NASCAR: Kurt Busch takes home a family affair at Atlanta

After his team made a major announcement, Kurt Busch held off his younger brother Kyle to earn the 33rd win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

With Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious mantra turned meme embarking on a relentless invasion of social media, it was only appropriate that Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series affair would take on a familial theme.

Kurt Busch, driver No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, held off his younger brother Kyle to win the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The elder Busch made the fateful pass with just over 23 laps to go in the 260-circuit event to become the 12th different winner of the 2021 Cup Series season.

“We beat Kyle! I taught that kid everything he knows; he should be grateful,” Kurt Busch jokingly remarked, per notes from NASCAR. “What a battle. What a genuine, awesome, old-school racetrack.”

Kurt Busch’s victory comes at a crucial time for his team. All properties of Chip Ganassi Racing, including equipment and characters, were sold to Trackhouse Racing on June 30, a sale that will fully take effect after the 2021 season. Trackhouse is owned by former driver Justin Marks (who previously partook in Ganassi’s defunct Xfinity Series program, winning the 2016 Mid-Ohio event) and philanthropist/recording artist Pitbull, who field the No. 99 Chevrolet driven by Daniel Suarez.

Sunday’s event at Atlanta was thus poetic in more ways than one: Kurt Busch may have had some assistance from teammate Ross Chastain.

As the Busch brothers battled for the lead in the final stanzas, they approached Chastain’s slower No. 42. While Chastain didn’t appear to actively block Kyle, he more or less mimicked his draft, cutting off his access to clean air. Kurt was thus able to get by and build a healthy lead before his brother made one last push to no avail. The final margin of victory was 1.237 seconds.

Kyle was reportedly upset with Chastain’s apparent interference but nonetheless ventured to victory lane to congratulate his brother. Afterward, Kurt defended his teammate’s actions. Chastain is running his first season in Ganassi’s No. 42, previously piloted by Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kyle Larson.

“He did stop by Victory Lane and do the Kyle Busch grumpy. That’s what I expected,” Kurt Busch said of Kyle’s reply. “What happened on track was the perfect scenario for a teammate to do the work that he needed to do. If I’m running third, Ross isn’t part of the equation. That was exactly what a teammate needs to do, and Ross did that in a way that gave me a sense of pride in the education and the mentorship that I have helped Ross with this year. It was a perfect give-back.”

Chastain, who finished 21st, was among the first to congratulate Busch after he crossed the start/finish line. He’ll likely need a win to join the No. 1 in the Cup Series postseason as he sits 145 points out of the final playoff spot, now held by sixth-place finisher Tyler Reddick.

“Can we do that in the playoffs? No,” Kurt Busch said. “Can you do that in a regular season where one guy has won and one guy is trying to run hard? Today was a perfect scenario for that to unfold, and Kyle will get over it pretty quick.”

“I believe that no line was crossed, and it was that right finesse to make it happen.”

The Busch brothers each took home the victories in the first two 80-lap stages of the race. Kurt, the 2004 Cup Series champion, earned the 33rd win of his career to tie Fireball Roberts for 25th place on the all-time wins list. His return to the playoffs guarantees Ganassi at least one more shot at a NASCAR championship. CGR has earned 18 major racing championships (including nine in IndyCar) but none at the NASCAR level, its closest attempt coming in 2001 with Sterling Marlin (3rd).

Busch’s victory, his first since last September at his home track of Las Vegas and his fourth all-time at AMS (most amongst active drivers), also comes at the final NASCAR event at Atlanta before the track is repaved and reconfigured for next year’s visit. The old surface required repairs shortly after the end of the second stage, necessitating a red flag period that lasted about 20 minutes.

Martin Truex Jr. finished third, while Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on July 18, as the Foxwoods Resort Casino will be held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For full Sunday results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott reclaims road course crown at Road America

Elliott’s seventh road course win is good for sole possession of third place in NASCAR Cup Series history.

It had been a long time since the NASCAR Cup Series descended upon Elkhart Lake’s Road America road course in Wisconsin. Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, made sure the uniqueness was kept to a minimum.

As the Cup Series held its first event at Road America since 1956, Elliott reclaimed his road course crown by passing Kyle Busch on lap 46 of 62 to take home the Jockey Made in America 250. Christopher Bell got by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to finish second while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, another Gibbs Toyota, rounded out the top five at the 4.048-mile circuit.

The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion has now won seven races on road courses, good for sole possession of third place in the circuit’s history. Only Jeff Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8) have won more. Elliott previously won in May at the rain-shortened event at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. HMS Chevys also returned to victory lane after a one-race pause at Pocono last Sunday, having now won seven of the last eight points-paying events.

Elliott’s latest road course triumph was an uphill battle. During Sunday morning’s qualifying session, the No. 9 failed to finish a full-speed lap in the allotted window, forcing him to start in the 34th position. He was able to move up to 10th by the end of the first 14-lap stage (won by HMS teammate William Byron), assisted by some teams that pitted late for strategy purposes. The No. 9 led its first laps at the onset of the third and final segment, passing Matt DiBenedetto at lap 38.

Kyle Busch briefly got back out front when a majority of the field made its final pit stop under caution at lap 44, a sequence initiated by Anthony Alfredo’s spin into the gravel in Turn 1. Elliott quickly resecured the lead and coasted over the final 17 laps of green flag racing, beating out Bell by a 5.7-second margin.

At over four miles, Road America is one of the most daunting visits on the NASCAR circuit. But the only time the distance affected Elliott’s No. 9 group was through his celebration. Eager to greet the fans at every turn, Elliott indulged those in Turn 5 with a victorious burnout, one that wound up tearing up his tires to the point he not only needed a push from the track’s safety crew but an impromptu pit stop at the stop finish line so his winning vehicle could make it to victory lane. The joyous reactions from his crew, however, were more than enough proof that the extra work was completely worth it.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 500 presented by Walmart (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For full Sunday results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series: Kyle Busch wins the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 in dramatic fuel mileage race

After finishing second in both the Camping World Truck Series race and the Cup Series race on Saturday, Kyle Busch was finally able to turn his bad luck around, winning the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 in the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday.

“This is a really good place for us,” Busch said. “Our guys do a really good job of coming here with really fast stuff”.

However, this win was certainly no cakewalk for Busch and the No. 18 team. Sunday’s race turned into a typical Pocono fuel mileage race, as well as Busch having to deal with a broken transmission for the majority of the race.

“I was just rolling around under yellow, scrubbing my tires, getting ready for the restart, and it popped out of gear,” Busch detailed. “When we took the green on the restart, everything was fine, shifting into gears, getting into fourth was fine, and then I’m holding it down the backstretch and chaos ensued….. the next caution comes out, I go to hit the shifter to see what’s wrong with it, and it’s stuck. Like it’s welded in fourth gear”.

Busch made trips down pit road for his crew to try and fix it, however, the team was unable to get the car out of fourth gear. The No. 18 car was forced to lay back on restarts due to lack of acceleration, but the car’s overall speed propelled Busch up with the leaders.

After cycling through from his final pitstop, Busch sat in fourth place with eight laps to go. The leader at the time was the No. 2 car of Brad Keselowski, however, he was forced to pit early and surrender his lead.

“We ran a really good race, but didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the end,” Keselowski, the third-place finisher said. “They beat us on power and fuel mileage, so we have a lot of work to do to keep up with those guys”.

William Byron assumed Keselowski’s lead when Keselowski was forced to pit on lap 132. He maintained the lead until three laps remained when Byron ran out of fuel himself.

“The goal for half the run was to run hard and get everyone else to pit and [then] we’d have to pit for less time,” Byron said. “Sometimes it hurts to have a fast car because you burn more fuel”.

Byron made it to pit road on fumes and was able to get back on the track for a 12th place finish.

After Byron ran out of fuel, Denny Hamlin landed in the catbird seat. Hamlin remained the leader for just over a lap when he ran out of fuel with two laps to go. That set up Busch to take his second victory of the season and his fourth in his Cup Series career.

Overall, it was a much improved day for Toyota teams, as all four Gibbs cars showed speed and both Hamlin and Busch were in contention for both Cup Series races this weekend. Martin Truex Jr. led 19 laps on Sunday and Bubba Wallace registered his first top-5 with 23XI Racing, all while team owner Michael Jordan was in attendance.

“[Jordan] understands,” Wallace said. “He wants to win, but he knows what it’s going to take for us to get there. It’s more from me, more from the team, it’s a more group effort. He’s in the background watching it and enjoying it….we’ll just keep plugging away forward”.

Busch, Kyle Larson, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Wallace completed the top-5. Saturday’s winner Alex Bowman notably finished in the top-10 with a 7th place finish.

Larson continues to lead the playoff standings, while Hamlin continues to lead in overall Cup Series points. The Cup Series is back in action next Sunday at Road America for the Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip. That race will begin at 2:30 PM Eastern time on NBC.

NASCAR: Kyle Busch good to the last drop at Pocono finale

Kyle Busch had just enough fuel to win the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway.

It wasn’t pretty, but Kyle Busch ended Hendrick Motorsports’ monopoly on the NASCAR Cup Series in style on Sunday afternoon at Pocono Raceway.

Busch fought an ill-handling No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and saved just enough fuel in the final stages to win the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350, the latter of a Cup Series weekend doubleheader in Pennsylvania. The win snaps a six-race winning streak for Rick Hendrick’s team, though Kyle Larson, the winner of three of those races, finished in the runner-up spot.

“Even though we were in the back and behind and having to come through and persevere through being stuck in fourth gear, no clutch, all that stuff it’s all burned out…It was awesome today,” Busch told NBC Sports after exiting his car. “Great job to my team. Thanks to (crew chief) Ben Beshore. Thanks to Matt (Tyrrell) the fuel guy for getting it full. That’s a big important one today. Really great to take home another checkered flag.

Shortly after the halfway mark of the 140-lap event at the “Tricky Triangle”, Busch’s No. 18 got stuck in fourth gear due to transmission issues. Things became so dire for the JGR team that a crew member had to enter the car during the caution at the end of the second stage in an ultimately futile attempt to fix it. Busch retreated to the rear of the field while at the onset of the third and final stage, the first two won by Martin Truex Jr. and HMS rep William Byron.

The race turned into a fuel mileage struggle after the caution came for Erik Jones’ encounter with the wall at lap 93. Busch joined several others on pit road, seeking to stretch out one final tank of fuel over 47 final laps. The fuel window at the 2.5-mile triangle is often open for 42-45 laps.

Contenders dwindled as they slowly ran out of fuel over the final laps. Byron threatened to keep the HMS streak alive but was forced to pit road with two laps to go. The stage was set for a battle between JGR Toyotas, but Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin ran dry on the final turn of the penultimate lap. Busch had just enough to finish the 140th circuit and capture the 59th Cup Series victory of his career. That gives him sole possession of ninth place on the all-time Cup Series wins list, breaking a tie with fellow Sunday racer Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski led the most laps on Sunday with 31. He beat out Harvick for third, while Bubba Wallace rounded out the top five. Wallace’s finish is good for the first top-five/ten finish the history of 23XI Racing, the team co-owned by Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Independence Day, as the circuit makes its first run on the Road America road course in Elkhart Lake, WI since 1956 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series: Larson blows tire on final lap, Bowman steals victory at Pocono

With four laps to go in the NASCAR Cup Series Pocono Organics CBD 325, Kyle Larson assumed the lead from Alex Bowman after Bowman jumped ahead on a late-race restart.

Three laps to go. Two laps to go.

As time was running out, Larson’s lead expanded, and it seemed that the driver of the No. 5 would be well on his way to his fourth consecutive Cup Series points-paying victory.

One lap to go. One turn to go.

And then: BANG!

Larson suddenly blew a tire, hitting the turn three wall hard, gifting a victory to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

“It’s a bummer,” Larson said postrace. “At least we showed everyone that we were going to win another one and just bad luck took it from us”.

However, it’s a completely different attitude for the No. 48 squad, as Bowman’s good luck helped him secure his third victory of the 2021 season.

“This is the strangest win I’ve ever been a part of,” Bowman said. “I thought I was [going to run] 2nd, which was still going to be a good day for us with how we struggled throughout the course of the day, but then he blows a tire and we win”.

Bowman ran around 10th place for most of the day, but a late-race debris caution allowed him to advance to the front-row with the choose-cone rule. He launched into first place behind a push from Ryan Blaney and was passed by Larson with four laps remaining. Bowman regained the lead in turn three of the final lap to hold on for the victory.

“Our plan was to minimize our [final] stop and get enough fuel to make it to the end, and we did that with two right-side tires,” Crew Chief Greg Ives said. “12 gallons [of fuel] is what we needed, maybe a little less with cautions. We were lined up fourth on that restart coming to the choose cone, and he elected to take the bottom, and that obviously was the winning move”.

While Ives instructed Bowman to pit right before the end of Stage 1 for track position in Stage 2, Kyle Busch stayed out and won the opening stage fresh of his Camping World Truck Series defeat just hours before. Larson started the race from the pole position, but surrendered the lead to teammate William Byron on Lap 5, just prior to an early debris caution.

Just a lap after the debris caution returned to green, Cole Custer’s day ended early after colliding with Brad Keselowski on the frontstretch.

“It was just a tight hole [that I was trying to pass in],” Custer said. “At least we don’t have to wait a whole week and sulk about it, we can just go back tomorrow and get it done”.

Stage 2 was taken by the older of the Busch brothers, Kurt, for some much-needed stage points for the No. 1 team. Younger brother Kyle dropped to ninth, while Larson, Joey Logano, William Byron, and Ryan Blaney finished in positions two through five.

The second stage featured a trio of incidents, including a Ryan Newman spin on lap 54, a wreck involving Corey LaJoie and Anthony Alfredo on lap 61, and a blown tire off the car of Ross Chastain. Stage 3’s only caution was the debris caution to set up the dramatic finish.

With eight races until the playoffs, Kyle Larson leads the playoff standings with Denny Hamlin leading in overall points. Austin Dillon is the final driver in on points, while Kurt Busch sits 24 points away from the top-16.

The top-20 of Saturday’s will be inverted to start the finale of the Pocono Doubleheader on Sunday. That puts Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell on the front row after finishing 20th and 19th, respectively. Custer, Newman, Larson, Chastain, LaJoie, Alfredo, and Ryan Preece have had their backup cars approved, and will start Sunday’s race from the rear. Chase Elliott also has severe damage and is expected to switch to a backup car.

Race No. 2 of the Pocono Raceway Doubleheader begins Sunday at 3:30 PM Eastern Time on NBCSN. The Xfinity Series race will start at 12:00 PM, also aired by NBCSN.

 

NASCAR Trucks: John Hunter Nemechek steals the CRC Brakleen 150 at Pocono Raceway

John Hunter Nemechek passed his boss, Kyle Busch, with six laps to go to steal the win in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series CRC Brakleen 150 at Pocono Raceway.

“I matched [Kyle’s] restart in the box pretty well, and the No. 2 didn’t quite get to his bumper as fast as I thought he would,” Nemechek said. “The outside lane was dominant here today on restarts so for me it was getting the best launch I could and to keep the No. 38 behind me”.

Busch started the race from the 22nd position based on NASCAR’s new formula, and made it all the way up to third place by the end of the first stage. He pit before the end of stage two for track position, and cycled to the lead on the restart to begin stage three. Busch led 20 laps up through a caution with nine laps to go involving the No. 52 truck of Stewart Friesen.

Nemecheck took the lead on a restart with six laps to go, forcing Busch to battle with Sheldon Creed for third place. Busch and Creed made contact in turn two with four laps to go, putting both drivers too far back to have a chance at victory.

“I was hoping I could have a shot to be able to go back and fight back after [Nemechek], but then I got drilled by [Creed],” Busch said. “Good day for KBM, 1-2, we had fast tundras”.

Creed believes that his decision to split up the KBM trucks on the restart may have backfired, resulting in the contact between him and Busch down the stretch.

“I thought splitting [Busch and Nemechek] up would be good,” Creed said. “I didn’t know if I could trust Preece or not, I should’ve trusted him [though]. The Cup guys race so much better and they actually help each other, so I should’ve just trusted him”.

After getting off to a rough start this season, Tyler Ankrum finally got things to click with his third top-5 of 2021. Ankrum was able to overcome an early speeding penalty to register a 33-point day.

“It wasn’t my fastest truck, but we had a good handling truck,” Ankrum said. “Didn’t have anything there for the KBM trucks or [Creed], in clean air, I just had no speed”.

Ankrum sits 13th in points, just three spots outside the 10-man playoff grid. He was able to gain ground on 12th place driver Johnny Sauter, as he wrecked on the first lap of the race and placed 35th. Sauter’s crash with Jack Wood was just one of two natural cautions all race.

With just two races until the end of the regular season, Nemechek leads the points standings by nearly 100 points. Only four drivers competing for Truck Series points have won races in 2021, the others being Ben Rhodes, Todd Gilliland, and Creed.

The NASCAR Truck Series returns to action on Friday, July 9 at Knoxville Speedway for a dirt race. They’ll return to pavement August 7 for the regular series finale at Watkins Glen.

Full results:

Standings:

NASCAR: Kyle Busch earns a birthday sweep at Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: 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.