under the oversight of crew chief Chris Gabehart, who previously oversaw victorious JGR efforts at the Xfinity level. Since he and Hamlin joined forces last season, the two have combined for 13 wins.

One of those races was the Phoenix event last season, when the track in the desert held the penultimate date on the Cup Series schedule. In dire need of a win…he was 20 points behind the points-based cutoff at the start of the afternoon…Hamlin would go on to lead all but four of the final 136 laps to earn a victory, beating out fellow Gibbs competitor Kyle Busch.

Things are a little different for Hamlin and the field, considering that there will be no qualifying or practice in the leadup to the Phoenix race. But the confidence his team has instilled in him has provided plenty of faith in what could go down as one of the biggest race of his career.

“I know that our team was capable of (last year’s Phoenix race),” Hamling said. “It was like, wow, they needed to bring it and they brought it, and I have no doubt that this weekend will be no different, that every effort will be put on us as there was last year when we had to lock ourselves in.”

“It’s a little different this year in the Final Four being that all the resources within JGR we’ve got working on our race car and focusing on our race car. Yeah, it’s encouraging for me to especially go to a track that we had to win last year and got it done to again this year having to win to get it done.”

No matter what happens on Sunday, it feels like the end of an era for Hamlin in the sense that the Phoenix race will be his final event solely as a driver. Next year, Hamlin begins an ambitious endeavor through the world of team ownership, uniting with NBA legend Michael Jordan to form a new team, 23XI Racing. Bubba Wallace will drive the team’s debut vehicle, a Toyota branded with Jordan’s famous No. 23.

Don’t let Hamlin’s satisfaction with a final four appearance fool you, though. He knows what a championship can do for his legacy, how it can firmly entrench him in NASCAR’s ultimate elite. With Harvick gone, Hamlin and his dominant season have a chance to win what’s perhaps the ultimate Cup Series title, one where chances for on-track adjustments are few and far between. The possibility just may be enough for Hamlin to go full-Last Dance Jordan…and take things personally.

“I’ve had so many failures that it’s created a logbook of things that I need to be aware of this time around. Certainly I believe that there’s something to being older and the mental side of things and having that advantage,” he said. “I just want to work hard and make sure that I’m as informed as I possibly can be, be prepared for anything that gets thrown my way, and as you get older, you learn to identify mistakes that you made in the past that you now need to account for when you are working towards being a champion.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NBA Icon and NASCAR Star Pair To Buy New NASCAR Team For Bubba Wallace

NBA legend and arguably the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan and current NASCAR star, Denny Hamlin, have partnered to purchase a charter for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season and beyond. The charter belonged to Germain Racing, the current owners of the #13 GEICO machine driven by Ty Dillon. Jordan and Hamlin have immediately signed Bubba Wallace Jr. to be their driver for the foreseeable future as well.

The manufacturer and car number are yet to be announced, but one could assume the #23 is the favorite. As for sponsors, the new team will inherit Door Dash, Columbia Sports Wear, and McDonald’s, among other big-time sponsors that Bubba has added throughout the season. The team could also be sponsored by the Jordan brand or Nike itself. Michael Jordan will serve as the principal owner so that Hamlin can continue piloting the #11 machine.

This is what new owner and NBA Icon Michael Jordan said about his new team:

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters & me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life. The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership w/my friend, Denny Hamlin, & to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting.”

Jordan went on to talk about he and Hamlin’s unique bond and how it’s grown over the years. They also both hit on the potential of both Bubba as a driver and as a future star of the sport. Not only that, but they talked about the opportunity this will provide for the sport to bring in a brand new fan base.

Congratulations to Hamlin, Jordan, and Bubba on the deal. I’m incredibly excited to see this team develop and to see the audience expand as the sport itself diversifies.

NASCAR: Red hot Martin Truex Jr. seeks a bigger impact

Nobody in NASCAR is making a bigger current impact than Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Toyota…on and off the track.

Even the most casual NASCAR fan is likely familiar with the axiom “if you ain’t first, you’re last”, the catchphrase of Will Ferrell’s titular character from the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Martin Truex Jr. is at least partially defying that trope as he works his way through the final stages of the premier Cup Series’ regular season.

The tradition of posing the top three race finishers on a podium has rarely made it to NASCAR…that’s probably for the best these days with social distancing still necessary…but if they did exist, the footprints of the Mayetta Township, NJ native would perhaps be etched into the platform. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished in either second or third place in eight of the last nine races. That streak continued last weekend, as Truex was the silver-medalist in both halves of a Saturday/Sunday doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.

“It has definitely been good to run right out front, be running top three,” Truex said after the race on Sunday. “That’s where you need to be running to make your way through the playoffs.”

The Cup Series’ regular season ends in grand fashion on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the iconic superspeedway, known for producing surprise winners, will host the final lead-in to the 16-driver playoff.

Truex doesn’t have to worry about his invitation to the postseason, as the win at Martinsville allows him to compete for the seventh consecutive season. Still, once the playoffs start at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend, an extra win may come in for the No. 19 squad. Recent events have allowed Truex to surge to fourth place in the standings, but, with only a single win to his name, he will own the sixth seed once the playoffs begin. The NASCAR playoff system affords five extra points for each win and one more for every stage triumph. Truex has earned seven such points, which would place him 11 points ahead of the first cutoff. Drivers placed 13th through 16th after the first three playoff races will be eliminated from championship contention.

If anyone knows about the importance of postseason bonus points, it’s Truex. His 2017 Cup Series title, won when he was driving the No. 78 Toyota for the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing, began with a 48-point advantage over the original cutoff thanks to a plethora of wins, stage wins, and the regular-season title. It was the biggest advantage for a regular-season points leader until current point leader Kevin Harvick set himself up with a 54-point lead after his seventh win of the season on Sunday. That tally might only increase depending on how things go at Daytona.

“Obviously, we wish we could have won a few more,” Truex said. “Our bonus point situation isn’t the greatest, and that’s something that we’ve really been working hard on trying to get some more here lately. Just seems like we’re always just right there second or third.”

“Overall it was good. It’s good momentum. It’s good to be consistent. We’ve just got to keep working to find a little bit more.”

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

This unusual season is Truex’s second in a Gibbs Toyota after FRR shut down due to financial woes. While many employees from the No. 78 came over with Truex, his championship crew chief, Cole Pearn, left to pursue other opportunities in auto racing, including a role as a pit road analyst on NASCAR.com. In Pearn’s place went James Small, who served as an engineer on prior Truex endeavors. But, save for a brief two-race stint on Erik Jones’ No. 77 during FRR’s heyday in 2017, Small had never been a crew chief at any of NASCAR’s national levels.

Truex himself admitted prior to the All-Star Race exhibition last month that he “didn’t know we’re where we want to be”, the challenge of a new crew chief only exacerbated by the lack of practice and qualifying in an attempt to trim race weekends down to single-day endeavors. But the past few races have built a strong rapport in the No. 19 garage, one that will be exceptionally dangerous come playoff time.

“He’s doing a great job,” Truex said of Small.  “I think for his first year, he’s doing good and making good decisions.  I think the biggest thing is leading the team, and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.  It’s not just how fast is our car going and how are our finishes and how many races have we won and all that.  There’s a lot behind the scenes going on there.”

“All the guys really have a lot of respect for him, all the team guys, and the guys working on the cars and mechanics and everything,” Truex continued. “He gets along well with all the other crew chiefs. So all those little things.  He really fits in well, I think, and does a good job. Again, he’s really similar to Cole, I think, and obviously learned a lot from him and has been around him a long time. I think he’s done a really fine job, and I think for us, the communication is going well and we’re on the same page.”

Even if Truex hasn’t left the impact he has desired to leave in the winner’s circle, he’s going on to leave a huge impact off the asphalt.

Prior to Sunday’s race, Truex’s self-named foundation announced a partnership with The NASCAR Foundation that will raise money for cancer research. Fans will have the opportunity to bid for a spot to nominate a “cancer hero” to appear on a car across NASCAR’s three national series. Suggested nominees have been described in a release as “a childhood or ovarian cancer champion or a medical provider who made a difference during a cancer patients’ battle”. Over 40 drivers have agreed to partake in the endeavor, with bidding running through September 1.

The charitable endeavor hits close to home for Truex. His girlfriend Sherry was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer in 2014. The two have been together since 2005 and formed the foundation two years later, during his days driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“I’m really proud of it and I’m really proud of the idea that the girls came up with it at our foundation,” he said. “It’s been a tough year for us fundraising, and with COVID and all that’s gone on, our big fundraiser of the year had to get canceled. It’s been a bit of a challenge to try to raise money to continue helping all the great people that we’ve been able to have partnerships with and things.”

“I’m really excited about this thanks to NASCAR for teaming up with us and allowing us to do this, and obviously all the teams that have so far agreed to do this…just really proud to be able to do this and continue to help raise money for women and children battling cancer.”

Further information on the Nominate a Cancer Hero Program can be found here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin wins first half of Dover doubleheader

Denny Hamlin passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps to go to take the first half over a doubleheader in Delaware.

In what he certainly hopes is a sign of things to come for the looming postseason, Denny Hamlin not only bested his teammates from Joe Gibbs Racing but outliers from Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports as well.

Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota passed the No. 19 of comrade Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps to go in the first half of a doubleheader at Dover International Speedway. Eight laps around the establishment known as “The Monster Mile” later, Hamlin took home his NASCAR Cup Series best sixth victory of the season, winning the first of two races labeled the Drydene 311. The mile-long track is hosting a pair of 311-lap races as NASCAR continues to play out its full season sets across its national series.

With the win, his first in 29 tries at Dover, Hamlin is tied with Kevin Harvick for the most on the premiere Cup circuit this season. Two races remain before the Cup Series playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway on September 6.

I’m thinking about playoff points to be honest with you,” Hamlin said after the race. “Even though everyone would say, ‘We’re a lock, it’s not a lock’, I’ve had such crazy (stuff) happen to me in these Playoffs during the course of my career, I don’t want to take any chances. I just want to lock in all the Playoff points I can possibly get and get to Phoenix and give myself a shot.” 

Though Harvick is set to clinch the regular season title, Hamlin is set to serve as the second seed thanks to his accumulated wins and stage victories.

Hamlin began the day on the front row thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula. The process has eschewed the random draw for a performance-based setup accounting for speed and finishes in the prior race, as well as placement in the standings. He missed out on leading the opening laps thanks to a strong opening from polesitter Chase Elliott, who won the inaugural Cup race on the Daytona road course last weekend.

Unperturbed by a crash on the sixth lap that ended the day of Kurt Busch, Elliott led until a competition caution came out at the 25th circuit. Hamlin beat Elliott off pit road and took his first lead of the day at lap 71, passing Austin Dillon (who opted not to pit at the competition pause).

After leading the next 78, Hamling returned to the lead at lap 161, passing a desperate William Byron hoping for a caution. Hamlin won each of the first two stages of the race, giving him a series-best seven this season.

With lead laps retreating to pit road after the second stage, Truex emerged as the leader at lap 189, only relinquishing it for his final stop of the afternoon at lap 254. Truex held the lead as that cycle ended, but his teammate Hamlin was able to catch up with him and make the fateful pass for the win. It’s his 43rd visit to victory lane since his Cup career began in 2006 and he also matches his win total from all of last season. He’s the first driver to win at least six races in consecutive years since Jimmie Johnson did so four times (2007-10).

Hamlin is perhaps finding his groove at the perfect time with the regular season dwindling down. He has now finished either first or second in five of the last six races. Truex has likewise been a mainstay at the top of the leaderboard, as Saturday marked his sixth straight finish in the top three.

I knew this would be a good day for JGR,” Hamlin said. “My teammates, I think, are the best two drivers at this racetrack. We’ve started to see some light at the end of the tunnel for us. I think Kansas was a good sign, a lot of our cars in the top five there.  We went to Michigan and had three of our cars in the top five. We’ve been trending better and better as an organization for the last month or so. I knew today was going to be a good day for JGR. Obviously the results showed that.”

Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas rounded out the top three with Kyle Busch’s No. 18 in third. Harvick finished fourth while Elliott recovered from early contact with Clint Bowyer to come home fifth.

The second half of the Drydene 311 will be run tomorrow afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN) before the regular season wraps up on Daytona’s traditional oval next weekend.

Race Notes

  • With a seventh-place finish, Jimmie Johnson took over the 16th and final playoff spot from his teammate Byron, whose plan to stay out backfired in the form of a posting in 28th. Johnson, Dover’s all-time leader in wins with 11, leads Byron by three points with two races to go. Winless drivers can clinch a spot in the playoffs with a victory in either of the next two races.

 

  • With the top 20 for Sunday’s field set via inversion of Saturday’s final running order, 20th-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto will start on the pole. DiBenedetto is currently in the playoff field’s 15th seed, leading Byron on 27 points. Ryan Newman (19th) will start alongside him on the front row.

 

  • Forced to retire his No. 1 Chevrolet after just six laps, Kurt Busch failed to finish a race for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

 

  • This weekend marks the final doubleheader on the Cup Series schedule. The lower-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series is also holding a Saturday-Sunday twin bill, with Justin Allgaier winning the former event, clocking in at 200 miles, prior to the Cup race.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags