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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

For full standings, click here

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three Drivers to watch in Sunday’s Goodyear 400

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

For the first time in seven, the NASCAR Cup Series makes a stop at Darlington Speedway for a scheduled spring race. The series went there twice last spring when NASCAR returned from their COVID-19 pause, but the events weren’t on the original schedule.

Sunday’s event is set for 293 laps and 400.2 miles around the 1.366-mile circuit. Brad Keselowski will lead the field to green while last week’s winner Kyle Busch will roll off third. Here are three drivers to watch in the Goodyear 400.

Kevin Harvick (+700)

Not many drivers have been able to tame the “Lady in Black”, but Kevin Harvick has done so three times in the Cup Series. He’s won two of the three races at the track last season, including the first race back from the pandemic. Harvick has 15 top-10s in 26 starts at Darlington, including 11 top-5s.

Through 11 races, Harvick sits 8th in the Cup Series standings despite being winless thus far. He has 4 top-5s and 8 top-10s, also earning many stage points. Sunday could finally be the day Harvick scores his first win of 2021, and he has a good chance to do so.

Erik Jones (+8000)

In less than stellar equipment, Erik Jones has had an up-and-down season. He’s 27th in the standings 2 top-10s in 11 starts and spent time in contention a few weeks ago at Talladega.

Jones has an opportunity to better his points position with a strong finish at Darlington. He’s finished in the top-10 in each of his six starts at the track, including a victory in 2019. His average finish is a stellar 5.2. Be sure to look out for Jones this weekend in the Goodyear 400.

Tyler Reddick (+4000)

Tyler Reddick has had a sneaky good 2021 season in improved Richard Childress Racing equipment. He’s finished in the top-10 in four of his last five races and currently sits in 18th place in the points standings.

Tracks like Darlington and Homestead-Miami where cars kind of just slide around the corners are Reddick’s best. He finished in the top-10 once last season in the Cup Series and also has a pair of top-5s in the Xfinity Series. Don’t be surprised to see Tyler Reddick contend on Sunday and potentially steal a win.

NASCAR: Kyle Busch earns a birthday sweep at Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Buschy McBusch Race 400

After an eventful Talladega race, the NASCAR Cup Series makes a stop in the Midwest at Kansas Motor Speedway. The race will last 267 laps, equivalent to 400 miles. Last week’s winner Brad Keselowski rolls off from the pole position while last fall’s winner Joey Logano starts 29th after a crash at Talladega. Here are three drivers to watch on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr. (+650)

To no one’s surprise, Martin Truex Jr. has had a lot of success at Kansas Speedway. Living up to his name of “Mile and a Half Martin”, Truex Jr. has two wins and 12 top-10s in 25 starts on the circuit. Both of his wins came in 2017, the year he won the Cup Series Championship.

2021 has so far been kind to the Truex Jr. and the No. 19 team. With wins at Phoenix and Martinsville, Truex Jr. is the only Cup Series driver with multiple wins on the season and is currently 2nd in points. Expect Truex Jr. to run up front on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (+600)

Much like Truex Jr., Kansas has been kind to Denny Hamlin over his career. He’s won three times at the track with 8 top-5s and an average finish of 14.5. Hamlin is also the winner of two of the last three races at Kansas.

Although Hamlin’s had massive success this season, he still hasn’t pulled out a victory. With top-10s in 8 of 10 races, Hamlin holds a nearly 90-point lead in the standings with many close calls and stage points this season. Sunday would be a great time for Hamlin to finally break through and secure his first victory of the season.

Chase Elliott (+800)

Someone who’s struggled a bit this season is defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He’s managed just 4 top-10s so far, however, he remains in 8th in the standings due to stage points.

Elliott’s had a good bit of success at Kansas, winning once with 6 top-10s in 10 starts at the track. He has an average finish of 11th and doesn’t have any DNFs. Don’t be surprised if Elliott breaks through for a big victory on Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals wild Talladega finish in overtime

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

Working overtime on Sunday paid off for Brad Keselowski.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s GEICO 500

On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the second restrictor-plate race of the season. The event will run 188 laps around the 2.66-mile circuit, totaling a 500-lap race. Coming off a second-place finish at Richmond last week, Denny Hamlin will lead the field to green with last week’s winner Alex Bowman rolling off fourth. Here are three drivers to watch in Sunday’s GEICO 500.

Michael McDowell (+5000)

Fresh off a Daytona 500 victory, Michael McDowell is one of the biggest names to watch this weekend. He’s always ran well in restrictor plate races, totaling 4 top-5s between Daytona and Talladega. McDowell finished fifth at Talladega in fall of 2019 and he always seems to run up front in restrictor plate races.

After three consecutive top-10s to open up the season, McDowell’s struggled of late. He hasn’t finished better than 12th since Homestead-Miami in February and has fallen to 9th in the playoff standins and 17th overall. Expect McDowell to get his dream season headed back in the right direction with a strong finish on Sunday.

Ryan Blaney (+800)

Ryan Blaney has proved himself as a strong restrictor plate racer of late. He’s won two of the last three races at Talladega and has two other top-10s to his name at the track. Additionally, Blaney has 4 top-10s at Daytona, including a second place finish in the 2020 Daytona 500.

Blaney’s gotten off to a strong start this season, winning at Atlanta and sitting fifth in points standings. He has just two other top-10s, however, stage points have boosted his points position. Blaney should have a good car on Sunday and should contend for the victory.

Aric Almirola (+1200)

Aric Almirola is one of the best restrictor plate racers in the sport, but he doesn’t have much to his name for it. His two Cup Series victories have both came at superspeedways, and he has a combined 12 top-10s between Talladega and Daytona. Most recently, Almirola won the fall race at Talladega in 2018, beating out teammate Clint Bowyer for the victory.

2021 has been a complete trainwreck for Almirola, and he’d like to turn things around on Sunday. Sitting 27th in points, Almirola finally picked up his first top-10 finish of the season last week at Richmond with a 6th place finish. The whole season will change for Almirola if he can pull out a victory on Sunday, and he should be in contention to do so.

 

NASCAR: Alex Bowman steals Richmond triumph, ends Hendrick drought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400

After a fun clash at Martinsville, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the other side of Virginia for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. Sunday’s event consists of 400 laps around the 0.75-mile circuit, evening out to be a 300-mile race. Here are three drivers to watch in the 9th race of the season.

Martin Truex Jr. (+350)

Fresh off a win at Martinsville, Martin Truex Jr. is one of the biggest names to look out for on Sunday. Sitting second in points, he’s the only Cup Series driver to have won multiple events this season.

At Richmond, Truex Jr. only has two career wins, but both of them came within the last three races there. He has 6 top-5s and 12 top-10s at Richmond with an average finish of 17th. Truex Jr. rolls off on the poll, so expect him to contend for the victory.

Kyle Busch (+800)

Richmond has always been one of Kyle Busch’s top tracks over his storied career. With six wins and an average finish of 7th, running up front isn’t anything new for him there.

Coming into this weekend’s race, Busch is looking to secure his first win of the 2021 season. After just one win last season, Busch is looking to put an end to his cold spell and silence the haters with a victory under new crew chief Ben Beshore.

Brad Keselowski (+400)

Brad Keselowski has had a lot of success at Richmond over his career, especially of late. He won last fall’s event and has placed in the top-10 in seven of the last eight races at Richmond. Keselowski’s average finish 12th with 12 top-10 finishes.

Similar to Busch, Keselowski is looking to secure his first victory of the 2021 season. He hasn’t finished within the top-10 since Phoenix, however, he’s currently ninth in points. Expect Keselowski to run up front on Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags