NASCAR: Brad Keselowski advances with dominant win at Richmond

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

Brad Keselowski advanced to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 12 with a dominant win at Richmond Raceway.

In an attempt to make the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs a three-man headliner, Brad Keselowski made sure he was the only driver taking care of business at Richmond Raceway on Saturday night.

Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford led 192 of 400 laps, including the final 48 en route to victory at the Federated Auto Parts 400. The No. 2 team gained automatic entry to the next round of the Cup Series playoffs with its fourth win over the season. One more race remains in the opening round of 16 drivers, with the bottom four in the standings eliminated next weekend. Only Kevin Harvick (8) and Denny Hamlin (6) have won more races this season.

With his 33rd career Cup Series win, Keselowski ties Fireball Roberts for 24th-place all-time.

“I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to a lot of the greats in the sport,” the 2012 Cup champion said. “I really wish I was winning five to ten races a year because that’s what it’s going to take to do that, but I’m trying to also be grateful for what I have and to have won four races to date this year.  But I want to be the best, and to be the best you’ve got to have those 5-10 win seasons consistently and I’ve been having 3-4 win seasons.”

Keselowski, seeking his second Cup Series title, took his first lead of the day on lap 121, passing teammate Joey Logano and leading the next 42 circuits before hitting pit road. Once stops cycled through, Keselowski coasted to a stage victory, his sixth of the season. With the win in both the race and the stages, Keselowski has an extra six-point cushion going into the next round.

“A race like tonight I think easily gets sold as there weren’t any wrecks. These drivers are just good,” Keselowski said of the clean race. “These cars all drove so bad with that little bitty spoiler on them, a lot of horsepower, and you had guys with new tires and old tires sliding around, and it’s so easy to get in trouble and to wreck. These drivers are just freaking good, and they didn’t do that. To win a race against drivers that are this good is pretty cool.  It’s something I’m very proud of, and I’m going to try to soak it up.”

The No. 2’s main competition for victory was the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet of Austin Dillon. After opening the playoffs with a runner-up finish at Darlington, Dillon drove the fastest car in the field for a majority of the evening. He led a career-best 55 laps despite numerous calamities on pit road. He came home second in the opening 80-lap stage behind Denny Hamlin, but a speeding penalty during the ensuing yellow flag put him at the rear. Dillon would recover also finish second in the middle stage.

Attempting to make his final stop with 65 laps to go, Dillon missed pit road, costing him precious seconds on the racetrack. He was able to briefly regain the lead before Keselowski took over the rest of the way. Dillon wound finishing fourth behind Martin Truex Jr. and Logano, earning consecutive top-five finishes for the first time in his Cup Series career. Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.

Dillon owns a 36-point advantage over the cutoff line at 13th place, currently occupied by William Byron.

The opening round of the Cup Series playoffs ends next weekend with the Bass Pro Shops Night Race on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Keselowski won the first visit to Bristol back in May.

Race Notes

  • Playoff drivers occupied each of the top ten spots. Tyler Reddick was top finishing non-qualifier in 11th.

 

  • Hamlin (12th) never recovered from a speeding penalty of his own after the second stage, but he nonetheless mathematically clinched a spot in the Round of 12 with a 61-point advantage over 13th. Points leader Harvick (7th) clinched his spot with a win at Darlington last weekend.

 

  • Team Penske’s playoff trio had one missing link, as Ryan Blaney struggled for the second consecutive week. Blaney (19th) finished two laps down and currently sits in 16th and last place in the playoff standings, 27 points behind 12th man Clint Bowyer (10th). A win would help Blaney clinch automatically.

 

  • Save for stage pauses, Saturday’s race featured no caution flags. It’s the third such race since stages were introduced in 2017 and the first since the road course event at Sonoma in June 2019. The last, and likely final, race to be completely caution-free was the October 2002 event at Talladega.

 

  • Timmy Hill (mechanical) was the only driver who failed to finish.

 

  • Truex (2nd) had won each of the prior two events at Richmond. His runner-up finish is his third over the last five races.

 

  • Keselowski’s win at night capped off a strong day of racing for team owner Roger Penske. Earlier on the IndyCar Series circuit, Will Power led all but nine laps at the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to win his first race of 2020.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Late drama allows Kevin Harvick to steal another win

Kevin Harvick

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began the same way many races in the regular season ended: with Kevin Harvick in victory lane.

NASCAR’s annual Labor Day weekend excursion to Darlington Raceway has recently been celebrated by the unveiling of paint schemes that reference or pay homage to popular cars of the past. The most recent visit to the Myrtle Beach staple, however, kept a very modern trend going.

Drama at the front of the field allowed Kevin Harvick to win Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500, his eighth victory of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Harvick was running third when front-runners Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. incapacitated each other through contact with 13 laps to go. From that point on, Harvick held off Austin Dillon to win the 57th race of his Cup career. Such a victory puts him in sole possession of ninth place on the all-time wins list.

“When you start looking around the win list and you start seeing the names that you’re around, you just start thinking to yourself, man, these are some of the greatest drivers that ever came through our sport.,” Harvick said in his place in history. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. You’ve got to do your part and, hopefully, we can keep doing what we’re doing on the racetrack and keep climbing up there.”

He and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team also earn automatic advancement to the next leg of the NASCAR Playoffs, which began at Darlington with 16 drivers. Four will be eliminated after short track races over the next two weeks at Richmond and Bristol.

A tally of 57 playoff points during the regular season made sure that Harvick didn’t have to worry too much about securing points to make the next round. But that didn’t stop him and crew chief Rodney Childers. Harvick finished in the top ten in each of the first two stages, but different pit strategies from Childers allowed him to stay at the upper-half of the field. Properly timed cautions also played in the hands of the No. 4 team.

We’re more or less just trying to do what’s right for us and be consistent and do the best we can every week,” Childers said. “We just felt like that was the best thing for us.  With our car kind of falling off too much and cording the right rear, we really didn’t have another option. We were just trying to do what was best, and it kind of worked out in both of those last two stages and we got a caution when we were up there at the lead.”

Harvick was also pleased to win the race in front of an adoring public, as Darlington welcomed in a limited crowd to witness Sunday’s race. It marked his third win at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”, the prior one coming at NASCAR’s return from a coronavirus-induced pause in May. No fans were able to witness that win (his first of the 2020 season), so Harvick was sure to take the reaction in. It’s his first win in the Southern 500, an event that dates back to 1950.

“That’s the first race that I’ve won this year that anybody has been here,” Harvick noted. “But I think back to the first race here, and for me, that was really the moment that put it all into perspective of where we were and what we were doing and how drastic of a situation it was when you have all that enthusiasm to share with nobody and just dead silence.  It felt really, really good to have some cheering fans in the grandstands and be able to experience that again.”

Truex and Elliott united to lead 310 of the race’s 367 laps, the former’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota winning each of the first two stages. With Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leading after a caution to remove debris from the frontstretch, Truex made an aggressive move in search of his second win of the season. Attempting to close the door and clear the No. 9, Truex instead made contact, damaging each of their playoff rides. The encounter forced them each to pit road relegated Elliott to a 20th-place finish and Truex to 22nd.

It served as unfortunate deja vu for Elliott. A prior 2020 event at Darlington ended in an Elliott after he was bumped by another Joe Gibbs driver, Kyle Busch, while fighting for the lead in the race’s dying stages.

Dillon finished in the runner-up spot. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet worked its way to the front after being forced to start from the rear due to unapproved adjustments. Joey Logano finished third while Erik Jones was the highest-finishing non-playoff driver in fourth. Another playoff man, William Byron, rounded out the top five.

The second round of the Round of 16 will run on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Playoff drivers took 12 of the top 13 starts in the final running order.

 

  • It was a tough start to the playoffs for Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. Blaney was forced to start from the rear for failing prerace inspection due to an improperly-mounted ballast. The violation cost him 10 points and the services of crew chief Todd Gordon, who was suspended. Blaney finished a lap off the pace in 24th and sits 17 points behind the 12th-place cutoff.

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s transmission issues forced him to retire early, while John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford was lost to an accident. Corey LaJoie also sustained damage and was retired when he took his car directly to the garage area rather than pit road.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: William Byron earns playoff berth in wild Daytona regular season finale

William Byron’s first NASCAR Cup Series couldn’t have come at a better time, but a late wreck ruined Jimmie Johnson’s playoff chances.

The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet returned to the familiar settings of victory lane, but a victorious sendoff for another iconic ride was not meant to be.

William Byron had perfect timing for his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, taking home the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. A win in the regular-season finale allows Byron to earn a last-minute berth into the NASCAR playoffs, which begin next weekend at Darlington Raceway.

“I feel incredible.  On Cloud 9 for sure,” Byron said after the race. “There was a point in that race that I didn’t really think things were going to work out in our favor to make the Playoffs, really have an opportunity next week. This was kind of one of those do-or-die situations. Kind of crossed that fork in the road tonight. We were able to be aggressive and make it happen.”

Saturday marked the first time that Daytona hosted the regular season finale, moved from a July 4th weekend schedule slot its 400-mile race had held since its inception in 1959. The track’s propensity for tightly-packed racing, speed in excess of 200 miles per hour, multi-car wrecks, and first-time winners made it a perfect site for the 26th and final race before the playoffs.

Byron becomes the 21st Cup Series driver to win his first race at Daytona, a circuit record.

“You couldn’t have picked a more pressure-packed race,” Byron said of making Daytona the season finale. “When you’re at a superspeedway, the running order changes every two laps practically, it’s incredible to put that much pressure on a couple of points. You really can’t points race, which I think is probably what they want us to do. They want us to go for wins, try to compete hard. It was a perfect format for that.”

Byron entered Daytona in the 16th and final playoff seed, five points behind Matt DiBenedetto and four points ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Had Byron retained the 16th seed, he could’ve been eliminated if a winless driver behind him won the race. His first career victory locked his spot up without further drama.

The jubilation for Byron, the first driver representing the No. 24 banner to win a Cup Series race since Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville in 2015, was countered by personal heartbreak for Johnson his No. 48 Chevrolet team. One of three winners of a record seven Cup Series titles, Johnson is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the season. He ran well for a majority of the evening and earned precious playoff real estate through a dozen stage points.

But with two laps to go, Johnson got caught in a wreck that began when Joey Logano, the winner of the first two stages, made contact with Denny Hamlin and bumped into an attacking Bubba Wallace who was leading a third lane for the lead. Chaos ensued, taking out several drivers seeking a crucial win, including Matt Kenseth, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, and John Hunter Nemechek.

Johnson’s crew was able to repair the car to the point it was able to meet minimum speed standards, but by then it was too late. Johnson finished 17th and missed out on the playoffs thanks to Byron’s win and DiBenedetto’s 12th place finish.

DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, makes the playoffs for the first time in his career.

With the race going into overtime, Byron held off a challenge from Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott and a recovered Hamlin over a two-lap dash to earn his first win in his 98th Cup Series start. Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth while Wallace also recovered to finish fifth.

The 16-driver playoff will begin next Sunday night at Darlington’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Three races await in the first leg of the playoffs, with dates at Richmond and Bristol filling out the remainder.

Race Notes

  • Prior to the race, Kevin Harvick was presented the Regular Season Championship. Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won seven races and beat out Hamlin by 134 points entering Saturday’s race to win it. He will enter the playoffs as the top-seeded driver thanks to 57 playoff points earned through seven race wins (five points each), seven stage wins (one-point each), and a 15-point bonus for the regular-season crown. Harvick finished 20th at Daytona after getting caught up in an incident on the final lap.

 

  • Incidents were kept to a minimum, with only cautions for the first 143 laps coming for a competition caution and stage pauses. The first yellow for an on-track incident came when James Davidson and Brendan Gaughan made contact.

 

  • The first big wreck of the night came at lap 153 of 160, when Reddick’s block on Kyle Busch ignited a big wreck that took out both Busch and his brother Kurt, as well as Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Newman, making his first start at Daytona’s oval since a scary wreck at the end of February’s 500-mile opener, was critical of Reddick in an interview with NBC Sports, declaring that “the No. 8 ran out of talent”.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson, William Byron prepare for Daytona battle

Jimmie Johnson, Williams Byron

As NASCAR’s regular season winds down, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron are in a “weird” situation.

NASCAR has changed a lot since Jimmie Johnson began his full-time Cup Series career in 2002. He has raced under the Winston, Nextel, Sprint, Monster Energy, and plain old Cup Series banners. His record-tying seven championships have been won under four different playoff formats. The entire full-time journey, set to end at the end of the season, has been spent in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: Johnson is locked in an intense battle with a Hendrick teammate driving the No. 24 car.

It was Jeff Gordon, the man most associated with the No. 24, that personally scouted Johnson and got his Cup career rolling. Subsequent battles between the two have had lasting implications on NASCAR history and altered the Cup Series’ postseason picture. The battle ended upon Gordon’s retirement in 2015 but reignites in the most dramatic and sensational fashion at Daytona International Speedway.

The World Center of Racing’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 will host the NASCAR regular season final for the first time on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Johnson enters a familiar place on the schedule in the most unfamiliar spot: on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. He’s four points out of the 16th and final seed…held by third-year driver William Byron, the new bearer of the No. 24. Only adding to the drama is the fact that Byron’s crew chief is Chad Knaus…who was atop the No. 48’s pit box for each of its seven titles.

The reality of the situation only hit Knaus through a conversation with Johnson after last weekend’s doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.

“I was like ‘man, it’s so weird that I’m going to be battling the No. 48 car going into Daytona’,” Knaus recalled when speaking with the media this week. “Then the next morning, at like 8 a.m., he sent me a text. He’s like ‘man, isn’t it weird that we’re competing with one another for this?’ So, we had a text right there and then we had a phone conversation a little bit later in the week. And hey, it is what it is. We’re both professionals here. We understand what’s going on. It’s racing. It’s competition.”

“Chad and I are great friends and have stayed really close through all that’s happened,” Johnson would say of the conversation. “Sure, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun at some different points here recently, but I wish him the best. We talk often. I want the best for Chad and his family, and for Chad and his race team.”

“We certainly both look at the year and know there are moments that could have kept us both from being in this position, but it is what it is and we’re going to Daytona, which makes it even more awkward. We’ll see how things play out.”

Unlike Johnson’s relatively quiet Cup Series arrival, Byron entered the Cup Series with a fair amount of hype. He won a rookie record seven races in the Camping World (now Gander RV & Outdoor) Truck Series’ 2016 campaign and then took home the Xfinity Series title at the age of 19. When Hendrick Motorsports rebranded their No. 5 Chevrolet to be the iconic 24, it was Byron who was called upon to take over.

Nearly three years in, a combination of bad luck and strong competition has Byron still searching for his first Cup Series win. If it came at Daytona on Saturday, it would clinch his second consecutive playoff berth. He won a qualifying event at the track for the Daytona 500 back in February, but an early accident relegated him to a last-place finish in 40th. The No. 24 car has shown speed throughout the season, the development stifled by factors beyond Byron’s control. For example, he had the lead at Indianapolis in July and won the first stage, but a lost tire relegated him to a 27th-place finish.

Johnson, stuck at 83 wins in the midst of a career-long 119-race winless streak, was quick and eager to note the improvements Byron has made in his third year behind the wheel.

“He’s a true student of the sport and his life is dedicated to racing,” Johnson said. “With his interest in sim racing, he can literally day in and day out learn tracks, drive cars, think about racing, think about setups, interact with his team on that level. During my generation, we could go test quite a bit and we did a lot of that. But still, I think he can get more reps in today’s world than the world that I grew up in and it’s been really interesting to watch him grow in his path. I think he probably has the fastest path to a NASCAR Cup car in the history of our sport.”

“Hats off to him. He’s doing a great job and I know he’s going to be a tough competitor at Daytona.”

Knaus was moved to Byron’s garage after the latter’s rookie season. The driver, a Charlotte native, grew up watching Johnson dominate the Cup Series circuit. A childhood incident only adds to the Daytona intrigue. As a child, Byron trick-or-treated at Johnson’s home in Charlotte…dressed as Jeff Gordon.

Now, Byron can deal the cruelest trick of all: denying Johnson a playoff berth in his final full-time season.

“I think it’s a great storyline. Jimmie is the guy that I looked up to as a kid,” Byron said. “I was really a 48 fan through and through. I’ve got a lot of 48 stuff at my parent’s house and a lot of different diecast cars.”

But with the Hendrick competition topping the list of Daytona storylines, Byron has no intention of actively kicking Johnson out of the playoff bracket. In fact, he’s hoping that both cars can partake in the first postseason party on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway. Their HMS teammates, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, have already clinched their playoff spots through wins.

“I really don’t look at it as me versus him. I know that’s what the bubble is right now, but it really is an opportunity for both of us to get in,” Byron continued. “I’m trying to look at it (like) that. That’s ultimately the goal: to get both of us in. Jimmie is an awesome competitor and somebody I really look up to.”

“Hopefully, we both get in, you know?” Knaus asked rhetorically. “We both run really well at superspeedways. Hendrick Engines and the guys at the shop build some amazing race cars. So, hopefully, we can get out there and get some stage points and race well and get both the No. 24 and the No. 48 into the playoffs.”

Both Byron and Johnson can still get in on points, which would come at the expense of 15th-place Matt DiBenedetto (nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff). But the Daytona factor looms large over the proceedings.

As long as he’s competing for Cup Series points and is placed in the top 30 of the standings, Saturday’s winner will be partaking in the playoffs. Daytona’s propensity for tightly-packed racing and multi-car wrecks has created the perfect formula for surprise winners. Just last summer, in the most recent version of Daytona’s 400-mile event, Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley navigated his way through a big accident and a Floridan summer storm to earn an unlikely victory in the microbudget No. 77 Chevrolet of Spire Motorsports in just his second Cup start. Saturday’s field is rife with talented drivers that can steal the final spots. Both competitors are aware of the danger presented…both in the standings and on the track…but they’re loving every minute of it.

“It’s going to be great from a fan’s perspective,” noted Byron. “It’s going to be stressful in the car, but sometimes those are the most fun times and the most rewarding times in the race car, those times where you’re under pressure. It should be fun.”

Johnson is also excited, but perhaps a more accurate way to describe his Daytona mindset is one of peace. As he discussed with Knaus, opportunities were there to secure a playoff berth. There’s nothing he could’ve done about the Indianapolis event, sidelined due to a positive test for coronavirus, but a runner-up finish and the points that came with at Charlotte’s renowned Coca-Cola 600 in May was wiped out due to a failure at postrace inspection.

The calamities that have befallen 2020 have done nothing to change Johnson’s mind of retirement from full-time racing. His resume nonetheless continues to expand, adding the duty of professor to his resume through home-schooling his daughters Evie and Lydia. Having recently spoken on several societal issues since NASCAR’s return from the coronavirus-induced pause, Johnson expressed concern about the current state of the country but hopeful of what he’s seen from his children.

“At times, I’m discouraged by where we sit as a nation, as a world, and just how divided we all are,” Johnson admitted. “But then when I see my kids, their questions, and their genuine concern about the future of our country, of our environment, of racial inequality issues, gender-related issues, I do become encouraged. To hear a ten-year-old and a six-year-old weigh in on some conversations really has blown my mind. So, I do have some optimism for the future.”

On the track, Johnson isn’t looking to get sentimental. Whereas some see his final start at Daytona and what could be his final start in a “playoff” race, Johnson just sees an opportunity to drive his iconic Chevrolet again. That’s the way he wants it.

“We have a lot at stake and, again, it could be a great storybook ending for my last full-time race or race on an oval at Daytona. We all understand the storylines. I’m excited, I’m ready to go. I’m not one to spend too much time getting overly sentimental. I’m more excited about the opportunity to go racing and drive that 48 car. So, I’m just excited to get there and get to work.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Four Turns with ESM’s Eastern Speed Board; Daytona

ESM’s NASCAR experts return to debate the hot topics heading into the final Cup Series regular season race at Daytona.

ESM’s panel of NASCAR experts is back to debate the sport’s hot topics as the Cup Series ends its regular season in spectacular fashion in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The Xfinity and Truck Series likewise inch their way toward the playoffs with respective events on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Sunday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, FS1).

Which do the four turns take the ESB this weekend? Read on for their predictions and thoughts…

Turn 1: For the first time in NASCAR history, Daytona will host a regular season finale, eschewing its traditional July 4th spot. Thoughts?  

Geoff Magliocchetti: I was a bit wary of the prospect in the beginning. July 4th weekend at Daytona was a fun, midsummer tradition in the win of the MLB All-Star Game. It felt almost sacrilege to deny The World Center of Racing an American tradition. But, looking at the standings, it’s impossible to deny just how smart it was to give the unpredictable Daytona the final race of the regular season. Daytona desperation is a new kind of chaos, one that can create pulse-pounding moments in the grandstands and behind the wheel. It’s insanely poetic as it is that three drivers at the end of the playoff picture are separated by only nine points. But combine that with Daytona’s propensity to produce unexpected winners…remember Justin Haley last season?…and we could see an unexpected playoff man rise to the occasion. If you think drivers go all-out to win February’s Daytona 500…the first race of the season…just imagine what they’ll do to win a race that determines the NASCAR playoff bracket.

Dylan Price: I love the move. Daytona is always the most unpredictable track on the circuit. Yes, intense bubble racing is fun, but what about everyone remotely close to the bubble giving it their all for a win. Everyone has something to prove with the playoffs a week away. Who knows, we may even see a driver come out of nowhere to make the playoffs for the first time in their career.

Nathan Solomon: I think that having Daytona as the season finale is overall a good move. It gives anyone that isn’t already in the playoffs a chance to get in with a win and puts more pressure on drivers and spotters. It should also boost ratings since it’s, well, Daytona. On the other hand, someone could get lucky and win and take away a playoff spot from someone already in the hunt. But, the new playoff format has always favored wins, and a win gets you in.

Turn 2: Yet ANOTHER win for Kevin Harvick at Dover; where’s he going to rank in terms of the greatest drivers ever when all is said and done?

Geoff Magliocchetti: What Harvick has been doing since the return to the track is not a Hall of Fame case. That was probably happening long before this season began. Instead, it’s a case to be included in the top ten greatest drivers off all-time. One cannot effectively tell the story of American auto racing without Kevin Harvick. The start to his Cup career…replacing the late Dale Earnhardt…was enough pressure to live up to as it was. He had made a strong impact on both the Cup and the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series levels. But for him to go out and continue to not just run strong in, but straight up dominate, race in this new era of no practice or qualifying is nothing short of extraordinary. He’ll perhaps need another championship or two to truly warrant consideration for NASCAR’s “Mount Rushmore”, but the second could very well come this fall at Phoenix.

Dylan Price: Harvick has written a hell of a chapter in the book that is his career in 2020. With seven wins and still 11 races to go, Harvick is on pace to contend for the record books in terms of single-season wins in the modern era (since 1972). Not only that, but he and Denny Hamlin are the clear favorites for the championship.

Nathan Solomon: Harvick will no doubt be one of the best the sport has ever seen, and likely a unanimous first ballot hall-of-famer when it comes time. He seems to get better and better each year at Stewart-Haas. His seven wins are so impressive, and all have come after the coronavirus stoppage. This year is a big year for him, as another title would certainly cement his legacy. If he keeps racing for a long time, he may be one of the winningest drivers in history.

Turn 3: Three years, still no win for William Byron. What do you make of his Cup career thus far?

Geoff Magliocchetti: To call Byron a downright “bust” would be cruel. His Cup Series debut has been laden with expectations. The hype alone can derail otherwise promising careers and only exacerbate struggling careers…remember Casey “The Next Jeff Gordon” Atwood under Ray Evernham? Additionally, his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is not Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet, but rather the declining No. 5 that Kasey Kahne left behind with a fresh coat of (Axalta) paint. Thus, it’s not fully appropriate to get down on Byron, who has also been a constant victim of bad luck. But it’s fair to say he could be on some sort of hot seat next season (his fourth at the Cup level and third with Chad Knaus) if he doesn’t get a win. Such a finish at Daytona would certainly go a long way in soothing some concerns.

Dylan Price: To this point, William Byron has not even close to filling the shoes left behind by Jeff Gordon. Byron has yet to tap into his true potential and finds himself on the bubble of the playoffs this year. Rick Hendrick and Gordon supposedly both think very highly of Byron. With that said, on track production is needed and that means a win or at least consistent finishes. So, I’d say Byron is at a point where he’s underperforming and could find himself looking for a new ride if he doesn’t step up by the end of next season at the latest.

Nathan Soloman: William Byron needs to step it up a little bit in he wants to stay at Hendrick for a long time. That all starts this weekend if he can secure a birth into the playoffs. Has he had some bad luck? Yes, he absolutely has. But that’s no excuse since he’s in the same cars that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon had extreme success in. Byron could use a win at a track like Daytona and has won a Duel race there in the past. Could luck finally be on his side this weekend?

Turn 4: Which driver outside of the top 16 has the best chance to steal a playoff spot at Daytona?

Geoff Magliocchetti: The thing about this Daytona field is that there are so many talented drivers that can steal a playoff spot. Perhaps the most attractive underdog driver is one who has no chance at the playoffs…Ross Chastain is back in a Cup car, taking over the same No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Haley navigated to victory last July. Chastain, who is competing for Xfinity Series points, was running well in the same car during February’s Daytona 500, but a late crash took him out of contention. He has run two other races in the No. 77, finishing on the lead lap in the latter at Indianapolis. A strong run at Daytona would give him some well-deserved exposure and a chance to impress potential suitors for a new, better-equipped ride next season.

Dylan Price: I have a lot of guys I’d love to eye with this pick. I really would love to see an underdog come from out of nowhere and win. Especially a back of the pack guy like Corey Lajoie could use a career-defining win. Still, outside of the top 16, one guy sticks out to me: Erik Jones. Jones is now without a ride for next season and he’s racing like a man with nothing to lose, and that’s scary. Jones could win this race and likely lock down a top tier ride for next season, so I’ll go with him outside of the top 16.

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson is outside the top 16, but could still easily make it in on points. However, I see either Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Ryan Newman stealing a win to get into the playoffs. Both are known to be pretty good plate racers, and now they have one final chance on the last day of the regular season. Plus, what an awesome story it would be for Newman to win his first plate race back at Daytona after his horrific crash in February.

Predictions

Race Cup Xfinity Trucks
Geoff Magliocchetti Ryan Blaney Ross Chastain Sheldon Creed
Dylan Price Martin Truex Jr. Brandon Jones Matt Crafton
Nathan Solomon Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Ryan Sieg Grant Enfinger
Standings
Rank Points (behind) Wins
1. Geoff Magliocchetti 288 3
2. Nathan Solomon -3 1
3. Dylan Price -36 0

Matt DiBenedetto reflects on his NASCAR journey while on the playoff bubble

In the midst of the vaunted Hendrick Motorsports battle, Matt DiBenedetto is fighting for his own playoff life…and he couldn’t be happier.

Matt DiBenedetto has enough to worry about at Daytona International Speedway as is.

The track’s reputation for tightly-packed racing is exhilarating in the grandstands but nerve-wracking behind the wheel. Multi-car get-togethers are common, be it via pushes for position or the Big One…or Big Ones…that seem to strike in the race’s most crucial stages.  His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford also starts Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC) in the 15th position, so he has some work to do if he wants to secure the first win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

Oh, and he’s also fighting for the first playoff berth of his NASCAR career…and members of one of NASCAR’s most lauded teams will do anything to keep him out.

For the first time, the unpredictable asphalt of Daytona will sort out the Cup Series’ 16-driver playoff field. The 400-mile race held a midseason spot on July 4 weekend since its inception in 1959, but the switch over to the regular-season finale slot has cast even more drama on one of the circuit’s most unpredictable races.

“I don’t know if it’s excited or anxious or what the emotion is,” DiBenedetto said on Thursday morning. “It’s definitely different going to Daytona with so much on the line than if we were going to a regular short track or whatever you want to call it.”

Ten drivers are already in the playoffs by virtue of a victory over the previous 25 races. Three more have reserved a spot through points. Barring complete disaster, Clint Bowyer (57 points above the cutoff) likely has his ticket punched. Any winless driver that remains in the top 30 in points can earn a ticket with a win. Daytona is the ideal place to it, as the track has produced a Cup Series-high 20 first-time winners. Otherwise, the fight for the final two spots is down to DiBenedetto, and the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and William Byron.

DiBenedetto has the current 15 seed and is nine points of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, the first car out. Byron is five points behind DiBenedetto in the 16th spot…one that would automatically turn over to a driver outside the top 30 that stole a win. Such a concept is hardly outlandish. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., trapped in 23rd place, earned his most recent win at Daytona in 2017. Down in 25th, Ryan Newman was mere feet away from winning February’s Daytona 500 before getting involved in a scary accident on the final turn.

The Hendrick duo would likely be the playoff seeds that draw ratings and headlines. Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion, is looking to end his career on the right note. It’s awkward enough that Johnson is fighting a teammate, one of the heirs to Jeff Gordon’s iconic No. 24 Chevrolet, for a playoff spot. But Johnson is also battling the crew chief that helped him win all those titles, Chad Knaus, who oversees the No. 24’s matters now.

Frankly, there’s a bit of disappointment on DiBenedetto’s end. A visit to victory lane has yet to materialize, but DiBenedetto had been one of the series’ more consistent drivers in 2020. He has been running at the finish in all but one race this season and his average finish of 15.2 is tied with Ryan Blaney and ahead of Johnson and Byron, as well as playoff drivers like Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, and Cole Custer. July saw DiBenedetto take part in his first All-Star Race, winning the All-Star Open at Bristol to gain entry.

After a third-place finish at Kentucky, DiBenedetto had a healthy 84-point on the playoff’s cutoff line. But tough finishes, including a brutal doubleheader at Dover last weekend, doomed him to standings watching at Daytona.

“Our intention is going to be focused on those guys that we’re racing for the playoff spot, and also knowing that there could be a surprise winner in there, too,” DiBenedetto said when asked if he wants constant updates on the standings during the race. “Somebody could jump in the playoffs as well that’s outside of it right now. Daytona is known for situations like that, so there’s gonna be a lot of variables and things, but that will be a big part of the focus is maybe coming to the end of stages, where those guys are, and then obviously towards the end of the race.”

“It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” he continued. “He’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing, where they’re at, if they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona so we’ll probably do that what you asked within reason.”

The Hendrick group certainly wouldn’t mind any route that allows them both to earn playoff glory. If it means DiBenedetto has to be the odd man out, so be it.

“I think we have a chance and an opportunity to get both Hendrick cars in and be able to bump the No. 21 out,” Byron said in another session on Thursday. “That’s kind of our goal and, hopefully, it works out that way.”

It’s more than likely not personal, but DiBenedetto’s No. 21 will have a huge, invisible target on its back come Saturday. But that’s perhaps just the way he likes it.

“A lot of normal people would probably be freaking out and on edge, kind of like my wife is,” the driver affectionately referred to as “Dibby” or “Matty D” said. “That would be normal. She’s having a normal reaction. She’s kind of a basket case every day and having heart failure and just can’t wait until Saturday night gets here and praying every day that we make the playoffs.”

“Those are normal human reactions to this type of stressful situation, and I think I’ve just been groomed and been through so much stress and crazy situations to fight to get here that being in this really tough situation has made me extremely mentally tough and prepared for something like this to where I’m able to stay very focused.”

DiBenedetto, 29, has earned a bit of a following for working his way up to one of NASCAR’s longest-running rodes. Save for a seven-race stint as a teenager with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series program, DiBenedetto has rarely, if ever, had strong equipment to work with. His full-time Cup career began with stints at the mid-to-low-budget efforts at BK Racing (which closed in 2018), Go Fas Racing, and Leavine Family Racing (which is set to close at the end of this season).

Throughout his career, DiBenedetto showed flashes of brilliance. In 2016, he brought home BK Racing’s first top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega in their history with a sixth-place finish at Bristol. A year later, he recorded the first top finishes for Go Fas’ No. 32 Ford.

If anything, DiBenedetto knows he’s in a much better spot than he was last season. LFR’s No. 95 Toyota offered potential for exposure through a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs. But a tough start to the season, which placed him at 23rd in the standings by mid-August, led to LFR informing him that they’d be going in another direction at the end of the year.

“Luckily, I don’t think anything quite matches the emotion I was going through around this time last year when I was unsure if I had a job or anything. That was next level,” DiBenedetto said. “My situation last year and all that is what’s made me a lot mentally tougher to come up on instances like this, where there’s a lot of pressure and a lot on the line, going into Daytona, which is crazy, and trying to make the playoffs and your whole season basically rides on right now.”

Two days after his de facto firing, DiBenedetto led a career-best 93 laps in the annual Bristol night race. He was passed by Denny Hamlin with 11 laps to go, but it left a lasting impression on the NASCAR world. Hamlin even said he felt sorry for passing DiBenedetto and denying him an elusive first victory.

The runner-up finish, the best of his career, was part of a streak of nine consecutive top 20 finishes for the No. 95. Overall, they finished in the top 20 in all but two of the final 19 races, good for LFR records. DiBenedetto earned a career-best seven top-ten finishes. That was caught the attention of Wood Brothers Racing, who chose DiBenedetto to fill in the seat the retiring Paul Menard left behind.

“It’s a big deal for us, for the 21 team, for the Wood Brothers, for us to be fighting,” he said. “To make the playoffs would be an amazing accomplishment for us and for the team most importantly. It’s so cool to be having this opportunity.”

Daytona always carries the potential to turn dreams into nightmares. DiBenedetto knows that better than most, especially in more recent times. The No. 95 led the most laps (49) at the 2019 Daytona 500 but it got caught up in a big wreck (ironically thanks to contact initiated by the No. 21 driven by Menard) with ten regulation laps to go, ending any chance at victory. Another crash in the most recent edition in February denied him a stronger finish, pushing him to 19th.

But DiBenedetto knows that no matter the result on Saturday, he’s pleased where his NASCAR journey has taken him. No one, even any of his detractors watching this weekend, can take that away from him.

“I think just my path and my journey to get here has been so out of the ordinary and so tough, where I fight and claw, it’s just taught me that all I can do is worry about what I can control,” he said. “There are always going to be things that are out of my control that I really just can’t sit and worry about too much, and my path to get here has taught me that because I have pushed and pushed and pushed as hard as humanly possible and dedicated my entire life to it.”

“But even aside from all the hard work, a million different things out of my control had to happen for me to still be here and this playoff situation is another one of those instances that my whole career has been packed full of is there’s gonna be things that are out of mine and our control because Daytona is just kind of a crazy race. You can’t be in control of what everybody does in the field that can affect you, so as my dad put it this week he was like, ‘Do the best you can and the rest of it is gonna be in God’s hands, so don’t sit and worry about it too much all week.’”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Red hot Martin Truex Jr. seeks a bigger impact

Nobody in NASCAR is making a bigger current impact than Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Toyota…on and off the track.

Even the most casual NASCAR fan is likely familiar with the axiom “if you ain’t first, you’re last”, the catchphrase of Will Ferrell’s titular character from the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Martin Truex Jr. is at least partially defying that trope as he works his way through the final stages of the premier Cup Series’ regular season.

The tradition of posing the top three race finishers on a podium has rarely made it to NASCAR…that’s probably for the best these days with social distancing still necessary…but if they did exist, the footprints of the Mayetta Township, NJ native would perhaps be etched into the platform. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished in either second or third place in eight of the last nine races. That streak continued last weekend, as Truex was the silver-medalist in both halves of a Saturday/Sunday doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.

“It has definitely been good to run right out front, be running top three,” Truex said after the race on Sunday. “That’s where you need to be running to make your way through the playoffs.”

The Cup Series’ regular season ends in grand fashion on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the iconic superspeedway, known for producing surprise winners, will host the final lead-in to the 16-driver playoff.

Truex doesn’t have to worry about his invitation to the postseason, as the win at Martinsville allows him to compete for the seventh consecutive season. Still, once the playoffs start at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend, an extra win may come in for the No. 19 squad. Recent events have allowed Truex to surge to fourth place in the standings, but, with only a single win to his name, he will own the sixth seed once the playoffs begin. The NASCAR playoff system affords five extra points for each win and one more for every stage triumph. Truex has earned seven such points, which would place him 11 points ahead of the first cutoff. Drivers placed 13th through 16th after the first three playoff races will be eliminated from championship contention.

If anyone knows about the importance of postseason bonus points, it’s Truex. His 2017 Cup Series title, won when he was driving the No. 78 Toyota for the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing, began with a 48-point advantage over the original cutoff thanks to a plethora of wins, stage wins, and the regular-season title. It was the biggest advantage for a regular-season points leader until current point leader Kevin Harvick set himself up with a 54-point lead after his seventh win of the season on Sunday. That tally might only increase depending on how things go at Daytona.

“Obviously, we wish we could have won a few more,” Truex said. “Our bonus point situation isn’t the greatest, and that’s something that we’ve really been working hard on trying to get some more here lately. Just seems like we’re always just right there second or third.”

“Overall it was good. It’s good momentum. It’s good to be consistent. We’ve just got to keep working to find a little bit more.”

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

This unusual season is Truex’s second in a Gibbs Toyota after FRR shut down due to financial woes. While many employees from the No. 78 came over with Truex, his championship crew chief, Cole Pearn, left to pursue other opportunities in auto racing, including a role as a pit road analyst on NASCAR.com. In Pearn’s place went James Small, who served as an engineer on prior Truex endeavors. But, save for a brief two-race stint on Erik Jones’ No. 77 during FRR’s heyday in 2017, Small had never been a crew chief at any of NASCAR’s national levels.

Truex himself admitted prior to the All-Star Race exhibition last month that he “didn’t know we’re where we want to be”, the challenge of a new crew chief only exacerbated by the lack of practice and qualifying in an attempt to trim race weekends down to single-day endeavors. But the past few races have built a strong rapport in the No. 19 garage, one that will be exceptionally dangerous come playoff time.

“He’s doing a great job,” Truex said of Small.  “I think for his first year, he’s doing good and making good decisions.  I think the biggest thing is leading the team, and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.  It’s not just how fast is our car going and how are our finishes and how many races have we won and all that.  There’s a lot behind the scenes going on there.”

“All the guys really have a lot of respect for him, all the team guys, and the guys working on the cars and mechanics and everything,” Truex continued. “He gets along well with all the other crew chiefs. So all those little things.  He really fits in well, I think, and does a good job. Again, he’s really similar to Cole, I think, and obviously learned a lot from him and has been around him a long time. I think he’s done a really fine job, and I think for us, the communication is going well and we’re on the same page.”

Even if Truex hasn’t left the impact he has desired to leave in the winner’s circle, he’s going on to leave a huge impact off the asphalt.

Prior to Sunday’s race, Truex’s self-named foundation announced a partnership with The NASCAR Foundation that will raise money for cancer research. Fans will have the opportunity to bid for a spot to nominate a “cancer hero” to appear on a car across NASCAR’s three national series. Suggested nominees have been described in a release as “a childhood or ovarian cancer champion or a medical provider who made a difference during a cancer patients’ battle”. Over 40 drivers have agreed to partake in the endeavor, with bidding running through September 1.

The charitable endeavor hits close to home for Truex. His girlfriend Sherry was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer in 2014. The two have been together since 2005 and formed the foundation two years later, during his days driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“I’m really proud of it and I’m really proud of the idea that the girls came up with it at our foundation,” he said. “It’s been a tough year for us fundraising, and with COVID and all that’s gone on, our big fundraiser of the year had to get canceled. It’s been a bit of a challenge to try to raise money to continue helping all the great people that we’ve been able to have partnerships with and things.”

“I’m really excited about this thanks to NASCAR for teaming up with us and allowing us to do this, and obviously all the teams that have so far agreed to do this…just really proud to be able to do this and continue to help raise money for women and children battling cancer.”

Further information on the Nominate a Cancer Hero Program can be found here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick denies Jimmie Johnson playoff berth in historic win

Kevin Harvick wasn’t letting NASCAR nostalgics get in the way of his seventh win of the season, which made history for his manufacturer.

Kevin Harvick wasn’t going to get the feel-good potential of a Jimmie Johnson victory lap get in the way of his own personal history in the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ doubleheader in Delaware.

Just over 24 hours after Denny Hamlin tied him in the first segment, Harvick won his series-best seventh race of the season at the Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway. Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford passed Johnson with 17 laps remaining, denying Johnson a chance to clinch a berth in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The final race of the regular season comes next weekend at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.

With the win, Harvick clinches the Cup Series’ regular-season championship, which affords him 15 bonus points. Between his seven wins and stage victories each (including two more at Dover on Sunday), Harvick has a 57-point advantage over the first cutoff line, which eliminates the 13th through 16th-place drivers after the first three races.

“It’s something that we’ve never done before, so any time you can do something for the first time is definitely fun to accomplish, and I think in this instance, it definitely pays dividends in the playoff points,” Harvick said of the regular-season title. “That’s really what you want to accomplish in the regular season is to gain as many playoff points as you can. We’ve done that by winning races.”

Harvick also moves into a ninth-place tie with fellow former champion Kyle Busch on the Cup Series’ all-time wins list with 56. Next up on the list is the late, legendary Dale Earnhardt. Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, began his Cup career by taking over for Earnhardt after the latter’s death in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s also the 700th victory for manufacturer Ford, second-most in series history behind Chevrolet.

“It’s an honor just to be up there on that list,” Harvick said. “I feel like it’s definitely a huge responsibility to be up there and be around those guys. Hopefully, we can keep this thing rolling and make up some ground on the next gap. But it’s been a lot of fun at Stewart-Haas Racing, and you’re only as good as the race cars that you have, and it’s been an honor to drive the race cars and be able to take those race cars and have success with them and capitalize on winning like we did today.”

Harvick began his conquest by stealing the first 75-lap stage from Ryan Blaney on the final stanza. From that point forward, Harvick went on to dominate the event, leading all but 19 of the remaining 236 circuits.

The biggest threat to his authority came with just over 20 laps to go, when his massive lead was erased by a caution flag brought out by the slow car of Corey LaJoie. All 16 lead lap cars came to pit road for service, including Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson, the seven-time champion retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season, was running a strong race in fighting for playoff position. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team had a three-point advantage on teammate William Byron entering the second half at Dover, but a speeding penalty on pit road after the first stage allowed the No. 24 to retake the spot. Johnson worked his way back toward the front after Byron earned points by finishing ahead of Johnson in each of the first two stages.

But on these final stops, Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels opted to take only two tires, leading to a quicker stop. The move allowed the No. 48 to take the lead for the final 17-lap dash. A win for Johnson would’ve clinched his spot in the playoffs.

He’s one of the few drivers ahead of Harvick with 83, but the No. 4’s pass extended the longest drought of his career to 118. Dover had played host to 11 of those prior victories.

I knew he was at a huge deficit,” Harvick said of Johnson’s two-tire endeavor. “I think as you saw the restart there, he had a little bit of trouble getting grip, and my main goal was to just try to be beside him as we got off of turn two and he pushed up the racetrack.”

“I felt like we were still in a really good position, and obviously Jimmie has had a lot of success here, I feel like, over the last several years. If it weren’t for knocking the dang valve stems out of it, there would have been three or four more opportunities to have won races. It’s been a really good racetrack for us and felt good about the position that we were in at the end.”

Johnson and Daniels’ gutsy decision was not all for naught. Martin Truex Jr. passed him for the runner-up spot but Johnson held off Byron and another teammate, Alex Bowman, to finish third, his best finish since May’s race at Bristol. Byron holds a four-point advantage headed into the Daytona finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, NBC).

Race Notes

  • Truex finished in the runner-up spot in each of the weekend’s  Cup Series events at Dover. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished no worse than third in eight of the past nine races (albeit with no wins).

 

  • The race endured a red flag period that lasted just over 12 minutes to repair a portion of the concrete surface.

 

  • Aric Almirola (7th), Kyle Busch (11th), and Kurt Busch (13th) each clinched playoff spots via points. Clint Bowyer (14th in points) is 57 points over the cutoff.

 

  • Matt DiBenedetto started on the pole after a 20th-place finish on Saturday with the field’s first 20 starting positions determined through an inversion of the prior running order. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford led the first 11 laps but a 17th-place finish leaves him only nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff.

 

  • Bowman’s top-five finish was his first since the series made its return from the coronavirus-induced pause at Darlington Raceway in May.

 

  • Saturday’s winner Denny Hamlin was relegated to a 19th-place finish after being forced to pit from second for a loose wheel at lap 227 of 311.

 

  • The days of Chase Elliott and Joey Gase ended in the opening laps when they got caught up in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spin on the sixth lap. Stenhouse was eventually able to run enough laps to finish 37th.

 

  • Austin Dillon capped off a successful return to the track in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with a top-ten finish (9th). Dillon missed last weekend’s event at Daytona’s road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19 and was replaced by Kaz Grala. The No. 3 led 46 laps on Saturday and finished 15th.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Maglioccheti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin wins first half of Dover doubleheader

Denny Hamlin passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps to go to take the first half over a doubleheader in Delaware.

In what he certainly hopes is a sign of things to come for the looming postseason, Denny Hamlin not only bested his teammates from Joe Gibbs Racing but outliers from Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports as well.

Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota passed the No. 19 of comrade Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps to go in the first half of a doubleheader at Dover International Speedway. Eight laps around the establishment known as “The Monster Mile” later, Hamlin took home his NASCAR Cup Series best sixth victory of the season, winning the first of two races labeled the Drydene 311. The mile-long track is hosting a pair of 311-lap races as NASCAR continues to play out its full season sets across its national series.

With the win, his first in 29 tries at Dover, Hamlin is tied with Kevin Harvick for the most on the premiere Cup circuit this season. Two races remain before the Cup Series playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway on September 6.

I’m thinking about playoff points to be honest with you,” Hamlin said after the race. “Even though everyone would say, ‘We’re a lock, it’s not a lock’, I’ve had such crazy (stuff) happen to me in these Playoffs during the course of my career, I don’t want to take any chances. I just want to lock in all the Playoff points I can possibly get and get to Phoenix and give myself a shot.” 

Though Harvick is set to clinch the regular season title, Hamlin is set to serve as the second seed thanks to his accumulated wins and stage victories.

Hamlin began the day on the front row thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula. The process has eschewed the random draw for a performance-based setup accounting for speed and finishes in the prior race, as well as placement in the standings. He missed out on leading the opening laps thanks to a strong opening from polesitter Chase Elliott, who won the inaugural Cup race on the Daytona road course last weekend.

Unperturbed by a crash on the sixth lap that ended the day of Kurt Busch, Elliott led until a competition caution came out at the 25th circuit. Hamlin beat Elliott off pit road and took his first lead of the day at lap 71, passing Austin Dillon (who opted not to pit at the competition pause).

After leading the next 78, Hamling returned to the lead at lap 161, passing a desperate William Byron hoping for a caution. Hamlin won each of the first two stages of the race, giving him a series-best seven this season.

With lead laps retreating to pit road after the second stage, Truex emerged as the leader at lap 189, only relinquishing it for his final stop of the afternoon at lap 254. Truex held the lead as that cycle ended, but his teammate Hamlin was able to catch up with him and make the fateful pass for the win. It’s his 43rd visit to victory lane since his Cup career began in 2006 and he also matches his win total from all of last season. He’s the first driver to win at least six races in consecutive years since Jimmie Johnson did so four times (2007-10).

Hamlin is perhaps finding his groove at the perfect time with the regular season dwindling down. He has now finished either first or second in five of the last six races. Truex has likewise been a mainstay at the top of the leaderboard, as Saturday marked his sixth straight finish in the top three.

I knew this would be a good day for JGR,” Hamlin said. “My teammates, I think, are the best two drivers at this racetrack. We’ve started to see some light at the end of the tunnel for us. I think Kansas was a good sign, a lot of our cars in the top five there.  We went to Michigan and had three of our cars in the top five. We’ve been trending better and better as an organization for the last month or so. I knew today was going to be a good day for JGR. Obviously the results showed that.”

Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas rounded out the top three with Kyle Busch’s No. 18 in third. Harvick finished fourth while Elliott recovered from early contact with Clint Bowyer to come home fifth.

The second half of the Drydene 311 will be run tomorrow afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN) before the regular season wraps up on Daytona’s traditional oval next weekend.

Race Notes

  • With a seventh-place finish, Jimmie Johnson took over the 16th and final playoff spot from his teammate Byron, whose plan to stay out backfired in the form of a posting in 28th. Johnson, Dover’s all-time leader in wins with 11, leads Byron by three points with two races to go. Winless drivers can clinch a spot in the playoffs with a victory in either of the next two races.

 

  • With the top 20 for Sunday’s field set via inversion of Saturday’s final running order, 20th-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto will start on the pole. DiBenedetto is currently in the playoff field’s 15th seed, leading Byron on 27 points. Ryan Newman (19th) will start alongside him on the front row.

 

  • Forced to retire his No. 1 Chevrolet after just six laps, Kurt Busch failed to finish a race for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

 

  • This weekend marks the final doubleheader on the Cup Series schedule. The lower-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series is also holding a Saturday-Sunday twin bill, with Justin Allgaier winning the former event, clocking in at 200 miles, prior to the Cup race.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson prepares for a fight in his final stretch

Three races remain in Jimmie Johnson’s final NASCAR playoff push. The series heads to one of his favorite haunts for a weekend doubleheader.

There will more than likely be no documentary for Jimmie Johnson’s “last dance” in NASCAR. Social distancing procedures perhaps crush such a concept for the retiring Johnson before it can truly begin.

Cameras and eyes alike, however, will be attached to Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet over the next two weeks. With his final full-time NASCAR Cup Series tour entering its final third, the seven-time champion has three more opportunities to make one last playoff trip. Johnson is currently 25 points out of a postseason spot with three events left before the ten-race playoff begins next month.

One win would a playoff spot. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be an issue for Johnson, whose 83 wins are tied with Cale Yarborough for fifth-most in NASCAR history. But Johnson is currently mired in the longest winless streak of his 18-year career, his last visit to victory lane coming 117 races ago.

The opportunity for a storybook ending has been set this weekend at Dover International Speedway, which hosts the final doubleheader of the Cup Series season this weekend. Not only did Dover host Johnson’s last victory back in June 2017, but Johnson is the winningest driver in the track’s history. The No. 48 has visited the Dover winner’s circle on 11 occasions. His closest competition (Richard Petty and Bobby Allison) has seven victories each.

The first of matching 311-lap races around the mile-long course, each labeled the Drydene 311, comes on Saturday late afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Johnson will start sixth thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula which eschews the random draw for an equation that factors in standings position and performance/speed in the prior event.

“I love the track, obviously. I’m very optimistic about how we’re going to run,” Johnson said of the upcoming doubleheader in Delaware on Friday morning. ” I never wanted to have a winless drought or have a winless season. But I’ve worked through so many of those emotions over the last couple of years and also understand that there are factors that I can’t control that have affected my performance.”

Dover is one of several tracks on the circuit that hosts two Cup Series events (this pair customarily runs for 400 laps/miles). The second race, and often held in the thick of the playoffs, has served as an energizer for Johnson’s championships. Johnson reflected on his successful visits during his Friday availability.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t a championship-preceding win that Johnson looks upon the most fondly. He instead flashed back to his rookie season of 2002.

Johnson had won the first race at the so-called “Monster Mile” in the spring (the second win of his career). He kept the relative consistency going, but a return trip to victory lane proved elusive. That changed at Dover’s MBNA All-American Heroes 400, where a historic push to the top began. Starting 19th, Johnson made it to the lead by lap 204 of 400 and went on to lead a race-high 170 laps. He held off Mark Martin overall a final stretch of 72 green-flag circuits to become the first rookie in series history to win two races at one track during their debut.

One week later, a top ten finish at Kansas allowed Johnson to become the yellow-striper in NASCAR history to lead the Cup Series’ points standings. He eventually finished fifth in the final rankings, but Johnson’s march to greatness had officially begun.

“A pattern that developed after my rookie year in how I grew to count on that fall Dover race to really give our team the shot in the arm by winning and running well,” Johnson explained. “When I look back, I can of smile now and I had no idea the foreshadowing of that year, of that track and what that would mean. So, I kind of look back to that.”

In this final stand, Johnson enters fighting for his playoff life. Last season’s playoffs were the first to not include the No. 48 on the bracket and he’d certainly like a chance to go out on top and earn a record-breaking eighth Cup Series title. Everyone at Hendrick Motorsports is pulling out all the stops to ensure that Johnson can join his teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman in the playoffs. Even his primary sponsor, Ally Bank, opted to ditch their normal, darker shades and give Johnson a brighter paint scheme for the final four races of the regular season. This rebranded, brighter Chevrolet finished fourth in its debut race at Daytona International Speedway’s road course event won by Elliott last weekend.

But in a twist conjured by perhaps the most poetic of racing gods, Johnson’s main competition for the final playoff spot involves friends turned (hopefully only temporary) foes behind the wheel and atop the pit box.

The 16th and final Cup Series playoff seed is currently held by William Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet. It was that vehicle’s most famous occupant, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, that discovered Johnson during the latter’s endeavors on the NASCAR Busch (now Xfinity) Series at the turn of the century. Gordon has even been listed as a part-owner of the No. 48 and the two staged some classic battles on the track. The modern No. 24’s endeavors are overseen by Chad Knaus…Johnson’s former crew chief and partner for 81 of his Cup Series victories and all seven of his championships.

Johnson admitted the process of seeing such familiar, friendly sights, both human and vehicle, as fiery competition, will be “odd” going into the crucial doubleheader.

“It’s odd. It’s unfortunate, as well. But it’s the situation that we’re in. With Chad on the box there, you just think of the layers of how it’s odd and we’re all fighting for that last spot in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “William is a great student. He’s really increased his game at Dover, so I don’t think it’s going to be easy to get points on him or especially a lot of points on him. For all of us out there, Dover is a track where you can get caught up in stuff and have a lot of cars affected.”

“The one caveat to that is the driver I’m focused on has Chad Knaus on the box, and he’s a student, friend, somebody I’ve mentored and kind of taught how to drive good there and be competitive there. So, it is a very unique situation to be in and I wish it wasn’t a Hendrick teammate that I was fighting for that last spot with.”

The regular season finale will take place at Daytona’s more traditional oval next weekend. Johnson’s Daytona finishes have been relatively decent, but the track can be a wild source of unpredictability as a place for drivers outside of the top 16 in points to swipe away postseason capital. It makes the final waltzes at Dover all the more crucial.

A victory and playoff berth would certainly provide some levity to Johnson’s final year, which has been defined by the unpredictable. Johnson was fifth in the standings after the fourth race of the season in Phoenix. The sport’s return from the coronavirus induced pause has been one of bad luck for Johnson, who was once described by competitor Kevin Harvick as “(having) a golden horseshoe stuck up (his rear end)” after a comeback victory at Fontana in 2010 (the first of six victories en route to his fifth title in a row).

Johnson was set to win the opening stage in the first race back at Darlington but crashed on the penultimate lap of the frame. A runner-up finish at the famous Coca-Cola 600 two races later was wiped out by failed inspection. Incidents beyond his control, like an unintentional bump from Harvick as the two fought for a win at Talladega, have ruined otherwise strong showings. All of these calamities failed to take into account the fact that Johnson missed last month’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at Indianapolis after he became the first driver to test positive for coronavirus. The calamities, which have cost Johnson a chance to bid farewell to the fans at NASCAR’s national venues, having done nothing to convince Johnson to stay for one more year, though he does plan new racing endeavors in sports cars and the IndyCar circuit (and possibly select NASCAR races).

Johnson, however, isn’t looking toward the future, at least not immediately. The past is in the past, whether it’s the positives of the championships or the more recent negatives, like the positive COVID-19 test that cost him an unknown number of points at Indianapolis. Johnson isn’t pinning a potential playoff miss on the protocols, saying that the “bed has been made”. He’s not even sure if he’ll ever really know if his test was a false positive.

But whatever opportunities NASCAR has left, Johnson is ready to embrace them head-on, providing a rare, reliable custom in this season full of surprises.

“With time running out, I feel like something that does help me is that this isn’t a hard stop for me in motorsports and I know there are wins still out there for me,” He said. “That’s just the glass is half full point of view that I have and I guess maybe the way I manage some of the disappointment over the last few years, but I need to make the most out of each opportunity that I have ahead of myself.

“I will certainly do that.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags