NASCAR: Three Drivers to watch in Sunday’s Goodyear 400

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

For the first time in seven, the NASCAR Cup Series makes a stop at Darlington Speedway for a scheduled spring race. The series went there twice last spring when NASCAR returned from their COVID-19 pause, but the events weren’t on the original schedule.

Sunday’s event is set for 293 laps and 400.2 miles around the 1.366-mile circuit. Brad Keselowski will lead the field to green while last week’s winner Kyle Busch will roll off third. Here are three drivers to watch in the Goodyear 400.

Kevin Harvick (+700)

Not many drivers have been able to tame the “Lady in Black”, but Kevin Harvick has done so three times in the Cup Series. He’s won two of the three races at the track last season, including the first race back from the pandemic. Harvick has 15 top-10s in 26 starts at Darlington, including 11 top-5s.

Through 11 races, Harvick sits 8th in the Cup Series standings despite being winless thus far. He has 4 top-5s and 8 top-10s, also earning many stage points. Sunday could finally be the day Harvick scores his first win of 2021, and he has a good chance to do so.

Erik Jones (+8000)

In less than stellar equipment, Erik Jones has had an up-and-down season. He’s 27th in the standings 2 top-10s in 11 starts and spent time in contention a few weeks ago at Talladega.

Jones has an opportunity to better his points position with a strong finish at Darlington. He’s finished in the top-10 in each of his six starts at the track, including a victory in 2019. His average finish is a stellar 5.2. Be sure to look out for Jones this weekend in the Goodyear 400.

Tyler Reddick (+4000)

Tyler Reddick has had a sneaky good 2021 season in improved Richard Childress Racing equipment. He’s finished in the top-10 in four of his last five races and currently sits in 18th place in the points standings.

Tracks like Darlington and Homestead-Miami where cars kind of just slide around the corners are Reddick’s best. He finished in the top-10 once last season in the Cup Series and also has a pair of top-5s in the Xfinity Series. Don’t be surprised to see Tyler Reddick contend on Sunday and potentially steal a win.

NASCAR: Kyle Busch earns a birthday sweep at Kansas

A multitude of cautions led to a two-lap shootout at Kansas, where birthday boy Kyle Busch won his first NASCAR Cup Series race of 2021.

With a name like the Buschy McBusch Race 400, it was only appropriate that one of the Busch brothers earned their first NASCAR Cup Series win at Sunday’s event at Kansas Speedway.

The younger Kyle Busch took the honors on Sunday, celebrating his 36th birthday with the 58th victory of his Cup Series career. Busch also won the Camping World Truck Series event on Saturday night. On the premier Cup level, he survived a wild two-lap shootout brought on by a late multitude of cautions to earn the victory. Kevin Harvick finished second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Matt DiBenedetto, and Chase Elliott.

Busch’s win is involved in several historical marks. He reties Harvick at 58 career Cup Series wins, becoming the 10th driver to reach that tally, and has now won at least one Cup race in each of the last 17 seasons, tying David Pearson for the second-longest such streak of all-time (Richard Petty leads at 18). Busch also becomes the second driver to win multiple races on his birthday, joining Cale Yarborough. A previous celebration came at Richmond in 2009. The victory also came at an emotional time for Busch, as he and his wife Samantha have been open about their struggles with fertility. Samantha did not attend Sunday’s race, encouraged by Kyle to take their five-year-old son Brexton to his own racing event.

The Kansas race ran incident-free for over 200 laps before the course of the event changed during the final cycle of green-flag pit stops. A loose tire from Tyler Reddick’s No. 8 stall landed at the edge of the divide between pit road and the infield. Race officials opted to wait until every car pitted before waving the yellow flag for debris.

That yellow ended the domination of Kyle Larson, who led a race-high 132 laps and held a large lead over Busch when the yellow came out with 37 laps to go. That caution begat three others, as separate incidents removed Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Christopher Bell from contention. Busch took the lead at lap 257 of 267, shortly before a wreck between Bell and Stenhouse also took out Ryan Preece.

Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota began the final restart starting next to Ryan Blaney, who a push from Larson behind him. That shove was a bit too strong, as Blaney got loose, removing them both from victory consideration, and relegating Larson to 19th and Blaney down to 21st. Busch thus drove away for the win, becoming the 10th different driver to win over the 2021 season’s first 11 races. Kansas will host one of the ten playoff races later this fall.

The NASCAR Cup Series will return to action next weekend at Darlington Raceway, as the circuit celebrates its annual “throwback weekend” on Mother’s Day through the Goodyear 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – MAY 02: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Mix Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Buschy McBusch Race 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 02, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Race Notes

  • William Byron finished ninth, extending his streak of top ten finishes to a series-long nine.

 

  • With his fourth-place finish, DiBenedetto is now the current holder of the final NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot, holding it by 12 points over Kurt Busch.

 

  • Keselowski, the pole sitter, led the first 72 laps after winning last weekend’s race at Talladega.

 

  • Matt Mills made his Cup Series debut in a Ford owned by competitor BJ McLeod, finishing 38th.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR’s Bristol Dirt Race: What you need to know

Mother Nature hasn’t cooperated, but NASCAR is prepared to take to the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday afternoon.

Similar to the NHL’s Winter Classic, NASCAR is set to move away from its traditional surface for an arena that may harken back to the participants’ earliest playing days.

The unpredictable asphalt of Bristol Motor Speedway has obtained a 30,000-ton plot twist through the addition of dirt. Stock car racing on dirt has been fairly common at lower, local levels of racing, but the premier NASCAR Cup Series has not run a race on dirty since 1970. Though weather has postponed the celebration, that streak is set to end on Monday afternoon through the Food City Dirt Race (4 p.m. ET, Fox).

This special event was originally set to be held on Sunday, with qualifying heat races on Saturday. Alas, flooding rains in the Sullivan County area, ones that have turned parts of the BMS parking lot into a de facto lake, have delayed the proceedings. ESM has everything you need to know…

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 26: A general vie of trucks during practice for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 26, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Dirt

The premier Cup Series last ran on dirt in Raleigh when Richard Petty won by two laps at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds over five decades prior. Bristol is already known for its short-track racing and even shorter tempers. Further unpredictability stems from the dirt surface, which took 2,300 truckloads to completely cover.

Plenty of drivers in Monday’s Cup Series have prior dirt experience. Several dirt track stars will make Cup cameos while series regulars plan to run the Camping World Truck Series race prior to the main event (12 p.m. ET, FS1). The Truck Series previously held a dirt event at Ohio-based Eldora Speedway and six of the seven winners from its 75-mile event (Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Chase Briscoe, and Stewart Friesen) will appear in the Cup’s 250-lap endeavor.

But a practice session on Friday afternoon was almost all the preparation afforded to the drivers of Cup cars that weigh over 3,000 lbs., gargantuan compared to the relatively tiny sprint cars (cars with high power-to-weight ratios) and late models (where the latest model of a manufacturer is used) typically run on dirt. Not even a return to the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Circuit on the iRacing circuit earlier last week could provide much help. Ryan Blaney, winner of last week’s event at Atlanta, was the fastest car in the practice session, which also yielded another set of tires for the Cup after excessive wheel wear was on display. Unlike late model cars, the use of a windshield also proved detrimental during the practices on Saturday, as excess mud completely blinded the competitors.

Drivers have thus turned to whatever sources they can to help them become relative earthbenders as the green flag nears. Six Cup regulars (Wallace, Larson, Briscoe, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Daniel Suarez) will run the CWTS race. Blaney has turned to his father Dave, a former Cup Series veteran and renowned dirt champion in the World of Outlaws sprint car division. Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion entering his second decade on the circuit, has consulted with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Briscoe…a Cup Series rookie with dirt experience and a Trucks win at Eldora.

“It’s definitely weird to have a guy like that coming to me, but it’s neat,” Briscoe, driver of the No. 14 Ford at the Cup level. “Typically, it’s me going to Kevin. We actually talked (last week) for probably 20-30 minutes on the phone just going through the different things of what I felt like the car is gonna need to have, things that he can expect to see, feeling he can expect to feel, and just kind of where he needs to try to get his car during practice. Hopefully, I didn’t steer him in the wrong direction and hopefully, he can have a good run.”

The Favorite 

Already followed by a massive spotlight, Kyle Larson was set to shine and stand out amidst Bristol’s dirt. Fired from his NASCAR ride after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event…a happening Larson continues to make amends for and evolve from…Larson returned to the dirt circuits where he originally made his racing name. He took home wins in 46 events, including the Chili Bowl National event in January. Larson would defend that title this year, becoming a multi-winner alongside NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart in the event often labeled the Super Bowl of midget racing.

The Bristol dirt event was supposed to be a coming-out for Larson, a return to glory for both and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But it appears Larson has already taken care of that part, as he has emerged as one of the hottest drivers of the Cup Series’ first month of action. Larson has taken full advantage of his new opportunity, winning at Phoenix, the site of November’s championship finale festivities, and dominating last weekend’s event at Atlanta before his tires faltered late. Nonetheless, Larson has led the most laps amongst 2021 Cup drivers (379) and paces the current standings with only Denny Hamlin ahead.

But for all the hype around Larson’s return to dirt, the driver insists this weekend will be like any normal event. Strong showings in the early races have likely removed some of the burden Larson holds as one of the more experienced dirt drivers.

“I don’t think I view any weekend differently. I want to win every weekend,” Larson said. “So, it doesn’t relax me any more; it wouldn’t have made me any more stressed going in there. It’s still early in the year and we’ve been running well. I’ve been confident that we were going to make the playoffs no matter what, based off of just sheer speed and being with a great team. Had we started the year off badly or average and been around that bubble spot right now with no win going into Bristol, yeah, I would probably have a lot more pressure on me to go win. But we’ve been running well, so that doesn’t change my mindset now going into Bristol.”

With the qualifying heats washed out, Larson was originally set to start on the pole but an engine change made after his practice run will banish him to the rear of the field. On paper, that could cause a problem: Monday’s race will run for 250 laps as opposed to the 500 normally run on Bristol’s asphalt. Stage breaks will come after the first 100 laps to set up a 50-lap finish. Larson will be unable to gain spots on pit road, as NASCAR is eschewing traditional pit stops out of an abundance of caution for the long-awaited dirt event.

“It’ll be long. The track will change a lot, so just have to stay on top of that and hopefully our Freightliner Chevy is good and we can stay out front for most of it.”

It has, in fact, been Larson’s teammate that has dominated the more recent affairs at Bristol this week. Alex Bowman, taking over in Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet for HMS, topped the first of two practice sessions and was the runner-up to Blaney in the second. In other HMS affairs, William Byron won the aforementioned virtual event in iRacing on Wednesday, while defending Cup Chase Elliott made offseason headlines for continuing to race in different disciplines after hoisting the trophy in Phoenix.

“When you challenge yourself in different ways, it’s good for you. It’s good for you to go and push yourself to new levels,” Elliott said. “Coming off a great season, it’s great to go and kind of find new limits. Understand more about yourself in different ways, ways that you haven’t experienced before. And all those new experiences, if you take one thing from all of them combined, you’ve spent your time in a good place and it was worth doing it.”

“I think the bottom line is just a new challenge, a new set of circumstances, a new discipline – all of those things just are pushing yourself in ways that I haven’t done in the past and I think it’s a good thing. I hope I can do some more of it.”

Larson will also compete in the Truck Series event for Niece Motorsports in the No. 44 Chevrolet, starting 28th in his first CWTS event since November 2016.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 26: Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 HighPoint.com Ford, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 26, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Unpredictability

Upsets began long before March Madness started.

Through six events, the NASCAR Cup Series has seen six different visitors to victory lane. Daytona offered first-time winners on both its legendary oval (Michael McDowell) and new road course (Bell). Larson’s win at Phoenix was his first since October 2019 at Dover. Playoff drivers Blaney, Truex, and Byron have likewise earned wins, but some of the series’ more renowned names like Elliott, Hamlin, Harvick, and Kyle Busch have gone without. The series record for most unique winners to start a year is ten, earned back in 2000 through names like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and both Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr.

While the parity has revamped excitement, it’s raised stress levels of drivers in the garage. On paper, a win more or less secures a spot in the 16-driver NASCAR playoffs, provided the car remains in the top 30 in points overall. But with different drivers winning and dominating the opening slate, some have theorized that we could see more than 16 winners, which would leave some drivers in an awkward spot on the playoff bubble following the 26th race at Daytona this summer.

Superspeedway events often provide unusual winners that could end up swiping playoff spots. McDowell’s win at Daytona, for example, was his first in 357 Cup Series starts and served as a major boon to his Front Row Motorsports team, NASCAR’s equivalent of a mid-major at the Big Dance. There are thoughts that the dirt at Bristol can produce another surprise winner that serves as a crasher to the playoff party.

“Anybody could go win this race,” Briscoe said. “I think it’s somewhere in the middle of a superspeedway and just a normal race. Equipment is still gonna matter a little more than it would at a superspeedway, but at the same time I feel like any team could go here and run better than they typically do.”

Briscoe would know as he’s one of the drivers that most stands to benefit from the dirt activities. The Rookie of the Year contender is mired in a 27th-place standings hole, 57 points away from Chris Buescher, the final current playoff entrant based on points. It’s a stark contrast from Briscoe’s Xfinity Series endeavors last season, when he set a single-season record with ten victories before taking over for the driver-turned-Fox analyst Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Ford.

The early struggles for Briscoe have been part of team-wide woes at SHR. Harvick has been consistent with top ten finishes in all but one race so far, but it’s nothing compared to his regular season dominance last season (nine wins). The most recent ROTY, Cole Custer (22nd, 39 points out), is a few slots ahead of Briscoe, who is tied with Aric Almirola. All four of SHR’s Fords reached the playoffs last season, including Bowyer in Briscoe’s No. 14, but only a toned down Harvick would appear if the season ended today.

Briscoe knows that his dirt experience can play to his advantage. He won the 2018 Eldora Truck event in a photo finish over Grant Enfinger and will run the series’ event on Monday in the No. 04 Ford owned by Cory Roper, who drove it to a third-place finish at Daytona to open the year.

“I think it’ll drive way different. Eldora, I think you can get away with driving the car pretty sideways, where Bristol I don’t know if you’re gonna do that at Bristol, truthfully,” Briscoe said of the differences between Bristol and Eldora. “(Stock cars) just aren’t meant to be on dirt. They don’t drive very well on dirt, so I would say that would be the biggest thing is it’s hard for me to really say until we go do it just because I do think Bristol is gonna drive quite a bit different than Eldora.”

Briscoe certainly isn’t alone in drivers who can steal a playoff seed with their dirt experience. A strong showing for Wallace, the 2014 Eldora champ, would certainly be a terrific boon for his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota venture alongside team owners Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan. Larson singled out both Bell and Dillon as drivers to watch on Monday.

But Briscoe knows that the dirt can giveth…and the dirt can taketh away.

“It could be a huge boost to our team, but it also could be a downfall if we go there and really struggle because there are such high hopes,” Briscoe noted. “Nobody knows what to expect from a setup standpoint. Some teams could hit it. Some teams could miss it. Hopefully, we get it right. I think setup is still very important on the dirt side. Just because you have a dirt background still doesn’t mean you’re gonna win this race. There are a lot of variables that go into it.”

One thing’s for sure…drivers have taken a liking to their unusual surroundings, as Harvick attested to the Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer.

“This has been a weekend that I had big X’s through, and honestly, that’s as much fun as I’ve had in a race car in a long time,” Harvick said. “Just getting over my anxiety and being able to do something way outside my comfort zone was rewarding.”

For the full Cup Series lineup, click here

For the full Truck Series lineup, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

The NASCAR Cup Series heads Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Sunday’s race is one of the longest events of the season: 325 laps and 500 miles. Tire ware will be key, as Atlanta’s old surface wears tires down significantly after just a few laps. Here are three drivers to watch:

Kevin Harvick

Atlanta Motor Speedway has always been one of Kevin Harvick’s best tracks. His first career victory came there in 2001 and he’s won two of the last four events at the track. Harvick’s finished in the top-10 in half of his races at Atlanta (15 of 30), and he has an average finish of 15.8.

Through five races this season, Harvick’s primarily ran up front with four top-5s but has yet to secure a checkered flag. Expect Harvick to contend on Sunday.

Brad Keselowski

Similarly to Harvick, Brad Keselowski has won two of the last four Cup Series events at Atlanta. He’s finished in the top-10 in 8 of 12 races at the track with an average finish of 14.6. Keselowski hasn’t finished outside of the top-10 at Atlanta since the 2014 fall race.

Keselowski has already picked up three top-5s this season, including a fourth place effort last weekend in Phoenix. He has yet to win this season, so expect Keselowski to be there at the end.

Matt DiBenedetto

Through five races, Matt DiBenedetto has had a lot of trouble putting things together in 2021. After three races finishing 28th or worse to start the season, DiBenedetto has picked up a pair of top-20s to advance into the top-30 of the standings.

Atlanta has by no means been DiBenedetto’s best track over his career, as he’s failed to place better than 25th in five races. However, with pressure mounting on him, expect DiBenedetto to finally piece together a good run and get back into points contention.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch on Sunday in the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix on Sunday for the Instacart 500 — the fifth race of the 2021 season. Sunday’s event is an important one, as the race is on the track that will host the season finale in November. Top drivers will focus on set-ups in Sunday’s race to be better prepared if they are in the Championship 4 later this season. Here are three drivers to watch in the Instacart 500:

Chase Elliott:

Coming off a win in Phoenix last fall to secure the championship, Chase Elliott is one of the biggest names to watch on Sunday. He’s finished in the top-10 in 6 of his 10 career starts in the desert. After a decent start this season, Elliott is due for a win. He’s finished in the top-10 once so far in 2021, however, he sits fourth in overall points. Expect Elliott to contend for the win on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick:

Phoenix Raceway has always been one of Kevin Harvick’s best tracks. He’s won there nine times over his career, and placed runner-up twice. This season, Harvick has finished in the top-10 in three of four races and sits seventh in standings. Harvick has gotten off to a strong start this season, and it’d be fitting for him to pick up his first win of 2021 in Phoenix

Aric Almirola:

2021 has been less than stellar thus far for Aric Almirola. Currently sitting 28th in points, Almirola has failed to finish within the top-10 and has just one top-20. He’s crashed in two of four races and hasn’t spent much time up front. Going into Sunday’s race, Almirola has six top-10s in 20 starts at Phoenix Raceway. Almirola could use a strong run this weekend to turn his season around.

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick reflects on the past, present, and future

As the NASCAR Cup Series rolls in the Phoenix, Kevin Harvick took some time to reflect on his lauded racing career.

Kevin Harvick has spent his NASCAR Cup Series career partaking, even creating, a different brand of March Madness. Thursday, for example, will mark the 20th anniversary of his first Cup victory, earned in just his third start. Harvick had taken over the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet left behind by the late Dale Earnhardt and held off Jeff Gordon in a photo finish to win the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 by a .006-second margin.

“It feels like a lifetime ago,” Harvick said of that emotion afternoon in reflection on Tuesday morning. Brought into the Cup Series through the most tragic of circumstances, Harvick looked back at the safety innovations made over the last 20 years.

“I think as you look at the sport the one thing that sticks out to me is just the massive amount of effort that NASCAR has put into putting our sport where it is today from a safety standpoint, and I think from Dale’s death and to where we are today and the things that accident taught us about our race cars and safety equipment and seats and walls and chassis,” he said. “The way that our sport operates and the way that sports operate in general is much different than it was in 2001, but the safety side is the side from a driving standpoint that sticks out the most to me.”

More recent history weighed on Harvick’s mind as well. The NASCAR circuit returns to Phoenix Raceway this weekend, with the Cup Series race coming on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Phoenix is the current site of NASCAR’s championship weekend, supplanting Homestead-Miami Speedway last season. But, at least this weekend, Phoenix might better known for hosting the last “normal” race weekend, one rife with the typical trappings of a NASCAR race weekend: practice, qualifying, the seating and garage areas packed to the gills. That afternoon, fans watched Joey Logano hold off Harvick to win the Phoenix spring event now known as the Instacart 500.

Days later, the ongoing health crisis served as the ultimate red flag pushing back the circuit’s return to Atlanta. NASCAR held out as long as it could, but it eventually joined its fellow professional leagues in hiatus before returning two months later.

Harvick would become one of the most prominent faces of NASCAR’s triumphant return. Adhering to social distancing mandates limited on-site personnel and often had drivers go right from their streetcars to their racecars. Qualifying and practice were eliminated to confine race weekends into a single day of action. Already bound for the Hall of Fame in Charlotte prior to the pause, Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, made his case to be included amongst the immortals.

The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won the first race back at Darlington in May, the first of a series-best nine wins. It allowed him to move into seventh place on the premier circuit’s all-time wins list. Bad luck in the postseason prevented Harvick from competing for a title in the regularly scheduled return to Phoenix in November. But it allowed a national audience, some of whom were enjoying their first racing experience, to witness his greatness and seal his spot amongst the essential names in NASCAR history through dominant efforts unaided by practice or qualifying runs.

Harvick, however, was more pleased with the changes NASCAR was able to make as a whole, reasoning that a hidden benefit of the forced changes was that the sport took full advantage of a chance to try new things.

“As a sport, we’ve done a really good job of navigating and adapting to our environment and doing the things that we need to do to put on a race and a show and obviously you’re seeing fans back in the stands,” Harvick noted. “I think our sport has been a leader on a lot of those types of things. I think, from a team standpoint and a sport, we’ve definitely been able to try a lot of things we probably wouldn’t have tried if it wasn’t for COVID.

“I think when you step back from it COVID will have forever changed our sport in many different areas,” he continued. “I think we’ve realized a lot of inefficiencies we’ve had as a sport from how many people we take to the track to how we function, how many days we need to be at the track. There are just so many little things that will make us more efficient, whether it’s how we bring guests to the racetrack, how we sign in, the sheer number of people, the days we’re at the racetrack.  I think there are just a lot of things that happened that probably wouldn’t have happened as rapidly if we weren’t in this environment, so in a really, really bad scenario, I think we’re gonna come out of this with a lot of ideas and tried a lot of things we might have not necessarily tried if it was a normal year.”

On a personal level in dealing with the pandemic, Harvick was far more pleased to speak about his off-track exploits. He has spent extended time with his family, noting he has sat down to more homecooked meals and doesn’t even leave to go grocery shopping. He and his wife DeLana continue to homeschool their children Keelan and Piper, even with schools open in the local area.

“There’s a lot of things that have changed personally in the way that our household functions in a very good way,” the patriarch Harvick said. “I think that’s probably something that I would tell you is how racing used to be.”

Looking back at some of the more emotional, yet triumphant, moments of his Cup career allowed Harvick to step away from his 2021 endeavors hitting a bit of a wall last week in Las Vegas. The No. 4 Ford started on the pole, earned through strong finishes over the first three events. Harvick and reigning Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell were the only drivers to earn top ten finishes in each leg of the opening trio.

Alas for Harvick, he struggled with an ill-handling racecar all day and eventually finished a lap down in 20th. Somehow, that was the best part of the afternoon for SHR, as Harvick’s No. 4 was their best-finish vehicle. Rookie Chase Briscoe finished immediately behind him while last season’s Rookie of the Year and Harvick’s fellow 2020 playoff contender Cole Custer rounded out the top 25. Aric Almirola, another playoff man in the No. 10 Ford, continued a brutal start to the season through a wreck that pushed him back to dead last in 38th.

Asked to describe his No. 4 Ford last weekend, Harvick merely replied “not fun”. But Harvick insists he’s not angry, and that the affair has already been forgotten. He says he would have the same mindset had he reached victory lane on Sunday.

“(Being) angry takes too much time and it’s hard to carry that all the way through the week,” he said. “I think when you look back at the first race last year and you have a chance to win the race and have the best car and then you go back to the second race and things don’t go your way just because it’s not what you expected, that’s just part of what we do.  You guys sometimes see the results and look at it and say, ‘He’s gonna be this or that,’ and, really, it’s just the same.  It’s really no different as you get into the meetings on Monday.  The conversations may be different, but it’s the same routine week after week for me.”

Phoenix would be a perfect place for Harvick to get his 2021 campaign back on the right track. He is by far the winningest driver in the history of the mile-long oval in the desert with nine visits to the winner’s circle. No other driver has earned more than four wins at the track.

The closest Harvick came to displaying any form of vanity was when he addressed an inquiry over whether he was a threat at Phoenix as a “silly question” in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“I think you should go back and look at the first race from last year that we led the most laps and had the fastest car. We wound up finishing second,” Harvick said of last spring’s visit. “I would consider us a challenger at just about any racetrack that you go to, but you’re not gonna be that way all the time, so, I think as we go to Phoenix you expect to go there and perform well.”

As Harvick hits up Phoenix, his past and present will take center stage. But his future is slowly taking shape as well.

With the road ahead reserved for his extracurricular time, Harvick’s focus lies not on the interesting Cup schedule ahead…he did leave the door open to running a similar race or even the Camping World Truck Series event prior to the Cup cars dirt excursion at Bristol later this month…but on the piloting antics of Keelan, who embarked on a racing journey of his own. The junior Harvick is often seen hitching rides with his dad on NASCAR race days, but the eight-year-old picked up his first go-kart victory last July…less than a week after Kevin won at Indianapolis.

Showcasing talents through four wheels has never been a hidden talent in the Harvick family. After all, DeLana has dabbled in racing herself and served as the co-owner of Kevin’s eponymous race team that won 53 races at the NASCAR Truck and Xfinity levels during a decade of competition (2002-11) before merging with his former cohorts at Richard Childress Racing. The elder Harvick hinted that Microsoft Excel might be one of his best teammates in this day and age, especially when it comes to helping Keelan fulfill his racing dreams.

“It just takes a lot of planning because in order to properly teach somebody how to race they have to race a lot,” he said. “I think this is kind of the first time that we’ve jumped into trying to plan two racing schedules and where everybody is going to be and keeping mom happy with where we’re at with school and her having to load up and take everybody to the go-kart track is new for her, so it’s a lot of spreadsheets.”

But while Harvick might be making plans to conquer some of his own racing challenges, one challenge that isn’t coming anytime soon is the construction of a trophy case for his son.

“I have to remind him periodically that he’s still just a go-kart racer and until he gets a real job that he’s still under control of mom and dad,” Harvick said with a laugh. “So he can have a little bit of space in his little room downstairs with his iRacing simulator and all the things that he has down there, but he’s gonna have to go find his own place if he wants to be in charge of where they all go.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Hamlin and Harvick picking up where they left off in 2020

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

During last year’s unprecedented NASCAR Cup Series season, we saw Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin become the two most dominant drivers over the course of the season. Although neither won the championship, the duo combined for 16 wins and 38 top-5s.

And now, three races into the 2021 season, Harvick and Hamlin have picked up right where they left up. Both are winless thus far but have run up front in all three races of the Florida slate and currently lead in points.

To open the season, both drivers managed to avoid the last-lap crash of the Daytona 500 and placed in the top-5. Hamlin ran up front all day and won the first two stages of the race, but green flag pit-stops shuffled him to the back of the pack and out of contention. Harvick quietly ran towards the front all day, missing the lap 14 crash and other incidents.

A week later at the road course, Hamlin placed 3rd and Harvick placed 6th. Hamlin won another stage and ran up front, while Harvick didn’t make a push until towards the end of the race.

At Homestead, Harvick registered a 5th place finish while Hamlin finished 11th. Harvick was solid all-day, while Hamlin battled. Hamlin believed the car was losing power early and struggled, but got the car up front by the beginning of stage three. However, a pit road speeding penalty sent Hamlin to the rear, and could never recover.

Although they haven’t won yet this year, Hamlin and Harvick are by far the two fastest cars once again in 2021. They are the only two drivers to have placed consistent finishes this year and show promise at three different track types. As NASCAR heads to another intermediate track this weekend in Las Vegas, look for Hamlin and Harvick to run up front again and contend for the win.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Stewart-Haas Racing

SHR’s NASCAR dominance went unrewarded at both the Cup and the Xfinity Series levels. They’re seeking revenge and even more wins in 2021.

2021 Stewart-Haas Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kevin Harvick 4 Rodney Childers Busch/Mobil 1/Hunt Brothers Pizza
Aric Almirola 10 Mike Bugarewicz Smithfield
Chase Briscoe (R) 14 Johnny Klausmeier HighPoint
Cole Custer 41 Mike Shiplett Haas Automation/Dixie Vodka

Two-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart united with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas in 2009. Haas, formerly a collaborator with Hendrick Motorsports, had been running a full-time team since 2003 but was struggling to find traction. Stewart joined him in co-ownership and, under the new name of Stewart-Haas Racing, joined the team alongside Ryan Newman. Driving the team’s No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart won his third and final Cup Series championship in 2011. Three seasons after, Kevin Harvick joined the team in the No. 4, formerly occupied by Newman under No. 39 branding. Harvick would win five races and earn his first Cup title that same year.

The team has raced Fords from the 2017 season onward. Stewart vacated the No. 14 the year before, giving way to Clint Bowyer for the last four seasons. Bowyer has since retired and will join Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the Fox Sports booth. The team’s No. 10 car, introduced in 2012, was driven for six seasons by Danica Patrick before Aric Almirola’s arrival. Elsewhere, the No. 41 arrived two years later and was driven by Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez before Cole Custer’s takeover last season.

2020 in Review

The 2007 New England Patriots. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. Kevin Harvick’s 2020 endeavors.

These dominant efforts all went for naught, as the more controversial side of the NASCAR playoffs came to light when Harvick, the winner of a series-best nine races last season, wasn’t one of the four championship contenders at the championship race in Phoenix. His last two wins came in playoff events at Darlington and Bristol, but consecutive finishes outside the top-ten in the Round of 8’s latter stages doomed him to elimination.

As a whole, the 2020 season was a bit of a roller-coaster for SHR. Beyond Harvick’s efforts, Almirola was at least consistent, finishing in the top ten in nine consecutive races drummer the summer stretch. No wins followed, however, and he was eliminated after the Round of 12. Bowyer’s swan song was respectable, ending in a playoff berth after a runner-up finish in the spring Bristol race. Custer’s Cup debut was a bit of a disappointment, but he managed to steal a win at Kentucky, along with the playoff spot and Rookie of the Year title that came with it. He was eliminated after the first round.

Meet the Drivers

Kevin Harvick

Experience: 21st season
Career Cup Victories: 58 (last: fall Bristol, 2020)
2020 finish: 5th
Best standings finish: 2014 Champion

If anything, last season simply made Harvick a stone-cold lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Harvick’s Cup Series career began under the most harrowing of circumstances. It was he, after all, who was called upon to take over Dale Earnhardt’s car when The Intimidator tragically passed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Prior to last season, he finished no worse than third in the final standings in eight of the last ten seasons. His Truck Series squad had also taken home two championships with circuit legend Ron Hornaday Jr. behind the wheel.

But, despite the lack of a championship at the end, 2020 may go down as Harvick’s greatest accomplishment yet. The way he dominated the circuit in a time where on-track preparation and adjustments were at an ultimate premium was extraordinary. The history was likely no consolation to Harvick, however, and that just makes this No. 4 team all the more dangerous in the future.

Last season’s win tally allowed Harvick to enter the top ten in the Cup Series’ all-time wins ledger. Up next on the list? Earnhardt at 76.

Aric Almirola

Experience: 10th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: fall Talladega, 2018)
2020 finish: 15th
Best standings finish: 5th (2018)

After wallowing in racing purgatory over at Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola has been consistent since being granted stronger equipment at SHR. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons behind the No. 10 and came home fifth in the 2018 standings. But when are expectations allowed to be raised? Almirola felt primed for a breakout at numerous points last season. He had remarkably strong luck in terms of starting position during the random draw portions and led a career-best 305 laps this season. Yet, Almirola remains mired in a 77-race win drought. SHR renewed his contract last season, but Almirola wants to kickstart things to a higher level.

“So far, I’ve been able to have some success (but) I still want more,” Almirola said prior to the playoffs last season. “I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps, and ultimately win a championship…so far, we’ve been successful…I feel like we have the potential. We’ve been all around it, we just haven’t put it all together to win races, but we’ve been so close. We’ve led a lot of laps. We’ve run top five a lot and when you do those things, typically you’ll find yourself in victory lane, so maybe the Good Lord is just making me be patient.”

Chase Briscoe

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

Much like his new teammate Harvick, Briscoe saw a dominant season go for naught, his own misfortune coming on the Xfinity Series level. Driving SHR’s No. 98 Ford, Briscoe won a circuit-record nine races but failed to take the championship at Phoenix. The most memorable victory came at Darlington in May, when Briscoe held off two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch for the win in the Xfinity Series’ return from the coronavirus-induced pause. Briscoe’s victory came shortly after his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage.

Briscoe will now replace the retired Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford, a dream come true for the 2016 ARCA champion. As an Indiana youth, Briscoe was a die-hard fan of Stewart, taking in his endeavors from the 14 car from afar. Now, it’s Briscoe’s to command on race days.

“The goal and dream was always the 14 car, but I don’t think it was always necessarily believable that it was going to happen the way it all worked out,” Briscoe said in October. “I truly care about that number and the history of that number going from AJ Foyt to Tony and even Clint. There is a lot of pride in that number being a dirt guy and drive that car and drive for Stewart-Haas. It is still unbelievable.”

Cole Custer

Experience: 2nd full season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Kentucky, 2020)
2020 finish: 16th
Best standings finish: 16th (2020)

Custer’s Rookie of the Year award wasn’t received well by some, as many noted that Tyler Reddick was the more consistent first-year man. But Custer was the only victory lane visitor with a yellow stripe on the back of his car, earning him the ROTY award. The shocker in Kentucky, NASCAR’s final visit to the Bluegrass State for the foreseeable future, did come during a short summer surge for Custer. Prior to the win, he posted his first career top five at Indianapolis and followed the triumph up with consecutive top tens after some bad luck in the immediate aftermath. Nonetheless, there’s going to be a bit of a target on this team’s back moving forward to perform on a more consistent basis.

Outlook

There’s little doubt that Harvick is going to insert himself in the championship picture. The only question is how many races he’ll take along the way. Almirola is also a potential playoff shoo-in but he needs to focus on getting back to victory lane, perhaps multiple times. Briscoe shouldn’t face too many obstacles in winning Rookie of the Year (his only competition, for the time being, is Anthony Alfredo in the underfunded No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford), so he can focus on keeping the No. 14 competitive in the post-Bowyer era. If Custer can’t make it back to the winner’s circle this season, placing the car in the top 20 in points would be a goal to be proud of.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Eight Cup Series events will feature practice/qualifying in 2021

Eight events on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series docket will feature practice and qualifying, including the season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR confirmed on Friday that at least eight events at the Cup Series level will feature practice and qualifying.

These pre-race activities were previously eliminated last season to consolidate race weekends into a single-day after NASCAR became the first American sports league to make its return to action amidst the ongoing health crisis. Only one race since the return, the 600-mile event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend, held qualifying to determine its race’s starting lineup, opting for mathematical formulas, random draws, or reversing the order of the top 20 in the previous race in all other cases.

The venues to hold practice and qualifying are mostly tracks that are new to the Cup Series circuit this year, including Circuit of the Americas (scheduled for May 23), Nashville Superspeedway (June 20), Road America (July 4), and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course (August 15). Last season saw one new track added to the circuit without practice or qualifying, the road course at Daytona in August. The race was held without a major incident, with future Cup Series champion Chase Elliott taking home the win.

Practice and qualifying will also be held at high-profile events like the season-opening Daytona 500 (February 14), the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (May 30), and the championship finale at Phoenix Raceway (November 7). There will also be pre-race stagings at the spring event at Bristol Motor Speedway (March 28) which will be run on dirt for the first time.

Several drivers noted their comfort with the lack of qualifying and practice during the season, either through its practicality or convenience.

“We’ve been so good with it the rest of the season that it’s become the new normal, and I’m cool with that. I’m just ready to go,” Brad Keselowski, one of the final four drivers up for the 2020 Cup Series title, said in November. “It feels so old school to me.  It feels like when we just started racing and you would just show up at your local short track Saturday at lunchtime and there would be a race at 5:00 or 7:00 at night or heat race and then a feature race and that was it, and then you loaded up and you were home by 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. It’s so much like that now.”

“I love everything that we’re doing right now,” Kevin Harvick added in August after a win at Michigan. “The shorter schedules, I think it mixes it up. I think it makes it exciting.”

Times and dates will these qualifying/practice sessions will be announced further down the line, as will the plans for any pre-race activities for NASCAR Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series events.

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.