NASCAR: Martin Truex dominates NASCAR’s throwback visit to Darlington

Martin Truex Jr. won his third race of the NASCAR Cup Series season by leading 248 of 293 laps at the Goodyear 400.

For his throwback endeavor at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. drove a black car inspired by his championship triumphs throughout NASCAR’s national series. He fully lived up to the billing in the actual event.

Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led 248 of 293 laps in NASCAR’s annual celebration of turning back the clock, pacing a series of retro paint schemes to earn his third victory of the season at the Goodyear 400. Kyle Larson finished second, followed by Kyle Busch, William Byron, and Denny Hamlin.

Sunday’s win was the 30th of Truex’s career and his third this Cup Series season through a dozen events, having also won at Phoenix and Martinsville. He is currently the only driver in the Cup Series with multiple visits to victory lane with 24 races remaining on the docket. Each of his 2021 victories has come under a 750-horsepower, low-downforce race setup package. The package will bookend the ten-race NASCAR Cup Series postseason slate this fall, returning to Darlington in September and ending back in Phoenix two months later.

“Love low downforce, so I’m gonna say, I love it,” Truex said with a smile after the race. “I feel like, especially this year, with all three races that we won in with this package, the guys and girls at JGR doing a great job…it really was just a fun day, a big challenge, and I just got to give it out to my guys for giving me a great car and doing all the real things right.”

Truex started fourth on Sunday and first took the lead at lap 22 from his teammate Busch and proceeded to lead all but 23 laps afterward. To commemorate NASCAR’s annual “throwback” race, Truex drove a matte black Camry, a nod to his championship season driving a similarly colored Toyota for now-defunct Furniture Row Racing in 2017.

“I think it definitely had some good old Furniture Row, flat black mojo in it,” Truex said. “It was really fun, (but) I don’t know if it’s a statement (win). In this sport, you get judged week-to-week. If we go and run 10th next weekend, they’re gonna say okay, you know, the 19 is down, they’re not that good anymore. We just tried to try to take it week-to-week and have fun.”

“Our guys are doing a great job right now and when your cars are fast, things are clicking, and you know you’re having fun this is the coolest job in the world. When when you’re struggling, it’s probably the most difficult, because all the fingers get pointed at us. We’re going to enjoy it and just keep working hard.”

Truex held a healthy lead for almost all of the race’s latter stages, opening up a lead as wide as 14 seconds while winning the first two stages. Late in the race, Kyle Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet got to Truex’s bumper after the final cycle of green flag pit stops with circa 40 laps to go. Truex withstood the late challenge and rebuilt his lead to 2.5 seconds when the checkered flag waved. Joe Gibbs Racing has now earned wins in consecutive events, with Busch winning at Kansas last weekend. Hamlin is winless but continues to lead the points standings, while Christopher Bell is likewise on the playoff grid through a win at the Daytona road course. Bell was running in the top five before a lost tire relegated him to 14th.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action at Dover International Speedway for the Drydene 400 next Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Byron’s fourth-place finish gives him top ten finishes in ten consecutive races.

 

  • The early portions of the race, particularly the openings of the first two stages, were marred by wrecks that took out some notable names early. Aric Almirola lasted only five laps before his day ended, while Kurt Busch and Cole Custer were each eliminated in separate incidents at the start of stage two.

 

  • Erik Jones (18th) saw his streak of consecutive top ten finishes at Darlington end at six, done in by a late unscheduled pit stop that put him off the lead lap.

For full standings, click here

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Busch earns a birthday sweep at Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

How William Byron and Co. became NASCAR’s hottest team

No team in the NASCAR Cup Series has been on a longer roll than Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet group.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ official throwback festivities commence next weekend at Darlington Raceway. Thanks to the efforts of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team, fans and observers have been getting a steady dose of nostalgics when they look at the leaderboard.

No vehicle on the premier Cup Series circuit has been hotter than the Camaro piloted by William Byron, who has earned top ten finishes in each of the last eight races, a streak that began with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February. That win allowed him to become the first driver to drive Rick Hendrick’s No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane since Jeff Gordon’s 93rd and final Cup Series win at Martinsville in 2015.

The streak has allowed Byron to create an average finish of 10.3, second-best amongst full-time drivers behind Denny Hamlin, the only other driver with eight top tens over the first ten races.

The scariest part? Byron feels that the No. 24 squad has emerged from one of the harder portions of the Cup Series schedule. The series resumes action on Sunday at Kansas Speedway for the Buschy McBusch Race 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1). He has finished in the top ten in each of the last three visits to the Sunflower State, including an eighth-place posting in the most recent endeavor last October. His Chevrolet will start in the front row next to Brad Keselowski.

“I think for us, we’re going into some of these tracks that are some of our best tracks,” Byron said in a Wednesday conference call. “I feel really confident that Kansas is a place we can go there and try to win. I think we’ve gotten through a couple of obstacles with the Bristol dirt race. That was definitely one that we thought we were going to really struggle, (as well as) Talladega and Richmond.”

Overcoming obstacles has been a common theme of Byron’s season. Despite relatively little dirt experience he finished sixth at Bristol and overcame a spin at Talladega last weekend to finish in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski’s Ford. In between, Byron scored his best finish at Richmond, a site where he’s often struggled to stay on the lead lap.

These conquests have allowed Byron to develop confidence, which he credits for setting the pace for what’s been his most lucrative season to date. This campaign is Byron’s fourth in the Cup Series, his best standings finish being 11th in 2019. He entered the circuit with a fair amount of hype after taking home the 2017 Xfinity Series title as a 20-year-old driving a Chevrolet owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“For two years, I really felt out of the box,” Byron said of his first two Cup seasons. “I felt uncomfortable I guess, in a way. I kind of felt like in order to produce the results and be up front, I had to really drive kind of over your head in a way.”

Even with the newly built confidence, not every race is going to end in victory lane, but Byron said the perfect source was finding wins that didn’t exactly show up on the scoring pylons.

“In NASCAR, I think performance is that needle-mover for confidence,” Byron said. “The biggest thing I heard coming from Legend Cars is oh man, you’re not going to win as much. So, how do you find confidence in other ways? Well, I think it comes from working with your crew chief and figuring out how to make the car faster. There are small victories in finishing top ten at Richmond, which has been a track where I usually get lapped. There are small wins along the way that help build that confidence.”

“(Today,) I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I don’t look at any of the people I race against as any different…I raced for Kyle Busch, so that was nerve-wracking to race against him every week. And those things were there and those elements of feeling like I was out of place were there. Once you get past that feeling, which, you have to have those results to have that feeling go away, so it comes hand-in-hand with results.”

Byron’s confidence is healthily subsidized by his chemistry with a relatively new crew chief in Rudy Fugle. The pair previously collaborated during the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, winning seven races in a truck owned the aforementioned Busch. He also credited last season’s crew chief-turned-vice president of competition Chad Knaus (a seven-time champion pit boss with Jimmie Johnson) for his work as well as the hard-working men and women in the HMS shop.

The No. 24’s return to glory is perhaps one the NASCAR world should’ve seen coming. Byron worked his way into the NASCAR playoffs with a win in the regular season finale at Daytona. Though he failed to advance past the first round of the postseason, momentum and confidence were developed with four top ten finishes over the last six races.

True to form, Byron said there was no singular, lightswitch-flipping moment. He instead credited teammates for assistance in a path forward, including those beyond the No. 24 garage stall. Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott has been a particularly strong mentor, a relationship that includes providing a lofty benchmark to live up to.

“I think there’s not really a specific turning point. I think we’ve really relied heavily on our teammates,” Byron said. “Chase has run really well over the past six or seven months and winning the championship and all that. We’ve relied heavily on some of their set-ups and some of the things that Chase says; trying to get my driving style a little bit closer to what the set-up needs and the car needs. It’s a little bit of everything.”

“We’ve got to try to match that standard or try to improve upon it. We have a lot of respect for (Elliott’s No. 9 team) and their effort and the way that they execute races, the way that Chase drives, and all those things. So, we try to work on that and make it our own.”

Byron’s next win could prove historic: Hendrick Motorsports is currently two wins away from tying Petty Enterprises for the most Cup Series victories by one team, a tally aided by 2021 wins from Byron and teammates Kyle Larson (Las Vegas) and Alex Bowman (Richmond).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals wild Talladega finish in overtime

Brad Keselowski took home a wild overtime finish in the NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega Superspeedway, his sixth win at the track.

Working overtime on Sunday paid off for Brad Keselowski.

The No. 2 Team Penske Ford stole a wild finish at Talladega Superspeedway’s GEICO 500, passing Matt DiBenedetto on the final lap to earn his 35th victory in the NASCAR Cup Series. Sunday’s race was extended for a two-lap overtime shootout after debris from Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota brought out a yellow flag. William Byron beat out Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell for the runner-up spot, while Kevin Harvick and DiBenedetto rounded out the top five.

Keselowski has now earned at least one win in 11 consecutive Cup Series seasons, one of only 16 drivers to hit that mark at the premier level. He also has six wins at Talladega, leading all active drivers and tied for second-most all-time with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. Jr. The all-time record is held by Dale Earnhardt Sr. with 10.

“I grew up loving the sport, still love the sport. We fight like husband and wife, but I still love the sport…It’s a hard sport. Any success you have means the world. To have my name on any list…that’s a pretty big deal,” Keselowski said after the win. “Dale’s record is so far out there. Yeah, I have a shot at it, but it’s a distant shot. You have to get to seven before you even think about ten. But it’s still cool to be on the same list as him.”

Sunday offered a bit of redemption for Keselowski after a heartbreak end to the season-opening Daytona 500, another prestigious superspeedway event. Late contact with teammate Joey Logano led to a race-ending wreck that allowed McDowell to sneak away with a victory.

The path to the final lap, the only lap Keselowski led on Sunday, was paved with typical fireworks usually associated with Talladega. Drivers were able to avoid creating “The Big One”, but the end of the first stage was marred by a big wreck that ended with Logano’s No. 22 Ford getting airborne while fighting for the lead. Logano was unharmed but called for changes to the racing package after landing on his roof. He compared the devastating airborne crash Ryan Newman suffered at the end of last season’s opener at Daytona. 

“I’m wondering when we’re going to stop because this is dangerous doing what we’re doing,” Logano said after the wreck. “I got a roll bar in my head. That’s not okay. I’m one hit away from the same situation Ryan Newman just went through. I just don’t feel like that is acceptable. A lot of it is the big spoiler and the big runs and all the pushing. It’s nobody’s fault…It’s a product of this racing. We have to fix it though.”

DiBenedetto ended up winning the first 60-lap stage and remained at or near the front with Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford took the lead from Erik Jones on lap 177 of 188 on a restart after Quin Houff hit the wall and brought out a caution. He held the lead with assistance from Ford teammates Keselowski and Blaney (whose Penske team also works with WBR through a technical alliance) but the field was pushed back together when Truex lost a tire, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.

The No. 21 led the penultimate lap, but Keselowski got a strong push from the Ford of McDowell to earn the win. As the field wrecked behind them, Keselowski took home his first win of the season, becoming the ninth victorious driver in ten races.

“I saw he was getting a run and I just prayed I got to the start/finish line before it was too late,” Keselowski said of McDowell’s final push in the end. “Matt went to block (Blaney) and I just barely got inside of him with a huge run.  I got a great push from Michael McDowell, which was really helpful and appreciated, so just a big day.”

As for DiBenedetto, he’s left with yet another moral victory. Having developed himself as a fan favorite after picking up respectable finishes in subpar equipment, DiBenedetto is still searching for his first Cup Series win after 222 career starts. He’s in a lame-duck situation in the No. 21, which is set to welcome in Penske’s defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric next season.

But DiBenedetto is instead opting to focus on the positives gleaned from Sunday’s events. After a brutal start to the season (sitting 34th in the standings after the third event of the season at Homestead-Miami), the No. 21 Ford has earned seven straight top 20 finishes and has failed to complete only one lap. He’s currently the first driver out of the current playoff bracket, 12 points behind current co-holders Chris Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. DiBenedetto’s stage win was his first in a points race, previously winning the last one in last summer’s All-Star Open to go to the main exhibition event.

“It was a solid day. We’ll take a top five and had a stage win, so that’s great,” he said. The car was really fast. All the Fords were super good. That was awesome. Our car led great. Ryan really pushed. Our Penske teammates did an excellent job helping us get that stage win, so that was huge. Big credit to them and big for our points situation, so just tough ending.  I jumped up in front of Ryan and he kind of got spit out and hung out and some people were grabbing his quarter panel and such.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway for the Buschy McBusch Race 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has earned top ten finishes in each of the last eight events.

 

  • Bubba Wallace earned a win in the second 60-lap stage, his first career stage win in a points race (previously winning one in the 2019 All-Star Open). Wallace brought home the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota home 19th, and is 33 points away from a playoff spot.

 

  • Stage two likewise ended in chaos, as Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott sustained heavy damage. Byron was likewise involved by recovered to finish in second.

 

  • Kaz Grala, making his third Cup Series start, finished sixth. Grala, driving the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, has earned two top ten finishes in his first three starts. It was a victorious weekend for Kaulig Racing, which owns two top ten finishes in three Cup starts this season (the other earned by AJ Allmendinger at the Daytona road course). Kaulig’s No. 10 Chevrolet won the rain-shortened Xfinity race on Sunday, as Jeb Burton earned his first career win on the circuit. Burton is the son of 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward.

 

  • Jeb’s cousin Harrison, son of former driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff, made his first Cup Series start, finishing 20th in the No. 96 Gaunt Bros. Racing Toyota. Harrison currently drives the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs on the Xfinity level, winning four races last season.

 

  • Kyle Larson completed only three laps in Sunday’s event, released to a last-place finish due to engine woes.

 

  • Rookies Chase Briscoe (11th) and Anthony Alfredo (12th) earned their best career finishes

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman steals Richmond triumph, ends Hendrick drought

In a NASCAR race dominated by Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, Bowman took the lead from Denny Hamlin with 10 to go to earn a win for the No. 48 team.

A new driver may pilot the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but its propensity for dramatic victories apparently remains.

Alex Bowman, driving the vehicle Jimmie Johnson took to seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, earned his first win in the iconic machine, passing Denny Hamlin with 10 laps to go to win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Bowman began a final 12-lap stretch in third place before getting by Hamlin and Joey Logano to earn the victory, his first since taking over for Johnson. It was HMS’ first triumph at Richmond since Johnson won in September 2008.

Hamlin, who led a race-high 207 of 400 laps, finished second ahead of Logano, while Hamlin’s fellow JGR drivers Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five.

“It means a lot to get Ally a win, get the 48 back where it belongs,” Bowman said. “It’s been a rough start to the year, but Ally has been super committed…so cool to get them a win. It means the world to me. I’m appreciative for them to have faith in me.”

Bowman, 27, earned his third career Cup Series win, all coming at HMS. He burst onto the scene in 2016, taking over for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr in the No. 88. He earned full-time honors when Earnhardt retired after the 2017 season and was called upon to succeed Johnson in the No. 48 when “Seven-Time” moved on. Ironically, Bowman’s victory came on the same weekend that Johnson made his IndyCar debut, finishing 19th in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Despite dominance from the Gibbs Toyotas of Hamlin and Truex…combining to lead 308 of 400 laps…Bowman’s car lingered in the top ten for most of the day. Logano took over after Truex’s No. 19 for speeding at lap 294. As Hamlin and Logano waged war for the lead, Bowman’s opportunity came when Kevin Harvick lost his right-side tires and wrecked with 18 to go. The No. 48 emerged third after the lead lap cars came to pit road.

Bowman was able to beat Hamlin into the corner and take the lead with 10 laps to go in the dozen-lap shootout. The driver was shocked he was able to open and keep such a large lead; he mentioned that the No. 48 was not a good short-run car prior to that last stretch.

“When we drove away I was like, oh my gosh, what’s happening!” Bowman said with a smile. “I was super loose on the last couple of laps and did my best to get it back…we did a lot to improve the racecar and have it take off.”

Either way, Bowman became the eighth different winner in nine races this season. Two of Bowman’s Hendrick teammates…William Byron and Kyle Larson…are also among the winners, while Chase Elliott is the defending Cup Series champion.

The Richmond endeavor turned out to be another tough break for Hamlin, who has now earned top fives in all but one of the first nine races…though none have ended in victory lane. He continues to lead the NASCAR Cup Series points standings with a sizable 81-point lead of Truex, the only repeat winner so far this season.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Hamlin said of his 2021 season. “You’re upset in the moment. You feel you should capitalize when you have great cars…but we’re running very strong. It’s mixed emotions.”

The unpredictability of the 2021 season will likely be raised even further next weekend, when the NASCAR Cup Series descends upon Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Aric Almirola (6th) and Matt DiBenedetto (9th) earned their first top-ten finishes of the season.

 

  • Justin Haley was the only driver who failed to finish the race, completing only one lap due to engine issues.

 

  • Defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric made his first career Cup start on a short track, his third overall. He finished 28th.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Two drivers to make historic Cup Series debuts at Talladega

Harrison Burton and Jennifer Jo Cobb will make their NASCAR Cup Series debut on April 25 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Harrison Burton and Jennifer Jo Cobb will make their NASCAR Cup Series debuts at the GEICO 500 on April 25 at Talladega Superspeedway, their respective teams announced this week. Each brings their own unique brand of history into the Cup Series, which will first run at Richmond Raceway this coming Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Burton will pilot the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Bros. Racing. The 20-year-old currently races full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in the No. 20 Toyota, previously piloted by current Cup regulars Erik Jones (2015-17) and Christopher Bell (2018-19). Burton burst onto the Xfinity Series scene last season with top ten finishes in each of his first ten races, a stretch that included wins at Fontana and Homestead. Though he failed to reach the Xfinity Series’ championship quartet at the end of the year, he would earn triumphs in the penultimate races of the season at Texas and Martinsville. Prior to his arrival at Gibbs, Burton won the 2017 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East regional stock car championship.

The No. 20 currently ranks third in the modern Xfinity Series standings. Burton has tallied five top ten finishes over the first seven races.

With his entry, Burton will become the fourth member of his family to partake in a Cup Series event. His father Jeff, now a NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports, won 21 Cup events in a career spent mostly with owners Jack Roush and Richard Childress. That tally includes two victories in the Coca-Cola 600. Harrison’s uncle and Jeff’s brother Ward won the 2002 Daytona 500 and has since gained viral attention for his sporting and conservation efforts. Ward’s son Jeb currently races alongside cousin Harrison in the Xfinity Series, driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. Harrison will also become the first driver born in the 21st century to partake in a Cup Series event upon his entry.

Gaunt Bros. Racing entered the Cup Series last season with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel. The team reverted to a part-time schedule this year, as team ran the Daytona road course and the Bristol dirt race with Ty Dillon behind the wheel. DEX Imaging, Burton’s primary sponsor in the Xfinity Series, will grace the No. 96 for the Talladega event.

Meanwhile, Cobb will make her NASCAR Cup Series debut in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. Though Cobb has run in subpar equipment throughout her career, she has been a staple in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since 2011, fielding her own vehicles through her team, Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing. Her best career finish was a sixth-place posting at the season opening race at Daytona in 2011, with her best placement in the standings being 16th in 2014.

Cobb is perhaps best known on the Truck Series for her refusal to partake in the “start-and-park” phenomena that was prevalent in the last decade, refusing to drive an Xfinity (then Nationwide) car for 2nd Chance Motorsports when owner Rick Russell ordered to bring the car to the garage area shortly after the start to collect prize money for a list place finish.

She will be the 21st female driver to partake in Cup Series racing and the first since Danica Patrick in the 2018 Daytona 500. Her 216 starts in the Truck Series are the most among female drivers in NASCAR’s three national series. Cobb has had some recent success at Talladega, as her No. 10 Chevrolet Silverado led a career-best 16 laps at the Truck Series’ visit to the track last October. The Truck Series will run its own event, the ToyotaCare 250, at Richmond on Saturday (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Cobb’s No. 10 will start 33rd.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. survives Martinsville for second win in 2021

Truex survived several caution flags and a battle with a teammate to become the NASCAR Cup Series’ first two-time winner in 2021.

New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. became the first two-time winner on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday, taking home the Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The race began on Saturday night, but all but 43 laps were pushed to Sunday due to inclement weather.

Truex survived a seemingly endless barrage of caution flags to earn the victory, which featured a final pass of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin with 15 laps to go to secure the win. The No. 19 Toyota previously won at Phoenix and has earned a win at Martinsville in each of the past three seasons.

Defending series and Martinsville champion Chase Elliott finished second ahead of Hamlin, who led a race-best 274 laps. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.

Truex’s No. 19 was a rare clean vehicle in a race that featured 15 caution flags, all but five coming after the midway mark at lap 250. The most carnage occurred on lap 387 when a get-together between Kyle Busch and Chris Buescher blocked the entry into turn two caused major damage and ended the days of Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Brad Keselowski, and Michael McDowell. An ensuing red flag paused the race for just over 20 minutes.

The constant restarts allowed Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota, a strong short-run vehicle, to jump out to the lead on restarts, a gambit that allowed him to lead a race-best 276 laps. Truex gained the lead after the final caution of the day (Chase Briscoe’s spin in turn three) led to pit stops, but Hamlin quickly assumed it back.

But as the final 42 laps went green, Truex eventually realized that his car would be able to outperform the tightening No. 11. He eventually made the victorious pass with 16 laps to go and earned the win by a 1.9-second margin.

It was part of a strong day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which placed all four of its Cup vehicles in the top ten. Christopher Bell, another 2020 winner at the Daytona road course, finished seventh and led nine laps while Busch recovered to place tenth. In the Xfinity Series conclusion that ran before the Cup event, Gibbs had four cars in the top seven.

Truex’s victory continues a dominant stretch on short tracks. He has now won five of the last eleven events at short tracks (less than a mile long) and is one of two active drivers with at least three wins at Martinsville (the other being his teammate Hamlin with five). The win was also the 29th of Truex’s Cup Series career, breaking a tie with Carl Edwards and Hall of Famer Rex White.

NASCAR will return to Martinsville in October, as its fall event will serve as the penultimate race of the season.

A prime opportunity awaits for Truex to continue his short-track dominance. The series descends upon Richmond Raceway next Sunday for the Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Truex’s No. 19 team swept the pair of Richmond events during the 2019 season.

Race Notes

  • Ryan Blaney won the first stages, lasting 130 laps each. Blaney was in contention all day and led 157 laps, but a pit road miscue during the final stops relegated him to the rear of the field. The No. 12 Team Penske Ford recovered to finish 11th.

 

  • Pit strategy allowed Bubba Wallace to lead a career-best 23 laps. His No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota hovered around the top ten for a good portion of the latter stages, but late contract relegated him to a 16th-place finish.

 

  • Suarez, relegated to a 32nd-place finish after the wreck, endured a brutal weekend. The No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet was relegated to the rear of the field and lost crew chief Travis Mack after an illegal ballast issue was discovered during prerace inspection on Saturday.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three pleasant surprise teams at the Easter break

In a year of dramatic parity, these three NASCAR teams have provided some solid surprise early showings through seven races.

There will be no Easter egg roll on asphalt on dirt for NASCAR’s national series, as the Cup, Xfinity, and Truck units have gone a brief hiatus. The premier Cup Series will return to action next Saturday night at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

With seven of 36 events down at the Cup level, parity has been the name of the game. We’ve seen seven different drivers win the first seven races. While some of the trophy-hoisters have been expected (Martin Truex Jr./Joey Logano), we’ve seen first-time winners (Michael McDowell/Christopher Bell), long droughts end (Kyle Larson/Ryan Blaney), and a young veteran start to build his tally up (William Byron).

This trio of teams has been particularly surprising, as we give them their due on a quiet weekend at the track…

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 08: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 08, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

JTG Daugherty

Many eyes have turned to the NASCAR endeavors of a certain University of North Carolina alum turned NBA All-Star. The subject, of course, is Brad Daugherty and his shared team with Jodi and Tad Geschickter. There’s obviously plenty of time for Michael Jordan’s squad, 23XI Racing, to find their groove. In the meantime, it’s hard not to appreciate what Daugherty’s team has done in this young season.

One of the more interesting stories of the 2021 season is perhaps that of Ryan Preece. His No. 37 Chevrolet doesn’t have a charter, but he has managed to keep it competitive in the early going. Preece was one of four drivers (Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell the others) to finish in the top ten in each of the first two races. He’s also one of 11 drivers who have run at the finish of each of the seven events run so far.

Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came to the team’s No. 47 after a disappointing tenure at Roush Fenway Racing. He has earned top 20 finishes in all seven races to date, capping it off with a runner-up posting at Bristol. The team currently holds one of the 16 playoff spots, a fantasyland that JTG Daugherty has not seen since its lone appearance in 2014 (A.J. Allmendinger). Stenhouse will undoubtedly be capable of winning at Talladega later this month. He won the 2017 spring event and drove the No. 47 to a narrow runner-up finish there last season.

Adding to their consistency, both Preece and Stenhouse have done a great job keeping their cars clean this season. The two have failed to complete only a combined six of a possible 3,388 laps.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300 at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Kaulig Racing

Anyone who has kept an eye on the NASCAR Xfinity Series would know that Kaulig Racing was on the rise through its victorious triumvirate. Such consistency has continued on the developmental level (Allmendinger won the Las Vegas race while he, Justin Haley, and Jeb Burton have united for 13 top tens). But their Cup program took some steps forward in the early showings as they inch closer to full-time status. Things got started when Kaz Grala raced his way into the Daytona 500’s main event (even leading 10 laps) before Allmendinger earned a top ten run at the ensuing road course event.

“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road,” Grala said following his success at the Bluegreen Vacation Duels. “This is the first small step towards a big picture. I know (racing at Daytona) a victory for everybody at the team.”

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 29: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Camping World Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 29, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Trackhouse Racing

It was fair to keep expectations low for Trackhouse Racing. Even with strong backing from recording artist and philanthropist Pitbull, new teams have often struggled to gain their footing in modern NASCAR. Behind the wheel was Daniel Suarez, who struggled mightily, even by low-budget standards, in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 last season.

But Suarez has enjoyed a slight resurgence in the seat of the team’s No. 99 Chevrolet. Signs of progress were apparent even before his top five run at the Bristol dirt event. The team probably would’ve earned a top ten finish at Atlanta if not for Suarez’s speeding penalty on pit road. He earned top 20 runs in the next two races after getting caught up in the early “Big One” in Trackhouse’s Daytona debut. The No. 99 currently sits in 20th in the standings, best amongst new teams and 28 points out of a playoff spot.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR: Joey Logano wins historic dirt race at Bristol

Joey Logano held off off a final push from Denny Hamlin to win the NASCAR Cup Series first race on dirt in over five decades.

Joey Logano came out clean at the end of the first NASCAR Cup Series run on dirt in 51 years.

The No. 22 Team Penske Ford led the final 61 laps en route to victory at the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished second, while Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.

Bristol’s dirt endeavor, the first NASCAR Cup Series event held on dirt since 1970, was pushed back from Sunday to Monday after inclement weather flooded the parking lot and rendered the track inoperable. Thanks to a strong effort from the BMS crew, both the Cup and Camping World Truck Series were able to run their full events without issues.

Unlike several of his Cup peers, Logano did not run the Trucks race, instead calling the race for Fox Sports 1. Despite limited dirt experience, he was able to stay toward the front for a good portion of the day after starting 10th. He took care of business after the first 100-lap stage through a sixth-place finish while the Truck race winner Martin Truex Jr. dominated.

Logano first took the lead at lap 170 of 250, passing the upstart Suarez in the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet. He would go on to beat out Suarez for the stage two win before a ten-minute break commenced. By then, the middle stage of the race had thrown a new obstacle for the drivers: the return of single-file restarts, which hadn’t been seen on the Cup circuit since 2009. Early runs in the second stage were quickly stopped by multi-car get-togethers that damaged the cars of several contenders, including Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney.

With the track moistened for the final 50-lap stage, Logano held the lead despite a strong push from Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Mike Marlar’s spin just five laps from the checkered flag set up a two-lap overtime finish, but Logano was able to keep Hamlin and a charging Stenhouse behind him. Stenhouse had worked his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet up from eighth over the final 30 laps to secure his fifth career runner-up finish at Bristol.

Logano is the seventh different winner in seven different events to open the 2021 season, the first time the Cup Series has had seven unique winners to start since 2014. The series will go on hiatus during Easter weekend before returning for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Dirt track veterans and Cup regulars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell saw their days end on a wreck at lap 53, an incident that also took out Ross Chastain.

 

  • Truex dominated the Truck event earlier in the day, leading 105 of 150 laps and sweeping each stage in a Toyota Tundra owned by Kyle Busch. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was running in the top five at the end of the race, but lost a tire late and was relegated to 19th.

 

  • Another early incident involved Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Almirola failed to finish for the third time this season, matching his DNF total from all of last year. That wreck also ended the days of Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and Shane Golobic (a dirt veteran driving B.J. McLeod’s No. 78).

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s top ten run was ended after contact with Stenhouse created a tire rub that sent him spinning with 34 laps to go. Forced to pit road and unaided by a caution and finished 27th.

 

  • Suarez set a new career-high with 58 laps and earned his first top-five finish since November 2019 (Texas). Monday marked the seventh race for Trackhouse, which is led by owner, recording artist, and philanthropist Pitbull.

 

  • Newman survived an early spin (one that forced Kevin Harvick into rookie teammate Briscoe) to earn his first top five since October 2019 (Talladega).

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags