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

Kyle Busch is what NASCAR and other sports need right now

Kyle Busch, Nascar

Kyle Busch’s (inadvertent) Darlington heel turn was just what NASCAR needed as it leads the charge back from sports dormancy.

For many, The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday was a lot like a television pilot.

Millions flocked to the screen as NASCAR became the first North American team sport to return to live competition as the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Of that sports-starved public, thousands, possibly upwards of a million, admitted that they had never partaken in a NASCAR event.

A television pilot must accomplish several tasks if it hopes to go beyond its premiere night. It must establish the major players. It must define some traits and characteristics of said players. A goal or endgame to the debut season, or perhaps the series itself, is established. Perhaps a catchphrase or two is uttered.

NASCAR achieved that and then some. Viewers met some of the popular drivers the series had to offer. They learned of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s propensity for attracting trouble on the very first lap. They cheered when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson took the lead toward the end of the first stage and bemoaned his wreck on the last lap of the portion. Rookie young guns Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek posted top ten finishes. Finally, Kevin Harvick made series history by becoming the 14th driver to win 50 Cup series races by getting to the finish line first.

In a quest to carry out the entirety of its schedule, the second half of a Darlington doubleheader went down on Wednesday. That’s when the new legion of fans met their villain.

It’s not unusual for pop culture to be patient in introducing their main antagonist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, waited ten movies to give Thanos a speaking role. Wednesday’s race, the Toyota 500, took 200 laps.

A storm was brewing over Darlington and it wasn’t just in the clouds. On the track, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott battled for the right to take the lead away from Denny Hamlin before the skies opened. As their machines crossed the start/finish line, Elliott’s pass of Busch ended in disaster, as the latter’s No. 18 Toyota clipped the back of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The No. 9 car spun and hit the inside wall and his top five finish became 38th in the blink of an eye.

Social distancing measures might’ve prevented a brouhaha from being staged in the No. 18 pit. Those seeking confrontation saw their fight dreams partially fulfilled when Busch was approached by Alan Gustafson. Elliott’s crew chief knows Busch from a peaceful time in his career, serving as Busch’s own pit boss for the first three years of his Cup career (2005-07).

Behold the villain.

NASCAR fans can’t seem to agree on much these days. Rare unanimity is formed when misfortune befalls Busch’s Joe Gibbs Toyota. During the 2018 race at Watkins Glen, for example, the Finger Lakes roared when fan-favorite Elliott passed him en route to his first Cup Series victory.

Wednesday’s incident with Elliott is fairly minimal in the list of Busch encounters. After all, Busch repeatedly denied intentionally spinning the No. 9 and Fox’s commentary duo Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon agreed that there was little else the Toyota could do to avoid the unfortunate occurrence. That didn’t stop Elliott’s fervent fanbase from sending plenty of unfriendly salutations to Busch’s social media account after the race. Elliott, after all, is the son of NASCAR royalty (his father Bill was part of the 2015 Hall of Fame class) and a two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award that has backed up the hype (top ten standings finishes in each of his first four seasons).

Elliott’s fans might not want to hear it, but Busch’s villainy, inadvertent as it may have been, was just what NASCAR, and the rest of live sports, may have needed as they gradually return.

Busch is the driver that often elicits the most boos on race weekend. The word “incident” appears on his Wikipedia page 16 different times. Elliott is far from the first prominent driver to engage in unpleasantries with the Las Vegas native. He incurred the wrath of another massive NASCAR factions, House Junior, when he spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. toward the end of a 2008 event at Richmond. During a Truck Series race in 2011, a displeased Busch slammed into Ron Hornaday during a caution (which netted him a suspension for the Cup Series race two days later). Even Busch’s own brother Kurt wasn’t spared from his wrath. A get-together during the 2007 All-Star Race led to the siblings not speaking for nearly half-a-year until their grandmother intervened during Thanksgiving dinner.

Fans have taken issue with Busch’s supposed bending of racing rules as well. The first of two Cup Series titles came in 2015 after he missed the first 11 races due to an injury sustained during an Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Speaking of racing in NASCAR’s lower tiers, fans have often taken issue with Busch running in such events. After all, it’s not like you see Aaron Judge spending his off-days with the New York Yankees playing AAA-ball in Scranton.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Most drivers would shrug and try to move on from focus on such topics. Busch does the opposite.

Part of Busch’s appeal as a NASCAR heel is his willingness to accept and embrace his role. When booed during driver introductions at the All-Star festivities after the Earnhardt incident, Busch responded only by cupping his ears. When he pulled off a contact-heavy victory over Kyle Larson at Chicagoland Speedway in 2018, Busch feigned tears when fans were less than pleased with the result.

When it became clear that fans were going to blame him for the Elliott incident even if there was little he could do to avoid it, Busch engaged in his trademark snark and might’ve only hinted at anticipation of the No. 9 team seeking revenge.

“Obviously I just made a mistake, misjudged the gap, sent him into the wall. That was entirely unintentional,” Busch said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom on Wednesday night. “I’ll definitely reach out to him and tell him I’m sorry, tell him I hate it that it happened.”

“That doesn’t change the outcome of the night.”

Much like LeBron James during his Miami Heat tenure, Busch is taking his role as the villain and running with it. It creates a perfect setting for NASCAR’s new fans. Deeper into the call, Busch was asked whether he saw Elliot give him the middle finger after exiting his downed car. Busch dryly replied “I thought we had protocols where we’re not supposed to do that, so okay”…conveniently leaving out the fact he likewise got into hot water for making the same gesture to a NASCAR official during a 2010 race at Texas.

Team sports are often filled with squads or players that you love to hate. The Golden State Warriors picked up where the Heat left off after James went back to Cleveland. Championships earned through reportedly illicit strategies only amplify the hatred, as any fan of the New England Patriots or Houston Astros will tell you.

That’s another part of what makes Busch so effective as an antagonist. Even his staunchest detractor can’t deny Busch has skill and poise behind the wheel. When NASCAR granted him an injury waiver and conditions (reaching the top 30 in points in addition to learning the necessary win for a playoff berth) to compete for the 2015 title, Busch fulfilled them with no qualms. When the haters called that title illegitimate, Busch partook in all 36 races and put up an average finish of 8.9 en route to a title last season.

In terms of his lower-tier endeavors, NASCAR has tried to put a slight kibosh on it by having drivers compete for points in only one series (he was far from the only offender) and putting quotas on how many races Cup regulars could run. Busch has only responded by making the most of the opportunities he takes. Since 2016, he has run 65 races on the Xfinity and Truck circuits. 33 have ended in victory lane.

(Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As organized, professional team sports gradually start to return from the coronavirus hiatus, Busch has become America’s new polarizing figure, his No. 18 team drawing jeers moving forward. Fans are often not satisfied unless they have a cause to root against. Silly as it sounds, some people just aren’t satisfied with a concept unless there’s a villain to root against. There’s a reason that you rarely see a movie where every character is likable. How else would the supposed hero’s triumph be earned or vindicated? Thus, villainy has a number, and its numerals are 18.

As for Busch, the bearer? As you can tell by now, he doesn’t mind it one bit.

“I can say whatever I can say. I’ve never been a very good politician anyways. His fan base is going to have the hatred for me anyways. I just deal with what I got to deal with. Rowdy Nation will have my back and we’ll go after it after that.”

Much like Tom Hiddleston as Loki or David Bowie as Labyrinth‘s Goblin King…the villain is perfectly cast. 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin wins shortened, fiery Darlington finale

A rare foray into weeknight racing produced fireworks for NASCAR, whose Cup Series event on Wednesday ended in rain and controversy.

The NHL and NBC may have abandoned the concept, but the NASCAR Cup Series apparently ensured that “Wednesday night rivalries” were alive and well in the most recent stage of their return at Darlington Raceway.

Wednesday’s Toyota 500 ended in a literal storm, as Kyle Busch clipped Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet with 28 laps to go, sending Elliott’s car into an inside wall. The caution flag emerged, but as the skies opened up after eight laps under the yellow, the active leader Denny Hamlin was awarded the victory. Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team brings home their second trophy after winning the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

“I just love the racetrack. It’s one of my favorites, certainly in my top two or three,” Hamlin said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom. “I think it’s a driver’s racetrack. I think the driver can make up a little bit of maybe what his car doesn’t have with moving around the racetrack, different lines, throttle, and brake application. There’s a lot of things that a driver can do to make his performance better at this type of racetrack. That’s why I like it so much. Really from my very first start here in the Xfinity Series back in 2004, I just took to it quickly. We’ve had a ton of success ever since. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Hamlin took the lead from Elliott at lap 197 of the event, which was scheduled to go 228 circuits (500 kilometers at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped track), as one of several drivers who decided to remain on the track after the penultimate caution came out for a Clint Bowyer spin caused by a downed right rear tire. He was one of two cars (the other being the No. 21 of Matt DiBenedetto) that opted to stay out on the track while Elliott, Busch, and the rest of the lead lap cars pitted. Hamlin and DiBenedetto (who wound up finishing ninth) were working with tires that were just younger than ten laps old, pitting under another a prior caution accounting for a Matt Kenseth spin.

When the race got back to green, Hamlin held off a furious to challenge and avoided the carnage behind him. Rain was a constant threat all week (postponing an Xfinity Series race scheduled for Tuesday and delaying the Cup’s start time by two hours) and it finally made itself known with 20 laps to go. The competitors were brought to pit road and Hamlin was awarded the win after a brief attempt to wait the precipitation out.

After he received word of his victory, Hamlin revealed a humorous facemask adorned with the image of his smiling face. He certainly has reasons to be happy after the 39th Cup Series win of his career and his third at Darlington.

“(The mask) covers my face, covers everyone’s face. You’re kind of like, you really don’t get any sense of any emotion,” he said. “(I needed) to find someone that can paint me a happy face and a sad face. It depends on how the race finishes. We only had happy masks today, so I guess it was a sign that we didn’t need the sad one.”

Hamlin’s win, however, was overshadowed by the antics between his fellow Joe Gibbs teammate Busch and Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports. After Elliott emerged from his downed machine, he displayed his middle finger to Busch at the latter’s No. 18 Toyota was running his caution laps. Busch was later confronted by the No. 9’s crew chief Alan Gustafson. The longtime Hendrick employee previously served as Busch’s crew chief for three seasons when he drove the No. 5 Chevrolet during his first years at the Cup level (2005-07).

Busch took responsibility for the incident afterward. While he stated that he would reach out to Elliott and denied he spun him out intentionally, he mentioned that the incident was part of a normal racing experience.

“I’ve known him since he was 12 or 13 years old, been racing with him ever since then, late models, super late models, trucks, Xfinity cars, all that sort of stuff. Obviously I just made a mistake, misjudged the gap, sent him into the wall. That was entirely unintentional. Yeah, I mean, I’ll definitely reach out to him and tell him I’m sorry, tell him I hate it that it happened. All I can do. That doesn’t change the outcome of the night.”

“I can say whatever I can say. I’ve never been a very good politician anyways. His fan base is going to have the hatred to me anyways. I just deal with what I got to deal with. Rowdy Nation will have my back and we’ll go after it after that.”

Busch finished in the runner-up spot behind his teammate Hamlin. Kevin Harvick, who won the first half of NASCAR’s Darlington doubleheader in their return from a coronavirus-induced pause on Sunday, finished third, while Brad Keselowski and another JGR driver, Erik Jones, rounded out the top five.

This week’s Darlington doubleheader in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina was the first stage of NASCAR’s return, replacing previously scheduled events at Chicagoland Speedway and Richmond International Raceway. One more event will be run at Darlington this week, as the postponed Xfinity Series race will take place on Thursday (12 p.m. ET, FS1). Cup action returns to Darlington for the Southern 500 on September 6, the first race of the postseason.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns on Sunday in the form of the Memorial Day weekend tradition known as the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET, Fox). Such a race is NASCAR’s longest at 600 miles and will be the first part of a similar doubleheader format enacted at Darlington.

Race Notes

  • The race was one of heartbreak for Bowyer, who swept the first two stages of the race and led the most laps (71). His spin relegated him to a 22nd-place finish.
  • Harvick maintained his lead in the Cup Series point standings, leading sixth-place finisher Joey Logano by 34 points.
  • Hamlin’s third win at Darlington made him the 14th driver to earn at least a trio of Cup Series triumphs at the track, which hosted its first NASCAR race in 1950. David Pearson leads all drivers in Darlington wins with 10, while Hamlin is tied as the active leader with Jimmie Johnson.
  • Ryan Preece sat on the pole thanks to a 20th-place finish in Sunday’s event, as NASCAR, in an effort to limit on-track activity to a single race day, inverted the top 20 finishers in Wednesday’s starting lineup. Preece’s final slot wasn’t as desirable, as engine woes relegated him to the final spot of 39th.
  • Rookie John Hunter Nemechek was one of the more uplifting stories of Sunday, coming home ninth in his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford. However, he brought out two cautions within the first ten laps, putting him six laps off the pace and into a 34th-place finish.
  • Not all news was bad on the rookie front. Christopher Bell posted a career-best Cup Series finish of 11th in the No. 95 Toyota of Leavine Family Racing.
  • All four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finished in the top ten, as Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 took the final spot.

For full results, click here

For full Cup Series standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ryan Preece looking to capitalize on big opportunity

Ryan Preece’s NASCAR career has defined by hard knocks, but the Connecticut native is looking to make the most of a rare opportunity.

In Sunday’s exciting return to NASCAR action, The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway provided late-race drama that a sports-starved nation has salivated over while live events are put on hold. With three circuits to go in the 293-lap event, a dramatic pass was made to secure first-place. The beneficiary then held off a furious challenge over the remaining turns to secure the victory.

Now, this battle did not take place at the front of the pack. Kevin Harvick’s healthy two-second interval was more than enough to hold off Alex Bowman for the win.

But so crazy are our modern times that a battle for 20th in one race wound up determining the leader in the next.

Preece’s pass of Bubba Wallace on lap 291 secured him the pole position, meaning he will lead the field at the start of Wednesday night’s Toyota 500 (6 p.m. ET, FS1). The resulting front row starting spot is part of NASCAR’s efforts to feasibly return during the ongoing health crisis, which eliminates qualifying and practice sessions. The first 20 positions were determined by inverting the top finishers from Sunday’s return event, The Real Heroes 400. It was the premier NASCAR Cup Series’ first competition since shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic nearly two months prior. The remaining 19 positions were determined purely by finishing order, relegating Wallace to starting 21st.

The 29-year-old native of Berlin, Connecticut told Terrin Waack of NASCAR.com that he knew what was at stake with that fateful pass.

“I knew we were in 21st in the last 10 laps,” he said. “We had a really good car to begin with, so it created the opportunity to get back by Bubba (Wallace). But that’s why I was really pushing the issue to get by him because that was the difference of 20 spots, right? It’s going to make you push that much harder.”

It’s a bit of an unusual position for Preece, the driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. The team is perhaps NASCAR’s equivalent of, say, the Memphis Grizzlies…a relatively low-budget team that occasionally musters a name or a win on its docket, but never truly a threat for a championship. One of the team’s owners is former top overall NBA draft pick Brad Daugherty and the spoils of five NASCAR national series victories reside in their trophy case (one at the premier Cup Series level when AJ Allmendinger won the 2014 Watkins Glen race). JTG’s most recent prestigious days came last season when Chris Buescher mustered 16 consecutive finishes in the top 20. Buescher would play that success into a more prestigious ride, taking over the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing.

This is Preece’s second year of both full-time Cup racing and with JTG Daugherty, albeit his first under No. 37 branding. He ran his rookie campaign in the team’s No. 47, whose 2020 duties went to Roush castaway Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He has paid his dues at NASCAR’s lower levels, first making a name for himself on the prototype Whelen Modified Tour with a 2013 championship before earning a pair of national Xfinity Series wins with Joe Gibbs units. Preece was able to provide the team with some much-needed good news during the coronavirus pause by building momentum on NASCAR’s simulated iRacing Pro Invitational Series. The virtual No. 37 earned four top ten finishes over the seven-race exhibition slate held on the iRacing platform. That included a runner-up spot at the Texas Motor Speedway recreation, where Preece fell just short (0.050 seconds) of beating out Timmy Hill for the win.

With the middling budget provided at JTG Daugherty, Preece has done what he can with what he has. His debut with the team, for example, was an eighth-place finish at the 2019 Daytona 500. Since then, however, bad luck has drafted with the team and has refused to back off.

A good follow-up of Atlanta after the opening was ruined by a pit road incident with BJ McLeod. Last October’s Talladega race saw him involved in three big wrecks alone. He was battling Denny Hamlin for the win at the most recent Daytona 500, but a fiery wreck that ate up multiple cars ended his chances with two laps to go.

Preece knows there’s an opportunity to be had on Wednesday night. Part of his Cup Series woes could stem from poor starting position. His best start to date was a 14th-place posting the Charlotte Roval race last fall (he brought the car home 21st that afternoon).

“Track position…is so hard to get,” Preece said. “So if you have a good race car and you already have that track position, then it’s just about everybody executing the way they need to. Staying up front and keeping that clean air right in the front half, front third of the pack, it’s a big deal. That can pretty much set the tone for your race.”

Tough finishes in the early going have created a lot of ground for Preece to make up if he wants to get a JTG Daughtery machine back into the NASCAR playoffs. Their last, and only such endeavor came in the aforementioned 2014 when Allmendinger was able to get to the postseason with the Watkins Glen win as his ticket (the No. 47 finished 13th in the standings that season). Preece is currently 61 points out of the final playoff seed.

Keeping the position won’t be easy. Starting immediately behind Preece in Wednesday’s 228-lap event will be the elite Fords of Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. 19th-place finisher and Preece’s front row companion Ty Dillion will be equally hungry for track position as he is in a similar budget crunch with Germain Racing’s No. 13 Chevrolet.

“We know we have a fast race car,” Preece said Waack. “It’s a bittersweet type of thing because I really felt like we had a much better car than 20th last week. Just circumstances out of your control really is what it is. But at the same time, it gives us an opportunity to rebound on that and have a solid day. Start us off on the right foot when it comes to it on Wednesday.”

For the full starting lineup for Wednesday’s race, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday eliminated any doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick wins in NASCAR’s Darlington return

NASCAR returned in style on Sunday, as Kevin Harvick became the 14th driver in Cup Series history to earn 50 wins.

Live, team-oriented sports returned in style on Sunday, as the NASCAR Cup Series circuit staged the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Kevin Harvick was the first victor, leading 159 of 293 laps en route to his first victory of the 2020 season/

Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, also earned the 50th victory of his career. He join an illustrious list of 13 other drivers to earn that tally on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

“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,” Harvick said in a Zoom video conference call after the race. “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 win, despite the historic weight attached to it, came with a sense of hollowness for Harvick, the first winner in the unusual times for NASCAR.

Sunday’s event was, in racing terms, run under caution in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The stands were empty and media invitations were kept to a minimum. Practice and qualifying were canceled, so drivers were embarking on an endeavor at a locale known as “The Track Too Tough to Tame” with literally no on-track preparation. Harvick’s victory lane celebration was perhaps best labeled by his posing with the race trophy under the protection of a facemask and no one else around, contrasting the normally raucous, confetti-spewing antics that ensue after a win.

“Usually you get out of the car and the crowd is screaming and yelling, react. Today out of the car it was like, well, I don’t really know what to do here,” Harvick said with a smile. “I got in my car, drove to Victory Lane. There were two photographers there, no team guys. 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.”

“But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

But the veteran of nearly two Cup Series decades was proud to put on a show at a time the country needed it the most.

“There’s a lot of people that put a lot of effort into this,” he remarked. “I’m glad it went the way that it went. I hope people that watched for the first time liked what they saw. This is a unique racetrack here at Darlington. In the end, it’s just having that opportunity to present yourself to new people. Hopefully, you can make a lot of new fans as you go forward.”

Harvick has been by far the most consistent driver during the interrupted NASCAR season. He is the only driver to appear in the top ten in each of the five races run thus far and leads the points standings over Alex Bowman, whose No. 88 Chevrolet appeared in Sunday’s runner-up slot.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 17: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light #YOURFACEHERE Ford, leads Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 ChevyGoods.com NOCO Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It was Bowman who gave Harvick his biggest challenge of the afternoon. The Hendrick Motorsports star and winner of this spring’s race at Fontana lined up next to Harvick on what became the final restart after a caution for Ryan’s Newman’s spin on lap 254. Harvick’s No. 4 team won the ensuing race off of pit road before its driver held off a furious challenge from Bowman and Kurt Busch. The Busch Light-branded Ford then drove off to Harvick’s first Darlington victory since August 2014.

“I feel like watching it back, I could have been really aggressive and cut the corner into one a little bit and maybe cleared him. I was already pretty aggressive with that,” Bowman said in another Zoom call. “Maybe I could have acted like I was going to clear myself and got him to lift. If he doesn’t lift, we both crash. In three and four I got loose under him. He did a good job of getting on my door, taking some side force away.”

“That’s tough. You’re racing one of the best in the business at one of the most technical, hard racetracks we go to. Just to have the opportunity to race him hard and clean like that was a lot of fun.”

NASCAR will remain at Darlington as they continue a quest to run all 36 races on their docket. The lower-tier Xfinity Series win run on Tuesday night (8:00 p.m. ET, FS1) before the Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday with the Toyota 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). The 500-kilometer race will run for 228 laps around the 1.5-mile track.

Race Notes

  • The first lap of action provided instant fireworks, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s No. 47 Chevrolet spun and hit the wall before completing his opening circuit. It brought out the first of ten Sunday caution flags. Stenhouse wound up finishing dead-last in 40th.
  • Included in the yellow flags was a competition pause shortly after the 30th lap. The field was frozen, allowing the teams to get extended adjustments on pit road while neither gaining or losing position.
  • Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson nearly won the first stage of the race, but a crash right before its finale at lap 90 ended his day early. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet hit the way when he ran out room trying to put Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford a lap down. The 38th-place finisher announced earlier this month that the series’ pause would not change his plans to retire from full-time racing at the end of this season.
  • After Johnson’s wreck, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron took home the first stage. Byron’s day would likewise take a turn for the worse shortly after, as his No. 24 Chevrolet cut a tire and wrecked on lap 111. He would bring the car home in the 35th spot, 14 laps down.
  • The day wasn’t a total loss for Hendrick’s squad. Bowman finished in the runner-up spot while Chase Elliott finished fourth. Bowman recently signed a deal that would keep him with Hendrick through the 2021 season. He has driven the No. 88 Chevrolet full-time since 2018
  • Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took up three spots in the top ten. Defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin rounded out the first five while Martin Truex Jr. finished right behind him. Erik Jones pulled off the trifecta at eighth.
  • Rookies had a banner day at Darlington, with Tyler Reddick (7th) and John Hunter Nemechek (9th) pulling off top ten finishes. Nemechek’s posting in the No. 38 Ford was the first top ten finish for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since August 2017.
  • Veteran returns were a common theme as the series itself made a comeback. Matt Kenseth finished 10th in his first race in the No. 42 Chevrolet since replacing the disgraced Kyle Larson. Meanwhile, Newman recovered from his spin to finish 15th. It was his first race in the No. 6 Ford after being involved in a scary wreck at the end of February’s season-opening Daytona 500.
  • With qualifying canceled, the starting lineup for Wednesday’s event was set by inverting the top 20 finishers. Thus, 20th-place man Ryan Preece will lead the field to the green, while Ty Dillon (19th) lines up next to him. The positions outside the first 20 will be set by their Sunday finishing positions (i.e. 21st-place finisher Bubba Wallace will start 21st on Wednesday).

For full results, click here

For full Cup Series standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR announces updated schedule, starting lineup for Darlington

Set to return on Sunday, NASCAR updated their series schedule through late June. The slate includes visits to Bristol and Talladega.

As NASCAR inches closer toward returning, its front office announced its moves beyond May.

NASCAR unveiled a schedule update on Thursday afternoon, with each of its three national series set to continue action into late June. This second stage of revival will come after NASCAR completes a series of seven races over eleven days at Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway. The premiere Cup Series division is set to make its return from the COVID-19 pandemic pause on Sunday afternoon with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

“As we prepare for our return to racing at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, the industry has been diligent in building the return-to-racing schedule,” NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said in a statement. “We are eager to expand our schedule while continuing to work closely with the local governments in each of the areas we will visit. We thank the many government officials for their guidance, as we share the same goal in our return – the safety for our competitors and the communities in which we race.”

The racing body has remained committed to running every race amongst its three national levels in the wake of the pandemic. Darlington and Charlotte are each set to host a pair of Cup races over the next two weeks, while the “minor league” Xfinity Series will run a single race at the respective tracks. Another lower-tier set, the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, will return on May 26 at Charlotte. The Cup Series has 32 races remaining on its slate, having run the first four prior to the virus-induced hiatus.

Under this new schedule, the series will descend upon tracks at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami, and Talladega. Much like the events at Darlington and Charlotte, these events will be run without spectators. In accordance with the new schedule, events in Kansas, Michigan, and Mid-Ohio were postponed and those at Iowa Speedway were canceled. The June visit to Talladega also sets up a return for the top division Automobile Racing Club of America, another lower-tier was bought out by NASCAR in 2018.

In addition to the schedule news, NASCAR also unveiled the starting lineup for the first race of the revival. Drivers were chosen at random in tiers based on their spot in the car owners’ standings. For example, the top dozen were assigned the top twelve positions, followed by those in the 13th through 24th-place slots. NASCAR has eschewed qualifying as it returns to action, but an exception will be made for the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on May 24.

Brad Keselowski was the lucky winner of Sunday’s pole position, meaning he will start first at the Real Heroes 400. The driver of Roger Penske’s No. 2 Ford is currently tied for eighth with Matt DiBenedetto in the points standings. He has finished no worse than 15th in each of his last five Darlington Cup events, which includes a win at the 2018 Bojangles’ Southern 500. Alex Bowman will start alongside him in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

Other notables in the Darlington field include Matt Kenseth at 12th. The 2003 Cup Series champion will be making his first start since November 2018 in place of the disgraced Kyle Larson in the No. 42 Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman will start 21st in his first start in the No. 6 Ford since missing three races with injuries sustained in a scary crash at the end of February’s Daytona 500. Points leader Kevin Harvick will start in the sixth position.

For the full starting lineup, click here.

Updated NASCAR Schedule
Series Date Location Time (ET) TV
Cup May 17 Darlington 3:30 p.m. Fox
Xftinity May 19 Darlington 8:00 p.m. FS1
Cup May 20 Darlington 7:30 p.m. FS1
Cup May 24 Charlotte 6:00 p.m. Fox
Xfinity May 25 Charlotte 7:30 p.m. FS1
Truck May 26 Charlotte 8:00 p.m. FS1
Cup May 27 Charlotte 8:00 p.m. FS1
Xfinity May 30 Bristol 3:30 p.m. FS1
Cup May 31 Bristol 3:30 p.m. FS1
Truck June 6 Atlanta 1:00 p.m. FS1
Xfinity June 6 Atlanta 4:30 p.m. Fox
Cup June 7 Atlanta 3:00 p.m. Fox
Cup June 10 Martinsville 7:00 p.m. FS1
Truck June 13 Homestead-Miami 12:30 p.m. FS1
Xfinity June 13 Homestead-Miami 3:30 p.m. Fox
Xfinity June 14 Homestead-Miami 12:00 p.m. FS1
Cup June 14 Homestead-Miami 3:30 p.m. Fox
ARCA June 20 Talladega 2:00 p.m. FS1
Xfinity June 20 Talladega 5:30 p.m. FS1
Cup June 21 Talladega 3:00 p.m. Fox

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

The 2020 NASCAR season: 10 things you need to know as the sport returns

NASCAR is one of the first major North American sports leagues to return to live action. Here’s what you need to know as the season resumes.

Live sports are back, America, at least those of the pistoned variety.

NASCAR will be among the first major American sports leagues to return to live-action as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. All three of the organization’s national circuits will return to action in the coming days, beginning with the premiere Cup Series. Proceedings get underway with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). The Cup Series will run two races at Darlington (the other coming on Wednesday night) with a lower-tier Xfinity Series race commencing on Tuesday. Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host all three national realms (including the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series) next week, complete with the Cup Series’  traditional running of the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.

The appetite of the American sports fan may lead to many new viewers for the sport. ESM has primed up what you need to know as things get back underway…

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

1. The First Lap in Sports’ Return

While NASCAR is indeed making a return, the comeback won’t exactly be a fully typical day at the races. 

In adherence to ongoing social distancing policies, the scheduled races will predictably be run sans spectators. Media attendees will be kept to a minimum and there will be no qualifying or practice sessions. The starting lineup for Sunday’s race will be determined by random drawings through divisions via car owner points standings (i.e., a random drawing of the top 12 will make up the first dozen spots). Qualifying will still be run for the 600-mile race on May 24. 

Pit stops will also look different, especially during competition yellow flags that will be thrown at a specific point in the race (it will come on lap 30 of Sunday’s event). During these caution sessions, cars will not gain or lose positions, provided they beat the pace car out of pit road. Teams are also limited to no more than 16 individuals at the track.

Sacrifices are already being made. Several tracks (including Sonoma Raceway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Richmond Internation Raceway) had to give up their dates as NASCAR intends to run full schedules.

It’s certainly not the perfect storm, but drivers are looking forward to the challenges presented and are confident that they will be able to adapt to the necessary changes.

“We’re going to be able to do this and it should be pretty effective,” Denny Hamlin said in a conference call last weekend. “Obviously there will be a huge microscope on how we’re doing things, making sure it’s done in a safe manner. For all of us, it’s just the unknown of making sure we’re doing it the right way. After the first week, I think it will be easier and people will have a better understanding. Certainly the first week there will be some questions that I’m sure drivers will have.”

2. Getting Finer in Carolina

NASCAR’s return comes in familiar territory, its hub of the Carolinas. Two of its most familiar tracks will host the opening, with Myrtle Beach’s Darlington dropping the green flag next Sunday and Wednesday before Charlotte duplicates the process further north next week. Both tracks hold special places in the hearts of fans and drivers alike.

Darlington is renowned for its treacherous semi-egg shaped track, earning a reputation as “The Track Too Tough to Tame” thanks to drivers’ repeated encounters with the wall and each other. It has hosted NASCAR races since 1950. Nearly seven decades of exciting races have ensued. One such occasion was the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, when Ricky Craven held off Kurt Busch in the closest finish in NASCAR history (0.002 seconds).

The unusual layout of Darlington often makes preparation and practice imperative, but that’s not possible in the current environment.

“The team aspect of things is going to be difficult because those guys are going to have to turn cars around, and your shop efforts are going to have to be really exceptional to prepare good cars,” William Byron said in another conference earlier this spring. “I think that, honestly for me as a driver, I’m just going to have to manage my time really well. I’m going to have to be in good physical shape but not be too worn out training too hard or anything like that.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what that is like. I know our team on the 24 will do a good job of preparing and adapting to the circumstances, so I’m just looking forward to seeing how that plays out.”

After the Darlington events, the circuit shifts to Charlotte, the site of NASCAR’s headquarters and its Hall of Fame. Fans who are getting into the sport for the first time will certainly have their fill after the Coca-Cola 600. The race has annually been run on Memorial Day Weekend since 1961 and is the longest race on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles (400 laps around the 1.5-mile track).

3. Feelin’ 22

If you’re looking for a name to root for, it’s probably not too late to jump on Joey Logano’s bandwagon. After all, it’s hard to top the year the 2018 Cup Series champion has been having so far.

The No. 22 Ford won two of the first four races on the Cup slate (including the most recent event in Phoenix) before its driver welcomed his second son alongside his wife Brittany last week. Logano holds the runner-up spot in the standings, a single point behind Kevin Harvick.

4. Hello, Newman!

The 2020 season began in February. as it always does, with the running of the Daytona 500. Hamlin’s third win in the event was overshadowed by a scary last-lap crash involving Ryan Newman. The No. 6 Ford was leading the race when it was inadvertently spun out by the No. 12 Ford of Ryan Blaney. Newman hit the wall hard, before his car flipped into oncoming traffic. After Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 machine slammed into Newman head-on, he crossed the finish line upside down in a shower of sparks.

After several tense hours, it was revealed Newman had sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries. Less than 48 hours after the crash, he walked out of Halifax Medical Center alongside his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. Newman would miss the next three races to recover while Ross Chastain temporarily took over his Roush Fenway Racing car. Darlington will mark his first time back in the No. 6 car since the accident.

The pause has left Newman in a manageable position in terms of the playoffs. He restarts competition 54 points out of a playoff spot, though a win would certainly solidify his case.

5. A Familiar Face in An Unfortunate Case

Newman isn’t the only NASCAR star of the 2000s returning to the track. Matt Kenseth has emerged from retirement to pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. The ride was vacated after regular driver Kyle Larson used a racial slur during a streamed iRacing event.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, has 39 Cup wins under his belt, including two triumphs in the Daytona 500. Ganassi’s No. 42 has been rather successful with top ten finishes in each of the last four final standings. His most recent race was the 2018 season finale (subbing for the fired Trevor Bayne in Roush Fenway’s aforementioned No. 6), but his competition is wary that it won’t take much for Kenseth to rediscover his racing groove.

“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want him back,” said Hamlin, a teammate of Kenseth’s at Joe Gibbs Racing for five seasons. “I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse, but just different. So I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush towards the end. He’s my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point!”

6. See You Again

It’s obviously the least of our concerns at this point, but the pause created a level of awkwardness in the final season of full-time racing for Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time Cup champion confirmed that 2020 would still be his final season in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 Chevrolet, refusing to budge from a plan established last November.

Johnson well might’ve been saving the best for last. After struggling over the past two seasons (his last win coming in June 2017 and missing out on the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career last year), the No. 48 began to resemble its old, victorious self. A late crash took him out of contention at Daytona but he followed it up with three consecutive finishes in the top dozen. That stretch includes a seventh-place showing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, the El Cajon native’s de facto home track and site of his first victory in 2002. Johnson was honored before the race and his family got things started by waving the green flag.

7. Cups by Hendrick

Johnson’s resurgence is only one of the positive stories coming out of the Hendrick Motorsports stables these days. The iconic race squad has amassed 16 NASCAR titles since its 1984 inception but had fallen on hard times in recent years. Granted, they were results other teams would potentially salivate over, but Hendrick cars have finished in the final standings’ top five only once since Johnson’s last title in 2016.

However, the team was on a roll at the time of the temporary shutdown. Hendrick’s quartet has united to lead 313 laps (led by Chase Elliott’s tally of 186) over the first four races and three of those drivers appear in the top five of the standings. Such a resurgence was prominently on display in Fontana, where Alex Bowman’s No. 88 led 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. While William Byron (currently 19th in the standings) may be struggling in the iconic No. 24 car, he was able to build momentum during simulated iRacing events that helped fill the void of sports in the pandemic’s early days. Byron won three of the seven virtual races run during the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series. His teammate Bowman likewise earned a win at pixelated Talladega.

8. King of the Hill

Speaking of iRacing, no one emerged from the simulated circuit better than Timmy Hill.

Standings were not kept in the Pro Invitational Series, but mathematics and NASCAR’s point system determined that Hill emerged as the de facto champion of the temporary circuit. He finished every race on the lead lap and finished no worse than 11th. His success probably should’ve come as no surprise, as he’s closing in on making 1,700 iRacing starts.

Hill’s actual racing career has been far less illustrious. Trapped in racing purgatory of microbudget teams, his best finish to date is a 14th place showing at the 2017 Indianapolis race. But his iRacing showcase may have been his ticket to at least start to turn the corner. His MBM Motorsports team is simply looking to finish the season, a task that became incredibly more difficult when they were forced to let go 30 employees during the shutdown. However, his performance allowed them to gain some extra sponsors for both Hill’s No. 66 Toyota and the Xfinity program. Hill probably won’t be contending for a title any time soon, but his success in the iRacing proceedings and how a small-budget team performs in these uncertain economic times will certainly be worth watching.

9. Minor League NASCAR

If you’re really looking to fill the live sports void in your life, you might want to keep track of the lower-tier national circuits as well. Thus far, the Xfinity series (the NASCAR equivalent of AAA-level baseball) has been dominated by a legacy selection. 19-year-old Harrison Burton (son of former driver Jeff) has finished in the top five in each of the first four races so far, part of a torrid start to his early NASCAR career (which includes a 12th-place finish in last season’s Truck standings). He’s pursued closely by Chase Briscoe at three points behind.

The Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series was only able to run two events before the shutdown. Grant Enfinger won the season-opening event at Daytona, besting Jordan Anderson by 0.010 seconds. Of note, Natalie Decker made history in that same race, as her fifth-place posting was the best by a female driver in Truck Series history. Veteran Truck Series driver Austin Hill currently leads the points in his No. 16 Toyota.

2020 NASCAR Cup Series Standings (After 4 of 36 Races)
Driver Points/Behind Wins Car/Primary Sponsor
1. Kevin Harvick 164 0 #4 Busch Ford
2. Joey Logano -1 2 #22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford
3. Chase Elliott -20 0 #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet
4. Alex Bowman -26 1 #88 Valvoline Chevrolet
5. Jimmie Johnson -33 0 #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet
6. Ryan Blaney -41 0 #12 PEAK Ford
7. Kyle Larson (out) -43 0 N/A
8. Aric Almirola -43 0 #10 Smithfield Ford
9. Matt DiBenedetto -46 0 #21 Menard’s Ford
10. Brad Keselowski -46 0 #2 Miller Lite Ford
11. Denny Hamlin -53 1 #11 FedEx Toyota
12. Kyle Busch -53 0 #18 M&M’s Toyota
13. Clint Bowyer -59 0 #14 Rush Trick Centers Ford
14. Chris Buescher -62 0 #17 Fastenal Ford
15. Martin Truex Jr. -68 0 #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota
16. Kurt Busch -74 0 #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet
NASCAR PLAYOFF CUTOFF LINE (Points behind 16th)
17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr, -2 0 #47 Kroger Chevrolet
18. Bubba Wallace -3 0 #43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet
19. William Byron -3 0 #24 Axalta Chevrolet
20. Austin Dillon -13 0 #3 Dow Chevrolet
21. Erik Jones -13 0 #20 SportClips Toyota
22. Cole Custer (R) -17 0 #41 Haas Automation Ford
23. Corey LaJoie -22 0 #32 RagingBull.com Ford
24. Ty Dillon -22 0 #13 GEICO Chevrolet
25. Tyler Reddick (R) -22 0 #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet

10. The Standings and the Playoff

Now a good a time as ever to update you on the NASCAR playoff picture.

As has been customary, the current plan is to run 26 “regular season” races. After such races, 16 drivers are invited to the ten-race “playoff” session. The easiest way to reach the playoffs is by winning races and finishing in the top 30 in points. If there are fewer unique winners than playoff spots, the rest of the field is filled via points. Once the playoff begins, each qualified driver’s point total rests at 2,000.

Drivers are seeded by a number of combined factors that accumulate into playoff points. These special tallies are earned via individual victories (five points each) and winning in-race stages (one point). The regular season champion also earned an additional 15 playoff points.

Once the playoff begins, elimination rounds are held in three-race increments. Drivers can automatically advance to the next round by winning one of three races in the interim. Four drivers per round are eliminated leading up to final, tenth race in which the best finisher wins the title.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags