NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400

After a fun clash at Martinsville, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the other side of Virginia for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. Sunday’s event consists of 400 laps around the 0.75-mile circuit, evening out to be a 300-mile race. Here are three drivers to watch in the 9th race of the season.

Martin Truex Jr. (+350)

Fresh off a win at Martinsville, Martin Truex Jr. is one of the biggest names to look out for on Sunday. Sitting second in points, he’s the only Cup Series driver to have won multiple events this season.

At Richmond, Truex Jr. only has two career wins, but both of them came within the last three races there. He has 6 top-5s and 12 top-10s at Richmond with an average finish of 17th. Truex Jr. rolls off on the poll, so expect him to contend for the victory.

Kyle Busch (+800)

Richmond has always been one of Kyle Busch’s top tracks over his storied career. With six wins and an average finish of 7th, running up front isn’t anything new for him there.

Coming into this weekend’s race, Busch is looking to secure his first win of the 2021 season. After just one win last season, Busch is looking to put an end to his cold spell and silence the haters with a victory under new crew chief Ben Beshore.

Brad Keselowski (+400)

Brad Keselowski has had a lot of success at Richmond over his career, especially of late. He won last fall’s event and has placed in the top-10 in seven of the last eight races at Richmond. Keselowski’s average finish 12th with 12 top-10 finishes.

Similar to Busch, Keselowski is looking to secure his first victory of the 2021 season. He hasn’t finished within the top-10 since Phoenix, however, he’s currently ninth in points. Expect Keselowski to run up front on Sunday.

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 Food City Dirt Race

For the first time in nearly 51 years, the NASCAR Cup Series is getting dirty! NASCAR’s best head to a dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway for a 250-lap duel in Tennessee. The field will be set by four 15-lap qualifying races consisting of nine or ten cars based on a random draw. Some Cup Series drivers are experienced in dirt racing, while others have very little experience. Here are three drivers to watch this weekend on dirt in Bristol.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson has gained the reputation of being one of the best dirt late model racers out there. He won over 40 dirt races in 2020 while suspended from NASCAR and is a two-time reigning Chilli Bowl Nationals winner, the dirt equivalent of winning a Daytona 500. Larson also won the 2016 Truck Series dirt race at Eldora Speedway.

In the 2021 Cup Series, Larson already has a victory and two other races in which he was very close. He wrecked late at the Daytona Road Course while in contention for the win, and dominated last weekend at Atlanta before getting passed late by Ryan Blaney. Expect Larson to run up front all race on Sunday.

Christopher Bell

Similar to Larson, Christopher Bell has also gained a strong dirt reputation. He’s won countless World of Outlaws events and won the Chilli Bowl Nationals in three consecutive years (2017-2019). He also won the 2015 Truck Series race at Eldora.

Bell has gotten off to a strong start this season, winning at the Daytona Road Course and currently sitting 9th in the points standings after a 21st place finish last weekend in Atlanta. Bell is one of the favorites on Sunday, and expect him to run towards the front at the end of the race.

Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch hasn’t proven to necessarily be as strong of a dirt racer compared to Larson and Bell, but the difference is that Busch already has practiced on the dirt configuration. He ran in the Bristol Dirt Nationals last weekend, finishing second in the B-Main, and then 11th in the A-main race.

Busch picked up another top-5 last weekend at Atlanta but has yet to secure his first win of 2021. Experience pays off, so expect Kyle Busch to have a strong chance at victory on Sunday in Bristol.

 

 

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch for this weekend at the Daytona Road Course

After Michael McDowell’s upset victory in the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series once again heads to Daytona International Speedway. This time, NASCAR’s best will take on the Daytona Road Course in a 70-lap, 253-mile shootout. Here are three drivers to watch for this weekend who could contend for a win.

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott has proven to undoubtedly be the best full-time road course racer in NASCAR. Of his 10 career wins, five of them have been on road courses, including last summer at Daytona. Elliott has also won the last four Cup Series road-course races dating back to Watkins Glen in 2019.

Coming off a Cup Series championship, NASCAR’s most popular driver is looking to get on the board early in 2021 with a win.

AJ Allmendinger

After racing part-time in the Xfinity Series in both 2019 and 2020, AJ Allmendinger is back in the Cup Series. He’ll run a part-time Cup Series schedule with Kaulig Racing in 2021 and will run full-time with the team in the Xfinity Series.

Allmendinger is a road-course specialist; his only Cup Series victory coming in 2014 at Watkins Glen. Four of his five Xfinity Series wins have come at Road Courses and is coming off back-to-back wins at the ROVAL in 2019 and 2020. Allmendinger has also run the Rolex 24 at Daytona 15 times, meaning he has more experience on the track than any other driver.

With Allmendinger being in good equipment, expect him to contend for the win at Daytona.

Kyle Busch

After a disappointing one-win 2020 season, Kyle Busch started off his 2021 campaign strong with a win in the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on February 9. He’s won four Cup Series road-course races over his career and would like a fifth on a new track on the circuit.

With a new crew and a clean slate in 2021, expect Kyle Busch to contend for a win to punch his playoff ticket early.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Joe Gibbs Racing

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

2020 in Review

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

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

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

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

Meet the Drivers

Denny Hamlin

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Busch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Truex Jr. 

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

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

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

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

Christopher Bell

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

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

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

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

Outlook

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Five stories to watch

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series gets underway on Friday night in Daytona. Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming season.

The 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck makes its return on Friday night, as Daytona International Speedway will host the NextEra Energy 250 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

ESM has five things you need to know about the 2021 circuit…

Young Sheldon

Known for his exploits on short tracks, 23-year-old Sheldon Creed rose to the occasion in the playoffs, ruining the party for seasonal favorites like teammates Zane Smith and Brett Moffitt. Creed, driver of the driving the No. 2 Chevrolet Silverado for GMS Racing, finished no worse than 12th in any of the seven postseason events, coming home in the first couple in four of them. His trademark aggressiveness from his ARCA days, which included the 2018 championship, wore thin during his first year in Trucks, but he cleaned up his style to take home another championship. He’ll seek to become the series’ first repeat champion since fellow finalist Matt Crafton (2013-14).

Having worked with GMS since 2018, Creed is an elder statesman of sorts with the organization that has placed a driver in the top three of the standings in every year since 2016. GMS will also welcome back Smith in the No. 21 and Tyler Ankrum in the No. 26. Raphael Lessard, the first French Canadian winner of a NASCAR national series event at Talladega last fall, joins the No. 24 truck, while rookie Chase Purdy takes over the 23 from Moffitt, the 2018 Truck champion who will drive for Niece Motorsports this season.

KB’s Boys

To the naked eye, Kyle Busch Motorsports enjoyed another successful season. The team won five races (including three from Busch himself) but the team failed to place a car in the top three of the final standings for the second straight year. That seems like heavy expectations, but they did so in each of the previous five seasons.

Busch’s Toyota Tundras appear set to return with a vengeance with a new full-time lineup. Fresh off a full season in the Cup Series, John Hunter Nemechek will take over the No. 4 from Lessard. The son of NASCAR staple “Front Row Joe”, Nemechek has eight Truck Series wins under his belt and earned 15 finishes in the top 20 in mid-tier equipment at Front Row Motorsports on the Cup circuit. Chandler Smith will join the full-time circuit in the No. 18 after displaying major promise over parts of two seasons. Smith earned a runner-up posting in his third career  Trucks event in 2019 and he would earn top fives in all but one of his final six races last season. Busch and Joe Gibbs project Brandon Jones are set to share the No. 51 Tundra with names to be determined.

Hailie’s Comet 

The Truck Series has seen its share of regular female drivers, including Jennifer Jo Cobb (who has run her race team for over a decade) and Natalie Decker (fifth-place finisher in last year’s Daytona opener). But there has been a fair amount of hype behind the 19-year-old Deegan, who will make her full-time Truck Series debut in a Ford F-150 owned by NASCAR veteran David Gilliland.

Deegan has had her share of ignominious moments away from the track, but there is no denying her talent on it. She earned three victories over two years in what is now the ARCA Menards Series West and placed third in the regular ARCA standings in 2020, earning Rookie of the Year honors (17 top ten finishes in 20 races) and a third-place finish in the standings. The daughter of former X Games star Brian Deegan made her Trucks debut last fall at Kansas, coming in at a respectable 16th in her first race. She will compete for Rookie of the Year honors against Smith, Purdy, Carson Hocevar, and Kris Wright.

Green Flags and Sam

Unfortunately for 17-year-old Sam Mayer, his first R-rated movie in the theater was erased due to the ongoing health crisis. But it’s safe to say that he picked up a far more attractive consolation prize in the Camping World Truck Series.

Mayer not only won 11 races on the various levels of ARCA last season, but took the Truck Series by storm in GMS equipment. Three races after earning his first career top five at Gateway, Mayer took home the win at Bristol in August. He’ll return to the circuit this year with Henderson Motorsports, sharing the No. 75 Silverado with Parker Kligerman. Mayer will also run a part-time Xfinity Series slate with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race team, which will become a full-time ride in 2022.

Austin’s Powers

Kevin Harvick’s dominant run for naught at the Cup level wasn’t the only jaw-dropping season rendered null-and-void by the playoffs last season. Austin Hill, fresh off the momentum of winning three of the final eight races in 2019, finished no worse than 12th in all but one of the first 16 races of last season. However, engine woes at the penultimate race of the season at Martinsville kept him on the outside of the final four going into Phoenix, relegating him to a sixth-place finish the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota. It’ll also be interesting to see if his Xfinity Series output increases in HRE’s No. 61, as he earned his first career top five in the car at Kansas last season.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Kyle Busch steals exhibition win in wild Busch Clash finish

A last-lap get-together between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney allowed Kyle Busch to steal the NASCAR Cup Series’ season-opening exhibition.

Kyle Busch took advantage of chaos on the final lap of the NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Busch Clash exhibition at Daytona International Speedway’s road course on Tuesday night, stealing the opening victory when Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney made contact in the final turn.

Busch was running third in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota when Elliott tried to take the win from his close friend Blaney got together toward the final turn. With the cars ahead of him disabled, the two-time Cup Series champion took full advantage.

First run in 1979, the Busch Clash exhibition is typically considered the unofficial start of the NASCAR season. It is often run the weekend before the Daytona 500, but DIS’ Speedweeks festivities have been condensed to a weak to work with health protocols. The event was run on the speedway’s road course for the first time, nearly six months after the circuit ran a regular-season race for the first time. Criteria for entry into the event constantly changes, though this season’s event welcomed playoff drivers, race winners, stage winners, and pole sitters from on-track qualifying last season.

NASCAR will return to the road course on February 21, one week after Sunday’s main event on the oval (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox), for a points race.

Busch becomes the 11th driver to earn multiple Clash victories, previously winning on the traditional oval in 2012. This victory comes after a disappointing title defense in 2020. Busch won only a single race and failed to appear in the top four of the final standings for the first time since 2014. He also captured a win with new crew chief Ben Beshore, a former JGR engineer who served as Harrison Burton’s pit boss at the Xfinity Series level last year. Beshore was also Busch’s interim crew chief for three races during the 2017 season.

It was nearly deja vu all over against for Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Elliott came in as a popular pick for the Clash title, having won each of the last four races held on a road course (including August’s maiden voyage at Daytona). However, he was forced to start the rear of the field for the 35-lap event, a penalty for making unapproved adjustments to his Chevy. Elliott was previously sent to the rear at the last points event back in Phoenix in November. He’d brush to off to not only win the event, but his first Cup Series championship as well.

Elliott had made his way to third by lap 28 when leader Martin Truex Jr. wrecked in the sixth turn. The No. 9 would assume the lead when leaders Blaney and Denny Hamlin pitted. Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford won the race off pit road, situating him behind Elliott and five others who stayed out. Armed with fresher tires, Blaney took the lead from Elliott with two to go before engaging in a furious final lap. As they came to the frontstretch, Elliott bumped the No. 12, spinning him into the wall. Elliott tried to get back up to speed as Busch approached, but it was no use. As Busch celebrated in front of a limited crowd at the start/finish line, Elliott and Blaney shared a conversation on pit road.

Joey Logano recovered from a pit road penalty to finish third, while Tyler Reddick and William Byron rounded out the top five.

Preparation for the Daytona 500 will continue on Wednesday through single-car qualifying (7 p.m. ET, FS1) that will determine the front row for Sunday. The rest of the starting lineup will be settled through the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday night.

Race Notes

  • A common complaint from Tuesday’s event was that mud crept onto the track from the infield. Several cars needed their grilles scrubbed on pit strops to remove the intrusions.

 

  • 23XI Racing, the team founded by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, unofficially debuted its No. 23 Toyota on Tuesday. Though regular driver Bubba Wallace did not qualify for the Clash, the team welcomed in veteran Ty Dillon for a one-off deal. Dillon finished 18th and will next attempt to race Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota into the 500 on Thursday. The former driver of the No. 13 for defunct Germain Racing will also pilot the 96 at the return to the road course in two weeks.

 

  • Other drivers in new rides included Alex Bowman in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (7th) and Erik Jones in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet (8th). Bowman is taking over the No. 48 for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson while Jones, defending champion of the Clash, replaces Wallace.

 

  • Busch’s win is the record 10th Clash victory for Joe Gibbs Racing and second in a row after Jones won in the No. 20 Toyota last season.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Defending champ Kyle Busch’s wait for a win ends at Texas

Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch had to wait for his first 2020 win in more ways than one this season.

Kyle Busch went nearly a full calendar year between victories on the NASCAR Cup Series level. Three days more was likely nothing.

With inclement weather pushing a majority of the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 from Sunday to Wednesday, Busch visited victory lane for the first time this season at Texas Motor Speedway. The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led a race-high 90 laps en route to victory, including the final 24.

Busch is the defending champion of the premier Cup Series, but has struggled through the defense campaign. The No. 18 was eliminated in the Round of 12 in the playoffs and several prior attempts at a victory were ended by on-track calamities, often through no fault of his own. But a season of heartbreak finally found relief on Wednesday evening.

With the win, Busch has now won at least one Cup Series race in each of the last 16 seasons.

“It was obviously much needed and very much a lot of relief, as well, too,” Busch said in a postrace Zoom session. “For me, having the opportunity to continue that win streak was certainly high on our list, and when you fall out of the playoffs and you’ve got nothing else to race for, that’s all you have to race for is trophies and getting wins for the rest of this year, and it feels really good to be able to come here to Texas and score that win.”

The first 52 of 334 laps of the event were run on its originally scheduled Sunday date before rains and mists took over the track. More 2020-induced chaos awaited Busch, as he was caught speeding on pit road during a caution period induced by JJ Yeley’s crash on lap 22. Busch would work his way up to 12th by the end of the first of two 105-circuit stages, but he moved up four spots after taking only two tires on the ensuing pit stops. He lingered behind various leaders, primarily Clint Bowyer and JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., before taking the lead at lap 199 when the latter ran out of fuel from the lead. With green flag stops cycling, Busch was able to pit and win the second stage.

During the ensuing pause, a majority of lead-lap cars came back to pit road to top off on fuel for the final run. Busch and Bowyer stayed out and engaged in a battle for the lead until they had to make their own visits to top off.

Bowyer faded from contention when his car failed to get the proper amount of fuel in it, putting Busch in control to take advantage. He would hold off one final charge from Truex and Christopher Bell to earn the 57th win of his Cup Series career. Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman rounded out the top five.

Busch praised the strategy set forth by crew chief Adam Stevens, who was constantly in Busch’s ear over the final segments, asking him to save fuel.

“We can do it under any situation,” Busch said of his relationship with Stevens. “We can do it under pressure situations of racing for a championship and winning the final races at Homestead and bringing home two championships there, we can do it in the Coke 600, we can do it here when we’re knocked out of the playoffs and people would say that we’ve got nothing to race for, but we come out here and we’re able to win. There’s all kinds of different circumstances and different opportunities for us, and I’d like to think that we can be successful for a long time.”

The runner-up finish was bittersweet for playoff contender Truex, whose No. 19 Toyota team endured a rollercoaster weekend. A spoiler issue removed 20 points from Truex’s spot in the standings. Further punishment included the suspension of crew chief James Small and being forced to start from the rear of the field. But Truex made his way into the top five by the time the weather arrived and was able to hold off Bell for second place. The third-place rookie is running his final races in Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota, which is set to shut its doors, before he joins JGR next season.

Despite the runner-up finish, Truex is currently 36 points behind Brad Keselowski (6th) for the last of four spots for championship contention at the season finale in Phoenix on November 8. Joey Logano (10th) clinched his spot with a win at Kansas Speedway last weekend. Truex, or any of the remaining six drivers who have yet to clinch, can earn an automatic invite with a win at Martinsville Speedway next weekend.

“I feel (bad). The 19 needed to win a race, obviously, in order to move on and punch their ticket to the Championship Round, and I’m that guy that spoils it for them, and that was one of their best mile-and-a-half runs that they’ve had this year,” Busch said with a smile. “I’m thinking of that as we’re coming down to the finish, too, but I’m like, I’ve got to win, man. There’s obviously no team orders and we do things straight up and as fast as we can be, we’ve got to be. Obviously, it (stinks) for them, (but) I did think, too, that they can be really good at Martinsville, so hopefully, they can go out there and do well, maybe win again.  I’d like to win Martinsville. It would really (stink) again if he finishes second to me, but that would be 2020, wouldn’t it?”

Martinsville will host the penultimate race of 2020, the Xfinity 500, on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Race Notes

  • Texas Motor Speedway welcomed a select number of fans to the race weekend, a good portion of whom braved the cold conditions to return on Wednesday. In appreciation, track president Eddie Gossage announced that anyone in the stands during the Wednesday portion would receive a certificate and garage passes to the 2021 NASCAR All-Star Race, which will be held in Texas for the first time in June.

 

  • Seven laps into the Wednesday restart, Matt Kenseth and Bubba Wallace were wiped out from the race by an accident on lap 59. Wallace is running his final races in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet before he moves to Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin’s new team, 23XI Racing, next season.

 

  • The other caution for an on-track incident came at lap 135, when Joey Gase’s No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet spun out in the second turn.

 

  • Overall points leader Kevin Harvick had a tough week in the Lone Star State. He led the earlier stages of Sunday’s laps, but made contact with the wall at lap 29. The damage affected his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford for the rest of the event, relegating him to a 16th-place finish. Harvick is 42 points ahead of the cutoff line entering Martinsville.

 

  • Another contender, Chase Elliott, ran in the top ten for a majority of the event but ran into trouble toward the end of the second stage. He visited pit road for a fuel-only stop, but felt he had a tire going down when he returned to the track, forcing him to return for another stop. Elliott finished a lap down in 20th and is 25 points behind Keselowski.

 

  • Busch is the first non-playoff contending driver to win a race in the postseason since Kenseth won the penultimate race of the 2017 season at Phoenix.

 

  • Jimmie Johnson’s final race as a full-time driver at Texas ended with an engine failure during the final stage.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: defending Kyle Busch on elimination, bad luck in 2020

Kyle Busch, Nascar

Kyle Busch’s NASCAR Cup Series championship defense came to an unceremonious end on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

With 32 of 36 races complete on the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series ledger, earning 12 top-five finishes and 17 top-tens is the type of statistical posting a lot of drivers would kill for.

But Kyle Busch has spent his NASCAR career proving that he’s anything but a typical driver. Thus, such an output only brings him disappointment.

The culmination of a disappointing 2020 arose for Busch on Sunday, as he and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team were officially eliminated from contending for the Cup Series championship. Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course trimmed the playoff field from a dozen drivers to eight, and Busch’s 30th-place posting wasn’t enough to allow advancement. Thus, the defending champion Busch headlines the eliminated quartet.

“It’s just been the year. Nothing has played out and been on our side. It’s just been unfortunate circumstances, a lot of bad luck,” Busch said after the race in statements provided by Toyota Racing.

With his playoff departure, Busch becomes the first defending champion erased prior to the Round of 8 since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014. Busch will also be reduced to also-ran status at next month’s season finale, where four drivers will contend for the Cup Series title, for the first time since the “Championship 4” concept was introduced that same season.

The label of disappointment is apparent once one takes a closer look at Busch’s NASCAR resume. As one of two drivers with at least 200 victories over NASCAR’s three national levels (the other being Richard Petty), Busch is in danger of going winless at the Cup level for the first time in his full-time endeavors.

Bad luck has defined Busch’s 2020 campaign, as the No. 18 Toyota was often befallen by factors beyond their control. They got caught up in several wrecks they weren’t responsible for while other races saw their vehicle befallen by technical issues. In an example of the former, Busch’s de facto must-win situation in Charlotte was necessitated through an overtime crash that began when the No. 18’s bumper received an overzealous push from rookie Tyler Reddick. 

Even Busch’s polarizing part-time escapades into the lower-tier Xfinity and Truck Series were haunted. A come-from-behind victory win in his self-owned No. 54 Toyota at the Xfinity Series’ My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway was denied by postrace inspection failure, turning the win over to Austin Cindric instead. 

Busch let his frustration out in several ways, even when things went well. After advancing to the Round of 12 with a runner-up finish at Bristol last month Busch declared he “(didn’t) care” about the next round because “we’ll be eliminated in the next round”, a comment he later labeled as “tongue-in-cheek”. After Sunday, Busch appeared to have some form of acceptance about his elimination, acknowledging that a strong year for some was disappointing in his realm. He nonetheless expressed appreciation for the efforts of his No. 18 team, one that has guided him to all but four of his 56 Cup Series wins (good for eighth all-time) and each of his Cup titles (2015, 2019).

“It’s been a terrible year for me,” Busch admitted. “As other sports greats would say, there’s many other drivers that would love to have a year that we’re having, but it’s just frustrating to know how good we are and what we’re capable of and being champions from last year to not come out here and be able to succeed and be able to win.”

“These guys on this M&M’s Camry team never give up and they fight all year long and every race and every lap, every pit stop as we can see. Man, just one of (those) off years.”

Busch pulled out all the stops in an attempt to earn an elusive win on Sunday at Charlotte’s Roval (half-oval, half-road course). Contact with fellow playoff contender Clint Bowyer cost him a tire on lap 43 of 109, forcing him to pit road under the green flag. He and his crew were able to limit the damage done and Busch wound up taking the lead with 19 to go, when he and four other lead-lap cars stayed on the track during a caution period initiated by the stalled car of Brennan Poole.

Unfortunately for Busch, he was unable to hang on to the lead, passed by his JGR teammate Erik Jones shortly after the restart. Dwindling fuel later forced Busch to pit road on the penultimate lap as road course king Chase Elliott coasted to victory, relegated him toward the back of the lead lap finishers.

Busch opted to look at the positives in defeat, pleased that he was able to improve at the Roval. Sunday marked the first time in three tries that the No. 18 was running at the finish. A late crash took him out of contention at the inaugural visit in 2018 while suspension issues took him out early in a speedbump to his championship a year later.

“We probably would have been third or fourth or somewhere in there. (Elliott) was stellar. They have the best car here,” Busch said. “We got closer this year than we were last year for as fast off as we were last year, I felt like this was at least a decent run or a better run for us. Still have a lot of work to do to try to get better. I’m not sure what it is, but we lack a lot of drive off the corners.”

Busch still has a little something to fight for, as four races remain for him to extend his streak of years with at least one win. He has earned at least one victory since joining the Cup Series full-time with Hendrick Motorsports in 2005. Busch admitted he doesn’t feel like he has a shot, but he’s ready to accept the challenge moving forward.

“It’s very important,” he said of the streak. “There’s certainly been times this year where I’ve been like ‘man, there’s something wrong with me, I’m not doing it right, I don’t know what I’m doing, or the car’s not quite right, I’m not trusting what the car’s really doing or telling me, so I should just drive it harder’…certainly it would be nice to score a win, and to have a win this year, that would be the only consolation prize with how this year has gone.”

The next opportunity for Busch to extend his streak comes next Sunday at Kansas Speedway’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC). His older brother Kurt, having advanced through a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s South Point 400, will be among those racing in the Round of 8, driving the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

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