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

How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Joey Logano wins historic dirt race at Bristol

Joey Logano held off off a final push from Denny Hamlin to win the NASCAR Cup Series first race on dirt in over five decades.

Joey Logano came out clean at the end of the first NASCAR Cup Series run on dirt in 51 years.

The No. 22 Team Penske Ford led the final 61 laps en route to victory at the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished second, while Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.

Bristol’s dirt endeavor, the first NASCAR Cup Series event held on dirt since 1970, was pushed back from Sunday to Monday after inclement weather flooded the parking lot and rendered the track inoperable. Thanks to a strong effort from the BMS crew, both the Cup and Camping World Truck Series were able to run their full events without issues.

Unlike several of his Cup peers, Logano did not run the Trucks race, instead calling the race for Fox Sports 1. Despite limited dirt experience, he was able to stay toward the front for a good portion of the day after starting 10th. He took care of business after the first 100-lap stage through a sixth-place finish while the Truck race winner Martin Truex Jr. dominated.

Logano first took the lead at lap 170 of 250, passing the upstart Suarez in the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet. He would go on to beat out Suarez for the stage two win before a ten-minute break commenced. By then, the middle stage of the race had thrown a new obstacle for the drivers: the return of single-file restarts, which hadn’t been seen on the Cup circuit since 2009. Early runs in the second stage were quickly stopped by multi-car get-togethers that damaged the cars of several contenders, including Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney.

With the track moistened for the final 50-lap stage, Logano held the lead despite a strong push from Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Mike Marlar’s spin just five laps from the checkered flag set up a two-lap overtime finish, but Logano was able to keep Hamlin and a charging Stenhouse behind him. Stenhouse had worked his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet up from eighth over the final 30 laps to secure his fifth career runner-up finish at Bristol.

Logano is the seventh different winner in seven different events to open the 2021 season, the first time the Cup Series has had seven unique winners to start since 2014. The series will go on hiatus during Easter weekend before returning for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Dirt track veterans and Cup regulars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell saw their days end on a wreck at lap 53, an incident that also took out Ross Chastain.

 

  • Truex dominated the Truck event earlier in the day, leading 105 of 150 laps and sweeping each stage in a Toyota Tundra owned by Kyle Busch. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was running in the top five at the end of the race, but lost a tire late and was relegated to 19th.

 

  • Another early incident involved Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Almirola failed to finish for the third time this season, matching his DNF total from all of last year. That wreck also ended the days of Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and Shane Golobic (a dirt veteran driving B.J. McLeod’s No. 78).

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s top ten run was ended after contact with Stenhouse created a tire rub that sent him spinning with 34 laps to go. Forced to pit road and unaided by a caution and finished 27th.

 

  • Suarez set a new career-high with 58 laps and earned his first top-five finish since November 2019 (Texas). Monday marked the seventh race for Trackhouse, which is led by owner, recording artist, and philanthropist Pitbull.

 

  • Newman survived an early spin (one that forced Kevin Harvick into rookie teammate Briscoe) to earn his first top five since October 2019 (Talladega).

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch for this weekend in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube

The NASCAR Cup Series begins their two-race West Coast swing on Sunday, stopping in Las Vegas for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube. Sunday’s event will be 267 laps around the 1.5 mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the second intermediate track of the season. Here are three drivers to watch:

Matt DiBenedetto

There’s no other way to say it, but Matt DiBenedetto has gotten off to a horrific start in 2021. DiBenedetto sits 34th in the standings with just 14 points earned through three races.

However, DiBenedetto has a great chance to turn his misfortunes around this weekend. Last season, DiBenedetto finished 2nd in both Las Vegas races, as Fords have run strong there the past few seasons. With DiBenedetto far behind in points and looking for a new ride next season, he must have a strong run this weekend. He also has the chance to win his first race, something that would be career-changing.

Joey Logano

Joey Logano has gotten off to a solid start in 2021. He’s registered 14th, 2nd, and 25th place finishes to open up his 13th full-time season. Logano’s accumulated a lot of stage points in the first two races of the season, putting him 3rd in points.

A win this weekend would be Logano’s third straight in the Las Vegas spring race. He’s placed in the top-5 six times over his career, meaning he’s shown to consistently run up front there. With a victory, Logano would punch his ticket to the playoffs and potentially assume first place in the standings.

Martin Truex Jr.

They don’t call him mile and a half Martin for no reason.

Over the past seven seasons, Martin Truex Jr. has been one of the strongest on the NASCAR circuit at intermediate tracks. 16 of his 27 Cup Series wins have come on intermediate tracks, including two wins at Las Vegas.

Coming into this weekend, Truex Jr. sits ninth in points after a 3rd place finish at Homestead-Miami. After a down year in 2020, Truex Jr. should be a major threat to put up his first victory of the season.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Team Penske

Team Penske accounted for half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ final four title contenders, but they feel they can do better.

2021 Team Penske Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Brad Keselowski 2 Jeremy Bullins Discount Tire/AutoTrader
Ryan Blaney 12 Todd Gordon Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Joey Logano 22 Paul Wolfe Shell/Pennzoil
Austin Cindric (part-time) 33 Brian Wilson Verizon

History

Well regarded for his endeavors at both the NASCAR and open-wheel levels, Roger Penske’s first trek into the former came in 1972. After moderate success with Bobby Allison throughout the 1970s (four wins and a pair of fourth-place finishes), Penske left the sport after the 1980 season but returned 11 years later to enjoy prosperity through the “Blue Deuce”. Back by sponsorship from Miller Lite and the talents of 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, the No. 2 Ford won 36 races between 1991 and 2001. During that time, Penske opened a second car, the No. 12, driven by Jeremy Mayfield (1998-2001) and later Ryan Newman (2002-08). A third car began racing in 2004, becoming the No. 22 seven years later.

Wallace retired after the 2005 season, leaving the No. 2 to fellow Cup champion Kurt Busch. Former Hendrick Motorsports protege Brad Keselowski ventured over to the No. 2 in 2011 and brought home the organization’s first Cup championship the year after. Another transfer, Joey Logano from Joe Gibbs Racing, brought the title back to Penske six years later in the No. 22.

2020 in Review

One of the most-discussed transactions in NASCAR last season was the great crew chief swap at Team Penske, Jeremy Bullins, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe all moving to different pit boxes. All things considered, the gambit paid off, especially in a season where on-track activities were mostly limited to the race itself.

Logano won two of the first four races of the 2020 season at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the coronavirus-induced pause put things on hold. Once things rebooted, it took a while for Logano to regain his form, but Ryan Blaney took the June race at Talladega while Keselowski won at Charlotte, Bristol, and New Hampshire, allowing all three Penske cars entry into the playoffs.

While Blaney was eliminated after the first round, Keselowski won a playoff race at Richmond and finished no worse than sixth in the three-race semifinal. Logano regained his championship and advanced to title contention at Phoenix with a win at Kansas (also winning that venue’s summer event). The No. 22 would lead all but two of the first 119 laps at the finale, but the Penske duo proved to be no match for champion Chase Elliott. Keselowski was the runner-up while Logano came home third.

Meet the Drivers

Brad Keselowski

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 34 (last: Richmond, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 2nd
Best standings finish: 2012 champion

Keselowski has quietly amassed quite the ledger since the 2016 season. He has won at least three races in each of the five seasons and has been in contention for the championship twice in that span. True to form in terms of showing up when it “matters”, Keselowski noted to the media this week that, after winning the 600-mile event in Charlotte last year, he has victories in each of NASCAR’s supposed “crown jewel” races…with the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500. The others are considered to be at Charlotte, Darlington, Indianapolis, and Talladega.

“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all, which is really cool and special for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me personally, so that’s definitely on the list is trying to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked, but I think the team is pretty good and really happy with a lot of people I’m working with. Jeremy has got an incredible attitude that is really healthy for our team and it was a really fresh, new challenge for me personally last year. I still have hunger and eagerness to achieve more results and that opportunity is coming up real quick here in the next few weeks, so nothing is taken for granted. Everything has to be earned.”

Keselowski’s fate was one of the most talked-about rumors in NASCAR last season, as many felt he was destined to return to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson was set to leave behind. But Keselowski re-upped with Penske for at least another year and there’s little to suggest that the relationship has deteriorated. Keselowski was particularly enthused by his relationship with Logano, as the two have collaborated in each of the last nine seasons.

“He immediately made me a better driver with a number of weaknesses I had,” Keselowski said of Logano. “I don’t think I was a very good qualifier. The things I was doing on the plate tracks some were good and some were bad, and he taught me a few good habits. He definitely made me up my game on restarts, so overall I think he’s made me better and I would hope that he would feel the same way that I challenged him to be better in other ways. So, I think that’s ultimately what would be your goal, is that you would have two teammates that make each other better.”

Ryan Blaney

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 4 (last: summer Talladega, 2020)
2020 finish: 9th
Best standings finish: 7th (2019)

It’s hard to complain about Blaney’s Cup Series career. The son of sprint car legend Dave, Blaney’s first win ended Wood Brothers Racing’s 16-year winless drought at non-superspeedway tracks. Last season, his win allowed him to become the first driver to win consecutive races at Talladega since Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 set (also becoming the first Ford representative to pull it off since Buddy Baker in 1975). He led a career-best 668 laps last season, good for seventh in the Cup Series and just ahead of defending champion Kyle Busch. But Blaney struggled throughout the summer, earning only a single top five finish in the 13 races after Talladega. Those struggles followed him into the postseason, and he was a surprise first-round elimination. Blaney did manage to close things on a strong note, earning top tens in all but one of the last seven races (including a runner-up at the penultimate race at Martinsville).

Blaney knows that it’s time to show more, especially if he wants to solidify his status as one of the faces of NASCAR.

“I’m 27. It’s time to get rolling here and winning multiple races throughout the season and try to make it to the (final four),” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done yet, so it’s definitely time to step up and I think we have all the right tools in place to do so, it’s just about applying all of them and really capitalizing on moments. Great athletes and great players, they capitalize on big moments. That’s just what we have to put in our heads and put in our minds.”

Joey Logano

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 26 (last: fall Kansas, 2020)
2020 finish: 3rd
Best standings finish: 2018 Champion

It feels like only yesterday that Logano entered the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread”. The Middletown, Connecticut native has more or less lived up to the hype behind such a name, winning the 2018 title and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three seasons.

Logano is ready to race “anything” as he goes into his 12th season on the full-time circuit. The biggest change in his repertoire has been his on-track confidence, which he spoke about in detail earlier this week. He’s also thankful for the tough times that have gotten him to this point in his career.

“As a younger driver or someone coming in, I went through (tough times) where I got my butt kicked and came in very confident thinking I was gonna be the man and then quickly realized I was not even the boy,” he said. “I was in trouble and being able to kind of overcome that has really helped me a lot now. I’m glad I’ve gone through that. Those are the experiences that I absolutely love that I had because it’s made me into who I am today, but in the moment it’s hard. It’s not fun, but it makes you stronger for sure.”

Austin Cindric (part-time)

Experience: 1st season (No previous Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: N/A
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

Penske will field a part-time third car for Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion. Cindric will protect his title in Penske’s No. 22 Ford before joining the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022.

While Cindric’s full schedule is subject to change, he will definitely attempt to reach the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying events on February 11, three days before the engines fire for the main event. Cindric won’t be the only talented name fighting for a spot. He’ll be joined by fellow Xfinity finalist Noah Gragson and former Truck Series runner-up Ty Dillon, all while preparing for the 300-mile Xfinity opener on the same weekend.

“I think you always as a race car driver, whether you have a good year, a bad year, or the best year, you have to continue to better yourself whatever that level is because everyone else around you is gonna keep stepping that up,” Cindric said of his 2021 goals. “I have some great opportunities to run some Cup races and get a taste for what it means to race against the best, because ultimately that’s what I want to be one day, is to race against the best and the best of the best.”

Outlook

Keselowski and Logano will be constant contenders in 2021 and no one would be surprised if they reprised their roles in the final four. The real wild card is going to be Blaney, and if he can take the next step in his development. Winning multiple races, preferably prior to the playoffs, would be a great display of power, and there are high hopes he can do it relatively early. Blaney was the runner-up in last season’s Daytona 500 and placed third at Homestead-Miami, the site of the third event of the year.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Joey Logano

With his declaration of being the favorite and propensity to win no matter what, Joey Logano doesn’t want friends…he wants a NASCAR title.

We’ve been through a lot in the social distancing era, so it’s downright shocking to go back to the early stages of 2020 and realize that, yes, that indeed happened in 2020.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The NBA All-Star Game came back from the dead under a new scoring format. XFL 2.0 came and went. Joey Logano won the first race at the new site of NASCAR’s championship finale.

Logano was the man to beat before the world stopped, earning two wins over the first four events of the 2020 season, the latter being the Fan Shield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 8. He managed to get the best of an eventful race, evading several late-race cautions and restarts earn a victory in overtime before the COVID-19-induced pause commenced.

“It does feel like a long time ago when we were out there.” Logano said with a laugh when asked about the victory earlier this week. “So many things have happened since then, I think that’s why.”

Eight months later, the NASCAR season finale is ready to descend upon the desert on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the championship finale will be held at the recently-renovated facility after over two decades at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Logano captured his first NASCAR Cup Series title in 2018.

Alas for Logano, there’s not as much he can take from his car in that event as he would like. In adjusting to life after the pandemic, the weekend staples of qualifying and practices have been almost entirely erased. The starting lineup has been instead been determined by random draws and statistical formulas. Logano was originally set to start second but moved up to pole position after Chase Elliott failed prerace inspection.

“There’s definitely things you can go back on,” he said. “That’s really all we have, to be honest with you. We don’t have the opportunity to try many new things without practice, right? You don’t want to go too far outside of the box. You know what worked for you in the spring. We had a very fast car, overcame a lot of adversity, still won the race. It just shows that we had a very good car. We can make some tweaks here and there to the setup probably, some things that we feel very confident in will be better, but we’re not going to step way outside the box. It’s just kind of what we got. Even though it feels like a year and a half ago when we were out there, that’s really what we have to go back on, is our notes from that race.”

The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is no stranger to big moments in his NASCAR career. Heck, this is a driver that was bestowed the nickname “Sliced Bread” in reference to the age-old “best thing since” axiom during his days on the lower tiers of NASCAR. He has responded with the aforementioned Cup title and 26 race victories over the past nine seasons. Anti-Logano conspiracy theorists could perhaps argue that the shift to Phoenix was made to help out Logano, who has earned pair of wins and three consecutive top-ten finishes.

It’s perhaps safe to say that Logano has made his share of detractors. Kyle Busch, whose reign as Cup Series champion will end in the desert today, remarked after a contentious get-together during the opening playoff round’s closer at Bristol that Logano “had zero friends on the racetrack”. Logano replied only by wholeheartedly agreeing days later.

Yet, Logano’s aggressiveness has been a throwback to the days of “rubbin’s racing” that fans have harkened for. Alas for these fans, Logano has been taking their favorites out in the process. For example, he took away a win at Martinsville away from Martin Truex Jr. in 2018, a win that more or less led to the latter’s playoff demise. Logano went on to take home his title.

That aggressiveness is on display through Logano’s attitude when it comes to the first Phoenix finale. While other drivers have been pleased with inclusion in the championship quartet, Logano dismissed such a notion in the most polite way possible.

“I think titles are the most important thing,” he said. “Any sport you look at, the question is, How many championships do you have? Not how many times have you made it to the finals? I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times. That’s great. It shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that. But the trophy is what it’s about.”

“I ask this question all the time: Anyone remember who finished second last year? I don’t. I honestly have no clue who finished second last year, or third or fourth, or even who was it in. I know I wasn’t in it, that’s what I know. When I look at it that way, it’s about the championship.”

Winning a championship in a year where drivers are more or less going from their street cars to their racecars would be quite telling for any of the drivers competing, taking home the trophy in a year where on-track adjustments through practice and qualifying have been rendered null and void. It’s an honor that seems to be fueling Logano as he tries to earn that second championship to accompany the first.

“We all have the same opportunities. The rules are the same for everybody. It’s an equal playing field. There’s a trophy at the end of the day. We all had to go to the same amount of races, we all had the same opportunity to score the same amount of points and wins. “The rules didn’t change in the middle of the year…Maybe our schedule changed, the way we go about it. It’s the same for everybody.

“Honestly, yes, a championship is a championship. Doesn’t matter if you won it in 2020 when you had no practice or you won it in 2019 or 2021. Doesn’t matter, it’s a championship.”

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.

Pit road victory allows Joey Logano to advance to NASCAR’s final four

Joey Logano’s well-timed pit stop allowed him to beat out Kevin Harvick at Kansas, making him eligible for the NASCAR Cup Series title.

Joey Logano and his No. 22 Team Penske Ford team showed exactly why NASCAR is a team sport at Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

A caution session with 45 circuits left in the 267-lap event saw Logano’s crew provide the fastest service. He beat out incoming leader Kevin Harvick off pit lane, as well as the final 41 green flag circuits to earn a victory that clinched his spot among the four championship contenders at Phoenix Raceway on November 8.

Logano’s win at Kansas is his third of the season and his first since taking two of the first four races held prior to a COVID-19-induced pause in March…his last win ironically coming at Phoenix. With the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs entering its three-race Round of 8, Logano earned automatic entry to the finale as the Connecticut native seeks his second title over the last three seasons.

If I’m being honest, I don’t have fun driving a race car, I have fun winning,” Logano said after the race. “That’s what I enjoy doing. That’s what that is at this point. If I want to go fun, I’ll go to a go-kart track and have fun. That’s not what this is about. This is about winning, this is a job, putting food on the table for not only my family but countless others that helped this race team.”

En route to his first Cup Series title in 2018, Logano also won the first race of the Round of 8, then held at Martinsville Speedway (which will host the final contest of the round this time). The importance of such a victory was not lost on the 30-year-old.

The weight lifted off your shoulders is only part of it. The ability to start working on your Phoenix car, not worry about your Texas and Martinsville car,” he said. “I don’t want to say that, but you’re 100% focused on one more race.  We know we can’t finish worse than fourth in points, you know what I mean? We know we’re in it.”

Logano mostly lingered in the middle portions of the field in the early going, watching Chase Elliott and Denny Hamling win the first two 80-lap stages. After the second stage, Logano and Aric Almirola gambled by taking two tires on the ensuing pit stops. While Almirola (a former playoff driver eliminated after the Round of 12) faded, Logano was set up to run with the leaders. By the time Tyler Reddick brought out the caution by scraping the wall at lap 221, it was clear that Logano and Harvick had the vehicles to beat.

The No. 22 team helped Logano win the fateful race off of pit road before he held off a furious challenge from Harvick over the final segments for the win. Some fans took issue with the current rules package, claiming that it allowed Harvick to catch up to Logano but not take the lead. Logano instead credited his choice of lanes in the final turns around the 1.5-mile tri-oval, as well as the assistance of spotter TJ Majors.

“When you have clean air in front of you, like Kevin did as well, being so close to the lead, the advantage probably goes to the trimmed car, which is what the 4 has.  At that point you just kind of hope for dirty air and tires to wear out a little bit.  That’s where our car should start to excel,” Logano explained. “So, knowing that in your mind, you try to hold him off for as long as you can. If you can hold off 15 laps or so, maybe it would get a little easier. It didn’t. He hung on there for a long time, was catching me so fast on the straightaways. It was a matter of picking the right lanes when you get there.”

Harvick was denied his 10th win of the season, a mark unattained since Jimmie Johnson pulled off the feat in 2007, but praised Logano for his work over the final laps. He’s currently up 41 points on the championship cutoff.

“Joey did just a good job of putting his car right in front of ours,” Harvick said. With this package, every time you put your car in front of the car behind you, it takes the nose away.  We just had a little bit of trouble trying to get the nose to turn when he would take our lane.”

Alex Bowman joined the main duo late to finish third, while Logano’s Penske teammate Brad Keselowski came home fourth. Non-playoff driver Kyle Busch rounded out the top five. Keselowski is currently the last driver in when looking at the final four picture, up on Elliott (6th), Sunday’s polesitter by eight points. Elliott would be on via points, but was shifted to the outside looking in by Logano’s victory.

The Round of 8 reaches its middle stage next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Elliott recovered to finish sixth after radio problems plagued him in the early stages of the race.

 

  • After winning the second stage, Hamlin made contact with the wall, forcing him to pit road. He eventually recovered to a 15th-place finish and currently holds one of the championship spots by 20 points.

 

  • Prior to the race, the small, socially distanced crowd paid tribute to Kansas native Clint Bowyer, the retiring driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Bowyer, winner of 10 Cup Series races and the 2008 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series title, moved to the front of the field before the green flag flew. Bowyer finished 26th, capping off his Kansas ledger with three top-five and eight top-ten finishes in 25 starts at his home track.

 

  • Playoff driver Kurt Busch’s title chances took a major hit when he lost his engine at lap 198. At 73 points behind the cutoff, Busch more than likely will need to win of the two remaining pre-Phoenix races at Texas or Martinsville to contend for a championship.

 

  • Bowyer’s fellow retiree Matt Kenseth also endured a tough day, bringing out the caution with a wreck at lap 144.

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott continues road course dominance on the Roval

Chase Elliott punched his Round of 8 playoff ticket in style, winning his fourth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series road course event.

The new sensation of NASCAR racing in the rain was countered with the familiar sensation of Chase Elliott visiting a road course’s victory lane.

Elliott defended his title at the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading 27 of 109 laps to capture victory in the Bank of America Roval 400. The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has now won each of the last four races held on road courses. Only four-time champion Jeff Gordon has done better in that regard (six from 1997-2000).

“We definitely don’t show up just expecting to be good,” Elliott said of his team’s road course dominance. “We show up trying to be better than we were last time. I thought we did that today. I thought our car was better than it was here last year.  I thought I was better than I was last year. Didn’t pile drive the barriers this time. That was good. (We were) able to finish it off the right way, which is always encouraging.”

Elliott previously took home the win at Daytona Internation Speedway’s road course in August after sweeping the traditional pair at Sonoma and Watkins Glen last season. NASCAR will return to that pair and the Charlotte Roval (half-oval, half-road course) next season, but NASCAR has placed three additional road courses on the 2021 schedule, including the Circuit of the Americas, Road America, and the course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But Elliott is more concerned about the upcoming Round of 8, as he tries to make his first championship round since making his full-time NASCAR entry in 2016.

“(I’m) excited to have the opportunity. I think it’s going to be a really big challenge for us to move on, as I think it is for everybody in this round unless you just have a bunch of wins,” he said. “I think today’s win is big.  Getting those extra five points can be the difference.  We just have to bring our A-game, push ahead, really try to execute three solid weeks.”

Elliott’s streak appeared to be in jeopardy after the second stage. He had finished second to Ryan Blaney, but a loose wheel on the ensuing pit stop forced him to revisit as the field went back to green, shifting him back to 38th. But a mere 30 laps later, Elliott had the lead back from teammate Alex Bowman.

He had to let it go shortly after with a caution emerging for debris on the track, but he later passed Erik Jones with 17 laps to go, holding it for the rest of the way. His final trek included another restart after Brennan Poole’s stalled car brought out another college, but he was able to clinch the victory by a healthy 3.895-second margin over Joey Logano. Jones finished third ahead of previous playoff clincher Kurt Busch, while Blaney, the winner of the inaugural race in 2018, rounded out the top five.

Elliott’s success echoed his endeavor from a year prior, when he overcame a wreck in the treacherous first turn of the Roval to capture the victory. This time, he dealt with the loose tire and rain in the forecast, forcing teams to use a special tire with more grip throughout the afternoon. Unlike the relatively flooded Xfinity Series event, the Charlotte rains were relatively calm throughout the race, though there will still numerous spins and on-track incidents that helped determine the rest of the playoff picture.

The Cup Series’ Round of 8, the last elimination stage before the final at Phoenix, gets underway at Kansas Speedway’s Hollywood Casino 400 next Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Defending Cup Series Kyle Busch was eliminated from contention. Contrasting pit strategies allowed Busch to take the lead with 19 laps to go, but he lost it to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Jones a lap later. Busch was running in the top ten before fuel woes forced him to pit on the penultimate lap. Busch is the first defending champion to miss the Round of 8 since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014.

 

  • Elliott joined Kurt Busch (Las Vegas) and Denny Hamlin (Talladega) as Round of 12 race winners who clinched through a race victory. Logano, Martin Truex Jr. (7th on Sunday), Alex Bowman (8th), Kevin Harvick (11th), and Brad Keselowski (18th) all joined them through points. Harvick maintains the series’ point lead, 13 tallies ahead of Hamlin.

 

  • Among those eliminated was Clint Bowyer, days after he announced he would retire from the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to join the Fox Sports booth. Bowyer lost his power steering early in the race, but still managed to earn a 10th-place finish. He was sent to the infield care center due to exhaustion but was checked out shortly after. Bowyer is one of five drivers to post top-ten finishes in each of the first three visits to the Roval (joining Elliott, Blaney, Logano, and Bowman)

 

  • Aric Almirola (16th) and Austin Dillon (19th) were likewise eliminated from championship contention.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Fords dominate the 2020 playoff grid

The 2020 NASCAR regular season concluded on Saturday night with the exciting Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. Three spots were still up for grabs, with Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto taking two of the spots on points. The third was taken by William Byron, scoring his first career Cup Series victory.

With Bowyer and DiBenedetto now in the playoffs, it will mean that eight fords will have the chance to compete for a championship. All four Stewart-Haas drivers made it, as well as all three Penske teams and the lone Wood Brothers driver in DiBenedetto.

As for Stewart-Haas, Kevin Harvick has ran the show all year. He has seven wins, the most of all Cup Series drivers and has the number one seed in the playoffs. Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have remained winless in 2020, but have ran up-front all year. Almirola has 14 top-10s, while Bowyer has seven. Although not nearly as many great finishes, Bowyer has collected a lot of stage points. For Cole Custer, he’s in because of his win at Kentucky Motor Speedway. He has six top-10s, but would likely not have made it to the playoffs if it wasn’t for the win.

On the Penske side of things, no one driver has really been more dominant than the other. Brad Keselowski has three wins, Joey Logano has two wins, and Ryan Blaney has one. All three drivers have ran up front all year and work together incredibly well together. Each of the three drivers has double-digit top-10s.

And finally, Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers. DiBenedetto has been great in the #21 car this year, and the alliance with Penske has paid off. He has seven top-10s and has scored a lot of stage points. The only concerning thing for him is that he has just two top-10s in the last nine points-paying races.

Ford has been the dominant manufacturer all year, and it shows as eight if its drivers will be competing for a championship. Will their dominance continue during the playoffs?