Chase Elliott comes from behind to win 2020 NASCAR Cup Series title

Forced to start from the rear after pre-race inspection issues, Chase Elliott came front behind to earn his first Cup Series title at 24.

As one NASCAR legend ended on Sunday afternoon, another one may have started to write its first chapters.

Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, took home his first NASCAR Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway through his victory in the Season Finale 500. Elliott, 24, is the third-youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a Cup title, behind only Bill Rexford (1950) and Jeff Gordon (1995). He also joins his father Bill (1988) as the third father-son duo to earn a series title joining the Pettys (Lee and Richard) and the Jarretts (Ned and Dale)

His victory also comes in the final race of Jimmie Johnson’s full-time NASCAR career. Elliott’s teammate and the winner of a record-tying seven Cup Series championships has driven the No. 48 Chevrolet since 2002, missing only one race since the start of that season.

“This is a moment that, heck, I’ve only dreamt about, and something that, heck, I’m still not sure I completely realize what has exactly happened,” Elliott said of his historic victory. “I don’t feel like I’m a crier in these situations, but dang, I feel like there’s going to come a time where I’m probably going to break down and really lose it.  I feel like I kind of did there after the race, and then you get caught up in everything else that’s going on. I’m really looking forward to just kind of sitting back and looking at everything from a different perspective and just enjoying it.  But I’m also going to enjoy it as I’m living it because this is something that may not ever happen ever again, and I recognize that.”  

“It’s a moment and a time and an accomplishment that I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever take for granted. It’s a really big deal to me.

The two-time defending champion of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, Elliott was able to reach the finale’s contending quartet through a dominant win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. He was set to compete against previous Cup winners and Team Penske comrades Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, as well as perennial Joe Gibbs Racing contender Denny Hamlin.

But a major knock came before the tires ever hit the track when the No. 9 failed pre-race inspection twice in the lead-up to the event. The penalty sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race, forcing him to literally go from first to last. 

Elliott was able to work his way through the field, reaching the top-ten by the time a competition caution came out at lap 31 of 312. Ten laps later, he passed one of his fellow championship competitors for the first time when drove past Keselowski for fourth. He then bided his time while Logano dominated the early portions of the race, leading all but two of the first 117 laps.

I look at the guys who have achieved this honor as guys who perform in the toughest of situations. I felt like that’s been an area that we haven’t done a great job of over my first five years, really up until last week,” Elliott explained. “We had a tough situation, a perform-or-go-home type night there at Martinsville, and was able to step up and really get the job done. I thought that was the piece of the puzzle that we haven’t had. I really felt like we had everything else that we needed, and I really believed that.”

Lap 151 saw Elliott take the lead for the first time, but the party was briefly put on hold when the final incident-caution came out 13 laps later when James Davison got into the wall. Kurt Busch won the ensuing race off pit road when drivers came for service due to a far quicker two-tire pit stop, but Elliott immediately took advantage of a fresh four and engaged in a tight battle for the lead against Keselowski for the rest of the second stage. The battle ended with the conclusion with Keselowski on top of the 115-lap segment. But Elliott and company once against proved their mettle in a team sport.

The No. 9 team’s strong pit stop gave them the lead back to open the third and final stage, and only surrendered it when he had to make his final pit stop of the day under green flag conditions. Logano briefly got his lead back after stops cycled through, but Elliott made the final pass for the lead at lap 270, leading the final 43 laps to roll to victory. Keselowski beat out Logano for 2nd, while Hamlin came home fourth. Johnson rounded out the top five to conclude his NASCAR slate on a strong note.

“It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top five, finish in the top five, but my bucket is full. NASCAR has been so wonderful for me.  This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.”

The last couple of years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here. All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.”

After the race, several of Elliott’s competitors drove alongside him to send their congratulations. Johnson’s was extra special, leaving a “donut” on the side of Elliott’s No. 9. Neither driver remembered what they said to one another, recalling only Elliott’s joyous screams and a high-five they shared, one inspired by a similar situation in 2003. When Bill Elliott won the penultimate race of the season at Rockingham, he and crowned champion Matt Kenseth likewise shared a high-five while celebrating their respective victories, as Kenseth had clinched his Cup Series title that afternoon.

Once a celebratory Elliott returned to pit road, he shared a group hug with Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick before the celebration commenced. Many found the day as a symbolic passing of the torch from the point of view of HMS and the face of NASCAR. Each Hendrick Motorsports car saw their numbers revamped into the style of the neon yellow No. 48 that has been etched onto Johnson’s car since his Cup Series entry in 2002.

Elliott’s championship moment did appear to somewhat overshadow Johnson’s departure, but “Seven-Time” was perfectly fine with such proceedings.

Chase Elliott won his first championship.  I’m so happy for that guy.  Great friend, great family.  I’ve been friends with his mom and dad for a lot of years.  I can recall going snowboarding with Bill out in Colorado and Chase was maybe eight years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn’t say much.”

“To watch him grow up and to be around him and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me. Today I think more about him winning a championship more than anything is pretty awesome.”

Race Notes

  • Not only was this the final race for Johnson, but also for Kenseth and Clint Bowyer as well. Bowyer finished 14th in his final tour in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, while Kenseth finished 25th in his last race in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Rookie Chase Briscoe will take over Bowyer’s ride in 2021, while Ross Chastain will succeed Kenseth.

 

  • Sunday marked the first season finale race for Phoenix, which will likewise host the championship event in 2021. The finale was previously held at Homestead (2002-19).

 

  • Elliott’s title is the first one for a Chevrolet since Johnson won his seventh and final trophy in 2016. Ironically, Johnson had likewise come from the rear of the field to pull off the feat.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Championship Preview with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard

Kevin Harvick

As the cup series prepares to say goodbye to a legend and crown a champion this weekend, ESM’s NASCAR experts are here to break it all down and make their championship picks.

Turn 1: Kevin Harvick had been arguably the most dominant driver this season with 9 wins and a regular-season championship. Does him missing the final four say more about a poor stretch of performances in the round of eight or that the playoff format is flawed?

Nathan Solomon: More than anything, it just has to do with two poor performances. Harvick finished second in Kansas and put himself in good position to advance. However, in the round of eight, you can’t finish outside of the top-15 twice and expect to advance to the championship. The new playoff format was designed to give it a similar feel to a baseball or basketball playoff series. In the MLB, if you have a bad series, you won’t advance. A team with 110 wins won’t make it to the World Series if they don’t perform in the series before. That was the case for Harvick in the round of eight, and he, unfortunately, won’t see himself racing for a championship.

Dylan Price: This is a tough question to analyze for me. I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to this dilemma. With 9 wins, Harvick was dominant for the entirety of the regular season, but he was unable to perform up to the level needed in the round of eight in order to make the final four. See, my issue with Harvick being eliminated is that NASCAR is different than other playoffs like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. Yes, the destinations change each week for the playoffs, barring home-field advantage, but with NASCAR, when you go from track to track, it fundamentally changes your racing style.

I would contribute his elimination to his own rut but would say there could be a case made that the drivers like Harvick, who are in this case the #1 seed, should get more of an advantage because playoff points don’t do enough to reward drivers with 9 wins that much more than those with 2 or 3. Still, Harvick, just like high seeded teams that get beat by lower-seeded teams, did not perform up to the level needed to race for a title this weekend, and that is more about his performance over the last 3 weeks than anything else.

Geoff Magliocchetti: If anything, the NASCAR playoffs are a necessary evil, and there may be little malice in the first place. NASCAR needs to find a way to be different, unique, and competitive in the realm of a busy time on the American sports calendar, and the playoffs are the way to do that. To make a long story short, there’s never going to be a system that satisfies each and every fan. No playoffs leaves the threat of a meaningless season finale (as it was in four of the final five playoff-free seasons). Harvick is far from the first dominant driver to be bamboozled by a playoff system. Current contender Brad Keselowski spoke of the 2014 season when his No. 2 won 6 races but failed to earn the championship invite.

Some changes could probably be made…inviting 16 drivers is a tad much…but the case of Harvick (and Austin Hill in the Truck Series, for that matter) is not a make or break factor. The common complaints that the regular-season champion has no immunity to Phoenix only serve as contradictions. Fans who complain that the playoffs are too gimmick-field or manufactured want a way to manufacture a way for the regular-season champ to make it. The beautiful thing about playoff sports is that they’re unpredictable. Even the undefeated Patriots had to work their way to the Super Bowl…one they lost. Changes can be made, but the playoffs should be here to stay.

Turn 2: This Sunday will be the last time that one of the faces of the sport will race in Jimmie Johnson. With the legacy Johnson has left as a 7-time champion, where does he rank amongst the all-time greats of the sport?

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson may go down as the greatest NASCAR racer of all time. If he isn’t the greatest of all-time, he will certainly be in the top five. Regardless of the playoff/chase format, he’s won seven championships, and some people don’t realize how hard that is. He’s won at virtually every track and beaten some of the best in multiple generations of drivers. I’m excited to see how he runs in Indy Car, and I would love to see him run a few races in NASCAR here and there. I feel he may be the next driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 doubleheader, and that’d be really cool to watch. Congrats to Jimmie Johnson on a great career.

Dylan Price: I consider myself lucky to have witnessed Jimmie Johnson and his dominance in my lifetime. I was not alive to witness the greatness of guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but one thing is for certain about Jimmie Johnson, he had the IT factor. They say there is a certain aura around the great ones, and I think that was always felt with Johnson. Now, where does he rank amongst the greats is a separate question. I firmly believe that Johnson is one of the best drivers to grace the series, but is he THE best. I think Johnson is up there with Earnhardt and Petty on the Mount Rushmore of the greats of the sport. That fourth spot is firmly up for debate, but I think that the aura around Johnson is still there even though he has not performed at the highest level in the past years and will be for a long time. Congratulations 7-time, you had an incredible career, and I am excited to see what you do in your next endeavors!

Geoff Magliocchetti: Johnson will go down as a clutch performer and the driver of the playoff era. It hurts to see his last dance end like this…with all due respect to Ally Bank, they’re looking like the Wizards Jordan equivalent of NASCAR…but one can’t forget the sheer dominance we saw from Johnson’s No. 48 week in and week out during his prime. Time will tell if Johnson can ever solidify his face on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, but his accomplishments should not be forgotten. Congrats on a great career, Jimmie, and best wishes to you and your family.

Turn 3: Well, with exits comes the entrances of new drivers and lineup shakeups. So, which driver in a new ride will see the biggest improvement/make the biggest impact next season?

Nathan Solomon: I think it’ll be rookie Chase Briscoe making a big impact in 2021. He’s been insanely dominant in the Xfinity Series this year, winning nine times and the championship favorite this weekend. He’ll be going into a great ride where he’ll have everything he needs to win races right away. I feel that Briscoe will make the playoffs in his first season, pick up a few wins, and even make it as far as the round of eight. He’s incredibly skilled and knows how to win on every type of racetrack. Expect a big rookie season out of Chase Briscoe in 2021.

Dylan Price: Unlike other analysts, I am excited for a returnee in a new place. I do believe Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell are going to excel in their new homes, but I am watching for Kyle Larson. People forget, but before Larson was suspended for his egregious comments, he was a budding face of the sport. Larson was in a mid-level situation with Chip Ganassi racing, and I firmly believe with the resources Hendrick Motorsports can provide that Larson will take the #5 machine to a virtual residency in the playoffs and likely to a few trips in victory lane in the coming years.

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve seen some big moves this Silly Season, but I’m the most intrigued by Ross Chastain moving to the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet. Chastain has never been granted the best equipment but has gone on to have a lucrative career on NASCAR’s lower levels. He’s a driver that earned his keep through on-track endeavors. Frankly, the move to such a big-name Cup ride is well overdue, with Chastain mostly working in low-budget machines. We’ve seen him stick around at places like Daytona and Talladega and run respectably in his lower-tier equipment. With the resources of CGR, Chastain should truly take off.
Turn 4: Lastly, we are down to the final four drivers to decide the championship this Sunday in Phoenix. With Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliot battling for the title, who comes out on top?
Nathan Solomon: I’m going to go with Joey Logano winning his second title in three seasons. He won Phoenix in the spring before the coronavirus outbreak and is coming off a win in the round of eight. Two of his championship competitors, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, haven’t won at Phoenix before, although Denny Hamlin has. However, Hamlin is coming off a rough round of eight, and I just don’t see him turning it around. My prediction is that Kevin Harvick will win the race being that he’s been historically dominant at Phoenix, and Joey Logano will take the title, finishing second. 
Dylan Price: I am a big believer in momentum. Momentum can play more of an impact then things like experience at times, and I think that will show on Sunday. See, where Logano, Keselowski, and Hamlin have experience either winning the big race or being in it for all the marbles, Chase Elliot is the newcomer of the bunch. With 4 wins this year, Elliot has been one of the most consistent racers this year, and I firmly believe he will ride the wave of momentum he had from last Sunday to a championship.
Geoff Magliocchetti: Denny Hamlin gets his first title on Sunday.
King Kevin is gone, and in his wake, the successor is none other than Hamlin. This season has had a bit of an “If not now, when?” feel over in the No. 11 stables. Hamlin has never let off-track issues bother him, but he does appear to be a bit tired of the…well, tired…questions over whether this season is a disappointment without the title at the end. Hamlin has won nearly everything there is to win on a NASCAR Cup Series level, except the titular award at the end. That changes on Sunday in the desert.

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Denny Hamlin

Hamlin’s NASCAR championship moment has yet to arrive. Set to enter a new world of team ownership, will it finally be delivered on Sunday?

Enough has been said and written about how 2020 has been…tough. Sports have done their part to ease the blow while trying a role in the changes the year’s sense of reckoning has brought to us. The championships the year has offered to us have provided their share of inspiring moments, particularly in well-deserving veterans earning their first championships. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble. Los Angeles Dodgers old (Clayton Kershaw) and new (Anthony Davis) brought the World Series and NBA Finals’ prizes back to the west coast.

Denny Hamlin could well be next at the NASCAR Cup Series’ Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Hamlin has been a Cup Series staple since 2005. Right from the get-go, it was clear that he was going to a force to be reckoned with on the premier circuit. A midseason replacement in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11, Hamlin earned three top-ten finishes in his first six career races. In his first full-time season, he was the first rookie to qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs (then known as the Chase for the Nextel Cup) and came home third.

Since then, he and the No. 11 team have accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish on the Cup Series level. He owns three victories in the iconic Daytona 500, including the most recent pair, and has been a playoff driver in all but one of his full-time seasons (the exception being an injury-shortened campaign in 2013). He even dominated the virtual Cup circuit, winning two races in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series held during the COVID-19-induced pause.

All that’s missing is an elusive Cup Series championship. We on the east coast know all about superstars earning all but that final trophy hoist. Rangers fans recently had to bid farewell to Henrik Lundqvist with a Stanley Cup celebration. Patrick Ewing came up short in a 1994 NBA Finals visit (missing another five years later due to injury).

It’s cruelly ironic that it seems like the more that Hamlin has accomplished, the more questions he has had to field about the vacancy in his trophy case. 2020 has truly been one for the ages when it comes to Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota team and, on, paper, missing out on the title would sting. Seven races have ended with Hamlin in victory lane, second-best on the circuit to only Kevin Harvick’s nine. On paper, missing out on a championship in a season like that would certainly sting. True to the “everything but a title” trope, Hamlin has come tantalizingly, deservedly close to a championship, only to be denied by misfortune or forces beyond his control. He won a season-best eight races and finished no worse than 12th over the first nine playoff races, but contact in the Homestead-Miami-based finale with Greg Biffle caused a spin that relegated him to a 14th-place finish. Jimmie Johnson went home in the runner-up spot, giving him enough points to overtake Hamlin for the title.

But Hamlin wants to make it clear: he believes that this 2020 season no matter what happens on Sunday.

“It’s not whether you win this weekend or not,” Hamlin said earlier this week. “The championship is not necessarily an indicative measuring stick of your whole year. If you get to the final four, that is a measuring stick that you’ve had a successful year.”

“This is going to be a great weekend that we’re going to live with the result no matter what it is, and I just want to enjoy it and have fun with it.
It’s different, but we’ve adapted all year. It won’t hurt us to adapt for one more week.”

Hamlin further stressed that an appearance in the championship quartet is no cause for disappointment. This is the fourth time he has appeared in the group since elimination rounds were introduced to the postseason in 2014. That includes the two most recent editions, though Hamlin has been relegated to fourth each time.

“Certainly, I believe that there’s validity in saying that a Championship 4 appearance is a successful season. I know that it’s our goal for our 11 car when we put on the chalkboard of what we need to get done this year, it’s always make to it to the Final Four. It’s never win a championship. It used to be win a championship because you had to put all those other pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship because it was a 35, 36‑week body of work.”

“When you get to the Final Four, it means, okay, you’re in the top 16, you’ve made it through the rounds…It’s a very worthy four, but certainly, I think that our goal is always to make the Final Four. It’s never to actually win the championship.”

On the NASCAR circuit, Hamlin does have some strong company. Some have compared him to long-time racer Mark Martin, who came home in the Cup Series standings’ runner-up spot on five occasions. Hamlin moved passed Martin on the all-time Cup wins list with his 41st victory at Pocono Raceway back in June. In that same race, Hamling joined Jeff Gordon as the only six-time winner in Long Pond.

True to this form of acceptance and determination, Hamlin sees any comparison to Martin, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, only as a compliment.

“I never would consider any comparison to Mark Martin an insult,” he said. “I’ll take those comparisons all day because the guy is a badass race car driver that nobody wanted to face week in and week out, nobody. Not Dale Earnhardt, nobody wanted to face Mark Martin”

I get it, (championships are) very, very important. It’s where I’m at the sport’s highest level, most people gauge your success level or how good you are off of championships, but I also know that my competitors will probably say that I’m one of the toughest competitors and toughest guys to beat and that’s all I really care about is having the respect of them and knowing that week in and week out I can go and compete for race wins, and knowing that over the last two years, ain’t nobody won any more. I like where I’m at.”

Hamlin is instead pleased to focus on team accomplishments that have put him back in the ranks of NASCAR’s elite. It starts at the top of the pit box under the oversight of crew chief Chris Gabehart, who previously oversaw victorious JGR efforts at the Xfinity level. Since he and Hamlin joined forces last season, the two have combined for 13 wins.

One of those races was the Phoenix event last season, when the track in the desert held the penultimate date on the Cup Series schedule. In dire need of a win…he was 20 points behind the points-based cutoff at the start of the afternoon…Hamlin would go on to lead all but four of the final 136 laps to earn a victory in an encased space. Thanks to adjustments made by the team, he went on to lead all but four of the final 136 laps, beating out fellow Gibbs competitor Kyle Busch.

Things are a little different for Hamlin and the field, considering that there will be no qualifying or practice in the leadup to the Phoenix race. But the confidence his team has instilled in him has provided plenty of faith in what could go down as one of the biggest race of his career.

“I know that our team was capable of (last year’s Phoenix race),” Hamling said. “It was like, wow, they needed to bring it and they brought it, and I have no doubt that this weekend will be no different, that every effort will be put on us as there was last year when we had to lock ourselves in.”

“It’s a little different this year in the Final Four being that all the resources within JGR we’ve got working on our race car and focusing on our race car. Yeah, it’s encouraging for me to especially go to a track that we had to win last year and got it done to again this year having to win to get it done.”

No matter what happens on Sunday, it feels like the end of an era for Hamlin in the sense that the Phoenix race will be his final event solely as a driver. Next year, Hamlin begins an ambitious endeavor through the world of team ownership, uniting with NBA legend Michael Jordan to form a new team, 23XI Racing. Bubba Wallace will drive the team’s debut vehicle, a Toyota branded with Jordan’s famous No. 23.

Don’t let Hamlin’s satisfaction with a final four appearance fool you, though. He knows what a championship can do for his legacy, how it can firmly entrench him in NASCAR’s ultimate elite. With Harvick gone, Hamlin and his dominant season have a chance to win what’s perhaps the ultimate Cup Series title, one where chances for on-track adjustments are few and far between. The possibility just may be enough for Hamlin to go full-Last Dance Jordan…and take things personally.

“I’ve had so many failures that it’s created a logbook of things that I need to be aware of this time around. Certainly I believe that there’s something to being older and the mental side of things and having that advantage,” he said. “I just want to work hard and make sure that I’m as informed as I possibly can be, be prepared for anything that gets thrown my way, and as you get older, you learn to identify mistakes that you made in the past that you now need to account for when you are working towards being a champion.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Brad Keselowski

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion is pulling out all the stops when it comes to earning an elusive second title.

Every working American knows what it’s like to crack open a celebratory cold one after a long, successful day at work. The suds may taste even sweeter when the beermaker more or less pays you to be seen representing their product.

Brad Keselowski perhaps provided the ultimate example of the after-hours refreshment back in 2012. It was Keselowski’s second season in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, which has joined consistent sponsorship from the Miller Brewing Company, primarily its Miller Lite beverage, for decades. Shortly after a 15th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway allowed him to clinch what was then the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, Keselowski emerged from the machine often referred to as the “Blue Deuce” and was immediately poured a great tasting, less filling Miller Lite in a tall, branded glass. The jubilant Keselowski quickly downed his beverage minutes before an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter and continued to drink while speaking to anchor Kevin Connors, admitting right from the start that he “had a little buzz”.

Keselowski has come close to a second title in the years since. Since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014, the No. 2 has twice been amongst the four drivers eligible for a championship at the season finale, including his third-place posting last season. A second championship, however, has proved elusive. The team is back in 2020’s contending quartet, who will fight for the Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway for the first time in the track’s history on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). To make sure there’s another frosty brew awaiting him at the end, the Keselowski family is taking matters into their own hands.

Speaking to reporters in the leadup to the Season Finale 500, Keselowski mentioned that he’s packing light for Phoenix, especially in the age of an ongoing health crisis. But with families invited to partake in the championship finale, Keselowski’s wife Paige is bringing over a special memento: the glass.

Keselowski is eager to leave the past in the past, but mentioned that Paige found the supposed Holy Grail in their home. But the glass sipped from on a South Beach evening that there was still beer leftover in it…beer older than his daughters Scarlett and Autumn combined.

“My wife has told me that she will prepare the glass as long as I promise to drink responsibly,” Keselowski said with a smile. “Those people that know me know that I like to leave things as they were, meaning that we located the glass from 2012. It still had beer in it a little bit on the bottom. Needless to say, that was not a pleasant sight, but it was authentic, so my wife is cleaning it as we speak, she’s going to wrap it up, put it in a nice bubble-wrapped box, and hopefully we’ll be getting it out Sunday night.”

Keselowski comes to the desert with momentum on his side. His playoff slate got off to a strong start with a win at Richmond in the second race of the postseason decalogue, a win that earned him automatic entry to the second round. Four consecutive finishes outside the top ten followed, placing him in a precarious position, though he did manage to reach the Round of 8 semifinals.

After finishing fourth at Kansas and sixth at Texas, Keselowski held a healthy 25-point lead over the cutoff at the onset of the Martinsville event to close things out. But with win-or-go-home contender Chase Elliott dominating the affair, Keselowski got caught up in a three-way battle for two spots…his adversaries being Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, the faces of 2020 with a combined 16 wins over the first 34 races.

Keselowski earned four wins, the driver immediately behind Hamlin and Harvick in that stat category. Yet their dominance overshadowed what was an impressive season, even by former Cup champion standards. His four wins and 23 top-ten finishes were his best since 2016, a season marred by a brutal showing in the Round of 12. In that season, Keselowski was a mainstay in the front row of the series standings, but a crash at Kansas and engine woes at Talladega doomed his title case. Two years prior, Keselowski had won a circuit-best six races but a gear problem at the first semifinal race..then held at Martinsville…doomed him from the start.

Playoff demons threatened to rise again at the Virginia-based short track last week. With less than 100 laps remaining, Keselowski had to go to the rear of the field when he was caught speeding off pit road. But he managed to work his way past both Hamlin and Harvick to earn a fourth-place finish, one that left him a handful of points ahead of the eliminated Harvick.

Keselowski knew about the heartbreak of playoff defeat and even said he felt sympathy for the eliminated Harvick. But he was proud of the way his team rallied to clinch a final spot, a team effort headlined by the help first-year crew chief Jeremy Bullins. This union was established by a game of Silly Season musical chairs, one that saw Bullins make his way over from his Penski neighbors at the No. 12 stall of Ryan Blaney. Keselowski and Bullins previously united for 46 races on the Nationwide/Xfinity Series circuit, winning 14 of them.

“I think probably the biggest thing I took out of the last round was from Martinsville itself,” Keselowski said in Round of 8 reflection. “I tried my best to treat Martinsville as though it was Phoenix. In that sense, it was a cutoff race, points were really close. I think I was only a few points behind Denny Hamlin, and I knew if I beat Denny Hamlin in points I would be okay to move on to next week, which was ultimately going to come down to stage points and the finish where this week is just the finish. Ultimately I treated the race weekend as though I was in Phoenix competing for the championship.”

“It felt a little bit like a dress rehearsal, and certainly learned a few things about me. I learned probably be careful on pit road towards the end of the race and don’t let your aggressiveness get to you, and beyond that, the resiliency that this team has to keep pushing when it counts.”

Keselowski certainly knows a thing or two about performing in big moments. His first Cup Series win came when he was driving a low-budget car for now-defunct Phoenix Racing in 2009, a year before he dominated the following year’s NASCAR Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series circuit, beating out established Cup star Carl Edwards by over 400 points for the victory. It’s part of a mental resiliency that Keselowski acknowledges is a major part of the championship formula.

“A large part of being a race car driver is mental. It’s the approach, the preparation, it’s the resiliency,” he said. “Those are mental things that manifest themselves into physical results. It’s hard for me to comment on any other driver’s preparation. I’ve got enough to prepare myself, let alone to critique against anyone else’s preparation, but I know that I feel good about it.”

Despite these championship traits, it feels like Keselowski continues to slip under the radar, the finale conversations dominated by contending companions Elliott (two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award), Hamlin (seeking his first title in 16 seasons), and his Penske teammate Joey Logano (a fellow former champion with a penchant for aggressive driving). It’s given him a slight underdog status he could potentially capitalize on.

Keselowski, however, defies the trope of bulletin board material, seeking to race only for competition and championship purposes…not because someone was doubting him, or because there’s an ice-cold, extra-large beer waiting for him in victory lane.

“I don’t really need external motivation, to be honest, and I really don’t feed off of it. I enjoy it when people have confidence in me. Certainly, that’s a pleasurable thing to experience, but it’s not motivating to me. What’s motivating to me is usually, like I said, looking at my family’s faces and knowing how excited they are to get to go to Phoenix, and that’s motivating to me. My team and seeing them work so hard and knowing that their heart is in a great place, that’s motivating to me. I think that’s probably where I take the motivation from.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott earns a spot amongst championship quartet

Chase Elliott entered NASCAR’s final four for the first time with a dominant win at Martinsville Speedway while Kevin Harvick was eliminated.

Forced into a must-win scenario, Chase Elliott earned the biggest victory of his NASCAR Cup Series career, while the circuit’s regular season champion saw his luck run out.

Elliott and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team dominated the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway, the penultimate race of the 2020 season that set up the Cup Series’ quartet of drivers that will compete for a championship at Phoenix Raceway next weekend. The two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award advanced to the final four for the first time in his career. He joins Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin in the title-contending group, while Kevin Harvick, the regular season champion and winner of nine races in 2020, was eliminated.

“Obviously, (for) me personally, it’s a huge deal. (I’ve) ever been in this position before. That’s exciting,” Elliott said after the race. “But for everybody that is a part of our organization, obviously NAPA is a huge partner, super pumped to have them on the car tonight, a big moment. They’ve been a big piece of my career. Hendrick Motorsport, everyone that lays a hand on our cars. It’s a big deal for everyone to have a chance to win a championship.”

The NASCAR Cup Series’ ten-race playoff system was introduced in 2004, with elimination rounds arriving a decade later. This adjust system invites 16 drivers with four eliminated after every three races, leading to four drivers battling for a championship in the 36th and final race of the season. Drivers can earn automatic advancement to the next immediate round with a win, much like Joey Logano did at Kansas Speedway earlier this month.

Elliott entered Sunday’s event 25 points outside the top four, more or less necessitating a win for the No. 9. He started the race in eighth but worked his way to the lead for the first time at lap 89 of 500. His Chevrolet would go on to lead 236 of 500 laps, including the final 44 when he passed two-time defending Martinsville winner Martin Truex Jr., who likewise needed to win to advance.

His victorious moment, the 10th win of his Cup Series career, nearly never came. When debris from Timmy Hill’s damaged car brought out the yellow flag at lap 352, Elliott not only endured a slow pit stop that not only relegated him to fourth, but was nearly forced to go to the rear of the field when it appeared one of his pit crew members jumped over the wall too early, warranting a penalty from NASCAR. Elliott’s No. 9 team appeared with officials, noting that the crewman made it back to safety before Elliott’s car arrived. Officials agreed upon review and rescinded the penalty.

“This is a moment that we haven’t experienced together. I said that a few times tonight, Elliott said of his team. “You just don’t know those emotions until you go through it, are able to experience it. We obviously all put a lot of effort in to try to do our jobs to the best of our ability.”

“It absolutely is a team sport. We can’t do it on our own. I can’t do it by myself. No one on our team can do it alone. We recognize that. Feel like we have a great group, a group that’s capable of winning. I thought we showed that and proved that tonight  I think we can have a great shot next week.”

The pass for the lead came just at the right time, as he sped away from the rest of a field that erupted in clean chaos with other playoff contenders racing for points. Truex was later eliminated when he fell back due to a loose wheel, but other contenders needed to race their way into the title through points with Elliott racing away and non-playoff driver Kyle Busch winning the prior event at Texas.

The most prominent case was Harvick, who won nine races and took home the regular season title. He finished in the runner-up spot behind Logano at Kansas but struggled to a 16th-place posting at Texas last week. With Elliott and Truex, a pair of drivers behind him that were dominating the race (the two uniting to lead 375 of 500 laps), Harvick was forced into a desperate situation of his own. The feeling only increased when he lost a tire on lap 180 and the ensuing repairs put him two laps down. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was forced to scratch and claw its way back to the lead lap, finally earning the caution-induced free pass back to the lead lap granted to the first car lap down when the stalled car of James Davison bringing out the yellow flag.

Harvick was then embroiled in a three-way battle for two spots with Hamlin and Keselowski, the latter of whom started from the rear of the field after speeding during the Davison caution. But, like Elliott, he recovered from pit road miscues to reach fourth place and secure his spot alongside Logano and Elliott. With Hamling trying to hold off teammate Erik Jones in holding the 11th position, Harvick needed a mere point to reach the playoffs, owning the tiebreaker over Hamlin through wins. In desperation, Hamlin bumped Hamlin’s teammate Kyle Busch, the car just ahead of him, out the way to earn one final position, but wound up wrecking himself in the process. The endeavor relegated Harvick to the 17th spot, eliminating the 2014 Series champion.

Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman respectively finished fifth and sixth, but were likewise eliminated from contention through points. Ryan Blaney finished in the runner-up spot, while Logano came back third.

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series ends next weekend at Phoenix Raceway next Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). This is the first time that the season finale comes to Phoenix, after 18 years at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Race Notes

  • Elliott will appear in the championship four for the first time in his career. Keselowski and Logano are each looking for their second championship, having won the Cup Series title in 2012 and 2018. Hamlin is seeking his first Cup title, having finished in the top five on five occasions (including a fourth-place posting last season).

 

  • Elliott is the first Chevrolet representative in the championship four since teammate Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Defending champ Kyle Busch’s wait for a win ends at Texas

Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch had to wait for his first 2020 win in more ways than one this season.

Kyle Busch went nearly a full calendar year between victories on the NASCAR Cup Series level. Three days more was likely nothing.

With inclement weather pushing a majority of the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 from Sunday to Wednesday, Busch visited victory lane for the first time this season at Texas Motor Speedway. The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led a race-high 90 laps en route to victory, including the final 24.

Busch is the defending champion of the premier Cup Series, but has struggled through the defense campaign. The No. 18 was eliminated in the Round of 12 in the playoffs and several prior attempts at a victory were ended by on-track calamities, often through no fault of his own. But a season of heartbreak finally found relief on Wednesday evening.

With the win, Busch has now won at least one Cup Series race in each of the last 16 seasons.

“It was obviously much needed and very much a lot of relief, as well, too,” Busch said in a postrace Zoom session. “For me, having the opportunity to continue that win streak was certainly high on our list, and when you fall out of the playoffs and you’ve got nothing else to race for, that’s all you have to race for is trophies and getting wins for the rest of this year, and it feels really good to be able to come here to Texas and score that win.”

The first 52 of 334 laps of the event were run on its originally scheduled Sunday date before rains and mists took over the track. More 2020-induced chaos awaited Busch, as he was caught speeding on pit road during a caution period induced by JJ Yeley’s crash on lap 22. Busch would work his way up to 12th by the end of the first of two 105-circuit stages, but he moved up four spots after taking only two tires on the ensuing pit stops. He lingered behind various leaders, primarily Clint Bowyer and JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., before taking the lead at lap 199 when the latter ran out of fuel from the lead. With green flag stops cycling, Busch was able to pit and win the second stage.

During the ensuing pause, a majority of lead-lap cars came back to pit road to top off on fuel for the final run. Busch and Bowyer stayed out and engaged in a battle for the lead until they had to make their own visits to top off.

Bowyer faded from contention when his car failed to get the proper amount of fuel in it, putting Busch in control to take advantage. He would hold off one final charge from Truex and Christopher Bell to earn the 57th win of his Cup Series career. Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman rounded out the top five.

Busch praised the strategy set forth by crew chief Adam Stevens, who was constantly in Busch’s ear over the final segments, asking him to save fuel.

“We can do it under any situation,” Busch said of his relationship with Stevens. “We can do it under pressure situations of racing for a championship and winning the final races at Homestead and bringing home two championships there, we can do it in the Coke 600, we can do it here when we’re knocked out of the playoffs and people would say that we’ve got nothing to race for, but we come out here and we’re able to win. There’s all kinds of different circumstances and different opportunities for us, and I’d like to think that we can be successful for a long time.”

The runner-up finish was bittersweet for playoff contender Truex, whose No. 19 Toyota team endured a rollercoaster weekend. A spoiler issue removed 20 points from Truex’s spot in the standings. Further punishment included the suspension of crew chief James Small and being forced to start from the rear of the field. But Truex made his way into the top five by the time the weather arrived and was able to hold off Bell for second place. The third-place rookie is running his final races in Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota, which is set to shut its doors, before he joins JGR next season.

Despite the runner-up finish, Truex is currently 36 points behind Brad Keselowski (6th) for the last of four spots for championship contention at the season finale in Phoenix on November 8. Joey Logano (10th) clinched his spot with a win at Kansas Speedway last weekend. Truex, or any of the remaining six drivers who have yet to clinch, can earn an automatic invite with a win at Martinsville Speedway next weekend.

“I feel (bad). The 19 needed to win a race, obviously, in order to move on and punch their ticket to the Championship Round, and I’m that guy that spoils it for them, and that was one of their best mile-and-a-half runs that they’ve had this year,” Busch said with a smile. “I’m thinking of that as we’re coming down to the finish, too, but I’m like, I’ve got to win, man. There’s obviously no team orders and we do things straight up and as fast as we can be, we’ve got to be. Obviously, it (stinks) for them, (but) I did think, too, that they can be really good at Martinsville, so hopefully, they can go out there and do well, maybe win again.  I’d like to win Martinsville. It would really (stink) again if he finishes second to me, but that would be 2020, wouldn’t it?”

Martinsville will host the penultimate race of 2020, the Xfinity 500, on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Race Notes

  • Texas Motor Speedway welcomed a select number of fans to the race weekend, a good portion of whom braved the cold conditions to return on Wednesday. In appreciation, track president Eddie Gossage announced that anyone in the stands during the Wednesday portion would receive a certificate and garage passes to the 2021 NASCAR All-Star Race, which will be held in Texas for the first time in June.

 

  • Seven laps into the Wednesday restart, Matt Kenseth and Bubba Wallace were wiped out from the race by an accident on lap 59. Wallace is running his final races in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet before he moves to Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin’s new team, 23XI Racing, next season.

 

  • The other caution for an on-track incident came at lap 135, when Joey Gase’s No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet spun out in the second turn.

 

  • Overall points leader Kevin Harvick had a tough week in the Lone Star State. He led the earlier stages of Sunday’s laps, but made contact with the wall at lap 29. The damage affected his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford for the rest of the event, relegating him to a 16th-place finish. Harvick is 42 points ahead of the cutoff line entering Martinsville.

 

  • Another contender, Chase Elliott, ran in the top ten for a majority of the event but ran into trouble toward the end of the second stage. He visited pit road for a fuel-only stop, but felt he had a tire going down when he returned to the track, forcing him to return for another stop. Elliott finished a lap down in 20th and is 25 points behind Keselowski.

 

  • Busch is the first non-playoff contending driver to win a race in the postseason since Kenseth won the penultimate race of the 2017 season at Phoenix.

 

  • Jimmie Johnson’s final race as a full-time driver at Texas ended with an engine failure during the final stage.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman reflects while waiting on the playoff fringe in Texas

Even if his NASCAR playoff journey ends in the Round of 8, Alex Bowman is one of the year’s biggest winners through a powerful evolution.

With the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 trapped in rain-induced purgatory at Texas Motor Speedway, the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series have sought ways to entertain themselves as precipitation, mists, and chilly weather rocks the Lone Star State. Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney are engaging in virtual sparring on the links of their PlayStations. Joey Logano, locked into the group of four drivers eligible for a champion win in Phoenix in two-and-a-half weeks, told reporters that he was so racked with bored that he considered calling TMS president Eddie Gossage to ask if he could drive one of the massive trucks tasked with trying the track.

Alex Bowman, on the other hand, is working on his cars. Tampering with his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during the weather delays is forbidden, but Bowman has instead spent his time ordering parts for a sprint car endeavor he showcased on Twitter last week. The vehicle bears the marks of Valvoline, one of his primary Cup Series sponsors, and was tested by up-and-coming sprint car star C.J. Leary at The Dirt Track on the campus of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It’s certainly one way to keep Bowman occupied. The driver mentioned to the NASCAR media gather via Zoom that he was out of clean clothes in his motorhome and had In-and-Out Burger and pizza for lunch (though he offset the meal with a visit to the track’s gym, located below The Speedway Club suites.

It was another form of boredom, the kind induced by the ongoing health crisis, that inspired Bowman to take on such a challenge. His team is in the early stages of such a process, but he proudly spoke of the new purpose in a media session brought upon by the continuing rains in Fort Worth.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bowman said of the project. We went and tested on Friday and C.J. was really fast right off the bat, as fast as anybody that’s tested during the day there. We were going pretty good.

“I think (he) ran like 7-8 laps and had a ton of fun. We’re going to start racing it here soon and have lot of fun doing it. That’s why I do that deal: to really just have fun and no expectations. I have a really, really good group of people that help me on those cars. We’ve never lost a party when we go dirt racing, so that’s what we’re going to go do this winter.”

Adding the title of team owner would be a stellar way for Bowman cap off the 2020 refurbishment of his racing resume. The 27-year-old is currently one of eight drivers left in contention for the NASCAR Cup Series title as the 500-mile event in Texas sits in a wet holding pattern. His No. 88 team entered the race 27 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final spot in the championship four and seemed poised to at least partially whittle that margin before the skies opened on Sunday.

The Chevrolet started fifth but took the lead on lap 29 when polesitter and points lead Kevin Harvick got into the wall. It was a lead he would keep for the next 17 laps until the first precipitation brought out the caution flag. With pit strategies featuring both two-tire stops and ignoring a service visit entirely, Bowman has been scored in the 18th position since Sunday late afternoon, when the race was temporarily shut down on lap 52 of 334. The third attempt as resumption will come on Wednesday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Bowman is confident his team can continue to run upfront with the leaders as the season dwindles down. He will clinch a spot in the championship competition with a win, though one more opportunity will come next week at Martinsville Speedway. The championship race will be held at Phoenix Raceway on November 8. It’s the first time the Phoenix, a two-hour drive from Bowman’s birthplace in Tuscon, hosts the season finale.

“I was so happy with the race car. I was nervous going in, just because this is a place we’ve really struggled at in the past,” he said. “We’ve really only had one really strong race here. Was really just looking forward to getting here and seeing how the car was going to be, and it was just really good off the bat. So, that gives me a lot of confidence.”

The 17 laps Bowman led on Sunday was more than he led in ten prior visits to For Worth. His “one really strong race” was a fifth-place finish in this very event last fall.

Even if Bowman misses out on the championship battle, his entry into the Round of 8 has been the furthest postseason trek of his career. This trying season has also seen him set a new career-best in top-ten finishes (13) and post the most dominant effort of his racing career. Back in March, Bowman led 110 of 200 laps to earn his second career victory at the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, CA. Earlier this month, it was announced that Bowman would be the long-sought successor to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the Hendrick team’s No. 48 Chevrolet.

Bowman still thinks that, despite the accomplishments, there’s room for improvement over his final three races in the No. 88 branding.

“Right now, I think we’re running great. The last two months or so have been really, really good for us,” he noted. “The summer was really rough and the beginning of the year was amazing. So, we’ve definitely had our fair share of ups and downs. But I would give our team a B+ or A-, just based on how well they’ve worked together.”

Bowman was as high as second in the standings (sitting in the runner-up spot after NASCAR’s return from the COVID-19 pause at Darlington Raceway in May), but went a tough summer (three top-tens over the next 13 races) shifted him to the middle of the pack. But the team has refound their swagger during the postseason, finishing no worse than 16th in the last seven completed events.

The fact that Bowman is even in this position in the first place is one of the more inspiring chapters in recent NASCAR history. A champion on the midget car circuit, Bowman got his first taste of major NASCAR racing in 2012, when he made his debut on the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series circuit. He would run a full-season the year after, taking over the No. 99 Toyota for middle-tier RAB Racing. Bowman brought the car home 11th in the standings and became the first (and only) RAB driver to post multiple top-five finishes. That finish was made somewhat more impressive by the fact that Bowman was released from RAB when his sponsor pulled out of its duties prior to the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After that successful campaign, Bowman felt he needed more experienced at the lower levels before advancing to the Cup Series. Several teams did come calling, but a tough financial bind forced him to cut back on his Nationwide efforts. He thus accepted a ride for BK Racing’s No. 23 Toyota, a microbudget team where merely finished the race was just as valuable as a win.

“A lot of teams called and only one didn’t ask for money. And I didn’t have any money,” Bowman said. “That’s where I ended up and it was (either) do that or sit on a couch. There wasn’t an opportunity to return to the Xfinity ride that I had in 2013. I feel like we really did a lot with a little in 2013 and outperformed where we should have been and did a really good job. We had a really good group of people and outperformed what we had financially.”

Bowman ran a full season at BK, finishing no better than 13th. He would then move on to another small team, driving a No. 7 Chevrolet for former Cup Series crew chief Tommy Baldwin. He’d mostly run at the back of the field, but he started to garner attention from NASCAR’s elite.

One of Bowman’s first fans included the man he’d eventually succeed: Johnson.

“I was pretty down early in the season and Jimmie Johnson was the first guy to come and talk to me,” Bowman said. “(He’d) just be like ‘man, you’re doing a really good job with that car’, just out of nowhere. I still have no clue why he did that. I talked to him about it a couple weeks ago and he was like ‘man, I just came up to lap you and you were completely sideways, driving the wheels off of it, and I felt like I needed to say something and tell you that you were doing a good job’. He was really supportive.”

The support of Johnson, as well as fellow former Cup champion Kurt Busch, wasn’t the only thing keeping Bowman going during early growing pains. A fight to survive, not even only for the sake of his racing career, was the strongest factor.

“I refused to give up. I didn’t have a backup plan, so I couldn’t give up,” he said. “I wasn’t like ‘oh, I can go do this and I’ll be fine’. It was like, ‘you’ve got to keep doing this or you’re going to have to find another job and another way to pay for food’. So, yeah I didn’t give up and I refused to let it beat me.”

That job became even more arduous when he and Baldwin parting ways, leaving him without stable racing ground. But his performance caught the eye of none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. The face of NASCAR would bring Bowman in to represent his Xfinity unit at his JR Motorsports team for nine races, seven of which ended with his No. 88 Chevrolet in the top ten.

Those numerals once again proved to be foreshadowing. When Earnhardt was forced to miss the latter stages of the 2016 Cup season due to injury, Bowman teamed up with Jeff Gordon to drive his Hendrick Cup for the remainder of the season. In his retirement speech the following spring, Earnhardt hand-picked Bowman to replace him in the Hendrick stables. Team owner Rick Hendrick acquiesced, naming Bowman the replacement two months later. He has since become one of the more consistent drivers on the circuit, reaching the playoffs in each of his three full-time seasons with HMS.

“A crazy set of circumstances to go from (the No. 23) to driving the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports,” Bowman admitted. “Driving for Tommy Baldwin the following year, that deal falling apart, then, driving the simulator and getting called to fill in for Dale, it was a pretty wild couple of years there and definitely a lot of very uncertain times and stressful times.”

Stability was supposed to come at Hendrick, thought 2020, his contract season, has proven to be one of the most unusual seasons in NASCAR history. But in the midst of unprecedented times, Bowman has made his own luck and has emerged from this trying campaign as one of its brightest silver linings.

Bowman may be bored as NASCAR continues to wait out the weather in Texas. But if a little boredom is the price of stability, a strong team unit, good health, and a chance to race at a championship, it’s safe to say that Bowman, a driver who hasn’t been handed a single thing in his NASCAR career, will run that race every single time.

Surviving at the Cup Series level used to mean racing cars to the finish on a wing and a prayer. Now, it’s a steady diet of In-and-Out Burgers and pizza.

Sounds like a fair trade.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Pit road victory allows Joey Logano to advance to NASCAR’s final four

Joey Logano’s well-timed pit stop allowed him to beat out Kevin Harvick at Kansas, making him eligible for the NASCAR Cup Series title.

Joey Logano and his No. 22 Team Penske Ford team showed exactly why NASCAR is a team sport at Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

A caution session with 45 circuits left in the 267-lap event saw Logano’s crew provide the fastest service. He beat out incoming leader Kevin Harvick off pit lane, as well as the final 41 green flag circuits to earn a victory that clinched his spot among the four championship contenders at Phoenix Raceway on November 8.

Logano’s win at Kansas is his third of the season and his first since taking two of the first four races held prior to a COVID-19-induced pause in March…his last win ironically coming at Phoenix. With the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs entering its three-race Round of 8, Logano earned automatic entry to the finale as the Connecticut native seeks his second title over the last three seasons.

If I’m being honest, I don’t have fun driving a race car, I have fun winning,” Logano said after the race. “That’s what I enjoy doing. That’s what that is at this point. If I want to go fun, I’ll go to a go-kart track and have fun. That’s not what this is about. This is about winning, this is a job, putting food on the table for not only my family but countless others that helped this race team.”

En route to his first Cup Series title in 2018, Logano also won the first race of the Round of 8, then held at Martinsville Speedway (which will host the final contest of the round this time). The importance of such a victory was not lost on the 30-year-old.

The weight lifted off your shoulders is only part of it. The ability to start working on your Phoenix car, not worry about your Texas and Martinsville car,” he said. “I don’t want to say that, but you’re 100% focused on one more race.  We know we can’t finish worse than fourth in points, you know what I mean? We know we’re in it.”

Logano mostly lingered in the middle portions of the field in the early going, watching Chase Elliott and Denny Hamling win the first two 80-lap stages. After the second stage, Logano and Aric Almirola gambled by taking two tires on the ensuing pit stops. While Almirola (a former playoff driver eliminated after the Round of 12) faded, Logano was set up to run with the leaders. By the time Tyler Reddick brought out the caution by scraping the wall at lap 221, it was clear that Logano and Harvick had the vehicles to beat.

The No. 22 team helped Logano win the fateful race off of pit road before he held off a furious challenge from Harvick over the final segments for the win. Some fans took issue with the current rules package, claiming that it allowed Harvick to catch up to Logano but not take the lead. Logano instead credited his choice of lanes in the final turns around the 1.5-mile tri-oval, as well as the assistance of spotter TJ Majors.

“When you have clean air in front of you, like Kevin did as well, being so close to the lead, the advantage probably goes to the trimmed car, which is what the 4 has.  At that point you just kind of hope for dirty air and tires to wear out a little bit.  That’s where our car should start to excel,” Logano explained. “So, knowing that in your mind, you try to hold him off for as long as you can. If you can hold off 15 laps or so, maybe it would get a little easier. It didn’t. He hung on there for a long time, was catching me so fast on the straightaways. It was a matter of picking the right lanes when you get there.”

Harvick was denied his 10th win of the season, a mark unattained since Jimmie Johnson pulled off the feat in 2007, but praised Logano for his work over the final laps. He’s currently up 41 points on the championship cutoff.

“Joey did just a good job of putting his car right in front of ours,” Harvick said. With this package, every time you put your car in front of the car behind you, it takes the nose away.  We just had a little bit of trouble trying to get the nose to turn when he would take our lane.”

Alex Bowman joined the main duo late to finish third, while Logano’s Penske teammate Brad Keselowski came home fourth. Non-playoff driver Kyle Busch rounded out the top five. Keselowski is currently the last driver in when looking at the final four picture, up on Elliott (6th), Sunday’s polesitter by eight points. Elliott would be on via points, but was shifted to the outside looking in by Logano’s victory.

The Round of 8 reaches its middle stage next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Elliott recovered to finish sixth after radio problems plagued him in the early stages of the race.

 

  • After winning the second stage, Hamlin made contact with the wall, forcing him to pit road. He eventually recovered to a 15th-place finish and currently holds one of the championship spots by 20 points.

 

  • Prior to the race, the small, socially distanced crowd paid tribute to Kansas native Clint Bowyer, the retiring driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Bowyer, winner of 10 Cup Series races and the 2008 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series title, moved to the front of the field before the green flag flew. Bowyer finished 26th, capping off his Kansas ledger with three top-five and eight top-ten finishes in 25 starts at his home track.

 

  • Playoff driver Kurt Busch’s title chances took a major hit when he lost his engine at lap 198. At 73 points behind the cutoff, Busch more than likely will need to win of the two remaining pre-Phoenix races at Texas or Martinsville to contend for a championship.

 

  • Bowyer’s fellow retiree Matt Kenseth also endured a tough day, bringing out the caution with a wreck at lap 144.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski takes time to reflect amidst another title run

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion reflected on the past while veering toward a fast present and future leading into Sunday’s Kansas event.

Not long ago, Brad Keselowski was NASCAR’s prodigy, leaving the racing world waiting with bated breath to see his next move. Keselowski earned his first win at the premier Cup Series level in just his third start…more than a full calendar year before he took home the NASCAR Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series title. When the legendary Cup garages at Hendrick Motorsports provided no vacancy, Keselowski moved to another beacon of motorsports royalty in Team Penske. After his rookie season, Keselowski took over team owner Roger Penske’s famed No. 2 Ford (a car previously piloted solely by past champions Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch) and drove it to a title in 2012, his third full season of racing. Three years later, he made his feature film debut, uttering the outlandish subtitle of Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!. 

Now, it’s Keselowski who’s being sought after for advice to the younger drivers in the Penske stables…and not for acting advice.

Keselowski’s ongoing run for a second title comes at a busy time in his team’s stables. Through its technical partnership with Wood Brothers Racing, the team’s Xfinity Series driver, Austin Cindric, is set to make his full-time Cup Series debut in the Woods’ famed No. 21 Ford. Some have seen Cindric as the ultimate successor to Keselowski in the No. 2. He and the No. 22 Penske Xfinity team are in the midst of battling for that title after five wins this season.

“When I was in his spot in the sport there was a part of me that thought this was gonna last forever. It doesn’t,” Keselowski said of the best piece of advice he’d off Cindric. “The biggest advice I can give anyone like him is to soak it up. It’s probably the one and only time in your life that you’ll have a chance to run for your first NASCAR championship and it’s a unique feeling, it’s a special feeling.

“It’s a little bit like going to the Senior Prom. You only get one shot at a first championship or at least your first effort at it, and there are some things that probably aren’t gonna go your way and hopefully, there are some things that do, but you only get to do it once, so enjoy the ride. As far as the technical stuff, he’s got that. He doesn’t need any help from me.”

Keselowski was speaking earlier this week in the lead-up to Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Keselowski is one of eight drivers left in championship contention, sitting in third place as the Cup Series playoffs kick off its final elimination round. Four drivers will be eligible for the championship finale in Phoenix on November 8. A win over the next three races clinches a spot at the championship table for Phoenix, though Keselowski is currently 13 points ahead of teammate and Sharknado co-star Joey Logano in terms of making it on points.

But Keselowski isn’t concerned about points, at this rate. It’s hard to believe, but 2020 marks the 36-year-old’s ninth playoff trek, having reached the playoffs in all but two of his full-time seasons. With that experience and a title under his belt, he knows what it takes to survive in NASCAR’s postseason era.

Keselowski looked at his 13-point advantage over Logano only in terms of race day…meaning 13 points could be erased in the first two stages of the race.

“It’s like a two-stage cushion, so if I don’t score any stage points at Kansas, that’s pretty much we use up those 13 points,” he said. “But I know 13 up is better than 13 down, so I’m not complaining.”

Since NASCAR’s playoffs switched to an elimination format in 2014, Keselowski has made it to the championship finale once (when it was held at Homestead-Miami Speedway), doing so via point in 2016. But he knows how important a win can be in the semifinal opener. In two of the last four seasons, the winner of the Round of 8’s opener has gone on to win the championship (Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Logano in 2018).

“I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence,” he said. I think it’s a big advantage to win the first race in this semi-final round of the playoffs, but with respect to that it gives you a lot of time to prepare for the final race and I think that’s never a bad thing. Whether that’s allowing your team to kind of relax a little bit and focus on one car rather than three other cars to build, or engineering.”

Another Keselowski protege, Chase Briscoe, got to experience that phenomenon firsthand on Saturday night. With a dominant win in the Xfinity Series’ Kansas Lottery 300, Briscoe has earned a spot in the lower-tier playoffs’ championship quarter. Briscoe, currently driving No. 98 Ford Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity endeavors, got his NASCAR start at the now-defunct Brad Keselowski Racing.

Through his self-funded race team, Keselowski, whose early career included help from Dale Earnhardt Jr., paid the favor of NASCAR advancement forward through Camping World (now Gander RV & Outdoor) Truck Series seedings. Cindric and Briscoe each earned their start with the team, as did teammate Ryan Blaney. Other notable names to drive Keselowski trucks include Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick.

Keselowski remarked while he’s happy with his current situation, he “would certainly entertain” reopening BKR, potentially as a Cup Series team. The unit suspended operations after the 2017 season. His approach to a race team could well have been foreshadowed in describing his preview of the Round of 8.

“In some ways, it’s less stressful because you feel like you can control more of your own destiny,” Keselowski said of the Round of 8. “You can never control all of it, but more of it. That said, there are some really good teams, really good performers, and the other side I guess if you’re playing Devil’s advocate thinks to himself, ‘Hey, I’m really gonna have to step up and deliver in this round because nothing by chance is gonna work in my favor.’ So the rounds certainly have different feels to them, but I struggle to quantify if they feel easier or harder. I just feel like they all have their own challenges.”

The No. 2 Ford will start eighth on Sunday. Keselowski recently came home in the runner-up spot in the previous race at Kansas this summer, and has earned two wins at the 1.5-mile tri-oval, the most recent coming in last spring’s visit.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott prepares for a fateful Round of 8

Chase Elliott has accomplished a lot in his NASCAR career, but the next three races could help him take a career-changing step forward.

Chase Elliott wore a hat while speaking with the media on Thursday afternoon. That’s obviously not out of the ordinary when it comes to NASCAR driver availability, but Elliott’s headwear bore not one of his sponsors, but rather the curvy “A” of MLB’s Atlanta Braves. It makes all the sense in the world, considering his Dawsonville, Georgia roots.

“I enjoy watching the sport. Obviously, I’m a Braves fan and they have a game today, and that’s why I’m wearing the hat,” Elliott said with a smile about his hat. He jokingly tried to connect the hat to a sponsor that regularly graces his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “To be honest with you, I forgot I had this media availability today…but I’m sponsored by NAPA.”

The Braves would go on to top the Los Angeles Dodgers 10-2 in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, giving them a 3-1 series lead. Elliott and his Braves are in remarkably similar situations…with one more win over three opportunities, they can each earn a chance to play for their respective sport’s ultimate prize.

Bolstered by young talent, both the Braves and the No. 9 team have accomplished much in their respective fields. Atlanta has taken home each of the last three NL East division titles, and Elliott has reached the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in all five of his full-time season. But the final hurdle has proved difficult. One more win for the Braves would send them to their first World Series since 1999. Elliott, meanwhile, is battling to escape from the Round of 8.

The No. 9 is one of eight vehicles left in contention for the 2020 Cup Series title. A 16-driver playoff field has been split in half in time for the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The next three races will determine the four-driver championship field at Phoenix Raceway. Playoff drivers who win one of the next three races get an automatic invite to the title push in the desert.

Elliot, the son of 1988 Cup Series champion Bill, has been in a must-win situation at Phoenix on three occasions…when Phoenix hosted the penultimate race of the year and served as the Round of 8’s finale. Heartbreak has followed each time. In 2017, he was passed for the lead by Matt Kenseth with 10 laps to go, denying him the automatic championship entry. Last season saw him wreck in the early stages. Bad luck, often in the form of wrecks beyond his control, forced him into such dire set-ups. Elliott would be the last driver in contention at Phoenix if the Round of 8 was skipped over, but he’s only five points ahead of fifth-place Joey Logano.

He’s not going to let Round of 8 yips of the past affect his approach in 2020.

“For us, we’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel. That’s number one,” he said. “I think another thing that we don’t want to do is to get too far off the beaten path. I feel like, for us, when we’ve been at our best and as a team, myself included, performing at the level that we’re all capable of doing, I feel like we’ve contended with the best of the series this year, in my personal opinion. And, I think we’re capable of doing that again. So, from my situation, I’m just trying to sit back and trying to do exactly that; and trying to perform at the level I know we can.”

By this point, labeling Elliott’s success as the product of nepotism is foolhardy. Elliott has nine wins over the past three seasons and has established himself as NASCAR’s new king of road courses. Last Sunday’s win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval” (half-oval, half-road course) was his fourth straight on such set-ups. Only series legend Jeff Gordon has eclipsed that mark (6). Further accolades include the most recent All-Star Race and the 2014 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series title…two before he took over Hendrick’s No. 24 for a retiring Gordon.

Since having switched to the No. 9, a nod to his father’s glory days with Melling Racing, Elliott has seemed to earn everything but a Cup Series title, one that can truly make him a face of NASCAR, one nearing a new generation with a new vehicle template and schedule on the road ahead.

But Elliott’s mind isn’t meandering on any sort of validation…he’ll worry about that if and when his championship moment comes.

“When you’re on the hunt for one or you’ve never done it before, I’m not sure I’m thinking about the validation it’s going to give me on the backside,” he said. “I think I’m really just thinking about that being the goal and that being what I want to achieve and being that next step or the next thing that our team wants to go and have a shot at trying to make the final four.”

“I feel like that’s something you kind of reflect on after you do something like that. I’m not sure you really know what it feels like or what validation it might give you internally unless you’ve achieved it; which I obviously have not.”

“Personally, and as a team, there’s nothing anybody outside of myself or my team is going to say to me to make we want to win a championship more.”

Elliott will start on the pole for Sunday’s race at Kansas. He finished 12th during the last visit to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in the summer, but he won the fall event in 2018.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags