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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dirt

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

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

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

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

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

The Favorite 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unpredictability

Upsets began long before March Madness started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the full Cup Series lineup, click here

For the full Truck Series lineup, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Food City Dirt Race

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

Kyle Larson

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

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

Christopher Bell

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

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

Kyle Busch

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

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

 

 

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney steals win from Kyle Larson at Atlanta

Kyle Larson’s dominance was of no concern to Ryan Blaney, who became the sixth different NASCAR Cup Series winner this season.

Kyle Larson led 269 of 325 laps on Sunday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s NASCAR Cup Series event. Alas for Larson and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the final circuit was not one of them.

Ryan Blaney passed Larson with nine to go, earning a victory in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, becomes the sixth different winner in six events this season. Larson finished second ahead of Alex Bowman, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch.

“I’m glad I’m one of them!” a smiling Blaney said about joining the other five winners in relative playoff safety. As for the parity, Blaney added “It just goes in the off-season of prep work, how you’re going to unload, show up to race We’ve probably never seen this. I don’t know when there were six different winners in the first six races. It just shows that a lot of great teams are out there and you have to be on top of your game. It just shows how many people can win.”

Blaney and the rest of the field found themselves staring at Larson’s back bumper for a good portion of the day. Larson first took the lead after a competition caution at lap 25 from the pole sitter Hamlin and expanded his to as high as ten-plus seconds as the afternoon played out. Save for brief reprieves during green flag pit stops, Larson led for the next 189 laps, allowing him to earn victories in the first stages, consisting of 105 circuits apiece.

The No. 12 team first flexed their muscles on lap 220, when Larson teammate Chase Elliott’s car began smoking. On the ensuing pit stops, Blaney emerged first after a strong stop. He was forced to relinquish the lead to remove some debris from his grill by using the draft behind Larson. The No. 5 kept the lead after the pit cycle but Blaney was able to chase him down through a strong stop and taking care of his tires on Atlanta’s seasoned surface. Blaney made the pass with nine laps to go and stretched it out to a second to earn a victory.

“He had a huge lead there in that second stage, then he didn’t really get that far out in front of me in the start of the third stage,” Blaney recalled. “Then we were running him down pretty good until we pitted there. He got a little bit ways away from me on pit road after we came out. He stretched his lead out a tiny bit. I was like, All right, it’s going to be a 50-plus-lap run, I’m going to try to save my stuff a little bit.”

“The guys did a great job getting me out there ahead of him. They were holding off for a little bit, but he was just so good on the short run there.”

Blaney’s besting of Larson continued some unusual trends on the NASCAR spectrum. Each of Blaney’s five Cup Series victories has come through a victorious pass of the leader with less than ten laps to go while Larson has never won a race in which he has won each of the first two stages.

The win also held personal significance to Blaney, whose father Dave ran at the Cup level for parts of 17 seasons. While the elder Blaney never had the best equipment to work with, he came close to a victory two decades prior at AMS while driving the No. 93 Dodge for Bill Davis Racing. Dave led 70 laps but lost a tire and was relegated to 34th.

With fans welcomed into Atlanta at the highest rate allowed by the state of Georgia, Dave was in attendance to see his son earn the victory.

“I don’t know how solar cycles line up, every 20 years, I don’t know. (But I’m) happy we were able to avenge that loss on him,” Ryan Blaney said. “Whether it’s a stern talking to or it’s careful advice, I’ve always enjoyed talking to him, hearing what he’s got to say. Just him being around means a lot. I grew up watching dad race. Now I’m racing full-time in NASCAR. He’s watching me. That’s pretty cool.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will return to Atlanta for the Quaker State 400 presented by Wal-Mart on July 11.

As a former sprint car racer and World of Outlaws champion, Dave will likely have some helpful advice for his son with next weekend’s event looming. For the first time in over five decades, the Cup Series will race on dirt, heading to a modified version of Bristol Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Qualifying races will be held the Saturday beforehand (6 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Kurt Busch was relegated to a last-place finish in 39th after Denny Hamlin got into the back of him on the restart after the second stage.

 

  • Elliott’s DNF was his first since the latter half of the Dover doubleheader last August.

 

  • Daniel Suarez helped Trackhouse Racing earn its first stage point with a 10th-place finish in the second segment, but a late speeding penalty on pit road pushed him back to 17th.

 

  • Defending Xfinity Series champion and current points leader Austin Cindric finished 22nd in his second career Cup Series event and his first since the season-opening Daytona 500. Cindric, who drives Team Penske’s No. 22 in the lower level, will take over the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford next season.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson wins at Las Vegas in fourth race back

It took only four Cup Series races for Kyle Larson to pilot Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet back into victory lane.

Hendrick Motorsports ruled the NASCAR Cup Series for the second consecutive weekend, as Kyle Larson put an exclamation point on his return to the circuit with a win in the Pennzoil 400 presented by JiffyLube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Larson, driver of HMS’ No. 5 Chevrolet, earned his seventh career Cup victory and his first since he missed a majority of the 2020 campaign due to a suspension and firing from the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Larson led all but 12 of the final 61 laps en route to victory, besting the No. 2 Team Penske Ford of Brad Keselowski by over three seconds. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin came home behind them, while Keselowski’s teammate Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.

Larson has gotten off to a strong start with HMS since he was chosen to represent the resurrection of the No. 5 branding. Through four races, Larson is one of four drivers to earn top ten finishes in three of the first four races. The hot start has been earned alongside crew chief Cliff Daniels, who celebrated his first win as a NASCAR pit boss. Daniels previously served as the crew chief for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s bittersweet final season in the No. 48 (now driven by Alex Bowman) last year.

HMS as a whole has been clicking on all cylinders in recent NASCAR history. Chase Elliott took home last season’s Cup Series title by winning the final two races in November, while William Byron dominated the final stanzas of last weekend’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Larson’s win marked the 265th trophy the team ledgers, putting them two behind Petty Enterprises for the most in Cup Series history. Elliott’s triumph last fall was the 13th championship in team history, one of which was earned through Terry Labonte’s 1996 endeavors in the No. 5 Larson pilots today.

Hendrick’s Chevrolets dominated the early portions of Sunday’s race in Sin City. Byron, Elliott, and Larson united to lead the first 30 laps, their transitions among the first of 27 lead changes (second-most in Las Vegas history). Keselowski and his Penske group threatened to spoil the celebration, passing Larson on the penultimate lap of the first 80-lap stage to capture the early victory. Larson and Keselowski would mostly battle for the lead from there one out, with the former capturing the other 80-lap stage. During the last 107-circuit segment, Keselowski shaved seconds off his deficit when Larson lost speed through a botched pit road entry.

But a strong stop from Daniels’ No. 5 crew allowed Larson to leave in front of Keselowski’s No. 2. He would re-establish his lead from there on out, capturing the win by over three seconds. Larson is the fourth different winner over the first four races this season, joining Byron, Michael McDowell, and Christopher Bell. HMS earned consecutive wins through different drivers for the first time since 2015, when Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Adding to the sense of HMS lore on Sunday was the fact that Larson won in a car emulating the NASCAR Busch Series paint scheme of Hendrick’s late son Ricky, who held a variety of roles with the team. Ricky tragically perished, along with nine others, in 2004 in a plane crash en route to Martinsville Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday to the site of November’s season finale, Phoenix Raceway, for the Instacart 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Larson is the quickest driver to earn a win in a Hendrick Motorsports car, doing so in his fourth start. The record was previously held by Labonte, who won in his seventh start in the No. 5 (North Wilkesboro, 1994).

 

  • McDowell (17th) and Kevin Harvick (20th) each saw their personal streak of top-ten finishes end.

 

  • In other HMS endeavors, Elliott overcame damage in the jack area and a spin to finish 13th. Byron earned a top-ten finish (8th), but late issues for Bowman relegated him to 27th.

 

  • Corey LaJoie (rear end) and Aric Almirola (accident) each failed to finish

 

  • Erik Jones (10th) earned his first top ten of the season, as well as his first with Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Chevrolet

 

  • Larson’s win was the first for Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas since the last Jimmie Johnson’s four victories at the track in 2010. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon also won the 2001 event.

 

  • Joey Logano, winner of the last two early Vegas events in Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford, finished 9th.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Championship Preview with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard

Kevin Harvick

As the cup series prepares to say goodbye to a legend and crown a champion this weekend, ESM’s NASCAR experts are here to break it all down and make their championship picks.

Turn 1: Kevin Harvick had been arguably the most dominant driver this season with 9 wins and a regular-season championship. Does him missing the final four say more about a poor stretch of performances in the round of eight or that the playoff format is flawed?

Nathan Solomon: More than anything, it just has to do with two poor performances. Harvick finished second in Kansas and put himself in good position to advance. However, in the round of eight, you can’t finish outside of the top-15 twice and expect to advance to the championship. The new playoff format was designed to give it a similar feel to a baseball or basketball playoff series. In the MLB, if you have a bad series, you won’t advance. A team with 110 wins won’t make it to the World Series if they don’t perform in the series before. That was the case for Harvick in the round of eight, and he, unfortunately, won’t see himself racing for a championship.

Dylan Price: This is a tough question to analyze for me. I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to this dilemma. With 9 wins, Harvick was dominant for the entirety of the regular season, but he was unable to perform up to the level needed in the round of eight in order to make the final four. See, my issue with Harvick being eliminated is that NASCAR is different than other playoffs like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. Yes, the destinations change each week for the playoffs, barring home-field advantage, but with NASCAR, when you go from track to track, it fundamentally changes your racing style.

I would contribute his elimination to his own rut but would say there could be a case made that the drivers like Harvick, who are in this case the #1 seed, should get more of an advantage because playoff points don’t do enough to reward drivers with 9 wins that much more than those with 2 or 3. Still, Harvick, just like high seeded teams that get beat by lower-seeded teams, did not perform up to the level needed to race for a title this weekend, and that is more about his performance over the last 3 weeks than anything else.

Geoff Magliocchetti: If anything, the NASCAR playoffs are a necessary evil, and there may be little malice in the first place. NASCAR needs to find a way to be different, unique, and competitive in the realm of a busy time on the American sports calendar, and the playoffs are the way to do that. To make a long story short, there’s never going to be a system that satisfies each and every fan. No playoffs leaves the threat of a meaningless season finale (as it was in four of the final five playoff-free seasons). Harvick is far from the first dominant driver to be bamboozled by a playoff system. Current contender Brad Keselowski spoke of the 2014 season when his No. 2 won 6 races but failed to earn the championship invite.

Some changes could probably be made…inviting 16 drivers is a tad much…but the case of Harvick (and Austin Hill in the Truck Series, for that matter) is not a make or break factor. The common complaints that the regular-season champion has no immunity to Phoenix only serve as contradictions. Fans who complain that the playoffs are too gimmick-field or manufactured want a way to manufacture a way for the regular-season champ to make it. The beautiful thing about playoff sports is that they’re unpredictable. Even the undefeated Patriots had to work their way to the Super Bowl…one they lost. Changes can be made, but the playoffs should be here to stay.

Turn 2: This Sunday will be the last time that one of the faces of the sport will race in Jimmie Johnson. With the legacy Johnson has left as a 7-time champion, where does he rank amongst the all-time greats of the sport?

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson may go down as the greatest NASCAR racer of all time. If he isn’t the greatest of all-time, he will certainly be in the top five. Regardless of the playoff/chase format, he’s won seven championships, and some people don’t realize how hard that is. He’s won at virtually every track and beaten some of the best in multiple generations of drivers. I’m excited to see how he runs in Indy Car, and I would love to see him run a few races in NASCAR here and there. I feel he may be the next driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 doubleheader, and that’d be really cool to watch. Congrats to Jimmie Johnson on a great career.

Dylan Price: I consider myself lucky to have witnessed Jimmie Johnson and his dominance in my lifetime. I was not alive to witness the greatness of guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but one thing is for certain about Jimmie Johnson, he had the IT factor. They say there is a certain aura around the great ones, and I think that was always felt with Johnson. Now, where does he rank amongst the greats is a separate question. I firmly believe that Johnson is one of the best drivers to grace the series, but is he THE best. I think Johnson is up there with Earnhardt and Petty on the Mount Rushmore of the greats of the sport. That fourth spot is firmly up for debate, but I think that the aura around Johnson is still there even though he has not performed at the highest level in the past years and will be for a long time. Congratulations 7-time, you had an incredible career, and I am excited to see what you do in your next endeavors!

Geoff Magliocchetti: Johnson will go down as a clutch performer and the driver of the playoff era. It hurts to see his last dance end like this…with all due respect to Ally Bank, they’re looking like the Wizards Jordan equivalent of NASCAR…but one can’t forget the sheer dominance we saw from Johnson’s No. 48 week in and week out during his prime. Time will tell if Johnson can ever solidify his face on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, but his accomplishments should not be forgotten. Congrats on a great career, Jimmie, and best wishes to you and your family.

Turn 3: Well, with exits comes the entrances of new drivers and lineup shakeups. So, which driver in a new ride will see the biggest improvement/make the biggest impact next season?

Nathan Solomon: I think it’ll be rookie Chase Briscoe making a big impact in 2021. He’s been insanely dominant in the Xfinity Series this year, winning nine times and the championship favorite this weekend. He’ll be going into a great ride where he’ll have everything he needs to win races right away. I feel that Briscoe will make the playoffs in his first season, pick up a few wins, and even make it as far as the round of eight. He’s incredibly skilled and knows how to win on every type of racetrack. Expect a big rookie season out of Chase Briscoe in 2021.

Dylan Price: Unlike other analysts, I am excited for a returnee in a new place. I do believe Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell are going to excel in their new homes, but I am watching for Kyle Larson. People forget, but before Larson was suspended for his egregious comments, he was a budding face of the sport. Larson was in a mid-level situation with Chip Ganassi racing, and I firmly believe with the resources Hendrick Motorsports can provide that Larson will take the #5 machine to a virtual residency in the playoffs and likely to a few trips in victory lane in the coming years.

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve seen some big moves this Silly Season, but I’m the most intrigued by Ross Chastain moving to the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet. Chastain has never been granted the best equipment but has gone on to have a lucrative career on NASCAR’s lower levels. He’s a driver that earned his keep through on-track endeavors. Frankly, the move to such a big-name Cup ride is well overdue, with Chastain mostly working in low-budget machines. We’ve seen him stick around at places like Daytona and Talladega and run respectably in his lower-tier equipment. With the resources of CGR, Chastain should truly take off.
Turn 4: Lastly, we are down to the final four drivers to decide the championship this Sunday in Phoenix. With Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliot battling for the title, who comes out on top?
Nathan Solomon: I’m going to go with Joey Logano winning his second title in three seasons. He won Phoenix in the spring before the coronavirus outbreak and is coming off a win in the round of eight. Two of his championship competitors, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, haven’t won at Phoenix before, although Denny Hamlin has. However, Hamlin is coming off a rough round of eight, and I just don’t see him turning it around. My prediction is that Kevin Harvick will win the race being that he’s been historically dominant at Phoenix, and Joey Logano will take the title, finishing second. 
Dylan Price: I am a big believer in momentum. Momentum can play more of an impact then things like experience at times, and I think that will show on Sunday. See, where Logano, Keselowski, and Hamlin have experience either winning the big race or being in it for all the marbles, Chase Elliot is the newcomer of the bunch. With 4 wins this year, Elliot has been one of the most consistent racers this year, and I firmly believe he will ride the wave of momentum he had from last Sunday to a championship.
Geoff Magliocchetti: Denny Hamlin gets his first title on Sunday.
King Kevin is gone, and in his wake, the successor is none other than Hamlin. This season has had a bit of an “If not now, when?” feel over in the No. 11 stables. Hamlin has never let off-track issues bother him, but he does appear to be a bit tired of the…well, tired…questions over whether this season is a disappointment without the title at the end. Hamlin has won nearly everything there is to win on a NASCAR Cup Series level, except the titular award at the end. That changes on Sunday in the desert.

NASCAR: Kyle Larson to return in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet

Reinstated from a slur-induced suspension, Kyle Larson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021, alongside HMS’ classic No. 5 Chevrolet.

Hendrick Motorsports announced on Wednesday that Kyle Larson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series in their rebooted No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson will be officially reinstated by NASCAR on January 1 after serving a suspension for using a racial slur during an event on the iRacing platform in April.

“Kyle is unquestionably one of the most talented race car drivers in the world,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement from HMS representative Gabrielle McMillen. “He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track program.”

“More importantly, I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners, and NASCAR. Kyle and I have had many, many conversations leading up to today’s announcement. I’m confident about what’s in his heart and his desire to be a champion in all aspects of his life and career. Kyle has done important work over the past six months, and Hendrick Motorsports is going to support those continued efforts.”

Larson, 28, previously spent six full seasons in the No. 42 Chevrolet at Chip Ganassi Racing. He was suspended and later outright fired by CGR for addressing someone as “n*****” over the radio during a virtual competition streamed on Twitch. NASCAR issued an indefinite suspension and ordered Larson to undergo sensitivity training.

Since then, Larson has made efforts to atone for the incident, notably working with the Sanneh Foundation headed by former MLS and United States soccer star Tony Sanneh. Larson publicly spoke about the incident for the first time earlier this month in an open letter on his website and a televised interview with James Brown of CBS News.

“Mr. Hendrick is one of the people who extended a hand to me over the past six months,” Larson said in the HMS statement. “Our initial conversations were not about racing. He cares about me as a person and wants to see me succeed beyond driving. I can’t put into words how grateful I am for the commitment, the faith, and the confidence from him and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports.”

Prior to his departure, Larson had won 20 races across NASCAR’s top three national levels, including six in the premier Cup Series. During his suspension, Larson competed in several events on the sprint car and midget car circuits, earning many victories, including the United States Auto Club’s Silver Crown Series finale on October 18 in Springfield, IL.

Larson’s arrival at HMS will also herald the return of the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet, which last appeared in 2017 (driven by Kasey Kahne). The car won 38 races, including the first in team history in 1984 (when it was known as All-Star Racing) with Geoffrey Bodine behind the wheel at Martinsville Speedway’s Sovran Bank 500. HMS has earned 319 more wins since then, including 260 at the Cup Series level. The team has also earned 12 Cup Series titles, including one from Terry Labonte in the No. 5 after the 1996 campaign. Other notable full-time drivers of the car include two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch and Hall-of-Famer Mark Martin.

Cliff Daniels will serve as the crew chief of Larson’s No. 5 team. Daniels currently serves as the crew chief for Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, which will be piloted by Alex Bowman next season. Johnson has earned a record seven Cup Series titles (tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and is set to retire from NASCAR at the end of this season.

The reversion to the No. 5 branding spells the end of Hendrick’s No. 88, now driven by Bowman. This car began as a part-time research and development vehicle, first donning the No. 88 upon Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s arrival in 2008, the first year it ran on a full-time basis. Bowman took over the car on a part-time basis when filling in for an injured Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 (along with four-time Cup Champion and semi-retired HMS driver Jeff Gordon) before being granted the full-time ride in 2018. The No. 88 won 11 races for HMS, its most recent coming with Bowman’s win at Fontana, CA’s Auto Club 400 in March. Larson joins the modern Hendrick stable of Bowman, William Byron, and Chase Elliott. Byron drives the No. 24 car made famous by Gordon, while Bowman and Elliott remain eligible for the 2020 Cup Series title in the Nos. 88 and 9 respectively.

The NASCAR Cup Series is set to return to action on Wednesday afternoon, as the series seeks to complete the long-delayed Autotrader Echo Park Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Precipitation has prevented the race’s full running, with 52 of 334 laps completed on the originally scheduled date of Sunday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR approves Kyle Larson’s reinstatement, effective January 1

Banned for his use of a racial slur during a streamed virtual event, Kyle Larson will be eligible to return to NASCAR on January 1.

NASCAR has approved Kyle Larson’s application for reinstatement. The former Cup Series star will be eligible to partake in NASCAR-sanctioned events beginning January 1, 2021. Larson was previously banned indefinitely for using a racial slur during a live-streamed virtual event on the iRacing platform.

“NASCAR continues to prioritize diversity and inclusion across our sport,” a statement from NASCAR read. “Kyle Larson has fulfilled the requirements set by NASCAR and has taken several voluntary measures, to better educate himself so that he can use his platform to help bridge the divide in our country. Larson’s indefinite suspension has been lifted. Under the terms of his reinstatement, he will be cleared to return to all NASCAR racing activities effective January 1, 2021.”

Larson has begun to speak openly about the April incident that led to his banishment from NASCAR, penning an open letter on his website and speaking with Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press and James Brown of CBS. In that event, Larson tried to get his spotter’s attention by saying “hey, n*****” over his radio. Since the incident, Larson vowed to educate himself on what African-American have dealt with in terms of racism.

“Since April, I’ve done a lot of reflecting. I realized how little I really knew about the African-American experience in this country and racism in general,” Larson wrote in his letter. Educating myself is something I should’ve done a long time ago, because it would’ve made me a better person – the kind of person who doesn’t casually throw around an awful, racist word. The kind who makes an effort to understand the hate and oppression it symbolizes and the depth of pain it has caused Black people throughout history and still to this day. It was past time for me to shut up, listen, and learn.”

Larson will continue with his work at the Urban Youth Racing School a STEM education program based in Philadelphia. Prior to his release, he drove the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, earning six wins over six full-time seasons. Recent rumors have connected Larson to Hendrick Motorsports, which has an opening in their No. 88 Chevrolet. Current driver Alex Bowman is moving to the No. 48, whose seat will be left vacated by the retiring Jimmie Johnson.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR officials say Kyle Larson has applied for reinstatement

Larson was removed from the NASCAR Cup Series circuit after using a racial slur during a virtual race in April.

In a statement from Zack Albert of NASCAR.com, series officials have said that Kyle Larson has applied for reinstatement back onto the circuit. Larson has been suspended since April after using a racial slur during an event on the iRacing racing simulator.

While NASCAR drivers ran virtual races during the COVID-19-induced pause in the spring, Larson, attempting to address his spotter, said over his radio “You can’t hear me? Hey, n*****.” He was originally suspended indefinitely by NASCAR and later outright fired by Chip Ganassi Racing, having driven the team’s No. 42 Chevrolet over the last seven seasons.

After apologizing, Larson remained silent on social media for about six months. He later released an essay on his official site earlier this month and spoke about the incident publicly for the first time on Friday in an interview with James Brown on CBS This Morning.

“It’s not my word to use. I need to get it out of my vocabulary, and I have,” Larson said in his interview with Brown, seen above. “I understand (that) people who might not know me, if they might not believe and think that I’m just checking a box. I feel like I’ve definitely grown more in these last six months than I have in the 28 years I’ve been alive.”

Brown always interviews representatives from the Urban Youth Racing School, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that, according to their statement, “provide(s) urban youth with exposure to an educational initiative that will engage them in STEM in a more holistic way by teaching them how to think critically and independently through preparing them to embrace the depths of all academic subjects for obtaining the skills necessary for successful STEM careers”. Larson had been involved with UYRS prior to the iRacing incident.

“This is the Kyle that I know. This is the Kyle who said this. Now, which one is real?” UYRS co-founder Michelle Martin asks. Asked by Brown why she supported Larson, publicly, Martin says “I had the opportunity to meet with Kyle face-to-face after it happened. One of the things in looking in his eyes for the sincerity was ‘are you sorry that you got caught, or are you really sorry that this happened?’. With our very first conversation, post-the-n-word situation, (present) was the fact that he wanted to learn.”

In his letter, Larson said he completed the NASCAR-mandated sensitivity training but sought to “do some work on (his) own”. Larson hired a diversity coach and later volunteered at a memorial for George Floyd, an African-American man who was killed by Minneapolis police brutality. He also mentions conversations with numerous Black athletes, including former fellow NASCAR competitor Bubba Wallace.

Should he be reinstated, several rumors have linked Larson to a ride at Hendrick Motorsports. Former NASCAR Cup Series Champion Tony Stewart expressed interest in bringing Larson into his Stewart-Haas Racing team.

“I feel like it’s time to get Kyle back in the sport,” Stewart said in an August interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think he’s paid his dues. I think he served his penalty as far as society is concerned. I think it’s time for NASCAR to let the kid have an opportunity to get back to where he belongs and that’s behind (the wheel) of a stock car.”

As the United States undergoes a period of reckoning in dealing with systemic racism, NASCAR has made changes to help all fans feel more welcome at their venues. In June, the series banned displays of the Confederate flag, labeling that their prescience “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry”.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Bowyer’s retirement creates speculation on who fills the No. 14

Thursday evening, NASCAR veteran Clint Bowyer announced that he will be retiring from full-time racing following the 2020 season. He will be shifting to the FOX studio to call Cup Series races alongside Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon.

Bowyer spent 15 years running full-time in the Cup Series and three years full-time in the Xfinity Series. He’s won 10 times in Cup while picking up eight Xfinity wins along with a championship. Known for his larger than life personality, Bowyer will go down as one of the all-time fan favorites in NASCAR.

He’ll leave Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 14 team, a group he said he wished to retire for. Although Bowyer was aging, his retirement comes as a bit of a shock. Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director, stated just a month ago that he anticipated the driver lineup to remain the same in 2021. His departure leaves a big ride open for the 2021 season with a lot of speculation on who will fill it.

The favorite to fill the spot is Chase Briscoe, SHR’s only Xfinity Series driver. Briscoe has dominated this season, picking up eight wins and currently sits first in the Xfinity standings.

However, Briscoe to the No. 14 is no sure thing. Other drivers such as Erik Jones, Ryan Preece, and Corey LaJoie are still looking for a 2021 ride, while Kyle Larson is looking to get back into NASCAR. Rumors indicate that Larson is favorited to fill the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports, but it’s unclear if he will have the support from Chevrolet and the sponsorship. Anything is on the table with Larson at this point.

Clint Bowyer retiring from full-time NASCAR shakes up “silly season” even more for the 2021 season. Fans will miss seeing Bowyer on the track, as he’s yet another fan-favorite to hang up the fire suit. However, his addition to the FOX booth will be great for TV and NASCAR as a whole. He’s called Xfinity Series races in the past, and called iRacing during the heat of the pandemic.

Congrats to Bowyer on a great career, and best of luck in the booth!

Is now the right time for a Kyle Larson return?

Kyle Larson has been out of the NASCAR Cup Series since he used a racial slur in an IRacing event in April. Since then, Larson has been racing dirt and rebuilding his image. Everyone knows he was a successful driver. Larson has been to victory lane six times and was the 2019 All-Star Race winner. Along with a 2014 Rookie of the Year, Larson has the best resume of any free agent available. The thing is, is now the right time for Larson to return?

Will He?

Just a few days ago reports emerged that Kyle Larson was spotted meeting with Chevrolet executives in Philadelphia. The consensus is that Larson needs to repair relations with Chevy and NASCAR before he’d be cleared to sign with a team. He has already begun working on it with Chevy and it’s expected if he inks a deal, NASCAR would allow it.

The 28-year-old is one of the highest potential young drivers in the sport, and prior to his obscene language incident, one of the emerging stars of the sport. For a team to take a chance on him based on his previous success and popularity would make complete sense. The only thing that would hold teams back would be his reputation.

Yes, the slur used by Larson wasn’t okay by any means, but the situation fell into the laps of the sports media at a time when sports weren’t on the television. Networks and shows that would typically give very little if any time to a situation like this in the NASCAR world gave it a huge amount of spotlight. Analysts called for NASCAR to move swiftly and they did, getting Larson out of the sport.

Now, you can make the case the sport moved way too quickly on the decision and didn’t wait for things to settle down before re-evaluating Larson. Still, you can see how in a time of such social unrest, his comments as a face of the sport held immense weight.

When Could He Be Back?

Now, a few months later, Larson has had time to reflect and make a change. He’s begun to rebuild his image and now may be the prime time for him to do so. With Hendrick Motorsports looking for a talented and proven driver to fill Jimmie Johnson’s shoes, Larson sticks out amongst the pack. Compared to Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, and other rumored targets, Kyle Larson is clearly the most talented. Larson is a proven contender in the sport and from a racing perspective is the perfect replacement for a legend.

 Sponsors need to sign on to represent a driver who would stand as a reflection of the companies image. The only reason I could think of for Hendrick not naming a driver yet is that they’re jumping over those hurdles. I personally expect to see Larson be tabbed as the next driver for Hendrick.