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

NASCAR, Tyler Reddick

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

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

Tyler Reddick

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

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

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

John Hunter Nemechek

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

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

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

NASCAR drivers speak out about national protests

Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Suarez, and Ty Dillon were among the NASCAR names to speak about the country’s continued anti-racism protests.

NASCAR drivers have begun to speak in support of the nationwide protests against systematic racism that have sparked by the deaths of African-Americans as a result of police brutality. Demonstrations have been held in major American cities after video emerged of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an 46-year-old African-American man.

Ty Dillon was the first driver to break the circuit’s silence via an Instagram post shared shortly before Sunday’s Cup Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway. In his post, the driver of the No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet speaks about white privilege and urges those reading to combat racism through faith.

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Dillon, 28, further explained to Michelle R. Martinelli of USA Today that his own privilege and Christian faith also played a major role in his decision to speak out.

“For me to be a white male, I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have the hurt and pain of racism throughout my life or affect my family. I wouldn’t know that. I’m not educated on that level because of the way I was born,” Dillon told Martinelli. “But I do know what pain feels like, and I’ve been through pain in my life. And to see the faces of people protesting who are hurt and have been going through this for 400 years and things haven’t changed, I’m so for protesting. Things need to be changed, and we don’t need to stay silent. I think that’s why I wanted to just post and say something about the fact that I don’t want to be seen as someone who’s silent.”

“I’m a Christian man, and my family is Christian. And, to me, I just want to stand with those who are hurt. And in the body of Christ, color doesn’t matter. We’re all brothers and sisters, and none of us are OK if there’s a part of our family that’s hurt.”

Charlotte, the hub of NASCAR, has been one of the cities where demonstrations and protests have been held. Dillon grew up in Lewisville, NC, just over an hour’s drive away.

More drivers began to speak out in support of peaceful demonstrations after Sunday’s race. Two-time Xfinity Series champion and current Cup rookie Tyler Reddick shared a sketch of Floyd accompanied by several tags of support including “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#SystematicRacism”. Daniel Suarez, a Monterrey, Mexico native, was the first driver to acknowledge the death of Floyd last Wednesday. NASCAR brass got involved through a Twitter post from executive vice president Steve O’Donnell.

“I’ll never understand what it feels like to be black,” O’Donnell’s post reads. “but [sic] I’ll do my very best to not add to the pain/anger-support those who feel it & raise kids that don’t contribute to it-I promise I’ll call you out when you say something that crosses a line-Don’t care who you are-Every [sic] time.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson expressed his support after the race.

“The circumstances are just crazy and unacceptable,” he said in a press conference hosted on Zoom. “I am for protesting, peaceful protesting. I hope there’s more of that tonight. I know there are concerns, especially in the Charlotte area, near my home, that they will be protesting tonight. The message needs to be clear, but I think being peaceful is really the right way to send the message here. I hope everybody stays safe.”

NASCAR has been no stranger to controversies involving racism. During the circuit’s coronavirus-induced pause, Cup Series star Kyle Larson used a racial slur in a virtual racing event streamed on Twitch. He was subsequently suspended from racing in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and was later suspended indefinitely by NASCAR and ordered to complete sensitivity training before his outright firing. NASCAR has also attempted to discourage its predominantly white, Southern fanbase from displaying the Confederate flag during events.

In 2004, NASCAR introduced the Drive for Diversity initiative to help minority individuals advance in a variety of roles throughout the sports. Only seven African-American drivers have partaken in a Cup Series event, including active full-time driver Bubba Wallace.

Wallace, the driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, called for unity prior to Sunday’s race on his Twitter account, sharing a video of Michigan Sheriff Chris Swanson joining protestors in a peaceful demonstration.

To the ones that believe we’re trying to throw black vs white at them.. open your eyes..It’s right vs wrong,” Wallace wrote in his tweet.

“It’s inclusion. We’re one race…Humans.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

 

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals a wild Bristol race

For the second straight Sunday, Brad Keselowski stole a NASCAR Cup Series race in its final stanzas, benefitting from chaos upfront.

It was deja vu all over again for the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday. Whereas Brad Keselowski welcomed it with open arms, Chase Elliott probably could’ve done without it.

Keselowski once again benefitted from Elliott’s misfortune at Bristol Motor Speedway. When Elliott’s battle for the lead with Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano ended in contact, Keselowski took advantage, passing them both to win the Supermarket Heroes 500 presented by Food City.

Just a wild, wild day,” Keselowski said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom. “One of those days that you look at and you think of going back, being a part of Bristol lore for a long time to come.  Glad we were able to win it.”

“So much beating and banging, oh my goodness. We’ve all been cooped up in our houses too long, came to Bristol and took out some aggression I guess.”

Last Sunday, Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend after Elliott’s puzzling decision to pit prior to a two-lap overtime shootout. This time, it was a pit decision from Keselowski’s crew that put him in position to win a wild showdown in Tennessee.

Awarded the pole position from a random draw, Keselowski led 117 of the first 203 laps before getting caught in the middle of the pack while Elliott took home playoff points by winning the first two stages of the 500-circuit event. Keselowski was able to keep his car relatively clean in a race that featured 17 caution flag incidents. When Gray Gaulding hit the wall with 41 laps to go, Keselowski was one of a select few to visit pit row for fresh tires. He made the fateful stop at the advice of crew chief Jeremy Bullins and hoped to salvage a top ten finish with the adjustments.

Jeremy called a really good race,” Keselowski said. “I’m super proud of him and this team, the way they’ve come together, and keep coming together.  It’s a special group.  I feel like we’re all trying to find each other’s full potential.  We’re just starting to do that. We were getting real close to that before the pandemic happened.  Kind of slowed us down.  Now we’re really pushing each other hard and that’s a very good thing.”

Further incidents allowed Keselowski to think bigger. A multi-car incident that took out several contenders (including Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola) moved the No. 2 into the top ten. When leader Denny Hamlin got bumped but Logano with ten laps to go, Keselowski had moved into fifth and was in prime position to take the victory.

Antics between Elliott and Logano allowed him to do so.

Elliott and Logano broke away from the pack when the race got back underway with six laps to go. The two pounded away at each other until a little too much tension had them both rubbing against the wall. Keselowski scooted past the chaos to take home his second win of the season and the 32nd of his Cup Series career.

I think with 41 to go, I was quite honestly just hoping to get a top ten,” Keselowski recalled. “Once we broke in the top 10 I thought, I have a real shot at the top five. Next thing I know we’re running fifth.  I think the 11 car got turned around, something happened there. Now we’re running fourth. Now we have the preferred lane on the restart.”

“Then the restart we clear and get third.  I’m watching Chase and Joey (thinking) this is not going to be good. It was just such a turn of events.  I felt like I was sitting in Vegas, playing poker, and I got all the turns. They call it the river. All the turns went my way. I went from having a bad hand to having a full house real quick.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The tension between Elliott and Logano capped off an eventful day at Bristol, the 0.533-mile short track known for close racing, big wrecks, and flared tempers. Several big wrecks removed several big names from the proceedings. Another Keselowski teammate, Ryan Blaney, saw his day end on a disastrous spin during the second stage, putting his No. 12 Ford on a collision course with Ty Dillon. Blaney had been running second and chasing down Keselowski for the lead at the time. The race was also briefly paused at lap 231 to clean up a big wreck that collected several cars, including those of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, and Tyler Reddick. 

Logano and Elliott respectively finished at the tail-end of the lead lap in the 21st and 22nd positions. The two confronted each other on pit road after the final incident and were able to keep things civil. It’s the latest chronicle in a roller-coaster return to racing for Elliott. The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been in the top three during the final ten laps of each of the past four Cup Series races. Elliott was able to earn a win at the second half of a Charlotte doubleheader last Thursday, but incidents with Kyle Busch at Darlington and now Logano at Bristol have marred an otherwise stellar year.

Clint Bowyer was able to take the runner-up spot, while Elliott’s Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson came home third. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Erik Jones rounded out the top ten.

The NASCAR Cup Series will now go through a customary full week off before returning to action next Sunday for Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Fold of Honors QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Kevin Harvick retained his lead in the points standings but saw his streak of consecutive top-ten finishes come to an end at 13. Harvick was involved in a late incident with Jones and lost track position after he visited pit road to repair damage. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford came home 11th.
  • Rookie Christopher Bell tied his career-best finish at 9th in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota.
  • Austin Dillon came home sixth in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to earn his first set of back-to-back top ten finishes since November 2018.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto seeks to finally master Bristol

Bristol has hosted the brightest moments of Matt DiBenedetto’s NASCAR Cup Series career thus far. Could it soon feature his first win?

If and when someone gets their first career NASCAR victory during this fan-free period, it’ll come at the price of not being able to “properly” celebrate. The joyful congestion of victory lane has been temporarily erased so the sport’s return can adhere to continuing social distancing guidelines, an isolated atmosphere described by the original winner of the new normal Kevin Harvick as “awkward”. One can only imagine that the feeling would amplify fortyfold if a driver were to earn their first win during this process.

Matt DiBenedetto doesn’t care about that in the slightest. The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford just wants a mere visit to victory lane and is quite pleased with NASCAR’s protocols as it’s the first team sport to return in the wake of the current health crisis.

“I’ve actually been nothing but thoroughly impressed with how smooth everything has gone and how to a T every single person that you see in the garage is following every guideline because we’re all so on the same page and just so appreciative to be racing and willing to do whatever we have to do,” DiBenedetto said in a Zoom media conference call earlier this weekend. “Honestly, it’s gone ten times smoother than I could have possibly imagined and I’m just really, really proud of the effort of everyone. It’s amazing to see that big of a group of people all come together like family and be willing to do whatever, no complaining, just everyone happy to be following every guideline to be putting on a show for the fans.”

DiBenedetto has run 184 NASCAR Cup Series races, a majority of them with microbudget racing squads where merely running at the finish would be equivalent to a win. No wins have followed, but DiBenedetto’s ability to post respectable finishes in subpar equipment, as well as a racing journey that began by swapping his Little League baseball cap for a firesuit, has made him a fan favorite on the circuit.

The Wood Brothers (Leonard and the late Glen) and their iconic No. 21 (previously driven by names like David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, Dale Jarrett, and Ryan Blaney) have provided DiBenedetto the most stable car in his career to date. He has followed through on the potential the Woods saw in him. He currently places 11th in the NASCAR points standings and posted a runner-up finish at February’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas. It was the second runner-up finish of his career.

He returns to the site of the first on Sunday afternoon. The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Supermarket Heroes 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1). It will be the first visit to “The Last Great Colosseum” since DiBenedetto finished a most heartbreaking second in last year’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race last August.

Then driving Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota, DiBenedetto seem poised to earn that elusive first win as he took the lead with 104 laps to go around the half-mile short track. Such a win also would’ve allowed DiBenedetto to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs, which would’ve been a first.

Alas, contact made with the notoriously hard-to-pass Ryan Newman (whom DiBenedetto was trying to put a lap down) slowed the No. 95, allowing another Toyota, the big-budget machine of Denny Hamlin, to take over the lead with a dozen laps to go. Hamling even jokingly remarked that he was “sorry” that he passed DiBenedetto during his postrace interview with NBC.

That evening, one that produced his career-best finish to date, was a bittersweet affair for DiBenedetto. He mentioned that he hasn’t viewed the film from that monumental race.

“That was probably one of the biggest days for my entire career honestly, so that was a moment I’ll never forget, having all the support from the fans,” DiBenedetto said. “That was a crazy moment and I really didn’t even know how to feel because it was probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life, but also one of the most rewarding from the support we had from the fans and everybody. It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel, but ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

Less than a month after that Bristol event, Wood Brothers Racing announced that DiBenedetto would take over their Ford.

Bristol is a track for developing tempers even hotter than the tires. Known as “Thunder Valley”, the track’s cramped quarters can put you in the wall without warning. DiBenedetto, however, has seen his brightest NASCAR days at the track. He has completed over 99 percent of the maximum laps he could’ve run over ten visits. The stadium also played host to DiBenedetto’s first career top-ten finish, a sixth in the 2016 Food City 500. At the time, he was driving the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing.

DiBenedetto’s Bristol prowess could come up big on Sunday. To limit events to single-day proceedings, qualifying has been canceled at most of the events since the circuit came back from the coronavirus-induced pause. A random draw for starting position yielded a ninth-place spot in the starting lineup. Practice has likewise been canceled.

“I would say Bristol would probably be more of the nerve-racking ones of firing off with no practice,” he said. “I think at the mile-and-a-halves and some of these places, Darlington is a little treacherous but not too bad. I’d say the mile-and-a-halves are not too bad. Bristol, there’s just no margin for error. It’s really, really fast. It’s an insanely fast short track. You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in, so I’d say that one will be a little bit more nerve-racking for the drivers.

“It’ll be fine. It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and outpraying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive. If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track, a mile-and-a-half, and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

The series’ descent on Bristol comes at perhaps the perfect time for DiBenedetto. He has finished in the top 20 in each of the first four races since the return, but those finishes haven’t come easy. When qualifying was held at Charlotte Motor Speedway, DiBenedetto had to go to a backup car when he spun out during his timed run. On Thursday night, the second half of a CMS doubleheader, the No. 21 took the lead on the opening lap but a wreck between Joey Gase and Garret Smithley prevented it from getting into clean air and away from the field. The team wound up settling for a 14th-place finish.

Either way, DiBenedetto is well on his way to posting the best numbers of his career. He holds a 35-point cushion over 17th-place Tyler Reddick in terms of playoff positioning.

But DiBenedetto is confident that his group is capable of more. A 14th-place finish might’ve been cause for celebration in his earlier days, but his current Wood Brothers settings (which includes technical assistance from Penske Racing) have higher expectations…ones DiBenedetto anticipates meeting.

“We do have a little cushion right now, but we as a team have to get a lot better, in my opinion,” he said. “We have a lot of speed. We have great people. We’re just learning each other and we’ve got to close out these races a little better. We’ve got, for sure, the car speed and the people to do it, so it’s nice that we’re still sitting there in points when, honestly, we’re a little bit disappointed with some of our end results of these races because we know that we can do a lot better and we will do better moving forward, so I feel good about that part of it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Shortened weekday races earning rave reviews

Shortened, weekday NASCAR races have become a necessity as the circuit tries to complete its full slate. But drivers are loving the change.

Unlike their NFL counterparts, NASCAR’s attempts at Thursday night proceedings earned some positive reviews.

With the circuit emerging as the first North American team sports unit to return from its coronavirus-induced hiatus, NASCAR has embarked on an ambitious plan to complete its full schedules. Such an endeavor required the premier Cup Series, as well as the lower-tier Xfinity and Truck circuits, to run races beyond their normal weekend timeslots. The latest endeavor came on Thursday night, as a busy week at Charlotte Motor Speedway wrapped up with the Alsco Uniforms 500 at the Cup level. Weather played a factor in the Thursday scheduling, as storms from Tropical Depression Bertha washed out the original date on Wednesday. CMS had previously played host to the Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday as well as Xfinity and Truck races earlier in the week.

Fans old and new have been treated to the exciting racing NASCAR has become known for, but there have been some changes. To turn race weekends into single-day events, qualifying has been mostly eliminated, as has practice. These races have also been run sans spectators and in front of limited in-person media. Social distancing mandates have also limited the number of team personnel at the track.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The plan, while ambitious, was rife with concerns. Was it right to subject drivers to such a workload? How would drivers work without on-track practice? Could social distancing realistically be maintained?

So far, NASCAR has been able to alleviate these concerns, giving other sports a model to follow as they slowly start to make their own plans toward a revival. They might be learning a thing or two about their own sport along the way.

Weekday races haven’t been perfect. The weather has been a bit uncooperative (a Cup event at Darlington Raceway ended early and both Charlotte races featured delays) and there have been some early on-track incidents in the early going of some races (i.e. Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase wrecking on Thursday’s opening lap). But, in rare unanimity amongst participants, the drivers are responding well.

“I feel really good,” Thursday winner Chase Elliott said about the short turnaround time in a postrace Zoom conference call. “I feel like I tried to stay biking and doing things throughout those two months off, and honestly coming back and going back to Darlington where it was hot and then coming into the 600, it kind of just threw us back right to the wolves, and I think that was really a good thing just to really get some hot races and some long races in right off the bat and just jump right to it.  I feel good, and I’m certainly tired, it’s been a long week, but I’m going to rest these next couple days and get ready for Bristol.”

One of the most glaring differences in the weekday events is how long they last. Whereas most races operate by miles, often those seen in the race’s label, the races run during the week have gone by titular kilometers. The Alsco Uniforms 500, good for 208 circuits around a 1.5-mile oval, was the shortest-ever Cup Series event held at Charlotte, which is best known for hosting the longest race in NASCAR (the aforementioned Coca-Cola 600).

Everyone loves to go racing, but some drivers actually prefer the short lengths. The difference has also been seen on a different kind of stopwatch. Thursday’s race, removing the circa 75-minute rain delay, took just over two-and-a-half hours to finish. Thursday’s runner-up Denny Hamlin likened such a runtime to a regulation NBA contest.

“Heck with tradition; you’ve got to advance with the times,” said Hamlin, the winner of the Cup Series’ previous weekday event at Darlington’s Toyota 500. “I think that keeping people’s attention span for three hours is a good thing. It’s a very good thing. These cars are different now than what they used to be.  It used to be a battle of machine, you’re going to wear out your tires and your brakes and whatnot. They just don’t wear out anymore, so essentially it just becomes a long race after that.”

Elliott himself felt that the shortened race raised the on-track tenacity, in contrast to the time-biding strategies often seen in lengthy events like Sunday’s 600-mile competition.

“I think it’s great. I think it ups the intensity. I think you have to have your car driving really well from the start, and if it doesn’t, you have to make those big swings early.  I feel like it just ramps up the intensity and everything that comes with that. Just the clock is ticking and you don’t have a lot of time to do much of anything.”

The pace of play argument has become prevalent across major sports. Baseball has perhaps led the way with numerous time-saving proposals (including pitch clocks and opening extra innings with a man on base. One of the XFL’s tenets before its cancellation was maintaining a manageable game length.

Weekday races could well become the new norm, even when sports and society begin to revert to even more familiar settings. It could be one of the ways NASCAR maintains the newfound popularity it has discovered through fans perhaps biding their time until their usual favorite sports return.

NASCAR’s season is far longer than its competition, beginning with candies on Valentine’s Day and running until its end breaches the Thanksgiving turkey’s territory. It’s good to leave an impact on the calendar, but with such a long season comes the challenge of making every single portion relevant. NASCAR’s biggest event remains the season-opening Daytona 500 but its ten-race playoff proceedings happening in the heat of fall’s jam-packed schedule. Basketball on both the professional and amateur levels is reopening, as is the NHL. The NFL season is in full swing, and their college counterparts are battling for bowl and playoff positioning. The fact that a majority of NASCAR events are held the weekend during popular exploits on the gridiron can serve only as a detraction. Even in NASCAR’s supposed southern hubs, viewership isn’t guaranteed. It’s cruel to convince a fan in, say, Alabama to choose between Talladega and Tuscaloosa.

Weekday races could be a way to create autumn separation.

If anything, NASCAR’s status as one of the only major professional team sports leagues operating gives it a chance to experiment as they continue to roll out their slate. The Cup Series enters more familiar territory with a Sunday race at Bristol Motor Speedway this Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox), and there’s at least one experiment coming. On Wednesday, June 10, Martinsville Speedway will host its first-ever night race. That event is currently the last weekday event on the slate (with the exception of some previously scheduled Truck races) but the modern flexibility afforded (NASCAR currently has races confirmed through June 21) could change that.

If the drivers’ comments are any indication, they’ll certainly hope for some revisions.

“I certainly like the change, and on a weeknight time slot that we have, it’s got to be tightened up anyway, so I think this was a good taste of it,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “They’ll gather the data and figure out what’s best for them in the future.  Maybe it’s keeping them long, I’m not sure. Let the people that know a lot more about it speak on it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Things finally pan out for Chase Elliott in Charlotte finale

NASCAR Cup Series fortune finally smiled upon Chase Elliott, who took home the Alsco Uniforms 500 on Thursday night.

Both Lady Fortune and Mother Nature seemed to hold a grudge against Chase Elliott winning a 2020 NASCAR Cup Series race. Elliott was able to finally defy them both on Thursday night.

The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led the final 27 laps of the Alsco Uniforms 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, winning the premier Cup Series’ fourth event since returning from the COVID-19-induced pause. It’s the seventh win of Elliott’s Cup career and his first of the 2020 campaign. Elliott’s win in the 208-lap, 500-kilometer event came after a rain delay shortly after the race’s 30th lap. Rain was also responsible for the Thursday night staging, as storms from Tropical Depression Bertha washed out the originally Wednesday scheduling.

“We battled hard and finally got our car good enough there at the end,” Elliott said in a postrace Zoom conference call. “I’m just excited that we’ve been performing well, and ultimately I want to just have a shot to win each and every week.  That’s our goal as a team.  Whether we do or not is one thing, but to just have a chance to be in position is the goal, so we need to stay after that goal.”

Bad luck defined Elliott’s endeavors since the circuit rebooted from its hiatus. His healthy lead on the penultimate lap of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (also at Charlotte) evaporated with a late caution and a costly decision to pit prior to the two-lap overtime relegated him to a third-place finish. That followed an incident at Darlington Raceway on May 21, when a second-place Elliott was bumped by Kyle Busch on the final green flag lap of the rain-shortened Toyota 500.

Elliott recovered with a win in a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series on Tuesday night. But it didn’t alleviate the pain of Sunday’s misfortune.

“I don’t know that Tuesday made up for Sunday,” Elliott said. “It was certainly good. It never hurt anything to come over here, perform, and have a good run like that.  But it definitely didn’t fix it.  I think we were hungry and wanted to get back and try again.”

Elliott finally began to make things right on Thursday.

The No. 9 car ran toward the front for a good portion of the evening, finishing in the top ten after each of the first two stages (won respectively by Joey Logano and Alex Bowman). Elliott and his team earned a victorious moment when the caution flag came out with 53 laps to go after Timmy Hill’s No. 66 Toyota sustained damage.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson took a brunt of criticism for calling Elliott to pit lane during Sunday’s last proceedings. But Elliott would praise Gustafson and the No. 9 team’s adjustments in their final pit stop. Harvick opened up a large lead at the onset of the final stanza but Elliott’s newly tweaked Camaro was able to chase the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford down and make the pass.

“I’m not sure that we had it exactly perfect, but the guys did a great job making good adjustments and good pit stops there to put us in a position,” Elliott said. “I think the race going long played into our favor as compared to what Kevin had to work with.”

Elliott further came to Gustafson’s defense, defending his much-criticized suggestion to pit on Sunday. Gustafson has been employed with Hendrick Motorsports since 2000 and has previously served as the crew chief for Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon.

“I feel like at the end of the day, he has to make decisions on the spot. I feel like we were in a lose-lose position there on Sunday, so it’s not his fault that the caution came out with two laps to go, and when you’re in a position like that you have to make a decision and stick with it. I’m not going to question him.”

“I don’t fault him. It’s not his fault; it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to make a gut call and go with it, and heck, we drove back to third.  I just don’t see how you can look back at that and say he did something wrong because that position is a super hard one to be in.”

Denny Hamlin would pass Ryan Blaney for the runner-up spot on the penultimate lap. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came home fourth, while Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series will return to action on Sunday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Supermarket Heroes 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Elliott becomes the first driver to win a race on both Charlotte’s oval and Roval courses (the latter being part-oval and part-road course). The series will return to the Roval this fall in the midst of the postseason.
  • Harvick’s car faded over the final laps, but he managed to hold on for a 10th-place finish. The Cup Series points leader has now earned 13 consecutive top-ten finishes. Harvick led the most laps on Thursday with 63.
  • Bowman’s win in the second stage was his series-best fourth this season. However, his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet hit the wall while running second behind Harvick early in the final stage. Bowman finished 31st, two laps down.
  • A good run for Bubba Wallace, featuring a 10th-place run at the end of stage two, ended in 37th after his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet suffered mechanical issues at the onset of the final stage.
  • Rick Ware Racing teammates Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase were involved in a wreck during the very first lap. Smithley’s No. 51 failed to complete a lap, while the resulting damage limited Gase to only eight circuits before his No. 53 was retired.
  • Coca-Cola 600 winner Brad Keselowski sustained damage in an incident with Matt Kenseth shortly before the weather delay, but rallied back to finish eighth.
  • Early in the second stage, Kyle Busch (winner of Monday’s Xfinity Series event at Charlotte) had a tire go down during the second stage after making contact with Aric Almirola. Busch ended the evening in 29th, one lap down.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

For better and worse, the Coca-Cola 600 proved NASCAR is a team sport

Drivers get the glory, especially in this social distancing era, but Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 proved that NASCAR operates as a team sport.

When Kevin Harvick won The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway last week, he was directed to victory lane after performing victory burnouts near the grandstands. Numerous emotions rang through the head of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford’s driver. After all, not only had he just become the 14th driver to win at least 50 NASCAR Cup Series races, he was the first driver to win after the circuit’s coronavirus-induced hiatus came to an end at Myrtle Beach.

But asked which one emotion rang through his head as he got to Darlington’s iconic winner’s circle…one previously graced by legends like David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon…Harvick had a response that’s usually reserved for high school students asking their dates to prom this time of year: “awkward”.

Harvick was more than understanding as to why he was met by only two photographers and Fox Sports’ pit reporter Regan Smith (himself a former Darlington winner) and two photographers were waiting for him. The joyful congestion of victory lane, often crammed to the gills with relatives, crew members, representatives from teams and sponsors, has been sacrificed so NASCAR can run these races and give American sports fans appetizing morsels as their athletics begin to work their way back into their lives.

But it didn’t take away the pain Harvick felt that member of his No. 4 group couldn’t savor the victory with him.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left victory lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it,” Harvick remarked after the race. “When you look at a win like this today, this is an organizational win because you have to have your car dialed in when you get here in order to win a race like this. Our guys have just done a great job of putting all the pieces together. Today we were able to capitalize on that and win a race.”

The lack of a victory lane prescience at Darlington…and beyond…does nothing to dispel a notion that was proven in Charlotte, a lesson that many new viewers of NASCAR are learning, even if they’re only holding themselves over until their usual favorites return: auto racing is a team sport.

Consternation reigned on Twitter during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The marathon event, the longest on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles, saw its early portions dominated by big leads. It was a race that saw its first pass for the lead under the green flag come at lap 225 of the originally scheduled 400.

But what Sunday did show was a fantastic mix of teamwork and driver finesse that makes NASCAR churn out racing excitement on a weekly basis. Sure, it’s probably not a race that will be displayed in whatever NASCAR’s equivalent of the Louvre is, but it served as a good reminder to its new viewers that NASCAR efforts go far beyond the ones behind the wheel.

It’s a shame, perhaps, that no child will ever have a poster of Michigan natives Greg Ives or Scott Brzozowski in their bedroom. But those two played a bit part in changing the early momentum as the respective crew chief and front tire changer for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Alex Bowman. When rain brought out a yellow (and a red) flag shortly after the first 50 laps, Bowman crew changed the course of the race with a two-tire pit stop, one that got Bowman out way ahead of the prior leader as he jumped from 13th to the top spot. The No. 88 would go on to dominate the next stanzas of the race, almost exclusively leading the next 170 laps thanks to Bowman’s on-track prowess and the service he received off of it.

Bad luck befell Bowman in the final stages (though his 20th-place finish will allow him to start at the front of Wednesday’s Cup Series event, also at Charlotte). but the night’s victors perfectly showcased the power of teamwork as they pulled off an improbable win.

Keselowski originally qualified ninth for Sunday’s event, but made some unapproved repairs to the car that cast him back to the rear of the field. It’s not like Keselowski’s woes on the No. 2 Ford could be remedied throughout the course of a normal race weekend. Much like victory lane, Charlotte’s garage was likewise light on activity. Teams have maintained social distancing standards to keep the sport rolling, which limits the personnel teams can have at the track. Not only did Keselowski have a limited crew on location to pull things, but he was also short on time; the Coca-Cola 600’s green flag dropped mere hours after qualifying was run.

The marathon-nature of the 600 allowed Keselowski to bide his time. By the time the rain came, he resided in 16th place. But solid pit strategy from crew chief Jeremy Bullins allowed Keselowski to keep relative pace with the top names. A two-tire stop of their own allowed them to catapult into the lead, one he held as the race engaged in an overtime finish.

But when Keselowski spoke after earning a victory on a race often described as one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, he emphasized the role his team played in their rise from worst to first.

“Obviously, I have a very good team right now,” Keselowski remarked in victory. “We’ve got a race win at a major on a team that’s really just starting to click together.  This team has a lot of potential.  My goodness, on pit road today, they were on fire.  They put us in a spot to win.”

His crew chief Jeremy Bullins earned a moment of glory, representing the group responsible for the No. 2’s speed after the race.

“The social distancing part, it’s really strange,” Bullins said of the current situation. “We’re in Charlotte. This is a race where normally when you win here, you have not only the driver’s wife and family, so many the team guys’ wives, families, girlfriends, moms and dads, all kinds of people here with you to celebrate. Not to mention having no fans. It’s a little bit of a surreal experience.”

“(But) I’m super proud of this team. I feel like I got one of the best teams in the garage. I’ll put them up against anybody. Got the best engineers in the sport, the mechanics, the pit crew, I’ll put them up against anybody.”

The team aspect can, alas, play far differently in certain situations. One such occasion arose on Sunday when Chase Elliott opted to pit when a caution flag erased his healthy lead with two laps to go. Elliott acknowledged that his subsequent visit it pit lane was a team decision, one they regretfully couldn’t take back. An individual effort from Elliott nearly pulled off a miracle…he rallied back to finish third (later moved up to second after original runner-up Jimmie Johnson failed postrace inspection)…but his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet squad was left with a sense of what might’ve been.

Fortunately for the No. 9 group, they’ll have a chance to rewrite their Charlotte story when the Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday night for the Alsco Uniforms 500 (8 p.m. ET, FS1). Further team innovations and insight may well be required to win the 208-lap, 500-kilometer event, especially with the track also being used for lower-tier competitions on the Xfinity and Truck circuits.

NASCAR is undoubtedly gaining fans and they continue to be the most prominent North American team sport back in business at the moment. Hopefully, as newcomers choose their new favorite driver, they’ll take the time to get to know not only the person in the race car, but the group on the outside that makes that thing go 180 miles an hour into the Charlotte straightaway.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Chase Elliott reflects on costly Charlotte flaw

NASCAR contender Chase Elliott has lived up to the prestige of his family name, but bad luck on the track has stifled his true potential.

Over the past week, Chase Elliott’s NASCAR Cup Series endeavors have been the “My Plans vs. 2020” meme personified.

Elliott and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet are on solid ground. He and his team sit fourth in the Cup standings and he has earned four top tens over the first seven races of the 2020 season. Elliott himself has turned himself into an icon of modern NASCAR. The son of 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill, the 24-year-old Elliott has lived up to the hype to the tune of a NASCAR Xfinity Series title and six Cup Series victories. Playoff appearances have come in each of Elliott’s four full-time Cup seasons.

But this week has been a cruel reminder that there could’ve been so much more.

NASCAR’s healthy dose of races, holding two per week in the early stages of its return from the COVID-19 pause, has provided nothing but heartbreak for Elliott thus far. The No. 9 had a healthy lead toward the end of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but a late caution (brought out by Elliott’s own teammate William Byron) with two laps to go, brought the field together. Offered the chance for service on pit road, Elliott opted to come down with a handful of the other lead-lap cars.

Forced to restart on the cusp of the top ten, Elliott rallied back to finish third (which was later upgraded to second after another teammate, Jimmie Johnson, was disqualified after failing postrace inspection). But it was of no consolation to the pride of Dawsonville, Georgia. Brad Keselowski took home his first win of the season after staying out.

“You just make the best decision you can based on the information you have,” a somber Elliott said after the race. “When you’re leading the race like that, people behind you are going to do the exact opposite of what you do. That was the situation we were put in. (Crew chief Alan Gustafson) made the decision, we stuck with it, and it didn’t work out.”

The move comes less than a week after the racing deities denied Elliott another victory with a heartbreaking blow. He had a chance to win the Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway last Wednesday, but contact with Kyle Busch put his Chevy into the wall while chasing down leader Denny Hamlin on the final lap of green flag racing. Though Elliott displayed his middle finger to Busch after the wreck and members of his crew confronted Busch afterward, the No. 9 driver took responsibility for the incident. 

Bad luck is hardly new in Elliott’s garage. Several other victories have been snatched from his grip through circumstances beyond his control. Just last season, he was denied a spot in the “championship four” (NASCAR’s equivalent of the Final Four with four drivers racing for a championship at the last race of the season) after two crashes and a mechanical issue in the three-race round beforehand.

“We’ve had some tough losses in my career, for however many years I’ve been doing this, five, six years, unfortunately. It is what it is,” Elliott said in an attempt to take the disappointment in stride. “I hate it for both myself and my team, our sponsors, the whole nine yards, unfortunate.”

“(We’ll) just try again. That’s all you can do. I mean, there is really no other option. I can’t rewind time. There’s no other choice.”

If there’s any consolation, bittersweet as it may be, it’s that runner-up finishes are disappointments to the No. 9 team rather than goals to aspire to. His competitors have recognized Elliott’s skill and know that he’s going to be a threat to the very end.

He’s been through some tough ones already,” Johnson said in another call. “He does a nice job of getting away and letting the frustrating things that happen roll off his shoulders. He is a younger guy, but he is an old soul.”

“He’s been around racing his whole life. He’s watched his dad go through stuff. He’s lived and experienced a lot on his own right. He’ll just come back more motivated and hungry. Alan Gustafson is about as good as they get in the garage area. With Alan’s leadership, they’ll dust themselves off and be back on Wednesday and be ready to roll.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday for the Alsco Uniforms 500, the second half of a doubleheader at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET, FS1). Elliott will start 19th with the top 20 Sunday finishes inverted in the starting lineup.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals the Coca-Cola 600 in overtime

A perplexing decision by Chase Elliott in the final stanzas of NASCAR’s longest event gave Brad Keselowski his 31st career Cup victory.

Memorial Day weekend saw the No. 2 Ford become No. 1.

Brad Keselowski took advantage of a puzzling decision by Chase Elliott and his team to earn his first-ever victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night into Monday morning. The race, run annually on Memorial Day weekend since 1961, is the longest on the NASCAR’s premier Cup Series circuit. It’s the first such victory for Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion.

“This was a big one along the way,” Keselowski said in a postrace Zoom video conference call. “I feel like I’ve had the shot to win this race probably four or five times. In 2011, I got caught up in a wreck at the very end. I think 2014, I had a loose wheel at the end. Last year, we led a bunch of this race, probably were the favorite to win it late, had a loose wheel. It just didn’t come together for whatever reason.”

“But today it came together and I’m super, super thankful. (I) hope we can do it again. I hope everybody that watched enjoyed it and remembers the reason why we get to do great things like this.”

Already known for its marathon tendencies, the 600-mile race ran deeper into Sunday night due to a 68-minute rain delay after 51 of 400 laps. Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet, seemingly had the win wrapped up, maintaining an insurmountable lead over Keselowski with two laps to go.

However, Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron spun out after a tire went down on his No. 24 Chevrolet, bringing out a caution at the last possible moment. The resulting laps run under the yellow flag forced NASCAR to engage in overtime procedures, a two-lap dash to the finish.

Offered the chance to visit the pits before the final sprint, Keselowski stayed out while Elliott and a handful of the 19 remaining lead lap cars opted for service. Elliott’s shocking decision put Keselowski in the lead as the field realigned for the climax at the 1.5-mile oval.

Keselowski got off to a solid restart and managed to hold off another Hendrick Chevy, four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner Jimmie Johnson, for the 31st win of his Cup Series career. Johnson’s runner-up finish was later erased when the No. 48 Chevrolet failed post-race inspection.

“I just thought about getting the best launch I could get,” Keselowski said of his final restart. “Coming up in front of him down the backstretch, once we were clear, getting draft, that push, it all came together.”

The win also comes at an interesting time in the career of Keselowski, as he is in the final year of his contract with team owner Roger Penske. Keselowski has raced with Penske since 2009 and has driven the team’s iconic No. 2 Ford since 2011.

“I wish I had more news, but I don’t,” Keselowski said of his current situation. “I hope to continue to compete at a very high level and be able to win races for a long time.”

“I hope that I get to take and make something of that for years to come.  But it’s not all up to me.  A lot of things have to come together, whether it’s sponsors or whatnot, management things.  That hasn’t happened yet.  I hope it does because this is my 30th win at the Cup level with Team Penske.  That’s pretty special.  I think I got another 30 left in me.  I’d like to have the chance at that.”

Elliott rallied back to finish third behind Johnson, but is left with more lingering questions centered on what might’ve been. The Charlotte decision comes mere days after he was inadvertently spun out by Kyle Busch on the final green flag lap of Wednesday night’s competition at Darlington Raceway. Busch, who came home fifth, was later seen consoling Elliott in the race’s immediate aftermath.

“You just make the best decision you can based on the information you have,” Elliott said in another Zoom call. “When you’re leading the race like that, people behind you are going to do the exact opposite of what you do. That was the situation we were put in. (Crew chief Alan Gustafson) made the decision, we stuck with it, and it didn’t work out.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will run the Alsco Uniforms 500, the second half of a Charlotte doubleheader, this Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, FS1). 205 laps (310.6 miles/500 km) will be run.

Race Notes

  • Yet another Hendrick car, the No. 88 Chevrolet of Alex Bowman, dominated the early portions of the race. Bowman took the lead from polesitter Kurt Busch immediately after the rain delay with a two-tire pit stop and went on to win the first two stages and lead the most laps (164). A poor final restart, however, relegated Bowman to a 19th-place finish, albeit one that came with a silver lining. With NASCAR eliminating qualifying procedures in its effort to keep post-coronavirus pause events to a single day, he will start in the front row on Wednesday with the 500-kilometer race’s first 20 starters determined by an inversion of Sunday’s final running order. Byron will start on the pole.
  • With a fifth-place finish, Kevin Harvick continues to be the only driver to finish in the top ten in every 2020 Cup Series event thus far. Harvick maintains a 23-point lead over Joey Logano, who finished 13th after winning the third stage after a two-tire stop.
  • NASCAR did host a qualifying session hours before Sunday’s race to determine the starting lineup. This is the only event scheduled to hold traditional qualifying as they resume racing. Kurt Busch (lap time of 29.790 seconds) won the pole and led the first 54 laps en route to a seventh-place finish.
  • Sunday was a wash in more ways than one for Denny Hamlin. The winner of Wednesday’s Darlington event was immediately mired in an inescapable hole when a piece of tungsten flew out of his car during the prerace pace laps. Tungsten ballasts are often added to cars to meet NASCAR’s minimum weight requirement. Removal of tungsten results in an automatic four-race suspension for the offending car’s crew chief, which doesn’t bode well for Chris Gabehart. Hamlin eventually brought the car home 29th, seven laps off the pace.
  • Keselowski and Logano’s Penske teammate Ryan Blaney finished third.
  • Rookie Christopher Bell earned the first top ten finish of his Cup Series career (9th). He finished right behind fellow first-year Tyler Reddick, who earned his second top ten over the last three races.
  • Clint Bowyer’smoky wreck on lap 96 brought out the first incident-related caution and relegated him to least-place finish before Johnson’s disqualification (39th). His No. 14 Ford was one of three cars that failed to finish the race along with Bubba Wallace (brakes) and JJ Yeley (damage clock).

For full results, click here

For full standing, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson ready for his last dance at Charlotte

Jimmie Johnson, Nascar

If Johnson is going secure a playoff spot in his final NASCAR season, there’s no better place to clinch than this week’s Charlotte couple.

Unlike, say, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, Jimmie Johnson needs to earn his retirement gifts as he makes his final visit across NASCAR venues across the country.

NASCAR will continue its revival tour on Sunday night at its Charlotte hub (6 p.m. ET, Fox), the first half of a doubleheader to be completed on Wednesday. The opening event is the Coca-Cola 600, a Memorial Day weekend tradition dating back to 1961 and the longest event on the circuit at its titular 600 miles.

Such an event is perhaps the perfect counterargument to the idea of NASCAR not being a sport. A test of skill and endurance, the race features 400 laps around the 1.5-mile track and a runtime that would make Yankees-Red Sox games blush. It’s enough to make even the toughest drivers shake in their boots.

Johnson, however, has spent nearly two decades defying NASCAR norms. His final season of full-time racing isn’t about to change that.

His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been a mainstay atop the Charlotte leaderboards since his 2002 arrival. In terms of mid-2000s dominance, Johnson had a better stranglehold on CMS than USC had on major college football. His name appeared in the top three of eight straight Charlotte races. That includes a streak of four consecutive wins during the pair of visits during the 2004-05 seasons. Most drivers, in comparison, are lucky to get eight total top three finishes throughout the course of their entire careers.

“There is no doubt I’ll have a flood of emotions when we start our engines these next two races,” Johnson remarked to Jeff Wackerlin of Motor Racing Network. “I’m going to miss it.”

NASCAR is set to return Charlotte later this fall during the postseason, but that race will come at its “roval” configuration (part-oval, part-road course). Johnson has made a name for himself at the full-on oval with eight wins overall, the most in the track’s history.

Much like the popularity of Von Dutch and Justin Guarini, Johnson’s mid-2000’s dominance has struggled to translate in the decades beyond. His last win in the 600-mile event came in 2014 and he has gone home empty-handed in four straight Charlotte visits. The track is more recently known as the site of one of Johnson’s most heartbreaking moments. With the track in its roval setup for the first time on the Cup Series circuit, Johnson was battling to move forward in the 2018 NASCAR playoffs. Running second behind Martin Truex Jr. in the dying stages, Johnson was relatively secure in points.

It was never like Johnson to be satisfied with second place. Alas, that will and desire cost him nearly on the final laps of the Bank of America Roval 400.

Contract with Truex put them both sideways, and Johnson was forced to partake in the remainder of the playoffs as an on-track observer. It’s been part of an uncharacteristic win drought for Johnson. The No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t visited victory lane in 101 consecutive events, the last celebration coming in the Dover spring event in 2017. Johnson has 83 Cup Series victories to his name, which ensnares him in a tie for fifth-most all-time with Cale Yarborough.

“Took myself out of a shot at the championship and obviously affected their day which I feel bad about,” Johnson told USA Today’s Michelle R. Martinelli at the time. “I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive, but we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me.”

Now, it’s all about the win.

Even with the COVID-19 enforced delay, Johnson has spent 2020 making things right and creating an opportunity to go out on the right note. Entering his final week at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval incarnation, Johnson sits in 12th place in the Cup Series point standings. Flashes of his former brilliance have been on display in the circuit’s early stanzas. A late crash took him out of contention at the Daytona 500, but Johnson has followed it up with four finishes in the top dozen over the last five races.

The lone exception was the first Darlington event last Sunday. Johnson had the lead at the end of the first stage, but contact with Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford put him into the wall and a 38th-place finish. He recovered to finish eighth in the second half of the visit to Darlington later in the week.

“It was a good rebound from a few days before; I wish I could have that weekend back,” Johnson said to Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports after the race. “I really felt like we had things going our way there and could have capitalized. But it’s nice to be back. Good finish in the top-10.”

The pause of live sporting events causes us to forget that they have a way of using timeliness to create uplifting moments. If Johnson can earn himself a playoff berth by winning at the track he formerly held a monopoly on, it would be perhaps the loudest announcement yet for the return of athletics, as well as a moment the sports-loving public can enjoy as a collective unit.

A win would more than likely put Johnson back into the NASCAR playoffs. If it comes on Sunday, Johnson would tie the legendary Darrel Waltrip for fourth the all-time wins list and at the top of the list of Coca-Cola 600 trophies. 

Johnson is certainly off to a good start this week at CMS. With NASCAR holding qualifying prior Sunday’s even, the No. 48 Chevrolet posted a time of 29.799, good for a front-row situation. Kurt Busch (29.790) was the only one quicker than Johnson, putting his No. 1 Chevrolet on the pole.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags