ESM’s Guide to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs

As the NASCAR’s postseason gets underway in Darlington on Sunday night, ESM has you covered for the road ahead.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get underway at Darlington Raceway tonight. 16 drivers enter the 10-race gauntlet, with four eliminated after every three races. The proceedings wrap up in Phoenix this November, and drivers can advance to the next leg of the tournament with a win in the preceding circuit.

ESM has you covered with lineup and the road (pun much intended) ahead…

The Drivers

1. Kevin Harvick

Team: No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
2020 Wins: 7 (Darlington 1, Atlanta, Pocono 1, Indianapolis, Michigan 1, Michigan 2, Dover 2)
Best Prior Finish: 2014 Champion

In this era of lost qualifying and practice, Harvick hasn’t been making a Hall-of-Fame case. As the 2014 Cup Series champion, the man who took over for the late Dale Earnhardt, and his impact on both the Cup and Xfinity levels, Harvick was probably going to Charlotte anyway. But his sheer dominance in going from motorhome to car has been nothing short of extraordinary. Only four races have ended with Harvick outside of the top ten and only a pair of visits to Daytona has stopped him from a streak of 13 consecutive top-five finishes. Through his seven wins (matching seven stages wins as well), Harvick has earned a Cup Series-record 57 playoff points, building himself a solid cushion that could sustain him all the way to Phoenix.

They Said It: “We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had…Our theory is not that you change gears and try to do something different, it’s you better be ready and already have been in that mode.”-Harvick on building momentum for the playoffs

2. Denny Hamlin (-10 points behind)

Team: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: Chris Gabehart
2020 Wins: 6 (Daytona Winter, Darlington 2, Homestead, Pocono 2, Kansas, Dover 1)
Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2010)

At Harvick’s side every step of the way has been Hamlin. Since entering the Cup Series in 2006, his No. 11 Toyota has accomplished almost everything there is to earn on the premier levels. February saw him win his third Daytona 500 (and second in a row, the first to do that since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95) and he added five more victories, giving him 43 since starting his Cup career. His career began with a third-place standings finish in his rookie year (the first rookie to qualify for what was then the Chase for the Sprint Cup) and he reached the final four last season, nine years after a runner-up finish. All that’s missing is an elusive Cup championship. Like Harvick, Hamlin was able to build a sizable lead over the cutoffs, currently lead the first won by 47 points thanks to his six wins and tying the No. 4 for the most stage wins with seven. Since teaming with new crew chief Gabehart last season, Hamlin has visited victory lane 12 times.

They Said It: “A lot of stuff has changed on and off the race track. I think I’ve changed a little bit as a driver. I’ve just adapted quite a bit as well. It’s tough to say what has automatically just flipped the switch and made the results what they’ve been over the last two years or less than two years. Certainly, there’s a process we’ve put in to preparing for each week that is working for us, it’s working for me. Me and Chris have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us. Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening.”-Hamlin on what’s been the difference for him over the last two seasons.

3. Brad Keselowski (-28)

Team: No. 2 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Jeremy Bullins
2020 Wins: 3 (Charlotte 1, Bristol, New Hampshire)
Best Prior Finish: 2012 Champion

The epic battle between Harvick and Hamlin has somewhat covered up Keselowski’s strong season. A strong summer propelled him to the third seed on the initial playoff grid, boosted by a streak of eight consecutive finishes no worse than 11th. Keselowski has worked his magic during his first season under Bullins, who came over from teammate Ryan Blaney’s pit stall during a Penske shakeup. He got off to a strong start in last year’s playoff proceedings, with top fives in each of the three first-round races. But a wreck at Talladega (site of five prior wins) put him in a hole and ended his chances at another trophy hoist at Homestead.

They Said It: I think I’ve been in this position now seven of the last eight years, in the playoffs, really eight of the last nine years and I’ve brought it home once, which is great. I’m super-proud of that. It’s more than I thought I’d ever accomplish in my entire life. And so I’ll always be proud of that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wanting to stop there. It doesn’t mean that I want to leave this sport with my one Cup and go home and tell my grandkids about it for the next hopefully 40-50 years, however long I’ve got to live. I’d rather tell them about two than one, but the reality is a championship is much bigger than a driver. They put the driver’s name on the trophy, but I’ve never seen a driver win a championship. I’ve seen a lot of damn good teams win championships.”-Keselowski on his No. 2 team

4. Joey Logano (-35)

Team: No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe
2020 Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Phoenix)
Best Prior Finish: 2018 Champion

Logano was the driver to beat prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, winning two of the first four races of the season, including the winter visit to the championship site in Phoenix. He struggled to regain speed once things got rolling again, but heated up as summer rolled on. The No. 22 won each of the first two stages at the regular-season finale at Daytona before a late wreck ended his day. It broke a streak of six consecutive top-ten finishes for the Connecticut native, who is likewise working through a year with a new crew chief in Wolfe. The Cup veteran helped guide Keselowski to his championship in 2012.

They Said It: (The wins) feel like a long time ago…Way too long. We’re ready to win again, but I do feel like we’re getting close back to that same point as we were. To me, there’s no doubt when we went back racing we weren’t where we wanted to be. I even said it a few times, almost like a lost puppy not knowing what road to go down to get back to where we need to be, and it’s hard to find that direction without practice. Going to a different racetrack every week it’s hard to grow. It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year. We can get ourselves in position to win again and I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”-Logano on his 2020 season

5. Chase Elliott (-37)

Team: No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
2020 Wins: 2 (Charlotte 2, Daytona Road Course)
Best Prior Finish: 5th (2017)

The early stages of the return to action were defined by bad luck for Elliott, who was denied several further opportunities for bonus points throughout the year. For example, contact from behind from Kyle Busch denied him a win at an earlier Darlington event this season and an ill-advised move to pit prior to overtime cost him an illustrious Coca-Cola 600 trophy. Elliott was able to get back to victory lane at Daytona, winning the first Cup Series event on the track’s road course his third straight at such a track. It was part of a streak where Elliott finished no worse than ninth in six of the final seven regular-season races. Elliott will be starting on the pole for Sunday’s opener at Darlington

They Said It: “You can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the Playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet. So, I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four. So, at the end of the day, if me being confident and knowing that we can do it, and my team knowing that (too), is the case and it is, then I think that’s really all that matters to me. But it’s certainly the goal. Certainly, if you want to win a championship, you don’t have an option. You’ve got to make it. We know that and look forward to the challenge.”-Elliott on the weight of missing the final four thus far.

6. Martin Truex Jr. (-43)

Team: No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: James Small
2020 Wins: 1 (Martinsville)
Best Prior Finish: 2017 Champion

Truex has been hotter than a summer down the Shore in his native Mayetta Township, NJ. Daytona’s regular season finale saw him end a streak of seven consecutive finishes in the top three…and that was only because he finished fourth. Wins have proved elusive, but Truex has proven time and time again to possess the championship pedigree. He has appeared in the final four in each of the past three seasons and four of the past five. That includes his 2017 title, won in the No. 78 Toyota with the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing.

They Said It: “You’ve got to be resilient. There’s going to be times in the Playoffs when your back is against the wall or you need to make something happen. That’s been the case for us throughout the years. Whether it’s been a season where a lot of things have gone right or a season where things have gone wrong. At the end the day, it’s 10 races to get in and you have to be resilient. You are going to face challenges along the way.”-Truex on the most necessary trait to possess to reach the final four

7. Alex Bowman (-48)

Team: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Greg Ives
2020 Wins: 1 (Fontana)
Best Prior Finish: 12th (2019)

Bowman seemed like the driver to beat in the early stages of 2020. He dominated the third race of the season at Fontana, leading 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. When the series returned to action after the pause, Bowman sat in second place in the standings after a runner-up finish at Darlington. But summer has been anything but hot for the No. 88 squad. Since that second-place posting in Myrtle Beach, Bowman has earned only six top-ten finishes. Contending for a championship would mean an extra something for Bowman, a Tuscon native who earned a surprising sixth-place finish at Phoenix when filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the 2016 season.

They Said It: “The summer was pretty rough on us. We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. So, I think we’re in a good place going into the Playoffs.”
“Darlington, for us, we were really fast there the first two races this year. The first race we finished second. The second race we had a way better race car. I started racing my competitors instead of the race track and hit the fence, so that’s on me to not do this time. But I think we can be really strong and have a really good day. I think each and every week during the Playoffs we’re going to be really good, but Darlington is one that we had circled that we can be really strong at, for sure.”-Bowman on recovering from a tough summer

8. William Byron (-50)

Team: No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
2020 Wins: 1 (Daytona Summer)
Best Prior Finish: 11th (2019)

Byron’s first career win couldn’t have come at a better time. With a playoff farewell from teammate Jimmie Johnson breathing down his neck for a playoff spot, Byron took home a victory at Daytona’s finale, taking the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane for the first time since Jeff Gordon punched his final four ticket at Martinsville during his farewell tour in 2015. Byron’s playoff tour will be overseen by crew chief Knaus, who partook in each of Johnson’s record-tying seven championships.

They Said It: “I think that now having that first win of the season and first win for me and this team, I feel like we’re more focused on just executing the details of each race. Obviously, our goal going into this year was to make it further than we did last year in the playoffs, which was the Round of 12 last year. So, if we can make it to the Round of 8 this year, it would be a success, for sure. We just have to take it one race at a time. A lot of these tracks are good for us. I think the first round is probably the weakest of the tracks for us, so we just have to try to focus on that.”-Byron on how the weight of his first win is removed

9. Austin Dillon (-52)

Team: No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Justin Alexander
2020 Wins: 1 (Texas)
Best Prior Finish: 12th (2017)

Dillon worked his way into the playoffs with a hard-fought win in Fort Worth. His timing, perhaps, couldn’t have been better. Dillon was forced to turn over the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet to Kaz Grala at the Dayton road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19. While Dillon has ways to go in living up to the reputation the No. 3 car carries with it, he has been relatively consistent in 2020. The win at Texas gives him a small cushion to at least make it to the round of 12.

They Said It: “I love being dismissed. I think it’s a great. It’s all I’ve just kind of always been that way. I feel like maybe not that way in the trucks are Xfinity at the end of those runs, but in the Cup series, it’s been a little bit of that. So and I feel like that’s what kind of propels us, and then we sneak up on people. I was very close to making it to the third round a couple years back in the playoffs and missed it by one point to Denny Hamlin not want to transfer this on and we missed at Talladega by one so I know from that experience at every Point matters, and we just need to go out there and do our job these first three races is good good races for us, but the stage is the way they play out. You got to get points. So we’re going to be very aggressive in getting those points and hopefully messed up a lot of brackets.”-Dillon on being an underdog headed into the playoffs

10. Cole Custer (-52)

Team: No. 41 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Shiplett
2020 Wins: 1 (Kentucky)
Best Prior Finish: N/A (rookie)

Custer is the first rookie to partake in the NASCAR Cup Series postseason since Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher fought their way in during the 2016 season. While the back-to-back runner-up in the Xfinity Series struggled in his first year at the wheel of the No. 41, Custer punched his ticket to the playoffs at Kentucky and kept the momentum going with three top-ten finishes over the past nine races. His opportunity to advance could come at Darlington, where he won last season’s Xfinity event (albeit via disqualification of race-winner Denny Hamlin). By qualifying for the playoffs, Custer has already earned the Cup Series’ Rookie of the Year title, topping a talented class that also featured Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.

They Said It: “I think we can go in there and prove some people wrong is the biggest thing, but at the end of the day it’s about being consistent and it’s about being competitive. I think we’ve had a lot of peaks and valleys at times this year, but at the same time we just need to try and level it out more going into these playoffs. If we can be consistent and we can put it all together and put all the pieces together for these last 10 races, I think we’ve shown that we can compete with anybody it’s just trying to put those pieces together every single race.”-Custer on his playoff approach

11. Aric Almirola (-52)

Team: No. 10 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 5th (2018)

Though wins have proved elusive (his last coming in Talladega’s event in the fall of 2018), Almirola was one of the most accomplished drivers of the summer. building a streak of nine consecutive top-ten finishes. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons in Tony Stewart’s No. 10, though advancement through the playoff rounds have has proved difficult. He made it to the penultimate segment in 2018, but a string of finishes outside the top-ten eliminated him in the first round last year.

They Said It: “It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time. I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team. What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job. I am excited about the playoffs. I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”-Almirola on being a playoff sleeper

12. Clint Bowyer (-53)

Team: No. 14 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2012)

The fan-favorite Bowyer has remained generally consistent in the No. 14 Ford that won the Cup Series title with Tony Stewart behind the wheel in 2011. Bowyer, who has doubled as a commentator for Fox Sports, will be seeking his first win since June 2018. His best finish came at the playoff track of Bristol, where he came home in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski.

They Said It: “Gas mask. Same precautions you have. I mean, it’s the same thing . It’s COVID. I mean, it (stinks). It’s pretty crazy to me that we’re this far along and we still really don’t know a whole lot more than where we’re at. I mean, it’s crazy times, but, nonetheless, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I’m probably not gonna go to college and hit up a keg stand. I’m probably not going to do that. I would say that would be a good opportunity to find yourself pointless.”-Bowyer on precautions he’ll be taking to avoid COVID-19 during the playoffs.

13. Ryan Blaney (-54)

Team: No. 12 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Todd Gordon
2020 Wins: 1 (Talladega)
Best Prior Finish: 7th (2019)

Apologies for pointing out a theme, but it’s possible that the 2020 playoffs could well become “Penske material”. No one on the circuit perhaps knows more about bad luck than Blaney. Only four drivers on the circuit led more laps than Blaney (586), several accidents beyond his control denied him victories at several tracks this season. He has likewise been impacted by the Penske shuffle, with Todd Gordon taking over his pit stall. Gordon was on hand to guide fellow Penske Ford driver Logano to his title in 2018. Blaney heard some bad news prior to Sunday’s opener at Darlington, as Gordon was suspended and he was docked 10 points for an improperly mounted ballast.

They Said It: “It’s just been so limited with no practice. You can talk so much throughout the week on the phone and things like that, but it’s just different than being able to go through a couple practices and the whole weekend with them and talking to them. But I think we’ve gotten the best that we can. Todd and I get along really well. He’s an amazing crew chief and a championship crew chief and has won a ton of races, so I think it’s been going well. It’s a shame, but everyone is in the same boat.”-Blaney on working with new crew chief Gordon

14. Kyle Busch (-54)

Team: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2015, 2019 Champion

Perhaps no other driver on the circuit has better personified 2020 from the average race fan’s point of view. Everything that can go wrong for the two-time Cup Series champion has indeed come to pass, whether it’s been getting caught up in wrecks, having tire or car issues, or simply being on the wrong pit strategy. It has put the defending champion in an awkward spot as the postseason begins: winless, no playoff points to fall back on, and in danger of elimination in the first round. Admittedly, most drivers would LOVE to struggle the way Busch has. But it’s clearly below the expectations the No. 18 and its driver have set for themselves.

They Said It: “This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. 2015, I was injured and I was on the sideline and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back and I was able to come back and then struggled for five weeks just getting a footing and then finally being able to win again at Sonoma. Right there just lit a fire under us and that was all it took for the rest of the year to be a championship contender and a guy to go out there to compete with his team and be the best of all of them. This year, it’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next and what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience. Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”-Busch on how 2020 has tested him

15. Kurt Busch (-56)

Team: No. 1 Chip Gannasi Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Matt McCall
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2004 Champion

Kyle’s older brother and fellow champion (the first under a NASCAR playoff system) failed to get a win, and it’ll come back to haunt him in the playoff standings. But strong consistency led to another playoff berth and allowed him to hover in the top ten of the standings all season. He beat out Kyle for a win at Kentucky last season, but an opening crash in the playoff debut at his home track of Las Vegas ended his chances of moving on. Busch is one of two playoff drivers to have run without a playoff system, the other being Harvick.

They Said It: “What I think it’s done is it gave it a strong comparison to other sports. There’s that Playoff atmosphere. There’s that championship race, where four guys are eligible to win the championship and it’s an even playing ground. When it was a long marathon process of going through all 36 races, that was a different sequence. That was maybe not as intense when it got down to the final rounds. And so, with these 10 weeks, the Playoff atmosphere is there, and it relates well to other sports. And that’s where it draws in more fans that might not have been NASCAR fans before.”-Busch on how the playoffs have changed NASCAR

16. Matt DiBenedetto (-57)

Team: No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Greg Erwin
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 22nd (2019)

DiBenedetto has built a strong following after earning his way to a decent ride in the long-running No. 21 car. He began his Cup career in low-budget vehicles and fought his way into the playoffs through general 2020 consistency (which includes a runner-up finish at Las Vegas). Some late struggles put him in a tough situation at Daytona, put he held off Johnson to clinch an elusive spot.

They Said It: “I would say that this week has been a release. It was so stressful and kept getting more stressful leading up to Daytona and the points closed in and we lost the gap that we had and all that. I would call this week exciting and we got to celebrate with some friends out on the lake Sunday and have a good time but come Monday it was time to shift focus and we still have a lot of racing left and a lot to accomplish. It was a relief and exciting moving forward now instead of stressful. Exciting knowing that we have an opportunity to really put a good end to our season and cap it off and have a lot more success. I am pretty pumped up about that and I am appreciative to be doing it for the Wood Brothers.”-DiBenedetto on making the playoffs for the first time as a veteran driver

The Races

(All times ET)

Cook Out Southern 500

Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, South Carolina
When: September 6
Watch: 6 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Erik Jones

“The Track Too Tough to Tame” hosts its annual Labor Day Weekend event and its first playoff race since 2004. In recent time, the race has become well-known for featuring throwback paint schemes, a tradition that will continue this year.

Federated Auto Parts 400

Where: Richmond Raceway, Richmond, Virginia
When: September 12
Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

Richmond’s short track hosted the final regular season race from 2004 through 2018. It is now the second race of the round of 16. Keep an eye on Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, who have won four of the last five September races.

Bass Pro Shops Night Race

Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tennessee
When: September 19
Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

For the first time, the famous cramped short-track settings of BMS will host a playoff race. The night race has been particularly intriguing, known for its flaring of tempers and propensity for wrecks.

South Point 400

Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nevada
When: September 27
Watch: 7 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

The Round of 12 gets underway in Sin City, where Logano punched his ticket to the playoffs in the second race of the season back in February.

YellaWood 500

Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Alabama
When: October 4
Watch: 2 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Ryan Blaney

If you thought the superspeedway proceedings that closed out the regular season at Daytona were exciting, just wait until you see what the playoffs themselves have in store at Talladega, home of multi-car pile-up commonly referred to as “The Big One”.

Bank of America ROVAL 400

Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, North Carolina
When: October 11
Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Chase Elliott

Since being introduced to the playoff in 2018, the “roval”, a half-oval, half-road course at the hub of NASCAR, has created all kinds of postseason chaos. This will be the first time it ends the second round of the playoffs, previously seen at the end of the round of 16.

Hollywood Casino 400

Where: Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kansas
When: October 18
Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

The Round of 8 gets underway in Kanas, where Denny Hamlin has won each of the last two visits, including a weeknight race earlier this summer.

AAA Texas 500

Where: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas
When: October 25
Watch: 3:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Kevin Harvick

Texas produced a surprise winner earlier this summer, with Dillon using strategy his favor to take hom a long-awaited victory. Harvick has won each of the last three visits in the fall.

Xfinity 500

Where: Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Virginia
When: November 1
Watch: 2 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

A battle on a short track will determine the final spots for the season finale in Arizona. Thus, racing will be tight and tempers will more than likely flare.

NASCAR Cup Series Championship

Where: Phoenix Raceway, Avondale, Arizona
When: November 8
Watch: 3 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

After nearly two decades in Miami, the NASCAR season finale proceedings will move to Phoenix. Hamlin, one of the favorites, is the defending victor, but fellow front-runner Kevin Harvick has won four times.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Four Turns with the Eastern Speedboard

ESM’s NASCAR experts commemorate the second half of the season, starting on Thursday at Kansas, by kicking off a new debate series.

As the NASCAR circuit carries on, ESM presents a new debate series, one where our resident NASCAR experts (Geoff Magliocchetti, Dylan Price, and Nathan Solomon) tackle four burning questions concerning the racing world. They’ll also give their predictions for the upcoming races at each of NASCAR’s three national levels.

Their first edition starts below…

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 1: Halfway through the season, who’s your ONE man to beat? 

Geoff Magliocchetti: The no-practice era has been one of solidifying legacies and the tossing of hats into the championship ring. Kevin Harvick has made a first-ballot Hall of Fame case. Chase Elliott has cooled off after a hot start, but he has shown he’s not going anywhere in this process. Aric Almirola has spent the whole summer in the top ten or better. But right now, the man to beat is Ryan Blaney. Few would quarrel that Blaney has earned his elite No. 12 Team Penske Ford ride. It’s almost obscene that Blaney (leader of 497 laps this year, third-best in the Cup Series) only has six wins to his Cup Series name and has only earned one of Penske’s five wins this season. But the racing gods of luck have been particularly cruel to Blaney, and this has shown he’s finally ready to fully fight back. I chose Elliott at the start of the year, but it’s going to be really hard to ignore Blaney moving forward.

Dylan Price: This is a pretty tough question. I’d say the obvious answers have to be between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Ryan Blaney has also run particularly well in recent weeks. With that said, Harvick is “the closer” and he’s proven to be lethal towards the end of the season. He also has more Top 5s and Top 10s then Hamlin right now, so I’ll go with him.

Nathan Solomon: Right now, the man to beat right now is Denny Hamlin. He has four wins already and would have had five if it wasn’t for a late blown tire in Indianapolis. It seems that Hamlin is up front competing for a win every week, along with Kevin Harvick. But, Hamlin has had more near wins than Harvick, in my opinion, and won the Daytona 500 all the way back in February.

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 2: We’ve got 10 drivers locked into the Cup Series playoffs and several more on the bubble. Which driver outside of the current 16 seeds makes it and who does he replace?

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve already seen one rookie visit victory lane (Cole Custer in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway) but there’s no denying that Reddick has been the most consistent rookie out there, leading a talented class of yellow-stripers in top tens, laps led, and stage wins. Many see him as being the spark that brings Richard Childress Racing back into racing’s mainstream, though helped his teammate Austin Dillon do just that at Texas last weekend. Reddick has nonetheless maintained enough consistency to find himself only 14 points out of the current playoff picture at this current time, but don’t expect him to rely solely on points to make his postseason mark. As for who he replaces, it might start to get late early for Clint Bowyer. The veteran driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Ford is 36 points up on the cutoff but has struggled since a runner-up posting at Bristol. Combine that with the looming threat of an expiring contract and the rise of Chase Briscoe in the Xfinity Series, Bowyer has a lot on his plate for the rest of the season.

Dylan Price: Tyler Reddick is my guy for this one. Despite how impressive Cole Custer’s win was, Reddick has flashed a lot more consistency. With a pair of top-fives (including a runner up finish this past weekend) and six top-tens, he’s been near the front in quite a few races. I truly believe he has a bright future. In an “out with the old, in with the new” sense, I think Reddick takes Jimmie Johnson’s spot and maybe even his ride next season.

Nathan Solomon: I’ll go with Erik Jones on this one. Despite just six top-tens, he’s seemingly running better every week and has had a little bad luck in his way as well. With the equipment he has, I bet you will see more top tens in the near future and more stage points. He’s also a dark-horse guy at almost any track. The guy most likely for him to bump out would be William Byron, who’s gone five races without a top 10 and has seemed to have trouble keeping his car in one piece lately.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Turn 3: Let’s talk surprises…most pleasant and most disappointing?

Geoff Magliocchetti: NASCAR could well be in the midst of its most intriguing Rookie of the Year since the Jimmie Johnson-Ryan Newman clash in 2002. Custer and Reddick are leading the way, while Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek are posting respectable results in subpar equipment. But perhaps most impressive has been the rise of Almirola. Freed from the racing purgatory of Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola rewarded Stewart-Haas’ faith in him with a win and a fifth-place finish in the final 2017 standings, but, for the most part, has simply been a playoff also-ran during his in their No. 10. Partially aided by some good luck in the qualifying draws, Almirola been able to capitalize and climb up the standings. He’s currently the top-ranked winless driver and is one of only six drivers with double-figure top-ten finishes. Expect Almirola to be a popular pick on playoff brackets when we get to the fall. As for most disappointing, my pick goes to Chris Buescher. The 2015 Xfinity Series champion flashed major potential in lesser equipment, but has struggled to maintain consistency in a better ride with Roush Fenway Racing.

Dylan Price: Matt DiBenedetto immediately strikes me as the most pleasant surprise. He has consistently been competitive, which is something new for him. With a better car at Wood Brothers Racing, he’s had much better success, and quietly is sitting 12th in the points. Look for him to snatch a win or two in the latter half of the season. As for disappointments, you could immediately pinpoint Kyle Busch. With that said, I think at some point he’ll get it together, so I’ll go with William Byron since he has such high-level machinery and remains on the outside looking in of the points battle.

Nathan Solomon: The most impressive driver this season has been Tyler Reddick. He’s running 17th in points and has three straight top-tens with chances to win at Texas and Homestead. All of that, and he’s only a rookie. One of the biggest disappointments this year has been Kyle Busch. Although well in the playoff picture, he’s winless and has struggled most races. The no practice concept has really hurt him.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Turn 4: NASCAR has shut down qualifying/practice for the rest of the season. Thoughts on the change?

Geoff Magliocchetti: Let ’em run…fresh! The switch to no practice has been perfect for NASCAR parity. Counting the winners prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, the Cup Series has seen 10 different winners at the midway mark. Last season as a whole, 13 different drivers won races. The facts that the concept is keeping drivers, crews, teams safe and that a majority of lap-runners have come to appreciate the change only help the idea’s case and perhaps strengthen the idea that it should be maintained when things return to “normal”. This system’s lone flaw will be the lack of preparation for the Daytona road course race on August 16. Will the drivers be ready, or will lap one look like the third act of The Blues Brothers?

Dylan Price: I think it’s a very good maneuver to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spreading. However, in reference to my last answer, a guy like Kyle Busch has really struggled without practice and qualifying. For some lower-level drivers, they’ve had success with that way of racing as they are on a more equal playing field. I do think that as the season wears on and drivers return to tracks they’ve got more experience on then some drivers like Kyle Busch will be more prepared for success.

Nathan Solomon: For the most part, I think no practice or qualifying is fine. The only exception should be the Daytona road course, as NASCAR has never run there. But we’ll see how much IRacing helps the drivers. They’ll be relying heavily on it for that race.

Kansas Predictions

Race Cup Xfinity Trucks 1 Trucks 2
Geoff Magliocchetti Aric Almirola Brandon Jones Zane Smith Sheldon Creed
Dylan Price Kevin Harvick Noah Gragson Brett Moffitt Christian Eckes
Nathan Solomon Brad Keselowski Chase Briscoe Sheldon Creed Matt Crafton
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Thursday night with the Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). 

NASCAR: Can Kyle Busch steal a win on Sunday?

Kyle Busch, Nascar

Kyle Busch has shocked a lot of people in the past few weeks. Not because of success but because of lack thereof. Busch is coming off a championship season and is experiencing a bit of a slump.

Although Busch is a savvy vet, who is believed to be capable of taking any machine to the front of the pack, Busch has admittedly though, had trouble transitioning to the new normal in racing. He’s been quoted as saying things have been challenging for the 18 team to make adjustments without practice. He also said it’s been difficult for him and crew chief Adam Stevens to get on the same page with the car with short times to adjust. So, with the setup of this weekend, he could break his winless streak tomorrow.

Saturday Was Practice for Busch

Saturday offered an opportunity for Busch after falling behind the pack. When it seemed like Busch didn’t have a chance to win, it seemed more like he was running practice laps to qualify for Sunday. Despite that, he still finished 5th and had speed all day. Just like he’s had speed all season. By running laps on Saturday, he enters Sunday with the same car and a chance to make modifications overnight if need be. He talked about the similarities in a media release quoted on Yahoo Sports as Busch stated,

“‘The first race, there’s only going to be the Truck Series rubber, it’s only 60 laps, so there’s just going to be a little rubber down. Then, we’re going to put a lot of rubber down with our race. Then you’ll have the Xfinity race the next day, and then you’ll have our (second) race. Over the course of all those miles, I think the main similarities between the two days is going to be just that – they’re a day apart rather than a month apart. There’s a difference between the Pocono racetrack when it’s a month apart, but when it’s day one to day two, there are going to be big differences in day one to day two, so you have to take a lot of different things into account.’”

The quick transition is something better suited for a veteran. Busch and the team gained some experience on the track and can gain experience from the races before him. If Busch and Stevens can modify the car to play off the success they had today, the 18 team could be en route for a big day. 

NASCAR: Homestead-Miami Speedway enters a new era this weekend

When the green flag drops at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, the track will begin a new era in NASCAR.

For the first time since the 2001 season, the South Florida venue will not be host to the championships of NASCAR’s three premier series. Instead, they will be hosting early season events.

The 1.5 mile oval with turns banked up to 20 degrees will be host to just the 12th race of the Cup Series season. However, all three premier series will still have events. The Xfinity Series will actually have events on both Saturday and Sunday, with 15-time Cup Series most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. participating on Saturday.

Like all Cup Series races at Homestead, the Dixie Vodka 400 will be 400 miles long and 267 laps. Each of the first two stages will be 80 laps with the final stage being 107 laps.

Last time at Homestead, Kyle Busch won the race en route to his second Cup Series Championship. On Sunday, he will roll off 4th. His teammate, Denny Hamlin, has the pole.

The starting positions were determined via a random draw dependent on owner points. 1-12, 13-24, and 25-36 in owner points  are determined by separate draws for starting positions. Spots 37-38 are represented by non-chartered teams. With no qualifying, it provides more incentive for teams to get better finishes to have a better chance to start further up-front.

It will be really interesting to see how Sunday’s race plays out. Now, there’s more than just the Championship 4 fighting for something big. Instead, it’s the whole field competing for the same prize. It will also be the first time that FOX will be broadcasting this race.

The race is at 3:30pm ET on Sunday. The Truck Series and Xfinity series run on Saturday afternoon, and the Xfinity Series runs again before the Cup race on Sunday.

NASCAR: Two Young Guns Flying Under The Radar to Become New Stars

NASCAR, Tyler Reddick

As Jimmie Johnson prepares to join former Hendrick teammates, Dale Jr., and Jeff Gordon, in retirement, another star leaves the sport. NASCAR built its fan base around those 3 among other stars.

As every sport does, NASCAR is seeing new stars emerge as faces of the sport. Veterans like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, and other stars continue to lead the way. Along with younger guys like Chase Elliot, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, among others, taking over the limelight, more stars continue to emerge. As NASCAR undergoes a landscape shift in terms of star power, two young drivers have had a strong start to their careers.

Tyler Reddick

Tyler Reddick was an up and coming driver when JR Motorsports tapped him to take over for William Byron. Reddick won the season opener at Daytona in the closest finish in the history of NASCAR.

Although he didn’t win again until the final race of the season, his consistency allowed him to remain in contention. He then pulled off an upset and won his 1st Xfinity title in his rookie season.  Reddick then made the surprising move to jump ship to Richard Childress Racing. The move was made to speed up the process to the Cup Series in Reddick’s eyes. In 2019, Reddick dominated the series. With six wins, he, Christopher Bell, and Cole Custer shined above the rest.

When Homestead came, Reddick shined again. He won his 2nd title in 2 years in the series. This was the end of his Xfinity career. He took over Daniel Hemric’s ride in the 8 machine. He’s already flashed his skill with solid performances, including a 7th place finish in Darlington and an 8th place finish in the Coke 600. Reddick is a guy who has been labeled by some as a future star, and he could jump from RCR if Hendrick or Stewart-Haas targets him. Reddick has a bright future and is one to watch.

John Hunter Nemechek

The Front Row Motorsports machines tend to struggle to maintain a competitive machine. More often than not, a top 15 finish for them is a good day. Their newest addition, 22-year-old John Hunter Nemechek, has the potential to change that.

In his Truck Series career, in 101 races, Nemechek had 6 wins and 50 Top Tens. Nearly half of the races Nemechek ran, he was in the top 10. In the Xfinity Series, Nemechek raced in 51 races with 1 win and 30 Top Tens. Nemechek has been the picture of consistency in his career to this point. Now at 22, he has been impressive in the 38 machine.

He’s brought the machine towards the front with good runs. He’s had 1 Top Ten in 9 races and an average finish of 19th. That may seem low, but prior to this season, David Ragan never drove the 38 machine to a higher average finish than 22.9. Nemechek has the potential to vault himself into a premier car at some point if he can continue to be consistent. 

Kyle Busch is what NASCAR and other sports need right now

Kyle Busch, Nascar

Kyle Busch’s (inadvertent) Darlington heel turn was just what NASCAR needed as it leads the charge back from sports dormancy.

For many, The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday was a lot like a television pilot.

Millions flocked to the screen as NASCAR became the first North American team sport to return to live competition as the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Of that sports-starved public, thousands, possibly upwards of a million, admitted that they had never partaken in a NASCAR event.

A television pilot must accomplish several tasks if it hopes to go beyond its premiere night. It must establish the major players. It must define some traits and characteristics of said players. A goal or endgame to the debut season, or perhaps the series itself, is established. Perhaps a catchphrase or two is uttered.

NASCAR achieved that and then some. Viewers met some of the popular drivers the series had to offer. They learned of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s propensity for attracting trouble on the very first lap. They cheered when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson took the lead toward the end of the first stage and bemoaned his wreck on the last lap of the portion. Rookie young guns Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek posted top ten finishes. Finally, Kevin Harvick made series history by becoming the 14th driver to win 50 Cup series races by getting to the finish line first.

In a quest to carry out the entirety of its schedule, the second half of a Darlington doubleheader went down on Wednesday. That’s when the new legion of fans met their villain.

It’s not unusual for pop culture to be patient in introducing their main antagonist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, waited ten movies to give Thanos a speaking role. Wednesday’s race, the Toyota 500, took 200 laps.

A storm was brewing over Darlington and it wasn’t just in the clouds. On the track, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott battled for the right to take the lead away from Denny Hamlin before the skies opened. As their machines crossed the start/finish line, Elliott’s pass of Busch ended in disaster, as the latter’s No. 18 Toyota clipped the back of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The No. 9 car spun and hit the inside wall and his top five finish became 38th in the blink of an eye.

Social distancing measures might’ve prevented a brouhaha from being staged in the No. 18 pit. Those seeking confrontation saw their fight dreams partially fulfilled when Busch was approached by Alan Gustafson. Elliott’s crew chief knows Busch from a peaceful time in his career, serving as Busch’s own pit boss for the first three years of his Cup career (2005-07).

Behold the villain.

NASCAR fans can’t seem to agree on much these days. Rare unanimity is formed when misfortune befalls Busch’s Joe Gibbs Toyota. During the 2018 race at Watkins Glen, for example, the Finger Lakes roared when fan-favorite Elliott passed him en route to his first Cup Series victory.

Wednesday’s incident with Elliott is fairly minimal in the list of Busch encounters. After all, Busch repeatedly denied intentionally spinning the No. 9 and Fox’s commentary duo Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon agreed that there was little else the Toyota could do to avoid the unfortunate occurrence. That didn’t stop Elliott’s fervent fanbase from sending plenty of unfriendly salutations to Busch’s social media account after the race. Elliott, after all, is the son of NASCAR royalty (his father Bill was part of the 2015 Hall of Fame class) and a two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award that has backed up the hype (top ten standings finishes in each of his first four seasons).

Elliott’s fans might not want to hear it, but Busch’s villainy, inadvertent as it may have been, was just what NASCAR, and the rest of live sports, may have needed as they gradually return.

Busch is the driver that often elicits the most boos on race weekend. The word “incident” appears on his Wikipedia page 16 different times. Elliott is far from the first prominent driver to engage in unpleasantries with the Las Vegas native. He incurred the wrath of another massive NASCAR factions, House Junior, when he spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. toward the end of a 2008 event at Richmond. During a Truck Series race in 2011, a displeased Busch slammed into Ron Hornaday during a caution (which netted him a suspension for the Cup Series race two days later). Even Busch’s own brother Kurt wasn’t spared from his wrath. A get-together during the 2007 All-Star Race led to the siblings not speaking for nearly half-a-year until their grandmother intervened during Thanksgiving dinner.

Fans have taken issue with Busch’s supposed bending of racing rules as well. The first of two Cup Series titles came in 2015 after he missed the first 11 races due to an injury sustained during an Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Speaking of racing in NASCAR’s lower tiers, fans have often taken issue with Busch running in such events. After all, it’s not like you see Aaron Judge spending his off-days with the New York Yankees playing AAA-ball in Scranton.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Most drivers would shrug and try to move on from focus on such topics. Busch does the opposite.

Part of Busch’s appeal as a NASCAR heel is his willingness to accept and embrace his role. When booed during driver introductions at the All-Star festivities after the Earnhardt incident, Busch responded only by cupping his ears. When he pulled off a contact-heavy victory over Kyle Larson at Chicagoland Speedway in 2018, Busch feigned tears when fans were less than pleased with the result.

When it became clear that fans were going to blame him for the Elliott incident even if there was little he could do to avoid it, Busch engaged in his trademark snark and might’ve only hinted at anticipation of the No. 9 team seeking revenge.

“Obviously I just made a mistake, misjudged the gap, sent him into the wall. That was entirely unintentional,” Busch said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom on Wednesday night. “I’ll definitely reach out to him and tell him I’m sorry, tell him I hate it that it happened.”

“That doesn’t change the outcome of the night.”

Much like LeBron James during his Miami Heat tenure, Busch is taking his role as the villain and running with it. It creates a perfect setting for NASCAR’s new fans. Deeper into the call, Busch was asked whether he saw Elliot give him the middle finger after exiting his downed car. Busch dryly replied “I thought we had protocols where we’re not supposed to do that, so okay”…conveniently leaving out the fact he likewise got into hot water for making the same gesture to a NASCAR official during a 2010 race at Texas.

Team sports are often filled with squads or players that you love to hate. The Golden State Warriors picked up where the Heat left off after James went back to Cleveland. Championships earned through reportedly illicit strategies only amplify the hatred, as any fan of the New England Patriots or Houston Astros will tell you.

That’s another part of what makes Busch so effective as an antagonist. Even his staunchest detractor can’t deny Busch has skill and poise behind the wheel. When NASCAR granted him an injury waiver and conditions (reaching the top 30 in points in addition to learning the necessary win for a playoff berth) to compete for the 2015 title, Busch fulfilled them with no qualms. When the haters called that title illegitimate, Busch partook in all 36 races and put up an average finish of 8.9 en route to a title last season.

In terms of his lower-tier endeavors, NASCAR has tried to put a slight kibosh on it by having drivers compete for points in only one series (he was far from the only offender) and putting quotas on how many races Cup regulars could run. Busch has only responded by making the most of the opportunities he takes. Since 2016, he has run 65 races on the Xfinity and Truck circuits. 33 have ended in victory lane.

(Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As organized, professional team sports gradually start to return from the coronavirus hiatus, Busch has become America’s new polarizing figure, his No. 18 team drawing jeers moving forward. Fans are often not satisfied unless they have a cause to root against. Silly as it sounds, some people just aren’t satisfied with a concept unless there’s a villain to root against. There’s a reason that you rarely see a movie where every character is likable. How else would the supposed hero’s triumph be earned or vindicated? Thus, villainy has a number, and its numerals are 18.

As for Busch, the bearer? As you can tell by now, he doesn’t mind it one bit.

“I can say whatever I can say. I’ve never been a very good politician anyways. His fan base is going to have the hatred for me anyways. I just deal with what I got to deal with. Rowdy Nation will have my back and we’ll go after it after that.”

Much like Tom Hiddleston as Loki or David Bowie as Labyrinth‘s Goblin King…the villain is perfectly cast. 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin wins shortened, fiery Darlington finale

A rare foray into weeknight racing produced fireworks for NASCAR, whose Cup Series event on Wednesday ended in rain and controversy.

The NHL and NBC may have abandoned the concept, but the NASCAR Cup Series apparently ensured that “Wednesday night rivalries” were alive and well in the most recent stage of their return at Darlington Raceway.

Wednesday’s Toyota 500 ended in a literal storm, as Kyle Busch clipped Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet with 28 laps to go, sending Elliott’s car into an inside wall. The caution flag emerged, but as the skies opened up after eight laps under the yellow, the active leader Denny Hamlin was awarded the victory. Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team brings home their second trophy after winning the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

“I just love the racetrack. It’s one of my favorites, certainly in my top two or three,” Hamlin said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom. “I think it’s a driver’s racetrack. I think the driver can make up a little bit of maybe what his car doesn’t have with moving around the racetrack, different lines, throttle, and brake application. There’s a lot of things that a driver can do to make his performance better at this type of racetrack. That’s why I like it so much. Really from my very first start here in the Xfinity Series back in 2004, I just took to it quickly. We’ve had a ton of success ever since. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Hamlin took the lead from Elliott at lap 197 of the event, which was scheduled to go 228 circuits (500 kilometers at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped track), as one of several drivers who decided to remain on the track after the penultimate caution came out for a Clint Bowyer spin caused by a downed right rear tire. He was one of two cars (the other being the No. 21 of Matt DiBenedetto) that opted to stay out on the track while Elliott, Busch, and the rest of the lead lap cars pitted. Hamlin and DiBenedetto (who wound up finishing ninth) were working with tires that were just younger than ten laps old, pitting under another a prior caution accounting for a Matt Kenseth spin.

When the race got back to green, Hamlin held off a furious to challenge and avoided the carnage behind him. Rain was a constant threat all week (postponing an Xfinity Series race scheduled for Tuesday and delaying the Cup’s start time by two hours) and it finally made itself known with 20 laps to go. The competitors were brought to pit road and Hamlin was awarded the win after a brief attempt to wait the precipitation out.

After he received word of his victory, Hamlin revealed a humorous facemask adorned with the image of his smiling face. He certainly has reasons to be happy after the 39th Cup Series win of his career and his third at Darlington.

“(The mask) covers my face, covers everyone’s face. You’re kind of like, you really don’t get any sense of any emotion,” he said. “(I needed) to find someone that can paint me a happy face and a sad face. It depends on how the race finishes. We only had happy masks today, so I guess it was a sign that we didn’t need the sad one.”

Hamlin’s win, however, was overshadowed by the antics between his fellow Joe Gibbs teammate Busch and Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports. After Elliott emerged from his downed machine, he displayed his middle finger to Busch at the latter’s No. 18 Toyota was running his caution laps. Busch was later confronted by the No. 9’s crew chief Alan Gustafson. The longtime Hendrick employee previously served as Busch’s crew chief for three seasons when he drove the No. 5 Chevrolet during his first years at the Cup level (2005-07).

Busch took responsibility for the incident afterward. While he stated that he would reach out to Elliott and denied he spun him out intentionally, he mentioned that the incident was part of a normal racing experience.

“I’ve known him since he was 12 or 13 years old, been racing with him ever since then, late models, super late models, trucks, Xfinity cars, all that sort of stuff. Obviously I just made a mistake, misjudged the gap, sent him into the wall. That was entirely unintentional. Yeah, I mean, I’ll definitely reach out to him and tell him I’m sorry, tell him I hate it that it happened. All I can do. That doesn’t change the outcome of the night.”

“I can say whatever I can say. I’ve never been a very good politician anyways. His fan base is going to have the hatred to me anyways. I just deal with what I got to deal with. Rowdy Nation will have my back and we’ll go after it after that.”

Busch finished in the runner-up spot behind his teammate Hamlin. Kevin Harvick, who won the first half of NASCAR’s Darlington doubleheader in their return from a coronavirus-induced pause on Sunday, finished third, while Brad Keselowski and another JGR driver, Erik Jones, rounded out the top five.

This week’s Darlington doubleheader in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina was the first stage of NASCAR’s return, replacing previously scheduled events at Chicagoland Speedway and Richmond International Raceway. One more event will be run at Darlington this week, as the postponed Xfinity Series race will take place on Thursday (12 p.m. ET, FS1). Cup action returns to Darlington for the Southern 500 on September 6, the first race of the postseason.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns on Sunday in the form of the Memorial Day weekend tradition known as the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET, Fox). Such a race is NASCAR’s longest at 600 miles and will be the first part of a similar doubleheader format enacted at Darlington.

Race Notes

  • The race was one of heartbreak for Bowyer, who swept the first two stages of the race and led the most laps (71). His spin relegated him to a 22nd-place finish.
  • Harvick maintained his lead in the Cup Series point standings, leading sixth-place finisher Joey Logano by 34 points.
  • Hamlin’s third win at Darlington made him the 14th driver to earn at least a trio of Cup Series triumphs at the track, which hosted its first NASCAR race in 1950. David Pearson leads all drivers in Darlington wins with 10, while Hamlin is tied as the active leader with Jimmie Johnson.
  • Ryan Preece sat on the pole thanks to a 20th-place finish in Sunday’s event, as NASCAR, in an effort to limit on-track activity to a single race day, inverted the top 20 finishers in Wednesday’s starting lineup. Preece’s final slot wasn’t as desirable, as engine woes relegated him to the final spot of 39th.
  • Rookie John Hunter Nemechek was one of the more uplifting stories of Sunday, coming home ninth in his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford. However, he brought out two cautions within the first ten laps, putting him six laps off the pace and into a 34th-place finish.
  • Not all news was bad on the rookie front. Christopher Bell posted a career-best Cup Series finish of 11th in the No. 95 Toyota of Leavine Family Racing.
  • All four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finished in the top ten, as Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 took the final spot.

For full results, click here

For full Cup Series standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags