NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Chip Ganassi Racing

CGR’s 2021 roster features a former NASCAR champion gearing up for another run, and an Xfinity standout looking to make an impact.

2021 Chip Ganassi Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kurt Busch 1 Matt McCall Monster Energy
Ross Chastain 42 TBD Clover

History

Chip Ganassi Racing began competition in 1989, formed by the eponymous Ganassi and millionaire Felix Sabates. Ganassi has also formed successful ventures at the IndyCar and Grand-Am levels. He took over a controlling interest of the team in 2001, enjoying a brief period of prosperity with Sterling Marlin driving the No. 40 Dodge dubbed the “Silver Bullet” thanks to its sponsorship from Coors Light. Marlin finished third in the final 2001 Cup Series ledger and was at the top of the pack for a majority of the 2002 seasons before he was sidelined with a neck injury. After Jamie McMurray won in his second career Cup Series start while subbing for Marlin, the team won only a single race over the next 13 seasons, with Juan Pablo Montoya triumphing at Sonoma in 2007.

Ganassi vehicles have run more consistently over recent seasons. Kyle Larson won four races in the No. 42 Chevrolet in 2017, while Kurt Busch has earned a win in each of the last two seasons in the No. 1.

2020 in Review

2020 was a year of controversy and resurgence for CGR. Larson got off to a strong start (three top-tens in the first four races) but was dismissed during the coronavirus-induced pause for using a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, came out of retirement to pilot the No. 42 the rest of the way, but never found momentum save for a runner-up finish at Indianapolis in July.

Meanwhile, Busch managed to stay consistent in his second year driving Gannasi’s No. 1 Chevrolet. He hovered around the latter half of the playoff bracket with 14 top-ten finishes in the 26 regular season races and reached the postseason festivities for the eighth straight year. Busch earned a statement victory at his home track of Las Vegas, leading the final 26 laps to win the South Point 400. It earned him automatic advancement to the semifinal round that featured eight drivers contending for the championship, but an engine failure at Kansas stifled his chances at reaching the championship quartet.

Meet the Drivers

Kurt Busch

Experience: 21st season
Career Cup Victories: 32 (last: Las Vegas, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 10th (Round of 8)
Best standings finish: 2004 Champion

It’s not officially silly season without pondering Busch’s future. Set to turn 42 in August, Busch is one of three remaining full-time drivers to race during NASCAR’s days under the “Winston Cup” moniker (Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman are the others). Busch appeared to be leaning toward retirement after 2019 but signed on for two more years at the helm after coming home 13th in the final standings and stealing a win from his younger brother Kyle at Kentucky earlier that season.

In an interview with Matt Mayer of CBS Sports after his win at Las Vegas, Busch said that there was a “50/50 chance” that 2021 could be his final season.

“I’ve been at this game a long time,” Busch said at the time. “I’ve been out there 21 years and my wife is a great supporter of mine and she loves the racing but it’s been a bunch of years out on the road and out on the circuit and we’ll see what 2022 brings us when we get there.”

Busch is best known for winning the 2004 Cup Series championship, the first held under a playoff format.

Ross Chastain

Experience: 1st full-time season (79 prior Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

This will be Chastain’s first year racing full-time on the Cup Series circuit, but he’s anything but a rookie. Chastain, now driving the No. 42 vacated by Kenseth, has made 79 Cup Series starts, often in low-budget cars, though he did get some experience prior to the pause in Roush Fenway’s No. 6 Ford in relief of an injured Newman. In the meantime, Chastain has become a force to be reckoned with on NASCAR’s lower national levels, finishing in the runner-up slot on the 2019 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series circuit. He didn’t win a race on the Xfinity level last season, but he led all drivers with 27 postings in the top ten.

“He’s a great addition. Ross Chastain will fit in right away,” Busch said of Chastain’s entry after the announcement was made. “He’s had some tough situations stacked against him with different sponsors and movement. But he’s had the strength to rise above that.”

Outlook

Busch should secure a spot among the playoff contenders again, and will likely be in contention for wins at multiple points this season. As for Chastain, it’s going to be interesting to see how the No. 42 car comes out this year after struggling under Kenseth’s watch for the majority of 2020. Reaching the playoffs in his first full-time endeavor would be a realistic, attainable goal as both he and the No. 42 team as a whole seek to get back on the right track.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview: YellaWood 500 (Talladega)

The NASCAR Cup Series prepares to take a chaotic trip to Talladega Superspeedway, as the playoffs hit their midway mark.

What: YellaWood 500
Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, AL
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Watch: NBC

This weekend, the hardest postseason hits in Alabama may come not in Tuscaloosa, but Talladega.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs hit their midway mark in both their second stage and overall, as Talladega hosts the YellaWood 500 on Sunday afternoon. With its propensity for tightly-packed racing, wrecks capable of taking out more than half the field, and surprise winners, one lap has the potential to repaint the entire playoff picture.

“The playoff race in Talladega is pretty wild because you have probably two-thirds of the field has been eliminated that’s really not racing for much except trying to win and you have some other ones that are going to be fighting tooth and nail for stage points,” Denny Hamlin said in a prerace teleconference earlier this week. “I suspect it’ll be pretty wild again, but I’m confident that all of our cars are good enough to win every time we go there.”

By virtue of his win last weekend at Las Vegas, Kurt Busch is the long participant amongst the dozen playoff drivers remaining to have clinched his spot in the Round of 8.

The Track

First Cup Series Race: 1969
Length: 2.66 miles (188 laps, 500 miles)
Most Wins: Dale Earnhardt (10)

Talladega is the longest track on the NASCAR circuit, and one of the most chaotic. Speeds often near or exceed 200 miles per hour, though restrictor plates and tapered spaces in the car have made efforts to restrict airflow and allow more horsepower. The latter effort of tapered spaces was introduced at the most recent Talladega event, the GEICO 500 back in June. Such a setup creates tightly-packed racing and little wiggle room, though this does notably level the playing field and expand the list of potential winners. It also prevents cars from breaking away from the rest of the pack.

The most renowned feature of Talladega is “The Big One”, the name given to the massive crash that packed racing can produce. It can eliminate half the field and alter playoff destinies. Twelve drivers have earned their first win at Talladega, including Raphael Lessard, who earned a victory in Saturday afternoon’s Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series race.

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

They Said It

“The pressure is off. There’s not going to be any consequences for the next two weeks. But still, we want to gain points. We want to put some points in our pocket from the stages and the finish at Talladega and the Roval just to build up towards the season end. That’s how we’re going to make it to the Championship 4 is to still keep putting the pressure on, but we know we can slip up, or as Mark Martin said, you can stub your toe every now and then but you’ve just got to learn from it.”Kurt Busch on how he’s approaching the next two weeks

“It’s the best-case scenario driving the No. 21 car, having the fast Fords under us to go there, and not only that, the big thing is having our Penske teammates. Brad, Joey, and Ryan are incredible plate racers and obviously our cars, the Fords are fast, and having all the Fords on the racetrack. Great situation, and we’ll be aware of everyone else’s situations, too, but as I said before, it’s a fun situation: go out there and we’re just trying to win races and have some fun and rack up points.”Eliminated playoff driver Matt DiBenedetto racing with Team Penske drivers

Three To Watch

Austin Dillon (Starting 12th)

No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Dillon is starting last amongst the playoff drivers, though one can work their way up through the field at Talladega. He and his team would certainly know a thing or two about winning that way. 20 years prior, Dillon’s predecessor in the No. 3, the late, great Dale Earnhardt, earned a win by going from 18th to the front of the field over the final six laps of the 2000 Winston 500. Tragically, it wound up being the 76th and final win of his NASCAR Cup Series career before his death at the Daytona 500 four months later.

“Seeing him come from the back to the front and make the moves he made, he was known as a speedway racer and the things he could do in the draft. I think that was amazing,” Dillon said this week. “Obviously, there’s a lot of history there. That’s 20 years ago and I think that would be fitting for us to go win at Talladega and lock ourselves into the next round of the Playoffs…Things are lining up and we’ll try to make it happen.”

Dillon’s performance in the opening round of 16 drivers (2nd, 4th, and 12th over the three-race stretch) surprised many, but his Round of 12 got off to a tough start with a lost belt relegating him to a 32nd-place finish at Richmond last week. Considering he’s 32 points behind the cutoff to the next round, a win at Talladega might be his best chance to move on.

Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Blaney (Starting 14th)

No. 12 Team Penske Ford

A brutal opening round ended Blaney’s championship hopes before they could truly get started. His struggles might go as far back as the immediate aftermath of his only victory of 2020, a narrow .007-second victory over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. back at the June event. Since then, Blaney has earned only five top-ten finishes, including a seventh-place posting at Las Vegas last weekend.

Blaney’s elimination, however, offers him a bittersweet silver lining that allows him to go all-out at Talladega, where he has won consecutive races. The first half of that victorious couple came last fall, ironically also by a .007-second margin, holding off Ryan Newman to earn his Round of 8 seed. He became the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 2007 to earn consecutive victories at Talladega. He has a long way to go to catch up to Earnhardt, and another win would make him the first to win three in a row since Dale Earnhardt Jr. took home a quartet between 2001 and 2003. Armed with the power of consequence-free racing, Blaney could be ready to join an even more prestigious group.

Brendan Gaughan (Starting 39th)

No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet

Gaughan has a brand of immunity even more important than Blaney’s…Sunday will mark his final NASCAR start.

The retiring 45-year-old was a full-time driver on the Cup Series circuit for only one season (racing a No. 77 Dodge partially funded by Roger Penske in 2005), his eccentric personality and friendly demeanor made him a favorite amongst fans. Gaughan has earned 10 wins on the Xfinity and Truck Series levels and has won championships on off-road circuits and what is now ARCA Menards Series West.

With the assistance of Beard Motorsports, Gaughan has made brief cameos at the Cup Series by running every race at Daytona and Talladega since 2017. He nearly stole last season’s fall event, but The Big One struck with less than 10 laps to go, flipping his No. 62 airborne and pushing him back to 27th. There’d be no better way to say goodbye than a visit to victory lane.

For the full starting lineup, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Kurt Busch finally hits the jackpot at hometown Las Vegas

Vegas fortune smiled upon hometown racer Kurt Busch, whose first victory in Sin City moved him into the NASCAR Cup Series semifinals.

Racing at his hometown track of Las Vegas, Kurt Busch experienced a streak of good luck during the South Point 400’s latter stages. Like any good player, Busch knew when to walk…or, in this case, drive…away.

Busch’s No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet led the final 26 laps of Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Sin City native earned the first win at his hometown track in 22 starts and clinched a berth in the upcoming Round of 8, which will begin on October 18 at Kansas after the next two races at Talladega and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. It’s good for Busch’s first win in 47 races, dating back to last summer at Kentucky Speedway.

After a delirious Busch crossed the start/finish line, he was congratulated by both his younger brother Kyle and teammate Matt Kenseth.

“Matt Kenseth and I go back the furthest out of anybody,” Busch said. “It’s great to have him as a teammate right now and somebody that created stability for the 42 car, and to run with him and to share notes, it’s the best that we can be right now, with no practice and no normal sequences.

“With my little brother, our relationship has blossomed this year with being travel buddies and staying in a family bubble together and respecting the COVID process together, just to share stories and get caught up with things that we never talked about before, and to have him be the first one to give me the congratulatory donut down the back straightaway, it was a flashback of Legend car racing when we were growing up as kids together. Older brother always wins!”

Busch’s lingered at the outskirts of the top ten for most of the night but found himself leading eight lead-lap cars while the final edition of green flag pit stops got underway. While leaders and playoff contenders Denny Hamlin and Alex Bowman visited for service, the caution came out when Bowman’s teammate Jimmie Johnson lost a tire with 30 laps to go. Busch and his gang of holdouts were able to pit without losing their track position. The No. 1 paced those who came to pit road and emerged second behind Matt DiBenedetto. The latter’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford pitted two laps prior to the Johnson caution.

Over the last 26 laps, Busch immediately took the lead and held off a furious challenge from DiBenedetto to take home the win. Busch also had to deal with two further cautions but earned the race victory by a 0.148-second margin. Hamlin, who led a race-best 121 of 267 laps, finished third in front of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. Bowman’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet rounded out the top five. The strong run from Hamlin comes in his first race after announcing he would start a race team with basketball legend Michael Jordan and on-track competitor Bubba Wallace.

“We needed everything to go perfect in this round to advance to the Round of Eight,” Busch said of his Sunday. “You never want to count yourself out as a championship contender, but we knew we needed to work a little harder to keep pace with (Hamlin), to keep pace with (Kevin Harvick). There are the (Team Penske) guys that are strong, and I saw the (Harvick) tonight struggling, and (Kyle Busch) was running around me a lot tonight.

“You never know when your moment is going to come and the yellow came out at a perfect opportunity for us, and so yes, we’re advanced through to the Round of Eight. I still think it’s important to grab points at Talladega and the Roval. We just don’t have any ill side effects that are going to pop up these next two weeks. So we still need to go out there and put points in our pocket.”

DiBenedetto enjoyed a strong run in the midst of a trying period. The No. 21 Ford was eliminated from playoff contention last week at Bristol and it remains to be seen that DiBenedetto will return to the car next season. However, he still feels that he and his squad have a lot to race for.

The middle stage of the three-race Round of 12 in the Cup Series postseason will come at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races run at the track.

 Mandatory Credit: Gerry Broome/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network

Race Notes

  • Playoff contender Chase Elliott won each of the first two 80-lap stages, but late-race shuffling relegated him to a 22nd-place finish. Elliott enters Talladega 10 points above the cutoff to ninth place.

 

  • Busch’s younger brother Kyle finished sixth. It was overall a victorious weekend for the Busch family, as Kyle’s five-year-old son Brexton earned his first win in Beginner Box Stock racing on Saturday. Kyle Busch is currently the first driver out, nine points behind eighth-place Bowman.

 

  • Austin Dillon, the Round of 12’s most pleasant surprise, lost a belt for power steering in the early portions of the third stage. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet finished 32nd after spending eight laps making repairs, leaving Dillon 32 points out of advancement.

 

  • Dillon’s day capped off a brutal weekend for RCR. Rookie Tyler Reddick was one of four cars who failed to finish after ending the second stage in the wall.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

ESM’s Guide to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs

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…

The Drivers

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

The Races

(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.

YellaWood 500

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.

Xfinity 500

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.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: 700 starts later, Kurt Busch is still making an impact

Set to race a NASCAR Cup Series vehicle for the 700th time on Sunday, Kurt Busch looks forward to a continued impact on the sport.

New NASCAR fans seeking a primer on the circuit’s history could do far worse than simply studying the career of Kurt Busch.

Driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Busch is set to make his 700th start in the premier Cup Series at the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, NBC). Not only is Busch only the 16th driver to reach that precipice, but he’s gone through an auto racing roller-coaster that entire race teams may never experience.

Asked about the upcoming landmark start in a Wednesday conference call, Busch waxed nostalgic, thinking back to his father Thomas racing on the local tracks that began the racing journey that continues to this day.

“To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past. So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”

In Busch’s defense, few truly could’ve projected where this trek would take him.

Busch, 41, has been full-time racing in 2001. He’s one of only four active Cup drivers to have partaken in a race alongside the late Dale Earnhardt. Much like The Intimidator, Busch developed a bit of an antagonistic role and engaged in conflict with several other drivers, including one with his future teammate and team owner Tony Stewart during an event at Richmond in 2013. That came six years after Busch and his younger brother Kyle briefly stopped speaking after an incident at the 2007 NEXTEL All-Star Challenge in Charlotte, a feud that ended only weeks after the season when their grandmother intervened before Thanksgiving dinner.

His career has been a roller-coaster, one that has experienced the valleys of not just his confrontations, but a 2005 DUI and domestic violence allegations a decade later (charges were never filed). All in all, the “controversies” section on his Wikipedia page is over seven bullets long. On the track, Busch took home the 2004 Cup Series title (the first under a playoff format) but by 2012, his antics and inconsistency relegated him to low-budget exploits.

The time-honored, cutthroat auto racing concept of “rubbin’s racin'” and championship competition was well-personified by Busch. In addition to his historic championship, Busch has earned 31 Cup victories, including crown jewel triumphs in the 2010 Coca-Cola 600 and the Daytona 500 seven years later (in which hed led only the final lap). He’s even made a mark beyond NASCAR, winning 2003’s International Race of Champions title (beating out names like Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, and Helio Castroneves) and he even partook in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s more renowned event, the Indy 500, in 2014. He finished that race sixth before running the Coca-Cola 600 that night. To date, Busch is the last driver to attempt to run both the IndyCar and NASCAR events on Memorial Day weekend.

Busch had made no indications he wants to hang up his helmet any time soon. In fact, with NASCAR sharing IMS with the IndyCar circuit this weekend, he hinted that his future exploits may not just include his No. 1 Chevy. He was even considering running in the latter’s event on Saturday, but current events made that difficult.

“I looked at it and just with everything going on with COVID and the pandemic and lack of preparation, it just kind of shut everything down as far as the progress and the approach, because it takes a full effort of being tested and track time and being ready,” Busch remarked. “That’s something that I really put in when I ran the Indy 500 six years ago now. And so, everything just got shut down. But, it would have been fun to with Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Redemption soon awaited the Las Vegas native, as strong performances in the fledgling Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing machines showed the racing world he still had plenty left in the tank (literally and figuratively). Four years before Martin Truex Jr. had the wheel in a title run, Busch guided FRR’s No. 78 car to its first playoff berth. It caught the eye of Stewart’s ownership partner Gene Haas, who made him the original driver of the No. 41 in their Stewart-Haas Racing stable. He would miss the first three races of his sophomore drive with Stewart due to the aforementioned allegations but won his sixth race back.

Busch joined Gannasi after five years in the No. 41 and went to Gannasi’s No. 1 for what, appropriately, was set to be a final season. But a strong showing punctuated by a thrilling victory in which he held off Kyle by 0.076 seconds at Kentucky Speedway convinced Busch to sign on for at least two more seasons.

Now, Busch’s career is defined by consistency, not controversy. He’s firmly entrenched in the NASCAR playoff picture in 10th, and only Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin have earned more top ten finishes (9). Over the past dozen races, Busch has finished no worse than 18th, a fact he has attributed to a strong behind him. His return has also afforded him a return to action alongside Matt Kenseth. Nearly two decades after the pair won back-to-back titles under Jack Roush’s supervision, they reunited in the Gannasi stalls when Kenseth was called to drive the No. 42 Chevrolet mid-season.

“It takes a good team to have a driver’s ability to find the success. A team is the foundation,” Busch said of his longevity. “I’m having some of the best years of my career as far as consistency because I’m using that experience level. I’m using that calmness and that ability to project the future in the car, and that’s leading to good, consistent, and quality finishes. It’s just that we’ve got to cross over another barrier of sometimes you just throw caution to the wind and let it rip.”

Busch noted that he was part of a NASCAR revolution, one that began to rely on younger drivers. He himself ran his first race when he was 22, called upon to drive the No. 97 Ford for Roush. It was in that car where Busch won his first races and his monumental title, as well as where he saw Kyle enter the series at 18 in the early stages of that championship campaign.

Those days of youth may be long behind Busch, but he’s grateful that such a revolution has taken him on this lengthy NASCAR ride…one that shows little signs of stopping.

“The change, the shift, has happened for younger drivers to get in, and yet it’s still tough to go past 25 years is extreme. I don’t think we’ll ever see that anymore,” Busch remarked. “So that’s that window that we’ve all had this opportunity to race in, and I think it’s just a matter of age blended with the experience level and with a top-tier team. And when you see that, it’s usually in that 32 to 38 range that I would say could be the peak.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Drivers ready for fresh, new chaos at Talladega

NASCAR’s visits to Talladega Superspeedway have always been unpredictable, but adjustments to Sunday’s race could bring a new form of bedlam.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ yearly pair of visits to Talladega Superspeedway produce untold gallons of sweat even during their normal visits in April and October. Affectionately known as “‘Dega”, the longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) routinely hosts tightly-packed racing and speeds that regular linger around 180-190 miles an an hour. These factors often play a big role in producing “The Big One”, the name given to the multi-car pile-ups that can turn contenders into afterthoughts in the blink of an eye.

Now add a new rules package and a lack of practice and testing…all on the first full day of summer.

The potential for chaos in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox) became so great that NASCAR forced James Davison to push his series debut a week. Davison, an Australian-born driver whose experience has come mostly on the open-wheel and sports car disciplines, was set to pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports (the car that won last year’s rain-shortened summer race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel), but NASCAR rescinded their approval just days prior to the race. Davison will instead premiere at next weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway and was replaced by B.J. McLeod (who will start 30th).

NASCAR’s ability to be one of the few American sports leagues running during the coronavirus pandemic has been built on its ability to shorten race weekends from a whole weekend to a single day. Cup Series haulers arrived at Talladega on Saturday evening while the lower-tier Xfinity circuit ran its 300-mile event (won by Haley). In this shrinking process, practices and qualifying have been eliminated (save for a session prior to last month’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte) and the field has been set by either inverting the finishing order from the prior race or through a random draw. That latter format is how Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday. In another metaphorical victory lap for the sport, Talladega will welcome in 5,000 fans to the race.

Those who repopulate the grandstands will see 40 cars take their first laps in a track characterized by its chaos. It’s an idea that makes even some of NASCAR’s most seasoned names a bit more cautious. Kurt Busch, for example, is worried not about his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but rather how other cars will be as they pack into Talladega’s congested lanes.

“With our group at Ganassi and the restrictor plate races that we’ve run together, our set-up balance has been really good in practice right off the truck,” Busch said in a Friday afternoon press conference. “So there haven’t been those challenges of where are we for balance, it allows go on offense right away. The problem with that is other teams. Are they just as good right off the truck? We don’t need to be caught up in a goofy situation early-on.”

Talladega is one of two “restrictor plate” tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the other being Daytona. Installed at an engine’s intake to restrict air and limit its power, the concept was introduced in 1987 and used through last season’s Daytona 500. Currently, NASCAR uses a modified plate concept known as tapered spacers similar to the ones used on other tracks and effectively keep the cars under 200 miles an hour. These modifications are for the safety of the drivers and fans but produce tight racing that often led to massive get-togethers in the cramped asphalt quarters.

Further safety innovations now come into play as NASCAR prepares to make its first visit a restrictor plate track since the most recent Daytona 500 in February. That race ended in near-tragedy, as Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was involved in a violent airborne wreck while going for the win on the final lap. In the tense aftermath, Newman was removed from the mangled car and taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Two days later, Newman walked out of the hospital unassisted, accompanied by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. A head injury sustained in the accident temporarily sidelined him, but the pandemic-induced pause caused him to miss only three Cup Series events. Ironically, a safety feature known as the “Newman Bar” (a bar across the front of the car’s roll cage) was the result of Newman’s crusade to improve driver safety after he was involved in a separate airborne wreck at Talladega in 2009. Some credited the innovation for saving Newman from further injury in February.

Though Newman walked away relatively unscathed, NASCAR made some further adjustments in the name of safety to Talladega set-ups. Smaller holes in the tapered spacers will lead to lowered horsepower and the elimination of aero ducts on superspeedways could cut down on tandem drafting (further analysis on the changes can be found from Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass here).

“The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down,” NASCAR’s Senior Director of Safety Engineering John Patalak explained in another conference call. “In general, when we can slow the speeds down, it’s going to be of benefit for the crash itself, for the driver in the car. It will also affect the loads on the vehicle and how the SAFER barrier responds. Directionally, it’s the right way to go.”

While the speeds are expected to be down, the fact that not a single lap has been run with such a setup only ensures the potential for chaos to rise.

Drivers, however, are confident in both their own and their rivals’ abilities to keep things under relative control. Ryan Blaney, the winner of last fall’s Talladega playoff event, was particularly excited about the new adjustments.

“There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that,” Blaney said after a top-three run at last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Hopefully, we can find a fair in between. I’m looking forward to it.  I know NASCAR did their research on hopefully trying to figure out a good balance of that.”

“I’ll know in the first couple laps how big the runs are, what kind of gap I need to have to the person behind me to give me the run forward. I’ll know pretty quick what to do with the package,” Homestead winner Denny Hamlin added. “I think we have probably a pretty good idea of it anyway. These ducts are actually a pretty new thing.  Obviously the horsepower being down, that might counter the ducts a little bit with the runs.”

“These drivers are so good, they’re going to figure it out pretty quick. I wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.”

For those spaced out in the massive Alabama gallery, eager to see yet another exciting installment in NASCAR’s return, that last sentence is all they want to hear when it comes to Talladega.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags