NASCAR: Kevin Harvick holds off Matt Kenseth in chaotic Indianapolis thriller

A late incident involving Denny Hamlin allowed Kevin Harvick to emerge from Indianapolis with his fourth win of the NASCAR Cup Series season.

With the Colts, Pacers, and Fever on hiatus, Kevin Harvick was happy to provide Indianapolis with some late athletic heroics during the NASCAR Cup Series’ annual excursion to perhaps auto racing’s most hallowed ground.

Denny Hamlin led the race with eight laps to go, but when a lost tire slammed him into Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s wall, Harvick took advantage. Flanked by teammates from Stewart-Haas Racing, his No. 4 Ford held off fellow veteran and Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth over a two-lap shootout to win the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered By Big Machine Records.

The win was Harvick’s fourth of the 2020 season and his third in the 400-mile event at the track known as The Brickyard. He joins Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the only NASCAR drivers to win at least three times at IMS, which has hosted the Cup Series annually since 1994.

Harvick, who started the day in 11th via random draw, took his first lead of the day at Lap 17 of 160 in the midst of the race’s competition caution. Crew chief Rodney Childers brought the No. 4 down pit road shortly before the yellow flag waved.

The gambit paid off in more ways than one. Not only did Harvick take the lead when his competitors needed service, but he also avoided a pile-up at the narrow entrance that ended the day of several drivers including Ryan Preece, Corey LaJoie, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Zach Price, a tire-changer on Ryan Blaney’s pit crew, got pinched between his No. 12 Ford and Brennan Poole’s No. 15 in the chaos. Price was transported to a local hospital, but seemed to be in good spirits otherwise. NBC cameras showed him smiling and displaying the thumbs up as he was loaded into the ambulance.

William Byron took the first 50-lap stage, but Harvick fought back to take the second. It appeared that Harvick and Hamlin would once again be the drivers to beat after swapping the top-two spots during the doubleheader at Pocono last weekend. Over the final 60-lap segment, it appeared that would be how things shaped out. Hamlin would set himself up to take the lead from Harvick after pitting one lap before the No. 4. Kenseth, on a different pit cycle, would hold the lead from lap 123 through 134, when Alex Bowman lost a tire and hit the wall hard to bring out the caution.

Hamlin took the lead when Kenseth needed service during the Bowman caution and beat Harvick out on the ensuing restart. He had distanced himself from Harvick and Kenseth, who worked his way up to third, and seemed to be coasting toward his fifth victory of the year.

But going into the first turn, Hamlin lost a tire and took a hard hit to the wall, ending his chances at the win and setting up a two-lap, winner-take-all finish. Hamlin was one of several drivers who saw their days hampered or ended entirely due to tire issues, joining Bowman, Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, and Justin Allgaier.

Harvick assumed the lead next to Kenseth. Behind them were Harvick’s SHR teammates Aric Almirola and Cole Custer. He got off to a strong restart, aided by a strong push from the rookie Custer’s No. 41 Ford. From there, he was able to get into clean air and deny Kenseth his first Indianapolis title.

Kenseth has now finished in the Brickyard’s runner-up spot on four occasions. His second-place posting was nonetheless his best finish since taking over the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet from the fired Kyle Larson. Almirola would continue a hot streak in third, his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Brad Keselowski snuck into fourth, while Custer hung on to post first career Cup Series top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon for at Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Sunday marked the first NASCAR Cup Series event without Jimmie Johnson since November 23, 2001, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion, was the first driver to test positive for COVID-19, though he has not experienced any symptoms. Allgaier is set to be the replacement driver until Johnson has two negative tests in a 24-hour span.

 

  • Sunday saw a major shakeup toward the bottom of the NASCAR playoff standings. Byron and Jones held the final two playoff seeds (15th and 16th respectively) entering the race, followed by 17th-place Austin Dillon. Each stayed out to earn valuable stage points at the end of the first segment (won by Byron). Dillon was able to slightly take advantage of Byron and Jones’ wrecks. Despite being relegated to an 18th-place finish after wrecking with Matt DiBenedetto on the final lap, Dillon currently holds the final playoff spot, ahead of Jones by six points. Johnson, currently in 15th, is 36 points ahead of Jones.

 

  • For the first time, IMS hosted NASCAR’s annual July 4th-weekend event. Daytona International Speedway’s 400-mile event had hosted the race from 1959 through last season. In another first, NASCAR also hosted shared a doubleheader with the IndyCar Series, which ran alongside the NASCAR Xfinity Series on the in-house road course on Saturday. Scott Dixon won the IndyCar event, while Chase Briscoe won his fifth Xfinity event of the season.

 

  • Michael McDowell finished seventh in the mid-budget No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford. It’s McDowell’s second top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega over the last three races after posting only one over his first dozen seasons.

 

  • In addition to Custer, the top 15 finishers featured three other rookies, including Tyler Reddick (8th), Christopher Bell (12th), and John Hunter Nemechek (15th).

 

  • Bubba Wallace (9th) tied his career-best with his third top-ten finish. He currently sits in 19th place in the standings, 42 points behind Dillon for the final playoff spot.

 

  • Martin Truex Jr. (38th) drew the eighth starting spot but suffered engine trouble in the early stages. He was later involved in the pit road accident and retired his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after 16 laps.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Matt Kenseth talks speed and progress as future starts to loom

The NASCAR champion has lacked his usual speed since returning, but is hopeful going into Midwestern haunts in Indianapolis and Kentucky.

NASCAR’s offseason rumor mill is often given the label of “Silly Season”. Matt Kenseth believes that, in this most unusual and chaotic calendar year, the moniker could apply far beyond the whispers and speculation of auto racing free agency.

“This whole thing has been silly all year long, pretty much since the calendar changed,” Kenseth said with a smile when addressing reporters in a Zoom conference call. “Especially since March.”

Kenseth is one of many notable names up for discussion in the movement process. The 2003 NASCAR Cup Series champion returned from retirement earlier this year to take over the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet after the firing of Kyle Larson.

Kenseth got off to a good start in his new surroundings, earning a top-ten finish in the return for both he and the circuit at Darlington Raceway. He has yet to return since, done in by sheer bad luck and unforced errors alike. Finishes of 11th and 12th at the Pocono doubleheader last weekend marked the first times that Kenseth finished on the lead lap since the Bristol race in late May.

Armed with a “week-to-week” mindset, the current exploits of the No. 42 is all Kenseth is focused on right now. He was keen to reap the positive benefits last week’s exploits at the so-called “Tricky Triangle” had to offer.

“The fun part of racing is results and winning, gaining on it, and doing that stuff,” Kenseth said. “I haven’t performed the way I’ve expected to perform up to this point. (But) I’ve really enjoyed working with that whole team over at Chip Ganassi Racing and driving a Camaro.”

“I’m taking it one week at a time, trying to get the results that we know that we’re capable of and kind of going from there. There’s a lot of difficult things to navigate in today’s world, racing included. So we’re doing it one week at a time and hopefully, start to get some results, the ones we feel like we’re capable of.”

The only detailed look into the future Kenseth provided was a small hope that NASCAR, whose most recent track expansion was the Kentucky entry in 2011, would run a Cup Series race on the Milwaukee Mile, a track that’s about an hour from his Cambridge hometown. The Mile had previously hosted Xfinity and Truck Series events through 2009.

Kenseth perhaps expressed the most disappointment over the fact that his subpar showings would be unable to help Kurt Busch, his past and present teammate.

Busch, driver of Gannasi’s No. 1 Chevrolet, is set to make 700th Cup Series start on Sunday. He and Kenseth each earned their NASCAR start under the watch of team owner Jack Roush. The two combined for 38 Cup Series wins in Roush’s Fords and brought home consecutive titles in 2003-04. Busch’s most recent NASCAR win at last year’s Kentucky event, where he held off his brother Kyle by 0.076 seconds at the finish.

“Your hope with teammates is to help make both cars stronger and that’s always the goal,” Kenseth said. “He’s always been a great teammate from the first time around to this time around. It kind of surprised me when I found it was his 700th start. It doesn’t seem like that long, really.”

“He’s a great teammate, a great race car driver. I was there for his first start and I’m glad I get to be here for his 700th, as well.”

Stuck in 30th-place thanks to his late arrival, Kenseth nonetheless has a playoff waiver should he win a race and more or less lock up a de facto postseason berth this fall. Two big opportunities await, as the Cup Series descends upon two familiar spots for the Cambridge, Wisconsin native.

Sunday marks NASCAR’s annual visit to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as Kenseth will start 21st for the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records (4 p.m. ET, NBC). Kentucky Speedway awaits next week in the form of the Quaker State 400 as the regular season races toward its late August conclusion at Daytona.

Kenseth has completed all but one lap over eight Kentucky starts (2011-18). As for Indianapolis, he was intrigued by the Xfinity Series running on the in-house road course on Saturday but expressed interest in keeping the current oval settings.

One look at Kenseth’s statsheet makes it no shock as to why he’s feeling that way. His cars have finished no worse than 12th over his last six Indianapolis starts and even won the second stage of his most recent appearance when filling in at his old squad of Roush Fenway Racing in 2018.

Thus, the next pair of stops on the high-speed tour present good opportunities to get back on the right track.

“I feel like at Pocono, even though the results weren’t spectacular, off the charts, we really ran better. I think we learned some things about the car, and how I’m feeling. That might not transfer to other places, but I feel like we’ve been learning every week.”

“It’s been a steep learning curve (but) I think we’re ahead of where we were last month. There’s a lot of areas that we’ve been able to sharpen up on, mostly on my end. Each and every week, we’ll keep going at it, and hopefully, the results get better.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Matt Kenseth made his Hall of Fame case at the Darlington return

The return of NASCAR also brought the return of its 2003 champion. Here’s why Matt Kenseth’s top ten finish should put him in Charlotte.

Sunday’s NASCAR race, the Real Heroes 400 at Darington Raceway, was historic in more ways than one. American eyes were on the track, as NASCAR became the first national team sports league to return in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The first race of the social distancing era was won by Kevin Harvick, who became the 14th driver to win at least 50 Cup Series events. Rookies Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek earned the best finishes of their Cup careers to date.

To cap it all off, Matt Kenseth sealed his Hall of Fame case.

NASCAR’s return also brought about the return of Cambridge, Wisconsin native, as Kenseth has taken over Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. The 48-year-old was called out of retirement after the disgraced Kyle Larson was ousted for using a racial slur during a streamed virtual race. Sunday marked his first race behind Ganassi’s wheel and he brought the car home in the 10th position.

The 2003 Cup Series champion may be giving fellow Badger State sports legend Brett Favre a run for his money when it comes to rearrivals. He originally departed full-time racing in 2017 but came back less than a year later to his old friends at Roush Fenway Racing to temporarily fill the vacant No. 6 Ford after Trevor Bayne’s firing. His final Roush stanzas (which included a stage win at Indianapolis and concluding back-to-back top ten finishes at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami) appeared to be the end, but fate had other plans.

If and when Kenseth’s racing career finally ends, debate will probably reign over his Hall of Fame case. Entry into NASCAR Valhalla in Charlotte doesn’t seem to have a proverbial ticket like Cooperstown’s supposed 3,000-hit plateau. Kenseth’s former Roush teammate and fellow No. 6 alum Mark Martin reached Queen City without a title in any of NASCAR’s three major series. Meanwhile, posthumous 2019 inductee Alan Kulwicki (who tragically died in a plane crash months after winning the 1992 Cup title) did make it, but, along with fellow nominee Ron Hornaday Jr. (who ran only 46 Cup races but won four titles on NASCAR’s lower-tier Truck Series level), did so with less than half of the vote. They nonetheless were brought in by the Hall’s five-inductee quota (NASCAR has since lowered the yearly Charlotte inductees to three).

The phenomenon is not to downplay Kulwicki or Hornaday’s accomplishments by any stretch. Kulwicki, for example, was one of the last drivers to successfully pull off the driver/owner double-dip. But it just went to show that a Cup trophy wasn’t the be-all, end-all for racing glory, especially in the eyes of voters.

Kenseth probably could’ve made it sooner or later, but reducing the welcome wagon’s capacity might’ve caused him to wait a little a bit longer than the three post-retirement years necessary for eligibility. His 39 wins and 330 top ten finishes are far more than acceptable, but some in fact smeared Kenseth’s illustrious title because of the mere single win it carried. Such a feat hadn’t been accomplished since Benny Parsons’ trek in 1973, the second year of NASCAR’s so-called “modern era”. So while not fully entertained, doubts still could’ve been raised about locking Kenseth in Charlotte’s halls.

Sunday eliminated any doubt.

Contrary to what its detractors may say, sanctioned auto racing is not a mere case of taking your Honda Accord to the nearest cul-de-sac and driving counter-clockwise 200 times. New innovations are happening on and off the track and the cars are in constant flux. The on-track machines of 2020 differ from the racers even two years ago, the last time Kesenth was on the courses. Such changes aren’t as drastic as what NASCAR has in store for the 2022 season (when they’re expected to introduce the new racecar known as the “Next Gen”) but it was certainly a tall task to ask a driver to keep a car competitive, even one as healthily funded as Ganassi’s No. 42, in a package he never ran with little to no practice or even a qualifying session.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 17: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

But Kenseth consistently ran in the race’s upper portions, adapting well to the unusual situation. As it stands now, he now has top ten finishes in each of his past three Cup Series races. Work needs to be done if Kenseth is to secure a playoff berth…a win and a finish in the top 30 points is likely the ideal solution…but Sunday’s debut was a solid start. The quest continues, weather-permitting, on Wednesday night at the Toyota 500 (6 p.m. ET, FS1), where the No. 42 will start 11th.

Pleasent of a surprise as it was, Kenseth’s contemporaries may have seen Sunday’s revival coming.

“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want him back,” competitor Denny Hamlin said prior to Kenseth’s return. “I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse, but just different. So I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush towards the end.”

“He’s my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point. I mean that jokingly.”

Hamlin’s fears were well-founded. He and Kenseth were teammates for five seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Kenseth’s 10th-place finish was perhaps an all too poetic occurrence. His lone, one-win championship was notorious for consistency, featuring an average finish of 10.2. So monumental was his final season that some attributed NASCAR’s playoff procedures to his dominance, which eliminated most, if not all, of the drama of the 2003 session’s final stanzas.

Sunday’s winner Kevin Harvick hinted that it might not be long until we see Kenseth in victory lane again and that his prescience can bring in new fans while the series enacts a stranglehold on the American sports fan’s imagination, at least for a while.

“Here’s the thing about Matt Kenseth: he should have never quit,” Harvick said. “Matt Kenseth was winning races when he retired. I think as you look at that whole situation of when you he got kind of moved out of Gibbs, Matt Kenseth is going to be a huge part of that race team and making Chip Ganassi Racing better. He’s going to be great for the sponsors.”

“I think as you look at that, I mean, experience and skill go a long way in our sport. If you have those two things, like Matt does, you’re going to be successful. You don’t just forget how to do that.”

Darlington will come first in the immediate future for Kenseth. Charlotte does as well…after all, the series travels there for a doubleheader next week…but his Myrtle Beach exploits should keep the latter in his potentially distant NASCAR hereafter as well.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags