The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began the same way many races in the regular season ended: with Kevin Harvick in victory lane.
NASCAR’s annual Labor Day weekend excursion to Darlington Raceway has recently been celebrated by the unveiling of paint schemes that reference or pay homage to popular cars of the past. The most recent visit to the Myrtle Beach staple, however, kept a very modern trend going.
Drama at the front of the field allowed Kevin Harvick to win Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500, his eighth victory of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Harvick was running third when front-runners Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. incapacitated each other through contact with 13 laps to go. From that point on, Harvick held off Austin Dillon to win the 57th race of his Cup career. Such a victory puts him in sole possession of ninth place on the all-time wins list.
“When you start looking around the win list and you start seeing the names that you’re around, you just start thinking to yourself, man, these are some of the greatest drivers that ever came through our sport.,” Harvick said in his place in history. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. You’ve got to do your part and, hopefully, we can keep doing what we’re doing on the racetrack and keep climbing up there.”
He and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team also earn automatic advancement to the next leg of the NASCAR Playoffs, which began at Darlington with 16 drivers. Four will be eliminated after short track races over the next two weeks at Richmond and Bristol.
A tally of 57 playoff points during the regular season made sure that Harvick didn’t have to worry too much about securing points to make the next round. But that didn’t stop him and crew chief Rodney Childers. Harvick finished in the top ten in each of the first two stages, but different pit strategies from Childers allowed him to stay at the upper-half of the field. Properly timed cautions also played in the hands of the No. 4 team.
“We’re more or less just trying to do what’s right for us and be consistent and do the best we can every week,” Childers said. “We just felt like that was the best thing for us. With our car kind of falling off too much and cording the right rear, we really didn’t have another option. We were just trying to do what was best, and it kind of worked out in both of those last two stages and we got a caution when we were up there at the lead.”
Harvick was also pleased to win the race in front of an adoring public, as Darlington welcomed in a limited crowd to witness Sunday’s race. It marked his third win at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”, the prior one coming at NASCAR’s return from a coronavirus-induced pause in May. No fans were able to witness that win (his first of the 2020 season), so Harvick was sure to take the reaction in. It’s his first win in the Southern 500, an event that dates back to 1950.
“That’s the first race that I’ve won this year that anybody has been here,” Harvick noted. “But I think back to the first race here, and for me, that was really the moment that put it all into perspective of where we were and what we were doing and how drastic of a situation it was when you have all that enthusiasm to share with nobody and just dead silence. It felt really, really good to have some cheering fans in the grandstands and be able to experience that again.”
Truex and Elliott united to lead 310 of the race’s 367 laps, the former’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota winning each of the first two stages. With Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leading after a caution to remove debris from the frontstretch, Truex made an aggressive move in search of his second win of the season. Attempting to close the door and clear the No. 9, Truex instead made contact, damaging each of their playoff rides. The encounter forced them each to pit road relegated Elliott to a 20th-place finish and Truex to 22nd.
It served as unfortunate deja vu for Elliott. A prior 2020 event at Darlington ended in an Elliott after he was bumped by another Joe Gibbs driver, Kyle Busch, while fighting for the lead in the race’s dying stages.
Dillon finished in the runner-up spot. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet worked its way to the front after being forced to start from the rear due to unapproved adjustments. Joey Logano finished third while Erik Jones was the highest-finishing non-playoff driver in fourth. Another playoff man, William Byron, rounded out the top five.
The second round of the Round of 16 will run on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Playoff drivers took 12 of the top 13 starts in the final running order.
It was a tough start to the playoffs for Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. Blaney was forced to start from the rear for failing prerace inspection due to an improperly-mounted ballast. The violation cost him 10 points and the services of crew chief Todd Gordon, who was suspended. Blaney finished a lap off the pace in 24th and sits 17 points behind the 12th-place cutoff.
Bubba Wallace’s transmission issues forced him to retire early, while John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford was lost to an accident. Corey LaJoie also sustained damage and was retired when he took his car directly to the garage area rather than pit road.
As the NASCAR’s postseason gets underway in Darlington on Sunday night, ESM has you covered for the road ahead.
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get underway at Darlington Raceway tonight. 16 drivers enter the 10-race gauntlet, with four eliminated after every three races. The proceedings wrap up in Phoenix this November, and drivers can advance to the next leg of the tournament with a win in the preceding circuit.
ESM has you covered with lineup and the road (pun much intended) ahead…
1. Kevin Harvick
Team: No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Crew Chief: Rodney Childers 2020 Wins: 7 (Darlington 1, Atlanta, Pocono 1, Indianapolis, Michigan 1, Michigan 2, Dover 2) Best Prior Finish: 2014 Champion
In this era of lost qualifying and practice, Harvick hasn’t been making a Hall-of-Fame case. As the 2014 Cup Series champion, the man who took over for the late Dale Earnhardt, and his impact on both the Cup and Xfinity levels, Harvick was probably going to Charlotte anyway. But his sheer dominance in going from motorhome to car has been nothing short of extraordinary. Only four races have ended with Harvick outside of the top ten and only a pair of visits to Daytona has stopped him from a streak of 13 consecutive top-five finishes. Through his seven wins (matching seven stages wins as well), Harvick has earned a Cup Series-record 57 playoff points, building himself a solid cushion that could sustain him all the way to Phoenix.
They Said It: “We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had…Our theory is not that you change gears and try to do something different, it’s you better be ready and already have been in that mode.”-Harvick on building momentum for the playoffs
2. Denny Hamlin (-10 points behind)
Team: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Crew Chief: Chris Gabehart 2020 Wins: 6 (Daytona Winter, Darlington 2, Homestead, Pocono 2, Kansas, Dover 1) Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2010)
At Harvick’s side every step of the way has been Hamlin. Since entering the Cup Series in 2006, his No. 11 Toyota has accomplished almost everything there is to earn on the premier levels. February saw him win his third Daytona 500 (and second in a row, the first to do that since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95) and he added five more victories, giving him 43 since starting his Cup career. His career began with a third-place standings finish in his rookie year (the first rookie to qualify for what was then the Chase for the Sprint Cup) and he reached the final four last season, nine years after a runner-up finish. All that’s missing is an elusive Cup championship. Like Harvick, Hamlin was able to build a sizable lead over the cutoffs, currently lead the first won by 47 points thanks to his six wins and tying the No. 4 for the most stage wins with seven. Since teaming with new crew chief Gabehart last season, Hamlin has visited victory lane 12 times.
They Said It: “A lot of stuff has changed on and off the race track. I think I’ve changed a little bit as a driver. I’ve just adapted quite a bit as well. It’s tough to say what has automatically just flipped the switch and made the results what they’ve been over the last two years or less than two years. Certainly, there’s a process we’ve put in to preparing for each week that is working for us, it’s working for me. Me and Chris have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us. Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening.”-Hamlin on what’s been the difference for him over the last two seasons.
3. Brad Keselowski (-28)
Team: No. 2 Team Penske Ford Crew Chief: Jeremy Bullins 2020 Wins: 3 (Charlotte 1, Bristol, New Hampshire) Best Prior Finish: 2012 Champion
The epic battle between Harvick and Hamlin has somewhat covered up Keselowski’s strong season. A strong summer propelled him to the third seed on the initial playoff grid, boosted by a streak of eight consecutive finishes no worse than 11th. Keselowski has worked his magic during his first season under Bullins, who came over from teammate Ryan Blaney’s pit stall during a Penske shakeup. He got off to a strong start in last year’s playoff proceedings, with top fives in each of the three first-round races. But a wreck at Talladega (site of five prior wins) put him in a hole and ended his chances at another trophy hoist at Homestead.
They Said It: “I think I’ve been in this position now seven of the last eight years, in the playoffs, really eight of the last nine years and I’ve brought it home once, which is great. I’m super-proud of that. It’s more than I thought I’d ever accomplish in my entire life. And so I’ll always be proud of that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wanting to stop there. It doesn’t mean that I want to leave this sport with my one Cup and go home and tell my grandkids about it for the next hopefully 40-50 years, however long I’ve got to live. I’d rather tell them about two than one, but the reality is a championship is much bigger than a driver. They put the driver’s name on the trophy, but I’ve never seen a driver win a championship. I’ve seen a lot of damn good teams win championships.”-Keselowski on his No. 2 team
4. Joey Logano (-35)
Team: No. 22 Team Penske Ford Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe 2020 Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Phoenix) Best Prior Finish: 2018 Champion
Logano was the driver to beat prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, winning two of the first four races of the season, including the winter visit to the championship site in Phoenix. He struggled to regain speed once things got rolling again, but heated up as summer rolled on. The No. 22 won each of the first two stages at the regular-season finale at Daytona before a late wreck ended his day. It broke a streak of six consecutive top-ten finishes for the Connecticut native, who is likewise working through a year with a new crew chief in Wolfe. The Cup veteran helped guide Keselowski to his championship in 2012.
They Said It: “(The wins) feel like a long time ago…Way too long. We’re ready to win again, but I do feel like we’re getting close back to that same point as we were. To me, there’s no doubt when we went back racing we weren’t where we wanted to be. I even said it a few times, almost like a lost puppy not knowing what road to go down to get back to where we need to be, and it’s hard to find that direction without practice. Going to a different racetrack every week it’s hard to grow. It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year. We can get ourselves in position to win again and I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”-Logano on his 2020 season
5. Chase Elliott (-37)
Team: No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson 2020 Wins: 2 (Charlotte 2, Daytona Road Course) Best Prior Finish: 5th (2017)
The early stages of the return to action were defined by bad luck for Elliott, who was denied several further opportunities for bonus points throughout the year. For example, contact from behind from Kyle Busch denied him a win at an earlier Darlington event this season and an ill-advised move to pit prior to overtime cost him an illustrious Coca-Cola 600 trophy. Elliott was able to get back to victory lane at Daytona, winning the first Cup Series event on the track’s road course his third straight at such a track. It was part of a streak where Elliott finished no worse than ninth in six of the final seven regular-season races. Elliott will be starting on the pole for Sunday’s opener at Darlington
They Said It: “You can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the Playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet. So, I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four. So, at the end of the day, if me being confident and knowing that we can do it, and my team knowing that (too), is the case and it is, then I think that’s really all that matters to me. But it’s certainly the goal. Certainly, if you want to win a championship, you don’t have an option. You’ve got to make it. We know that and look forward to the challenge.”-Elliott on the weight of missing the final four thus far.
6. Martin Truex Jr. (-43)
Team: No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Crew Chief: James Small 2020 Wins: 1 (Martinsville) Best Prior Finish: 2017 Champion
Truex has been hotter than a summer down the Shore in his native Mayetta Township, NJ. Daytona’s regular season finale saw him end a streak of seven consecutive finishes in the top three…and that was only because he finished fourth. Wins have proved elusive, but Truex has proven time and time again to possess the championship pedigree. He has appeared in the final four in each of the past three seasons and four of the past five. That includes his 2017 title, won in the No. 78 Toyota with the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing.
They Said It: “You’ve got to be resilient. There’s going to be times in the Playoffs when your back is against the wall or you need to make something happen. That’s been the case for us throughout the years. Whether it’s been a season where a lot of things have gone right or a season where things have gone wrong. At the end the day, it’s 10 races to get in and you have to be resilient. You are going to face challenges along the way.”-Truex on the most necessary trait to possess to reach the final four
7. Alex Bowman (-48)
Team: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Crew Chief: Greg Ives 2020 Wins: 1 (Fontana) Best Prior Finish: 12th (2019)
Bowman seemed like the driver to beat in the early stages of 2020. He dominated the third race of the season at Fontana, leading 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. When the series returned to action after the pause, Bowman sat in second place in the standings after a runner-up finish at Darlington. But summer has been anything but hot for the No. 88 squad. Since that second-place posting in Myrtle Beach, Bowman has earned only six top-ten finishes. Contending for a championship would mean an extra something for Bowman, a Tuscon native who earned a surprising sixth-place finish at Phoenix when filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the 2016 season.
They Said It:“The summer was pretty rough on us. We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. So, I think we’re in a good place going into the Playoffs.” “Darlington, for us, we were really fast there the first two races this year. The first race we finished second. The second race we had a way better race car. I started racing my competitors instead of the race track and hit the fence, so that’s on me to not do this time. But I think we can be really strong and have a really good day. I think each and every week during the Playoffs we’re going to be really good, but Darlington is one that we had circled that we can be really strong at, for sure.”-Bowman on recovering from a tough summer
8. William Byron (-50)
Team: No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Crew Chief: Chad Knaus 2020 Wins: 1 (Daytona Summer) Best Prior Finish: 11th (2019)
Byron’s first career win couldn’t have come at a better time. With a playoff farewell from teammate Jimmie Johnson breathing down his neck for a playoff spot, Byron took home a victory at Daytona’s finale, taking the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane for the first time since Jeff Gordon punched his final four ticket at Martinsville during his farewell tour in 2015. Byron’s playoff tour will be overseen by crew chief Knaus, who partook in each of Johnson’s record-tying seven championships.
They Said It:“I think that now having that first win of the season and first win for me and this team, I feel like we’re more focused on just executing the details of each race. Obviously, our goal going into this year was to make it further than we did last year in the playoffs, which was the Round of 12 last year. So, if we can make it to the Round of 8 this year, it would be a success, for sure. We just have to take it one race at a time. A lot of these tracks are good for us. I think the first round is probably the weakest of the tracks for us, so we just have to try to focus on that.”-Byron on how the weight of his first win is removed
9. Austin Dillon (-52)
Team: No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Crew Chief: Justin Alexander 2020 Wins: 1 (Texas) Best Prior Finish: 12th (2017)
Dillon worked his way into the playoffs with a hard-fought win in Fort Worth. His timing, perhaps, couldn’t have been better. Dillon was forced to turn over the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet to Kaz Grala at the Dayton road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19. While Dillon has ways to go in living up to the reputation the No. 3 car carries with it, he has been relatively consistent in 2020. The win at Texas gives him a small cushion to at least make it to the round of 12.
They Said It: “I love being dismissed. I think it’s a great. It’s all I’ve just kind of always been that way. I feel like maybe not that way in the trucks are Xfinity at the end of those runs, but in the Cup series, it’s been a little bit of that. So and I feel like that’s what kind of propels us, and then we sneak up on people. I was very close to making it to the third round a couple years back in the playoffs and missed it by one point to Denny Hamlin not want to transfer this on and we missed at Talladega by one so I know from that experience at every Point matters, and we just need to go out there and do our job these first three races is good good races for us, but the stage is the way they play out. You got to get points. So we’re going to be very aggressive in getting those points and hopefully messed up a lot of brackets.”-Dillon on being an underdog headed into the playoffs
10. Cole Custer (-52)
Team: No. 41 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford Crew Chief: Mike Shiplett 2020 Wins: 1 (Kentucky) Best Prior Finish: N/A (rookie)
Custer is the first rookie to partake in the NASCAR Cup Series postseason since Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher fought their way in during the 2016 season. While the back-to-back runner-up in the Xfinity Series struggled in his first year at the wheel of the No. 41, Custer punched his ticket to the playoffs at Kentucky and kept the momentum going with three top-ten finishes over the past nine races. His opportunity to advance could come at Darlington, where he won last season’s Xfinity event (albeit via disqualification of race-winner Denny Hamlin). By qualifying for the playoffs, Custer has already earned the Cup Series’ Rookie of the Year title, topping a talented class that also featured Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.
They Said It: “I think we can go in there and prove some people wrong is the biggest thing, but at the end of the day it’s about being consistent and it’s about being competitive. I think we’ve had a lot of peaks and valleys at times this year, but at the same time we just need to try and level it out more going into these playoffs. If we can be consistent and we can put it all together and put all the pieces together for these last 10 races, I think we’ve shown that we can compete with anybody it’s just trying to put those pieces together every single race.”-Custer on his playoff approach
11. Aric Almirola (-52)
Team: No. 10 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 5th (2018)
Though wins have proved elusive (his last coming in Talladega’s event in the fall of 2018), Almirola was one of the most accomplished drivers of the summer. building a streak of nine consecutive top-ten finishes. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons in Tony Stewart’s No. 10, though advancement through the playoff rounds have has proved difficult. He made it to the penultimate segment in 2018, but a string of finishes outside the top-ten eliminated him in the first round last year.
They Said It: “It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time. I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team. What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job. I am excited about the playoffs. I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”-Almirola on being a playoff sleeper
12. Clint Bowyer (-53)
Team: No. 14 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2012)
The fan-favorite Bowyer has remained generally consistent in the No. 14 Ford that won the Cup Series title with Tony Stewart behind the wheel in 2011. Bowyer, who has doubled as a commentator for Fox Sports, will be seeking his first win since June 2018. His best finish came at the playoff track of Bristol, where he came home in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski.
They Said It: “Gas mask. Same precautions you have. I mean, it’s the same thing . It’s COVID. I mean, it (stinks). It’s pretty crazy to me that we’re this far along and we still really don’t know a whole lot more than where we’re at. I mean, it’s crazy times, but, nonetheless, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I’m probably not gonna go to college and hit up a keg stand. I’m probably not going to do that. I would say that would be a good opportunity to find yourself pointless.”-Bowyer on precautions he’ll be taking to avoid COVID-19 during the playoffs.
13. Ryan Blaney (-54)
Team: No. 12 Team Penske Ford Crew Chief: Todd Gordon 2020 Wins: 1 (Talladega) Best Prior Finish: 7th (2019)
Apologies for pointing out a theme, but it’s possible that the 2020 playoffs could well become “Penske material”. No one on the circuit perhaps knows more about bad luck than Blaney. Only four drivers on the circuit led more laps than Blaney (586), several accidents beyond his control denied him victories at several tracks this season. He has likewise been impacted by the Penske shuffle, with Todd Gordon taking over his pit stall. Gordon was on hand to guide fellow Penske Ford driver Logano to his title in 2018. Blaney heard some bad news prior to Sunday’s opener at Darlington, as Gordon was suspended and he was docked 10 points for an improperly mounted ballast.
They Said It: “It’s just been so limited with no practice. You can talk so much throughout the week on the phone and things like that, but it’s just different than being able to go through a couple practices and the whole weekend with them and talking to them. But I think we’ve gotten the best that we can. Todd and I get along really well. He’s an amazing crew chief and a championship crew chief and has won a ton of races, so I think it’s been going well. It’s a shame, but everyone is in the same boat.”-Blaney on working with new crew chief Gordon
14. Kyle Busch (-54)
Team: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Crew Chief: Adam Stevens 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 2015, 2019 Champion
Perhaps no other driver on the circuit has better personified 2020 from the average race fan’s point of view. Everything that can go wrong for the two-time Cup Series champion has indeed come to pass, whether it’s been getting caught up in wrecks, having tire or car issues, or simply being on the wrong pit strategy. It has put the defending champion in an awkward spot as the postseason begins: winless, no playoff points to fall back on, and in danger of elimination in the first round. Admittedly, most drivers would LOVE to struggle the way Busch has. But it’s clearly below the expectations the No. 18 and its driver have set for themselves.
They Said It: “This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. 2015, I was injured and I was on the sideline and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back and I was able to come back and then struggled for five weeks just getting a footing and then finally being able to win again at Sonoma. Right there just lit a fire under us and that was all it took for the rest of the year to be a championship contender and a guy to go out there to compete with his team and be the best of all of them. This year, it’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next and what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience. Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”-Busch on how 2020 has tested him
15. Kurt Busch (-56)
Team: No. 1 Chip Gannasi Racing Chevrolet Crew Chief: Matt McCall 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 2004 Champion
Kyle’s older brother and fellow champion (the first under a NASCAR playoff system) failed to get a win, and it’ll come back to haunt him in the playoff standings. But strong consistency led to another playoff berth and allowed him to hover in the top ten of the standings all season. He beat out Kyle for a win at Kentucky last season, but an opening crash in the playoff debut at his home track of Las Vegas ended his chances of moving on. Busch is one of two playoff drivers to have run without a playoff system, the other being Harvick.
They Said It: “What I think it’s done is it gave it a strong comparison to other sports. There’s that Playoff atmosphere. There’s that championship race, where four guys are eligible to win the championship and it’s an even playing ground. When it was a long marathon process of going through all 36 races, that was a different sequence. That was maybe not as intense when it got down to the final rounds. And so, with these 10 weeks, the Playoff atmosphere is there, and it relates well to other sports. And that’s where it draws in more fans that might not have been NASCAR fans before.”-Busch on how the playoffs have changed NASCAR
16. Matt DiBenedetto (-57)
Team: No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Crew Chief: Greg Erwin 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 22nd (2019)
DiBenedetto has built a strong following after earning his way to a decent ride in the long-running No. 21 car. He began his Cup career in low-budget vehicles and fought his way into the playoffs through general 2020 consistency (which includes a runner-up finish at Las Vegas). Some late struggles put him in a tough situation at Daytona, put he held off Johnson to clinch an elusive spot.
They Said It: “I would say that this week has been a release. It was so stressful and kept getting more stressful leading up to Daytona and the points closed in and we lost the gap that we had and all that. I would call this week exciting and we got to celebrate with some friends out on the lake Sunday and have a good time but come Monday it was time to shift focus and we still have a lot of racing left and a lot to accomplish. It was a relief and exciting moving forward now instead of stressful. Exciting knowing that we have an opportunity to really put a good end to our season and cap it off and have a lot more success. I am pretty pumped up about that and I am appreciative to be doing it for the Wood Brothers.”-DiBenedetto on making the playoffs for the first time as a veteran driver
(All times ET)
Cook Out Southern 500
Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, South Carolina When: September 6 Watch: 6 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Erik Jones
“The Track Too Tough to Tame” hosts its annual Labor Day Weekend event and its first playoff race since 2004. In recent time, the race has become well-known for featuring throwback paint schemes, a tradition that will continue this year.
Federated Auto Parts 400
Where: Richmond Raceway, Richmond, Virginia When: September 12 Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.
Richmond’s short track hosted the final regular season race from 2004 through 2018. It is now the second race of the round of 16. Keep an eye on Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, who have won four of the last five September races.
Bass Pro Shops Night Race
Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tennessee When: September 19 Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin
For the first time, the famous cramped short-track settings of BMS will host a playoff race. The night race has been particularly intriguing, known for its flaring of tempers and propensity for wrecks.
South Point 400
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nevada When: September 27 Watch: 7 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.
The Round of 12 gets underway in Sin City, where Logano punched his ticket to the playoffs in the second race of the season back in February.
Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Alabama When: October 4 Watch: 2 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Ryan Blaney
If you thought the superspeedway proceedings that closed out the regular season at Daytona were exciting, just wait until you see what the playoffs themselves have in store at Talladega, home of multi-car pile-up commonly referred to as “The Big One”.
Bank of America ROVAL 400
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, North Carolina When: October 11 Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Chase Elliott
Since being introduced to the playoff in 2018, the “roval”, a half-oval, half-road course at the hub of NASCAR, has created all kinds of postseason chaos. This will be the first time it ends the second round of the playoffs, previously seen at the end of the round of 16.
Hollywood Casino 400
Where: Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kansas When: October 18 Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin
The Round of 8 gets underway in Kanas, where Denny Hamlin has won each of the last two visits, including a weeknight race earlier this summer.
AAA Texas 500
Where: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas When: October 25 Watch: 3:30 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Kevin Harvick
Texas produced a surprise winner earlier this summer, with Dillon using strategy his favor to take hom a long-awaited victory. Harvick has won each of the last three visits in the fall.
Where: Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Virginia When: November 1 Watch: 2 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.
A battle on a short track will determine the final spots for the season finale in Arizona. Thus, racing will be tight and tempers will more than likely flare.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship
Where: Phoenix Raceway, Avondale, Arizona When: November 8 Watch: 3 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin
After nearly two decades in Miami, the NASCAR season finale proceedings will move to Phoenix. Hamlin, one of the favorites, is the defending victor, but fellow front-runner Kevin Harvick has won four times.
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?
ESM’s NASCAR experts return to debate the hot topics heading into the final Cup Series regular season race at Daytona.
ESM’s panel of NASCAR experts is back to debate the sport’s hot topics as the Cup Series ends its regular season in spectacular fashion in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The Xfinity and Truck Series likewise inch their way toward the playoffs with respective events on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Sunday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, FS1).
Which do the four turns take the ESB this weekend? Read on for their predictions and thoughts…
Turn 1: For the first time in NASCAR history, Daytona will host a regular season finale, eschewing its traditional July 4th spot. Thoughts?
Geoff Magliocchetti: I was a bit wary of the prospect in the beginning. July 4th weekend at Daytona was a fun, midsummer tradition in the win of the MLB All-Star Game. It felt almost sacrilege to deny The World Center of Racing an American tradition. But, looking at the standings, it’s impossible to deny just how smart it was to give the unpredictable Daytona the final race of the regular season. Daytona desperation is a new kind of chaos, one that can create pulse-pounding moments in the grandstands and behind the wheel. It’s insanely poetic as it is that three drivers at the end of the playoff picture are separated by only nine points. But combine that with Daytona’s propensity to produce unexpected winners…remember Justin Haley last season?…and we could see an unexpected playoff man rise to the occasion. If you think drivers go all-out to win February’s Daytona 500…the first race of the season…just imagine what they’ll do to win a race that determines the NASCAR playoff bracket.
Dylan Price: I love the move. Daytona is always the most unpredictable track on the circuit. Yes, intense bubble racing is fun, but what about everyone remotely close to the bubble giving it their all for a win. Everyone has something to prove with the playoffs a week away. Who knows, we may even see a driver come out of nowhere to make the playoffs for the first time in their career.
Nathan Solomon: I think that having Daytona as the season finale is overall a good move. It gives anyone that isn’t already in the playoffs a chance to get in with a win and puts more pressure on drivers and spotters. It should also boost ratings since it’s, well, Daytona. On the other hand, someone could get lucky and win and take away a playoff spot from someone already in the hunt. But, the new playoff format has always favored wins, and a win gets you in.
Turn 2: Yet ANOTHER win for Kevin Harvick at Dover; where’s he going to rank in terms of the greatest drivers ever when all is said and done?
Geoff Magliocchetti: What Harvick has been doing since the return to the track is not a Hall of Fame case. That was probably happening long before this season began. Instead, it’s a case to be included in the top ten greatest drivers off all-time. One cannot effectively tell the story of American auto racing without Kevin Harvick. The start to his Cup career…replacing the late Dale Earnhardt…was enough pressure to live up to as it was. He had made a strong impact on both the Cup and the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series levels. But for him to go out and continue to not just run strong in, but straight up dominate, race in this new era of no practice or qualifying is nothing short of extraordinary. He’ll perhaps need another championship or two to truly warrant consideration for NASCAR’s “Mount Rushmore”, but the second could very well come this fall at Phoenix.
Dylan Price: Harvick has written a hell of a chapter in the book that is his career in 2020. With seven wins and still 11 races to go, Harvick is on pace to contend for the record books in terms of single-season wins in the modern era (since 1972). Not only that, but he and Denny Hamlin are the clear favorites for the championship.
Nathan Solomon: Harvick will no doubt be one of the best the sport has ever seen, and likely a unanimous first ballot hall-of-famer when it comes time. He seems to get better and better each year at Stewart-Haas. His seven wins are so impressive, and all have come after the coronavirus stoppage. This year is a big year for him, as another title would certainly cement his legacy. If he keeps racing for a long time, he may be one of the winningest drivers in history.
Turn 3: Three years, still no win for William Byron. What do you make of his Cup career thus far?
Geoff Magliocchetti: To call Byron a downright “bust” would be cruel. His Cup Series debut has been laden with expectations. The hype alone can derail otherwise promising careers and only exacerbate struggling careers…remember Casey “The Next Jeff Gordon” Atwood under Ray Evernham? Additionally, his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is not Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet, but rather the declining No. 5 that Kasey Kahne left behind with a fresh coat of (Axalta) paint. Thus, it’s not fully appropriate to get down on Byron, who has also been a constant victim of bad luck. But it’s fair to say he could be on some sort of hot seat next season (his fourth at the Cup level and third with Chad Knaus) if he doesn’t get a win. Such a finish at Daytona would certainly go a long way in soothing some concerns.
Dylan Price: To this point, William Byron has not even close to filling the shoes left behind by Jeff Gordon. Byron has yet to tap into his true potential and finds himself on the bubble of the playoffs this year. Rick Hendrick and Gordon supposedly both think very highly of Byron. With that said, on track production is needed and that means a win or at least consistent finishes. So, I’d say Byron is at a point where he’s underperforming and could find himself looking for a new ride if he doesn’t step up by the end of next season at the latest.
Nathan Soloman: William Byron needs to step it up a little bit in he wants to stay at Hendrick for a long time. That all starts this weekend if he can secure a birth into the playoffs. Has he had some bad luck? Yes, he absolutely has. But that’s no excuse since he’s in the same cars that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon had extreme success in. Byron could use a win at a track like Daytona and has won a Duel race there in the past. Could luck finally be on his side this weekend?
Turn 4: Which driver outside of the top 16 has the best chance to steal a playoff spot at Daytona?
Geoff Magliocchetti: The thing about this Daytona field is that there are so many talented drivers that can steal a playoff spot. Perhaps the most attractive underdog driver is one who has no chance at the playoffs…Ross Chastain is back in a Cup car, taking over the same No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Haley navigated to victory last July. Chastain, who is competing for Xfinity Series points, was running well in the same car during February’s Daytona 500, but a late crash took him out of contention. He has run two other races in the No. 77, finishing on the lead lap in the latter at Indianapolis. A strong run at Daytona would give him some well-deserved exposure and a chance to impress potential suitors for a new, better-equipped ride next season.
Dylan Price: I have a lot of guys I’d love to eye with this pick. I really would love to see an underdog come from out of nowhere and win. Especially a back of the pack guy like Corey Lajoie could use a career-defining win. Still, outside of the top 16, one guy sticks out to me: Erik Jones. Jones is now without a ride for next season and he’s racing like a man with nothing to lose, and that’s scary. Jones could win this race and likely lock down a top tier ride for next season, so I’ll go with him outside of the top 16.
Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson is outside the top 16, but could still easily make it in on points. However, I see either Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Ryan Newman stealing a win to get into the playoffs. Both are known to be pretty good plate racers, and now they have one final chance on the last day of the regular season. Plus, what an awesome story it would be for Newman to win his first plate race back at Daytona after his horrific crash in February.
Kevin Harvick wasn’t letting NASCAR nostalgics get in the way of his seventh win of the season, which made history for his manufacturer.
Kevin Harvick wasn’t going to get the feel-good potential of a Jimmie Johnson victory lap get in the way of his own personal history in the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ doubleheader in Delaware.
Just over 24 hours after Denny Hamlin tied him in the first segment, Harvick won his series-best seventh race of the season at the Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway. Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford passed Johnson with 17 laps remaining, denying Johnson a chance to clinch a berth in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The final race of the regular season comes next weekend at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.
With the win, Harvick clinches the Cup Series’ regular-season championship, which affords him 15 bonus points. Between his seven wins and stage victories each (including two more at Dover on Sunday), Harvick has a 57-point advantage over the first cutoff line, which eliminates the 13th through 16th-place drivers after the first three races.
“It’s something that we’ve never done before, so any time you can do something for the first time is definitely fun to accomplish, and I think in this instance, it definitely pays dividends in the playoff points,” Harvick said of the regular-season title. “That’s really what you want to accomplish in the regular season is to gain as many playoff points as you can. We’ve done that by winning races.”
Harvick also moves into a ninth-place tie with fellow former champion Kyle Busch on the Cup Series’ all-time wins list with 56. Next up on the list is the late, legendary Dale Earnhardt. Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, began his Cup career by taking over for Earnhardt after the latter’s death in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s also the 700th victory for manufacturer Ford, second-most in series history behind Chevrolet.
“It’s an honor just to be up there on that list,” Harvick said. “I feel like it’s definitely a huge responsibility to be up there and be around those guys. Hopefully, we can keep this thing rolling and make up some ground on the next gap. But it’s been a lot of fun at Stewart-Haas Racing, and you’re only as good as the race cars that you have, and it’s been an honor to drive the race cars and be able to take those race cars and have success with them and capitalize on winning like we did today.”
Harvick began his conquest by stealing the first 75-lap stage from Ryan Blaney on the final stanza. From that point forward, Harvick went on to dominate the event, leading all but 19 of the remaining 236 circuits.
The biggest threat to his authority came with just over 20 laps to go, when his massive lead was erased by a caution flag brought out by the slow car of Corey LaJoie. All 16 lead lap cars came to pit road for service, including Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, the seven-time champion retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season, was running a strong race in fighting for playoff position. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team had a three-point advantage on teammate William Byron entering the second half at Dover, but a speeding penalty on pit road after the first stage allowed the No. 24 to retake the spot. Johnson worked his way back toward the front after Byron earned points by finishing ahead of Johnson in each of the first two stages.
But on these final stops, Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels opted to take only two tires, leading to a quicker stop. The move allowed the No. 48 to take the lead for the final 17-lap dash. A win for Johnson would’ve clinched his spot in the playoffs.
He’s one of the few drivers ahead of Harvick with 83, but the No. 4’s pass extended the longest drought of his career to 118. Dover had played host to 11 of those prior victories.
I knew he was at a huge deficit,” Harvick said of Johnson’s two-tire endeavor. “I think as you saw the restart there, he had a little bit of trouble getting grip, and my main goal was to just try to be beside him as we got off of turn two and he pushed up the racetrack.”
“I felt like we were still in a really good position, and obviously Jimmie has had a lot of success here, I feel like, over the last several years. If it weren’t for knocking the dang valve stems out of it, there would have been three or four more opportunities to have won races. It’s been a really good racetrack for us and felt good about the position that we were in at the end.”
Johnson and Daniels’ gutsy decision was not all for naught. Martin Truex Jr. passed him for the runner-up spot but Johnson held off Byron and another teammate, Alex Bowman, to finish third, his best finish since May’s race at Bristol. Byron holds a four-point advantage headed into the Daytona finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, NBC).
Truex finished in the runner-up spot in each of the weekend’s Cup Series events at Dover. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished no worse than third in eight of the past nine races (albeit with no wins).
The race endured a red flag period that lasted just over 12 minutes to repair a portion of the concrete surface.
Aric Almirola (7th), Kyle Busch (11th), and Kurt Busch (13th) each clinched playoff spots via points. Clint Bowyer (14th in points) is 57 points over the cutoff.
Matt DiBenedetto started on the pole after a 20th-place finish on Saturday with the field’s first 20 starting positions determined through an inversion of the prior running order. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford led the first 11 laps but a 17th-place finish leaves him only nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff.
Bowman’s top-five finish was his first since the series made its return from the coronavirus-induced pause at Darlington Raceway in May.
Saturday’s winner Denny Hamlin was relegated to a 19th-place finish after being forced to pit from second for a loose wheel at lap 227 of 311.
The days of Chase Elliott and Joey Gase ended in the opening laps when they got caught up in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spin on the sixth lap. Stenhouse was eventually able to run enough laps to finish 37th.
Austin Dillon capped off a successful return to the track in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with a top-ten finish (9th). Dillon missed last weekend’s event at Daytona’s road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19 and was replaced by Kaz Grala. The No. 3 led 46 laps on Saturday and finished 15th.
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.
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.
Kevin Harvick continued his summer surge, moving up the NASCAR Cup Series wins list by pulling off a sweep at Michigan.
Summer sweeps in Michigan are often reserved for the Detroit Tigers. Kevin Harvick provided an exception over the weekend.
Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team entered elite company in several ways by winning the Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. The 44-year-old won the 55th race of his NASCAR Cup Series career, moving him into an eighth-place tie with Rusty Wallace on the all-time list. Having also won the FireKeepers Casino 400 on Saturday, Harvick became the first driver since seven-time champion Richard Petty (1971) to win Cup Series races on consecutive days.
“I think a lot of (our success) just goes into how prepared our team is and the details that they’re covering to get the cars right, get them close, come to the racetrack, watch the pit crew perform, watch (crew chief Rodney Childers) make great calls. I get to race the car on the racetrack and do the best that I can,” Harvick said in a postrace Zoom call. “I love my guys to death. They do a great job. I hate not being able to celebrate with them. That’s the part that really frustrates me more than anything.”
Harvick’s series-best sixth win of the 2020 season came after a hard-fought battle with Denny Hamlin. The latter was also seeking his sixth victory of the campaign in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 Toyota. Harvick dominated a majority of the event but a window opened for Hamlin when Alex Bowman lost a tire with just under 20 circuits to go in the 156-lap event.
Running third behind Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin took advantage of the newly instituted “choose cone” rule, opting to be the first car on the inside lane when Harvick and Truex went for the higher, outside position.
Hamlin battled Harvick to the last lap, but the 2014 Cup Series champion took home victory by a .093-second margin. Gibbs Toyota also took the next two spots with Truex in third and Kyle Busch in fourth while Joey Logano finished the top five.
“We’re really happy for everybody at Ford that our Busch Light Apple Ford was really fast again today,” Harvick said. “I had a little trouble in the end in three and four, Denny was really good down there. We were able to do a little defensive driving and keep him back there and make it to victory lane in the end.”
Four races remain in the Cup Series’ regular season, and the trek gets even more treacherous next weekend. For the first time, NASCAR will run events at the road course at Daytona International Speedway. The premier Cup Series will run the GoBowling 235 on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, NBC). This event replaces the annual trek to Watkins Glen International, whose proceedings were canceled in the wake of the ongoing health crisis.
Michigan native Brad Keselowski, who won last week’s event at New Hampshire, was going for his first career win at his home track. But his No. 2 Team Penske Ford got loose on lap 96, sending him into race leader and teammate Ryan Blaney. The pair finished at the pack of the back. Keselowski is now winless in 23 MIS events
Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer started second and led each of the first 43 laps en route to a victory in the first stage of the race. Bowyer finished 14th but the stage win played a part in keeping a 60-point lead on the postseason cutoff line.
William Byron (12th) continues to hold the 16th and final playoff spot amongst non-victorious drivers. He’s 26 points ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (11th) and Erik Jones (27th). It was announced this week that Jones, driver of Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota, would not return to the vehicle in 2021.
Kevin Harvick took home his fifth NASCAR Cup Series win of the season, holding off Brad Keselowski at the latter’s home track.
The Detroit Tigers weren’t at Comerica Park on Saturday afternoon, but a closer nonetheless took to a Michigan landmark’s final stages to steal the show and secure a win.
The FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway saw three restarts over its final 18 laps ended with Kevin Harvick capturing his fifth victory of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, also earned his fourth win at MIS and the 54th triumph of his Cup career tying him with Lee Petty for the ninth-most all-time.
Harvick was upfront for a majority of the event, leading 92 of 156 laps and winning each of the race’s three stages. He had his hands full as the race reached its latter portions.
Saturday’s race, the first of a weekend doubleheader at Michigan, was the first regular season event to use the choose cone rule, which allows racers to pick their lane on restarts. The format has been a staple in other sanctioned auto racing events and made its unofficial NASCAR debut at the All-Star Race exhibition at Bristol earlier this summer. With this rule, drivers can improve or sacrifice their spot on the leaderboard, though they get to get up to speed in the lane they prefer. The top lane at Michigan, treated with the PJ1 traction compound, was the preferred lane of Harvick and the rest of the leaders.
Chase Elliott used the rule to his advantage to take a late lead, but Harvick took the lead back after the yellow came out for Ryan Preece’s scrape with the wall. Two more incidents, including a multi-car pile-up involving Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman that sent the race to overtime, set up one final chance for the rest of the field. Harvick was able to hold off a furious challenge from Brad Keselowski, who was seeking his second straight win and swipe the victory by a .284-second margin.
Martin Truex Jr. went from eighth to third over the two-lap dash, while Ryan Blaney came home fourth. Kyle Busch got loose after a fierce battle for the lead with Harvick but recovered to finish fifth.
The second half of the Michigan doubleheader will come on Sunday afternoon in the form of the Consumers Energy 400 (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Bubba Wallace (9th) earned his fourth top-ten finish of the season, setting a new career-high.
Aric Almirola (16th) saw his streak of consecutive top-ten finishes end at nine.
The starting lineup for Sunday’s race will be determined by inverting the top 20 finishers and the rest set by directly by final spot. By finishing 20th, Chris Buescher will start on the pole.
John Hunter Nemechek was involved in three on-track incidents, including a wreck that officially sent him to the garage at lap 131.
A brief red flag came out after Cole Custer wrecked at lap 150, lasting just under six minutes as fluid was cleared off the track.
For the first time in nearly three years, a rookie won in the NASCAR Cup Series, as Cole Custer’s last-lap pass scored an improbable victory.
Kentucky is known for hosting “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” via the Kentucky Derby, whose post time has been pushed to September. The NASCAR Cup Series was happy to partly fill the gap in the meantime at Kentucky Speedway.
The final two laps of the Quaker State 400 took just over a minute to complete, but they certainly retained the level of excitement and intensity the Thoroughbreds often provide on the first Saturday in May. An hour away from Churchill Downs, Cole Custer and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford came out on top at the end of a two-lap shootout, the final portions of the 267-circuit event. The rookie Custer beat out the combined 84 Cup Series wins of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Blaney to earn his first victory at NASCAR’s premier level.
Custer sat in the sixth position when the caution flag came out for Matt Kenseth’s spin with six laps to go. He got a good push on the outside from fellow first-win seeker Matt DiBenedetto on the outside lane to catapult past the lead trio of Harvick, Truex, and Blaney. Once Custer got into clean air at the front, he was able to hold Truex off by 0.271 seconds to earn his first win in his 20th Cup start.
Custer, 22, has finished in the top five in the final standings in each of the past three NASCAR Xfinity Series campaigns. His full-time Cup Series debut got off to a tough start with only one top-ten finish over his first 15 starts in 2020. But he built momentum with a fifth-place finish at last week’s event at Indianapolis before his historic afternoon at Kentucky. Sunday featured not only the first win for Custer, but also the first win for his crew chief Mike Shiplett. The two united for seven wins at the Xfinity level last season.
The win for Custer proved monumental in other ways on the national level as well. Custer’s win ensures him a spot in the NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Had Sunday’s effort fallen short, Custer would’ve had to race his way into the exhibition by winning one of the three stages of the NASCAR All-Star Open. One more driver will reach the event through a fan vote. Provided he finishes in the top 30 in the points standings, Custer has also more or less clinched a spot in the Cup Series playoffs this fall. He is the first Rookie of the Year competitor to a win a Cup Series race since Chris Buescher won the rain-shortened Pocono event in August 2016 and the first to do so without the assistance of weather since Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma Raceway in 2007 (Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski won as part-time drivers in 2011 and 2013 respectively).
Truex, a two-time winner at Kentucky, managed to hold on to the runner-up spot despite late contact with Harvick, who finished third behind DiBenedetto. Defending race-winner Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.
Following the non-points race at Bristol, the NASCAR regular season resumes next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway via the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Custer currently sits in the 20th spot in the standings but leapfrogs ahead of 16th-place Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot. Dillon was involved in a late incident with Brennan Poole but recovered to finish 13th.
Jimmie Johnson returned to the track after missing the Indianapolis race due to a positive test for COVID-19. It ended his streak of 663 consecutive Cup Series starts, but two negative tests in a 24-hour span allowed him to return. Johnson was in third place for a restart with 19 laps to go, but contact with Brad Keselowski spun him out and relegated him to an 18th-place finish. He nonetheless holds the final playoff spots via points, 24 points in front of Dillon.
In addition to Custer, two other rookies finished in the top ten, including Christopher Bell (7th) and Tyler Reddick (10th).
Aric Almirola saw his streak of consecutive top-five postings end at five races. Almirola still managed a top-ten finish (8th) and won the first stage of the race as part of a streak where he led 128 consecutive laps.
Benefitting from a separate Kenseth spin, Keselowski (9th) used a late caution to his advantage to win stage two.
John Hunter Nemechek (accident), Timmy Hill (electrical), Ryan Preece (transmission) all failed to finish
A late incident involving Denny Hamlin allowed Kevin Harvick to emerge from Indianapolis with his fourth win of the NASCAR Cup Series season.
With the Colts, Pacers, and Fever on hiatus, Kevin Harvick was happy to provide Indianapolis with some late athletic heroics during the NASCAR Cup Series’ annual excursion to perhaps auto racing’s most hallowed ground.
Denny Hamlin led the race with eight laps to go, but when a lost tire slammed him into Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s wall, Harvick took advantage. Flanked by teammates from Stewart-Haas Racing, his No. 4 Ford held off fellow veteran and Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth over a two-lap shootout to win the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered By Big Machine Records.
The win was Harvick’s fourth of the 2020 season and his third in the 400-mile event at the track known as The Brickyard. He joins Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the only NASCAR drivers to win at least three times at IMS, which has hosted the Cup Series annually since 1994.
Harvick, who started the day in 11th via random draw, took his first lead of the day at Lap 17 of 160 in the midst of the race’s competition caution. Crew chief Rodney Childers brought the No. 4 down pit road shortly before the yellow flag waved.
The gambit paid off in more ways than one. Not only did Harvick take the lead when his competitors needed service, but he also avoided a pile-up at the narrow entrance that ended the day of several drivers including Ryan Preece, Corey LaJoie, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Zach Price, a tire-changer on Ryan Blaney’s pit crew, got pinched between his No. 12 Ford and Brennan Poole’s No. 15 in the chaos. Price was transported to a local hospital, but seemed to be in good spirits otherwise. NBC cameras showed him smiling and displaying the thumbs up as he was loaded into the ambulance.
William Byron took the first 50-lap stage, but Harvick fought back to take the second. It appeared that Harvick and Hamlin would once again be the drivers to beat after swapping the top-two spots during the doubleheader at Pocono last weekend. Over the final 60-lap segment, it appeared that would be how things shaped out. Hamlin would set himself up to take the lead from Harvick after pitting one lap before the No. 4. Kenseth, on a different pit cycle, would hold the lead from lap 123 through 134, when Alex Bowman lost a tire and hit the wall hard to bring out the caution.
Hamlin took the lead when Kenseth needed service during the Bowman caution and beat Harvick out on the ensuing restart. He had distanced himself from Harvick and Kenseth, who worked his way up to third, and seemed to be coasting toward his fifth victory of the year.
But going into the first turn, Hamlin lost a tire and took a hard hit to the wall, ending his chances at the win and setting up a two-lap, winner-take-all finish. Hamlin was one of several drivers who saw their days hampered or ended entirely due to tire issues, joining Bowman, Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, and Justin Allgaier.
Harvick assumed the lead next to Kenseth. Behind them were Harvick’s SHR teammates Aric Almirola and Cole Custer. He got off to a strong restart, aided by a strong push from the rookie Custer’s No. 41 Ford. From there, he was able to get into clean air and deny Kenseth his first Indianapolis title.
Kenseth has now finished in the Brickyard’s runner-up spot on four occasions. His second-place posting was nonetheless his best finish since taking over the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet from the fired Kyle Larson. Almirola would continue a hot streak in third, his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Brad Keselowski snuck into fourth, while Custer hung on to post first career Cup Series top five.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon for at Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1).
Sunday marked the first NASCAR Cup Series event without Jimmie Johnson since November 23, 2001, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion, was the first driver to test positive for COVID-19, though he has not experienced any symptoms. Allgaier is set to be the replacement driver until Johnson has two negative tests in a 24-hour span.
Sunday saw a major shakeup toward the bottom of the NASCAR playoff standings. Byron and Jones held the final two playoff seeds (15th and 16th respectively) entering the race, followed by 17th-place Austin Dillon. Each stayed out to earn valuable stage points at the end of the first segment (won by Byron). Dillon was able to slightly take advantage of Byron and Jones’ wrecks. Despite being relegated to an 18th-place finish after wrecking with Matt DiBenedetto on the final lap, Dillon currently holds the final playoff spot, ahead of Jones by six points. Johnson, currently in 15th, is 36 points ahead of Jones.
For the first time, IMS hosted NASCAR’s annual July 4th-weekend event. Daytona International Speedway’s 400-mile event had hosted the race from 1959 through last season. In another first, NASCAR also hosted shared a doubleheader with the IndyCar Series, which ran alongside the NASCAR Xfinity Series on the in-house road course on Saturday. Scott Dixon won the IndyCar event, while Chase Briscoe won his fifth Xfinity event of the season.
Michael McDowell finished seventh in the mid-budget No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford. It’s McDowell’s second top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega over the last three races after posting only one over his first dozen seasons.
In addition to Custer, the top 15 finishers featured three other rookies, including Tyler Reddick (8th), Christopher Bell (12th), and John Hunter Nemechek (15th).
Bubba Wallace (9th) tied his career-best with his third top-ten finish. He currently sits in 19th place in the standings, 42 points behind Dillon for the final playoff spot.
Martin Truex Jr. (38th) drew the eighth starting spot but suffered engine trouble in the early stages. He was later involved in the pit road accident and retired his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after 16 laps.