Brad Keselowski advanced to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 12 with a dominant win at Richmond Raceway.
In an attempt to make the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs a three-man headliner, Brad Keselowski made sure he was the only driver taking care of business at Richmond Raceway on Saturday night.
Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford led 192 of 400 laps, including the final 48 en route to victory at the Federated Auto Parts 400. The No. 2 team gained automatic entry to the next round of the Cup Series playoffs with its fourth win over the season. One more race remains in the opening round of 16 drivers, with the bottom four in the standings eliminated next weekend. Only Kevin Harvick (8) and Denny Hamlin (6) have won more races this season.
With his 33rd career Cup Series win, Keselowski ties Fireball Roberts for 24th-place all-time.
“I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to a lot of the greats in the sport,” the 2012 Cup champion said. “I really wish I was winning five to ten races a year because that’s what it’s going to take to do that, but I’m trying to also be grateful for what I have and to have won four races to date this year. But I want to be the best, and to be the best you’ve got to have those 5-10 win seasons consistently and I’ve been having 3-4 win seasons.”
Keselowski, seeking his second Cup Series title, took his first lead of the day on lap 121, passing teammate Joey Logano and leading the next 42 circuits before hitting pit road. Once stops cycled through, Keselowski coasted to a stage victory, his sixth of the season. With the win in both the race and the stages, Keselowski has an extra six-point cushion going into the next round.
“A race like tonight I think easily gets sold as there weren’t any wrecks. These drivers are just good,” Keselowski said of the clean race. “These cars all drove so bad with that little bitty spoiler on them, a lot of horsepower, and you had guys with new tires and old tires sliding around, and it’s so easy to get in trouble and to wreck. These drivers are just freaking good, and they didn’t do that. To win a race against drivers that are this good is pretty cool. It’s something I’m very proud of, and I’m going to try to soak it up.”
The No. 2’s main competition for victory was the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet of Austin Dillon. After opening the playoffs with a runner-up finish at Darlington, Dillon drove the fastest car in the field for a majority of the evening. He led a career-best 55 laps despite numerous calamities on pit road. He came home second in the opening 80-lap stage behind Denny Hamlin, but a speeding penalty during the ensuing yellow flag put him at the rear. Dillon would recover also finish second in the middle stage.
Attempting to make his final stop with 65 laps to go, Dillon missed pit road, costing him precious seconds on the racetrack. He was able to briefly regain the lead before Keselowski took over the rest of the way. Dillon wound finishing fourth behind Martin Truex Jr. and Logano, earning consecutive top-five finishes for the first time in his Cup Series career. Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.
Dillon owns a 36-point advantage over the cutoff line at 13th place, currently occupied by William Byron.
The opening round of the Cup Series playoffs ends next weekend with the Bass Pro Shops Night Race on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Keselowski won the first visit to Bristol back in May.
Playoff drivers occupied each of the top ten spots. Tyler Reddick was top finishing non-qualifier in 11th.
Hamlin (12th) never recovered from a speeding penalty of his own after the second stage, but he nonetheless mathematically clinched a spot in the Round of 12 with a 61-point advantage over 13th. Points leader Harvick (7th) clinched his spot with a win at Darlington last weekend.
Team Penske’s playoff trio had one missing link, as Ryan Blaney struggled for the second consecutive week. Blaney (19th) finished two laps down and currently sits in 16th and last place in the playoff standings, 27 points behind 12th man Clint Bowyer (10th). A win would help Blaney clinch automatically.
Save for stage pauses, Saturday’s race featured no caution flags. It’s the third such race since stages were introduced in 2017 and the first since the road course event at Sonoma in June 2019. The last, and likely final, race to be completely caution-free was the October 2002 event at Talladega.
Timmy Hill (mechanical) was the only driver who failed to finish.
Truex (2nd) had won each of the prior two events at Richmond. His runner-up finish is his third over the last five races.
Keselowski’s win at night capped off a strong day of racing for team owner Roger Penske. Earlier on the IndyCar Series circuit, Will Power led all but nine laps at the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to win his first race of 2020.
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began the same way many races in the regular season ended: with Kevin Harvick in victory lane.
NASCAR’s annual Labor Day weekend excursion to Darlington Raceway has recently been celebrated by the unveiling of paint schemes that reference or pay homage to popular cars of the past. The most recent visit to the Myrtle Beach staple, however, kept a very modern trend going.
Drama at the front of the field allowed Kevin Harvick to win Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500, his eighth victory of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Harvick was running third when front-runners Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. incapacitated each other through contact with 13 laps to go. From that point on, Harvick held off Austin Dillon to win the 57th race of his Cup career. Such a victory puts him in sole possession of ninth place on the all-time wins list.
“When you start looking around the win list and you start seeing the names that you’re around, you just start thinking to yourself, man, these are some of the greatest drivers that ever came through our sport.,” Harvick said in his place in history. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. You’ve got to do your part and, hopefully, we can keep doing what we’re doing on the racetrack and keep climbing up there.”
He and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team also earn automatic advancement to the next leg of the NASCAR Playoffs, which began at Darlington with 16 drivers. Four will be eliminated after short track races over the next two weeks at Richmond and Bristol.
A tally of 57 playoff points during the regular season made sure that Harvick didn’t have to worry too much about securing points to make the next round. But that didn’t stop him and crew chief Rodney Childers. Harvick finished in the top ten in each of the first two stages, but different pit strategies from Childers allowed him to stay at the upper-half of the field. Properly timed cautions also played in the hands of the No. 4 team.
“We’re more or less just trying to do what’s right for us and be consistent and do the best we can every week,” Childers said. “We just felt like that was the best thing for us. With our car kind of falling off too much and cording the right rear, we really didn’t have another option. We were just trying to do what was best, and it kind of worked out in both of those last two stages and we got a caution when we were up there at the lead.”
Harvick was also pleased to win the race in front of an adoring public, as Darlington welcomed in a limited crowd to witness Sunday’s race. It marked his third win at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”, the prior one coming at NASCAR’s return from a coronavirus-induced pause in May. No fans were able to witness that win (his first of the 2020 season), so Harvick was sure to take the reaction in. It’s his first win in the Southern 500, an event that dates back to 1950.
“That’s the first race that I’ve won this year that anybody has been here,” Harvick noted. “But I think back to the first race here, and for me, that was really the moment that put it all into perspective of where we were and what we were doing and how drastic of a situation it was when you have all that enthusiasm to share with nobody and just dead silence. It felt really, really good to have some cheering fans in the grandstands and be able to experience that again.”
Truex and Elliott united to lead 310 of the race’s 367 laps, the former’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota winning each of the first two stages. With Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leading after a caution to remove debris from the frontstretch, Truex made an aggressive move in search of his second win of the season. Attempting to close the door and clear the No. 9, Truex instead made contact, damaging each of their playoff rides. The encounter forced them each to pit road relegated Elliott to a 20th-place finish and Truex to 22nd.
It served as unfortunate deja vu for Elliott. A prior 2020 event at Darlington ended in an Elliott after he was bumped by another Joe Gibbs driver, Kyle Busch, while fighting for the lead in the race’s dying stages.
Dillon finished in the runner-up spot. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet worked its way to the front after being forced to start from the rear due to unapproved adjustments. Joey Logano finished third while Erik Jones was the highest-finishing non-playoff driver in fourth. Another playoff man, William Byron, rounded out the top five.
The second round of the Round of 16 will run on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Playoff drivers took 12 of the top 13 starts in the final running order.
It was a tough start to the playoffs for Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. Blaney was forced to start from the rear for failing prerace inspection due to an improperly-mounted ballast. The violation cost him 10 points and the services of crew chief Todd Gordon, who was suspended. Blaney finished a lap off the pace in 24th and sits 17 points behind the 12th-place cutoff.
Bubba Wallace’s transmission issues forced him to retire early, while John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford was lost to an accident. Corey LaJoie also sustained damage and was retired when he took his car directly to the garage area rather than pit road.
As the NASCAR’s postseason gets underway in Darlington on Sunday night, ESM has you covered for the road ahead.
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get underway at Darlington Raceway tonight. 16 drivers enter the 10-race gauntlet, with four eliminated after every three races. The proceedings wrap up in Phoenix this November, and drivers can advance to the next leg of the tournament with a win in the preceding circuit.
ESM has you covered with lineup and the road (pun much intended) ahead…
1. Kevin Harvick
Team: No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Crew Chief: Rodney Childers 2020 Wins: 7 (Darlington 1, Atlanta, Pocono 1, Indianapolis, Michigan 1, Michigan 2, Dover 2) Best Prior Finish: 2014 Champion
In this era of lost qualifying and practice, Harvick hasn’t been making a Hall-of-Fame case. As the 2014 Cup Series champion, the man who took over for the late Dale Earnhardt, and his impact on both the Cup and Xfinity levels, Harvick was probably going to Charlotte anyway. But his sheer dominance in going from motorhome to car has been nothing short of extraordinary. Only four races have ended with Harvick outside of the top ten and only a pair of visits to Daytona has stopped him from a streak of 13 consecutive top-five finishes. Through his seven wins (matching seven stages wins as well), Harvick has earned a Cup Series-record 57 playoff points, building himself a solid cushion that could sustain him all the way to Phoenix.
They Said It: “We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had…Our theory is not that you change gears and try to do something different, it’s you better be ready and already have been in that mode.”-Harvick on building momentum for the playoffs
2. Denny Hamlin (-10 points behind)
Team: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Crew Chief: Chris Gabehart 2020 Wins: 6 (Daytona Winter, Darlington 2, Homestead, Pocono 2, Kansas, Dover 1) Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2010)
At Harvick’s side every step of the way has been Hamlin. Since entering the Cup Series in 2006, his No. 11 Toyota has accomplished almost everything there is to earn on the premier levels. February saw him win his third Daytona 500 (and second in a row, the first to do that since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95) and he added five more victories, giving him 43 since starting his Cup career. His career began with a third-place standings finish in his rookie year (the first rookie to qualify for what was then the Chase for the Sprint Cup) and he reached the final four last season, nine years after a runner-up finish. All that’s missing is an elusive Cup championship. Like Harvick, Hamlin was able to build a sizable lead over the cutoffs, currently lead the first won by 47 points thanks to his six wins and tying the No. 4 for the most stage wins with seven. Since teaming with new crew chief Gabehart last season, Hamlin has visited victory lane 12 times.
They Said It: “A lot of stuff has changed on and off the race track. I think I’ve changed a little bit as a driver. I’ve just adapted quite a bit as well. It’s tough to say what has automatically just flipped the switch and made the results what they’ve been over the last two years or less than two years. Certainly, there’s a process we’ve put in to preparing for each week that is working for us, it’s working for me. Me and Chris have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us. Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening.”-Hamlin on what’s been the difference for him over the last two seasons.
3. Brad Keselowski (-28)
Team: No. 2 Team Penske Ford Crew Chief: Jeremy Bullins 2020 Wins: 3 (Charlotte 1, Bristol, New Hampshire) Best Prior Finish: 2012 Champion
The epic battle between Harvick and Hamlin has somewhat covered up Keselowski’s strong season. A strong summer propelled him to the third seed on the initial playoff grid, boosted by a streak of eight consecutive finishes no worse than 11th. Keselowski has worked his magic during his first season under Bullins, who came over from teammate Ryan Blaney’s pit stall during a Penske shakeup. He got off to a strong start in last year’s playoff proceedings, with top fives in each of the three first-round races. But a wreck at Talladega (site of five prior wins) put him in a hole and ended his chances at another trophy hoist at Homestead.
They Said It: “I think I’ve been in this position now seven of the last eight years, in the playoffs, really eight of the last nine years and I’ve brought it home once, which is great. I’m super-proud of that. It’s more than I thought I’d ever accomplish in my entire life. And so I’ll always be proud of that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wanting to stop there. It doesn’t mean that I want to leave this sport with my one Cup and go home and tell my grandkids about it for the next hopefully 40-50 years, however long I’ve got to live. I’d rather tell them about two than one, but the reality is a championship is much bigger than a driver. They put the driver’s name on the trophy, but I’ve never seen a driver win a championship. I’ve seen a lot of damn good teams win championships.”-Keselowski on his No. 2 team
4. Joey Logano (-35)
Team: No. 22 Team Penske Ford Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe 2020 Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Phoenix) Best Prior Finish: 2018 Champion
Logano was the driver to beat prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, winning two of the first four races of the season, including the winter visit to the championship site in Phoenix. He struggled to regain speed once things got rolling again, but heated up as summer rolled on. The No. 22 won each of the first two stages at the regular-season finale at Daytona before a late wreck ended his day. It broke a streak of six consecutive top-ten finishes for the Connecticut native, who is likewise working through a year with a new crew chief in Wolfe. The Cup veteran helped guide Keselowski to his championship in 2012.
They Said It: “(The wins) feel like a long time ago…Way too long. We’re ready to win again, but I do feel like we’re getting close back to that same point as we were. To me, there’s no doubt when we went back racing we weren’t where we wanted to be. I even said it a few times, almost like a lost puppy not knowing what road to go down to get back to where we need to be, and it’s hard to find that direction without practice. Going to a different racetrack every week it’s hard to grow. It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year. We can get ourselves in position to win again and I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”-Logano on his 2020 season
5. Chase Elliott (-37)
Team: No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson 2020 Wins: 2 (Charlotte 2, Daytona Road Course) Best Prior Finish: 5th (2017)
The early stages of the return to action were defined by bad luck for Elliott, who was denied several further opportunities for bonus points throughout the year. For example, contact from behind from Kyle Busch denied him a win at an earlier Darlington event this season and an ill-advised move to pit prior to overtime cost him an illustrious Coca-Cola 600 trophy. Elliott was able to get back to victory lane at Daytona, winning the first Cup Series event on the track’s road course his third straight at such a track. It was part of a streak where Elliott finished no worse than ninth in six of the final seven regular-season races. Elliott will be starting on the pole for Sunday’s opener at Darlington
They Said It: “You can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the Playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet. So, I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four. So, at the end of the day, if me being confident and knowing that we can do it, and my team knowing that (too), is the case and it is, then I think that’s really all that matters to me. But it’s certainly the goal. Certainly, if you want to win a championship, you don’t have an option. You’ve got to make it. We know that and look forward to the challenge.”-Elliott on the weight of missing the final four thus far.
6. Martin Truex Jr. (-43)
Team: No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Crew Chief: James Small 2020 Wins: 1 (Martinsville) Best Prior Finish: 2017 Champion
Truex has been hotter than a summer down the Shore in his native Mayetta Township, NJ. Daytona’s regular season finale saw him end a streak of seven consecutive finishes in the top three…and that was only because he finished fourth. Wins have proved elusive, but Truex has proven time and time again to possess the championship pedigree. He has appeared in the final four in each of the past three seasons and four of the past five. That includes his 2017 title, won in the No. 78 Toyota with the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing.
They Said It: “You’ve got to be resilient. There’s going to be times in the Playoffs when your back is against the wall or you need to make something happen. That’s been the case for us throughout the years. Whether it’s been a season where a lot of things have gone right or a season where things have gone wrong. At the end the day, it’s 10 races to get in and you have to be resilient. You are going to face challenges along the way.”-Truex on the most necessary trait to possess to reach the final four
7. Alex Bowman (-48)
Team: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Crew Chief: Greg Ives 2020 Wins: 1 (Fontana) Best Prior Finish: 12th (2019)
Bowman seemed like the driver to beat in the early stages of 2020. He dominated the third race of the season at Fontana, leading 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. When the series returned to action after the pause, Bowman sat in second place in the standings after a runner-up finish at Darlington. But summer has been anything but hot for the No. 88 squad. Since that second-place posting in Myrtle Beach, Bowman has earned only six top-ten finishes. Contending for a championship would mean an extra something for Bowman, a Tuscon native who earned a surprising sixth-place finish at Phoenix when filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the 2016 season.
They Said It:“The summer was pretty rough on us. We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. So, I think we’re in a good place going into the Playoffs.” “Darlington, for us, we were really fast there the first two races this year. The first race we finished second. The second race we had a way better race car. I started racing my competitors instead of the race track and hit the fence, so that’s on me to not do this time. But I think we can be really strong and have a really good day. I think each and every week during the Playoffs we’re going to be really good, but Darlington is one that we had circled that we can be really strong at, for sure.”-Bowman on recovering from a tough summer
8. William Byron (-50)
Team: No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Crew Chief: Chad Knaus 2020 Wins: 1 (Daytona Summer) Best Prior Finish: 11th (2019)
Byron’s first career win couldn’t have come at a better time. With a playoff farewell from teammate Jimmie Johnson breathing down his neck for a playoff spot, Byron took home a victory at Daytona’s finale, taking the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane for the first time since Jeff Gordon punched his final four ticket at Martinsville during his farewell tour in 2015. Byron’s playoff tour will be overseen by crew chief Knaus, who partook in each of Johnson’s record-tying seven championships.
They Said It:“I think that now having that first win of the season and first win for me and this team, I feel like we’re more focused on just executing the details of each race. Obviously, our goal going into this year was to make it further than we did last year in the playoffs, which was the Round of 12 last year. So, if we can make it to the Round of 8 this year, it would be a success, for sure. We just have to take it one race at a time. A lot of these tracks are good for us. I think the first round is probably the weakest of the tracks for us, so we just have to try to focus on that.”-Byron on how the weight of his first win is removed
9. Austin Dillon (-52)
Team: No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Crew Chief: Justin Alexander 2020 Wins: 1 (Texas) Best Prior Finish: 12th (2017)
Dillon worked his way into the playoffs with a hard-fought win in Fort Worth. His timing, perhaps, couldn’t have been better. Dillon was forced to turn over the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet to Kaz Grala at the Dayton road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19. While Dillon has ways to go in living up to the reputation the No. 3 car carries with it, he has been relatively consistent in 2020. The win at Texas gives him a small cushion to at least make it to the round of 12.
They Said It: “I love being dismissed. I think it’s a great. It’s all I’ve just kind of always been that way. I feel like maybe not that way in the trucks are Xfinity at the end of those runs, but in the Cup series, it’s been a little bit of that. So and I feel like that’s what kind of propels us, and then we sneak up on people. I was very close to making it to the third round a couple years back in the playoffs and missed it by one point to Denny Hamlin not want to transfer this on and we missed at Talladega by one so I know from that experience at every Point matters, and we just need to go out there and do our job these first three races is good good races for us, but the stage is the way they play out. You got to get points. So we’re going to be very aggressive in getting those points and hopefully messed up a lot of brackets.”-Dillon on being an underdog headed into the playoffs
10. Cole Custer (-52)
Team: No. 41 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford Crew Chief: Mike Shiplett 2020 Wins: 1 (Kentucky) Best Prior Finish: N/A (rookie)
Custer is the first rookie to partake in the NASCAR Cup Series postseason since Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher fought their way in during the 2016 season. While the back-to-back runner-up in the Xfinity Series struggled in his first year at the wheel of the No. 41, Custer punched his ticket to the playoffs at Kentucky and kept the momentum going with three top-ten finishes over the past nine races. His opportunity to advance could come at Darlington, where he won last season’s Xfinity event (albeit via disqualification of race-winner Denny Hamlin). By qualifying for the playoffs, Custer has already earned the Cup Series’ Rookie of the Year title, topping a talented class that also featured Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.
They Said It: “I think we can go in there and prove some people wrong is the biggest thing, but at the end of the day it’s about being consistent and it’s about being competitive. I think we’ve had a lot of peaks and valleys at times this year, but at the same time we just need to try and level it out more going into these playoffs. If we can be consistent and we can put it all together and put all the pieces together for these last 10 races, I think we’ve shown that we can compete with anybody it’s just trying to put those pieces together every single race.”-Custer on his playoff approach
11. Aric Almirola (-52)
Team: No. 10 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 5th (2018)
Though wins have proved elusive (his last coming in Talladega’s event in the fall of 2018), Almirola was one of the most accomplished drivers of the summer. building a streak of nine consecutive top-ten finishes. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons in Tony Stewart’s No. 10, though advancement through the playoff rounds have has proved difficult. He made it to the penultimate segment in 2018, but a string of finishes outside the top-ten eliminated him in the first round last year.
They Said It: “It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time. I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team. What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job. I am excited about the playoffs. I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”-Almirola on being a playoff sleeper
12. Clint Bowyer (-53)
Team: No. 14 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2012)
The fan-favorite Bowyer has remained generally consistent in the No. 14 Ford that won the Cup Series title with Tony Stewart behind the wheel in 2011. Bowyer, who has doubled as a commentator for Fox Sports, will be seeking his first win since June 2018. His best finish came at the playoff track of Bristol, where he came home in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski.
They Said It: “Gas mask. Same precautions you have. I mean, it’s the same thing . It’s COVID. I mean, it (stinks). It’s pretty crazy to me that we’re this far along and we still really don’t know a whole lot more than where we’re at. I mean, it’s crazy times, but, nonetheless, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I’m probably not gonna go to college and hit up a keg stand. I’m probably not going to do that. I would say that would be a good opportunity to find yourself pointless.”-Bowyer on precautions he’ll be taking to avoid COVID-19 during the playoffs.
13. Ryan Blaney (-54)
Team: No. 12 Team Penske Ford Crew Chief: Todd Gordon 2020 Wins: 1 (Talladega) Best Prior Finish: 7th (2019)
Apologies for pointing out a theme, but it’s possible that the 2020 playoffs could well become “Penske material”. No one on the circuit perhaps knows more about bad luck than Blaney. Only four drivers on the circuit led more laps than Blaney (586), several accidents beyond his control denied him victories at several tracks this season. He has likewise been impacted by the Penske shuffle, with Todd Gordon taking over his pit stall. Gordon was on hand to guide fellow Penske Ford driver Logano to his title in 2018. Blaney heard some bad news prior to Sunday’s opener at Darlington, as Gordon was suspended and he was docked 10 points for an improperly mounted ballast.
They Said It: “It’s just been so limited with no practice. You can talk so much throughout the week on the phone and things like that, but it’s just different than being able to go through a couple practices and the whole weekend with them and talking to them. But I think we’ve gotten the best that we can. Todd and I get along really well. He’s an amazing crew chief and a championship crew chief and has won a ton of races, so I think it’s been going well. It’s a shame, but everyone is in the same boat.”-Blaney on working with new crew chief Gordon
14. Kyle Busch (-54)
Team: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Crew Chief: Adam Stevens 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 2015, 2019 Champion
Perhaps no other driver on the circuit has better personified 2020 from the average race fan’s point of view. Everything that can go wrong for the two-time Cup Series champion has indeed come to pass, whether it’s been getting caught up in wrecks, having tire or car issues, or simply being on the wrong pit strategy. It has put the defending champion in an awkward spot as the postseason begins: winless, no playoff points to fall back on, and in danger of elimination in the first round. Admittedly, most drivers would LOVE to struggle the way Busch has. But it’s clearly below the expectations the No. 18 and its driver have set for themselves.
They Said It: “This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. 2015, I was injured and I was on the sideline and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back and I was able to come back and then struggled for five weeks just getting a footing and then finally being able to win again at Sonoma. Right there just lit a fire under us and that was all it took for the rest of the year to be a championship contender and a guy to go out there to compete with his team and be the best of all of them. This year, it’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next and what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience. Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”-Busch on how 2020 has tested him
15. Kurt Busch (-56)
Team: No. 1 Chip Gannasi Racing Chevrolet Crew Chief: Matt McCall 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 2004 Champion
Kyle’s older brother and fellow champion (the first under a NASCAR playoff system) failed to get a win, and it’ll come back to haunt him in the playoff standings. But strong consistency led to another playoff berth and allowed him to hover in the top ten of the standings all season. He beat out Kyle for a win at Kentucky last season, but an opening crash in the playoff debut at his home track of Las Vegas ended his chances of moving on. Busch is one of two playoff drivers to have run without a playoff system, the other being Harvick.
They Said It: “What I think it’s done is it gave it a strong comparison to other sports. There’s that Playoff atmosphere. There’s that championship race, where four guys are eligible to win the championship and it’s an even playing ground. When it was a long marathon process of going through all 36 races, that was a different sequence. That was maybe not as intense when it got down to the final rounds. And so, with these 10 weeks, the Playoff atmosphere is there, and it relates well to other sports. And that’s where it draws in more fans that might not have been NASCAR fans before.”-Busch on how the playoffs have changed NASCAR
16. Matt DiBenedetto (-57)
Team: No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Crew Chief: Greg Erwin 2020 Wins: 0 Best Prior Finish: 22nd (2019)
DiBenedetto has built a strong following after earning his way to a decent ride in the long-running No. 21 car. He began his Cup career in low-budget vehicles and fought his way into the playoffs through general 2020 consistency (which includes a runner-up finish at Las Vegas). Some late struggles put him in a tough situation at Daytona, put he held off Johnson to clinch an elusive spot.
They Said It: “I would say that this week has been a release. It was so stressful and kept getting more stressful leading up to Daytona and the points closed in and we lost the gap that we had and all that. I would call this week exciting and we got to celebrate with some friends out on the lake Sunday and have a good time but come Monday it was time to shift focus and we still have a lot of racing left and a lot to accomplish. It was a relief and exciting moving forward now instead of stressful. Exciting knowing that we have an opportunity to really put a good end to our season and cap it off and have a lot more success. I am pretty pumped up about that and I am appreciative to be doing it for the Wood Brothers.”-DiBenedetto on making the playoffs for the first time as a veteran driver
(All times ET)
Cook Out Southern 500
Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, South Carolina When: September 6 Watch: 6 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Erik Jones
“The Track Too Tough to Tame” hosts its annual Labor Day Weekend event and its first playoff race since 2004. In recent time, the race has become well-known for featuring throwback paint schemes, a tradition that will continue this year.
Federated Auto Parts 400
Where: Richmond Raceway, Richmond, Virginia When: September 12 Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.
Richmond’s short track hosted the final regular season race from 2004 through 2018. It is now the second race of the round of 16. Keep an eye on Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, who have won four of the last five September races.
Bass Pro Shops Night Race
Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tennessee When: September 19 Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin
For the first time, the famous cramped short-track settings of BMS will host a playoff race. The night race has been particularly intriguing, known for its flaring of tempers and propensity for wrecks.
South Point 400
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nevada When: September 27 Watch: 7 p.m., NBCSN Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.
The Round of 12 gets underway in Sin City, where Logano punched his ticket to the playoffs in the second race of the season back in February.
Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Alabama When: October 4 Watch: 2 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Ryan Blaney
If you thought the superspeedway proceedings that closed out the regular season at Daytona were exciting, just wait until you see what the playoffs themselves have in store at Talladega, home of multi-car pile-up commonly referred to as “The Big One”.
Bank of America ROVAL 400
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, North Carolina When: October 11 Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Chase Elliott
Since being introduced to the playoff in 2018, the “roval”, a half-oval, half-road course at the hub of NASCAR, has created all kinds of postseason chaos. This will be the first time it ends the second round of the playoffs, previously seen at the end of the round of 16.
Hollywood Casino 400
Where: Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kansas When: October 18 Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin
The Round of 8 gets underway in Kanas, where Denny Hamlin has won each of the last two visits, including a weeknight race earlier this summer.
AAA Texas 500
Where: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas When: October 25 Watch: 3:30 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Kevin Harvick
Texas produced a surprise winner earlier this summer, with Dillon using strategy his favor to take hom a long-awaited victory. Harvick has won each of the last three visits in the fall.
Where: Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Virginia When: November 1 Watch: 2 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.
A battle on a short track will determine the final spots for the season finale in Arizona. Thus, racing will be tight and tempers will more than likely flare.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship
Where: Phoenix Raceway, Avondale, Arizona When: November 8 Watch: 3 p.m., NBC Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin
After nearly two decades in Miami, the NASCAR season finale proceedings will move to Phoenix. Hamlin, one of the favorites, is the defending victor, but fellow front-runner Kevin Harvick has won four times.
The 2020 NASCAR regular season concluded on Saturday night with the exciting Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. Three spots were still up for grabs, with Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto taking two of the spots on points. The third was taken by William Byron, scoring his first career Cup Series victory.
With Bowyer and DiBenedetto now in the playoffs, it will mean that eight fords will have the chance to compete for a championship. All four Stewart-Haas drivers made it, as well as all three Penske teams and the lone Wood Brothers driver in DiBenedetto.
As for Stewart-Haas, Kevin Harvick has ran the show all year. He has seven wins, the most of all Cup Series drivers and has the number one seed in the playoffs. Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have remained winless in 2020, but have ran up-front all year. Almirola has 14 top-10s, while Bowyer has seven. Although not nearly as many great finishes, Bowyer has collected a lot of stage points. For Cole Custer, he’s in because of his win at Kentucky Motor Speedway. He has six top-10s, but would likely not have made it to the playoffs if it wasn’t for the win.
On the Penske side of things, no one driver has really been more dominant than the other. Brad Keselowski has three wins, Joey Logano has two wins, and Ryan Blaney has one. All three drivers have ran up front all year and work together incredibly well together. Each of the three drivers has double-digit top-10s.
And finally, Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers. DiBenedetto has been great in the #21 car this year, and the alliance with Penske has paid off. He has seven top-10s and has scored a lot of stage points. The only concerning thing for him is that he has just two top-10s in the last nine points-paying races.
Ford has been the dominant manufacturer all year, and it shows as eight if its drivers will be competing for a championship. Will their dominance continue during the playoffs?
William Byron’s first NASCAR Cup Series couldn’t have come at a better time, but a late wreck ruined Jimmie Johnson’s playoff chances.
The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet returned to the familiar settings of victory lane, but a victorious sendoff for another iconic ride was not meant to be.
William Byron had perfect timing for his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, taking home the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. A win in the regular-season finale allows Byron to earn a last-minute berth into the NASCAR playoffs, which begin next weekend at Darlington Raceway.
“I feel incredible. On Cloud 9 for sure,” Byron said after the race. “There was a point in that race that I didn’t really think things were going to work out in our favor to make the Playoffs, really have an opportunity next week. This was kind of one of those do-or-die situations. Kind of crossed that fork in the road tonight. We were able to be aggressive and make it happen.”
Saturday marked the first time that Daytona hosted the regular season finale, moved from a July 4th weekend schedule slot its 400-mile race had held since its inception in 1959. The track’s propensity for tightly-packed racing, speed in excess of 200 miles per hour, multi-car wrecks, and first-time winners made it a perfect site for the 26th and final race before the playoffs.
Byron becomes the 21st Cup Series driver to win his first race at Daytona, a circuit record.
“You couldn’t have picked a more pressure-packed race,” Byron said of making Daytona the season finale. “When you’re at a superspeedway, the running order changes every two laps practically, it’s incredible to put that much pressure on a couple of points. You really can’t points race, which I think is probably what they want us to do. They want us to go for wins, try to compete hard. It was a perfect format for that.”
Byron entered Daytona in the 16th and final playoff seed, five points behind Matt DiBenedetto and four points ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Had Byron retained the 16th seed, he could’ve been eliminated if a winless driver behind him won the race. His first career victory locked his spot up without further drama.
The jubilation for Byron, the first driver representing the No. 24 banner to win a Cup Series race since Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville in 2015, was countered by personal heartbreak for Johnson his No. 48 Chevrolet team. One of three winners of a record seven Cup Series titles, Johnson is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the season. He ran well for a majority of the evening and earned precious playoff real estate through a dozen stage points.
But with two laps to go, Johnson got caught in a wreck that began when Joey Logano, the winner of the first two stages, made contact with Denny Hamlin and bumped into an attacking Bubba Wallace who was leading a third lane for the lead. Chaos ensued, taking out several drivers seeking a crucial win, including Matt Kenseth, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, and John Hunter Nemechek.
Johnson’s crew was able to repair the car to the point it was able to meet minimum speed standards, but by then it was too late. Johnson finished 17th and missed out on the playoffs thanks to Byron’s win and DiBenedetto’s 12th place finish.
DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, makes the playoffs for the first time in his career.
With the race going into overtime, Byron held off a challenge from Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott and a recovered Hamlin over a two-lap dash to earn his first win in his 98th Cup Series start. Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth while Wallace also recovered to finish fifth.
The 16-driver playoff will begin next Sunday night at Darlington’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Three races await in the first leg of the playoffs, with dates at Richmond and Bristol filling out the remainder.
Prior to the race, Kevin Harvick was presented the Regular Season Championship. Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won seven races and beat out Hamlin by 134 points entering Saturday’s race to win it. He will enter the playoffs as the top-seeded driver thanks to 57 playoff points earned through seven race wins (five points each), seven stage wins (one-point each), and a 15-point bonus for the regular-season crown. Harvick finished 20th at Daytona after getting caught up in an incident on the final lap.
Incidents were kept to a minimum, with only cautions for the first 143 laps coming for a competition caution and stage pauses. The first yellow for an on-track incident came when James Davidson and Brendan Gaughan made contact.
The first big wreck of the night came at lap 153 of 160, when Reddick’s block on Kyle Busch ignited a big wreck that took out both Busch and his brother Kurt, as well as Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Newman, making his first start at Daytona’s oval since a scary wreck at the end of February’s 500-mile opener, was critical of Reddick in an interview with NBC Sports, declaring that “the No. 8 ran out of talent”.
As NASCAR’s regular season winds down, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron are in a “weird” situation.
NASCAR has changed a lot since Jimmie Johnson began his full-time Cup Series career in 2002. He has raced under the Winston, Nextel, Sprint, Monster Energy, and plain old Cup Series banners. His record-tying seven championships have been won under four different playoff formats. The entire full-time journey, set to end at the end of the season, has been spent in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
One thing hasn’t changed, however: Johnson is locked in an intense battle with a Hendrick teammate driving the No. 24 car.
It was Jeff Gordon, the man most associated with the No. 24, that personally scouted Johnson and got his Cup career rolling. Subsequent battles between the two have had lasting implications on NASCAR history and altered the Cup Series’ postseason picture. The battle ended upon Gordon’s retirement in 2015 but reignites in the most dramatic and sensational fashion at Daytona International Speedway.
The World Center of Racing’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 will host the NASCAR regular season final for the first time on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Johnson enters a familiar place on the schedule in the most unfamiliar spot: on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. He’s four points out of the 16th and final seed…held by third-year driver William Byron, the new bearer of the No. 24. Only adding to the drama is the fact that Byron’s crew chief is Chad Knaus…who was atop the No. 48’s pit box for each of its seven titles.
The reality of the situation only hit Knaus through a conversation with Johnson after last weekend’s doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.
“I was like ‘man, it’s so weird that I’m going to be battling the No. 48 car going into Daytona’,” Knaus recalled when speaking with the media this week. “Then the next morning, at like 8 a.m., he sent me a text. He’s like ‘man, isn’t it weird that we’re competing with one another for this?’ So, we had a text right there and then we had a phone conversation a little bit later in the week. And hey, it is what it is. We’re both professionals here. We understand what’s going on. It’s racing. It’s competition.”
“Chad and I are great friends and have stayed really close through all that’s happened,” Johnson would say of the conversation. “Sure, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun at some different points here recently, but I wish him the best. We talk often. I want the best for Chad and his family, and for Chad and his race team.”
“We certainly both look at the year and know there are moments that could have kept us both from being in this position, but it is what it is and we’re going to Daytona, which makes it even more awkward. We’ll see how things play out.”
Unlike Johnson’s relatively quiet Cup Series arrival, Byron entered the Cup Series with a fair amount of hype. He won a rookie record seven races in the Camping World (now Gander RV & Outdoor) Truck Series’ 2016 campaign and then took home the Xfinity Series title at the age of 19. When Hendrick Motorsports rebranded their No. 5 Chevrolet to be the iconic 24, it was Byron who was called upon to take over.
Nearly three years in, a combination of bad luck and strong competition has Byron still searching for his first Cup Series win. If it came at Daytona on Saturday, it would clinch his second consecutive playoff berth. He won a qualifying event at the track for the Daytona 500 back in February, but an early accident relegated him to a last-place finish in 40th. The No. 24 car has shown speed throughout the season, the development stifled by factors beyond Byron’s control. For example, he had the lead at Indianapolis in July and won the first stage, but a lost tire relegated him to a 27th-place finish.
Johnson, stuck at 83 wins in the midst of a career-long 119-race winless streak, was quick and eager to note the improvements Byron has made in his third year behind the wheel.
“He’s a true student of the sport and his life is dedicated to racing,” Johnson said. “With his interest in sim racing, he can literally day in and day out learn tracks, drive cars, think about racing, think about setups, interact with his team on that level. During my generation, we could go test quite a bit and we did a lot of that. But still, I think he can get more reps in today’s world than the world that I grew up in and it’s been really interesting to watch him grow in his path. I think he probably has the fastest path to a NASCAR Cup car in the history of our sport.”
“Hats off to him. He’s doing a great job and I know he’s going to be a tough competitor at Daytona.”
Knaus was moved to Byron’s garage after the latter’s rookie season. The driver, a Charlotte native, grew up watching Johnson dominate the Cup Series circuit. A childhood incident only adds to the Daytona intrigue. As a child, Byron trick-or-treated at Johnson’s home in Charlotte…dressed as Jeff Gordon.
Now, Byron can deal the cruelest trick of all: denying Johnson a playoff berth in his final full-time season.
“I think it’s a great storyline. Jimmie is the guy that I looked up to as a kid,” Byron said. “I was really a 48 fan through and through. I’ve got a lot of 48 stuff at my parent’s house and a lot of different diecast cars.”
But with the Hendrick competition topping the list of Daytona storylines, Byron has no intention of actively kicking Johnson out of the playoff bracket. In fact, he’s hoping that both cars can partake in the first postseason party on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway. Their HMS teammates, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, have already clinched their playoff spots through wins.
“I really don’t look at it as me versus him. I know that’s what the bubble is right now, but it really is an opportunity for both of us to get in,” Byron continued. “I’m trying to look at it (like) that. That’s ultimately the goal: to get both of us in. Jimmie is an awesome competitor and somebody I really look up to.”
“Hopefully, we both get in, you know?” Knaus asked rhetorically. “We both run really well at superspeedways. Hendrick Engines and the guys at the shop build some amazing race cars. So, hopefully, we can get out there and get some stage points and race well and get both the No. 24 and the No. 48 into the playoffs.”
Both Byron and Johnson can still get in on points, which would come at the expense of 15th-place Matt DiBenedetto (nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff). But the Daytona factor looms large over the proceedings.
As long as he’s competing for Cup Series points and is placed in the top 30 of the standings, Saturday’s winner will be partaking in the playoffs. Daytona’s propensity for tightly-packed racing and multi-car wrecks has created the perfect formula for surprise winners. Just last summer, in the most recent version of Daytona’s 400-mile event, Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley navigated his way through a big accident and a Floridan summer storm to earn an unlikely victory in the microbudget No. 77 Chevrolet of Spire Motorsports in just his second Cup start. Saturday’s field is rife with talented drivers that can steal the final spots. Both competitors are aware of the danger presented…both in the standings and on the track…but they’re loving every minute of it.
“It’s going to be great from a fan’s perspective,” noted Byron. “It’s going to be stressful in the car, but sometimes those are the most fun times and the most rewarding times in the race car, those times where you’re under pressure. It should be fun.”
Johnson is also excited, but perhaps a more accurate way to describe his Daytona mindset is one of peace. As he discussed with Knaus, opportunities were there to secure a playoff berth. There’s nothing he could’ve done about the Indianapolis event, sidelined due to a positive test for coronavirus, but a runner-up finish and the points that came with at Charlotte’s renowned Coca-Cola 600 in May was wiped out due to a failure at postrace inspection.
The calamities that have befallen 2020 have done nothing to change Johnson’s mind of retirement from full-time racing. His resume nonetheless continues to expand, adding the duty of professor to his resume through home-schooling his daughters Evie and Lydia. Having recently spoken on several societal issues since NASCAR’s return from the coronavirus-induced pause, Johnson expressed concern about the current state of the country but hopeful of what he’s seen from his children.
“At times, I’m discouraged by where we sit as a nation, as a world, and just how divided we all are,” Johnson admitted. “But then when I see my kids, their questions, and their genuine concern about the future of our country, of our environment, of racial inequality issues, gender-related issues, I do become encouraged. To hear a ten-year-old and a six-year-old weigh in on some conversations really has blown my mind. So, I do have some optimism for the future.”
On the track, Johnson isn’t looking to get sentimental. Whereas some see his final start at Daytona and what could be his final start in a “playoff” race, Johnson just sees an opportunity to drive his iconic Chevrolet again. That’s the way he wants it.
“We have a lot at stake and, again, it could be a great storybook ending for my last full-time race or race on an oval at Daytona. We all understand the storylines. I’m excited, I’m ready to go. I’m not one to spend too much time getting overly sentimental. I’m more excited about the opportunity to go racing and drive that 48 car. So, I’m just excited to get there and get to work.”
ESM’s NASCAR experts return to debate the hot topics heading into the final Cup Series regular season race at Daytona.
ESM’s panel of NASCAR experts is back to debate the sport’s hot topics as the Cup Series ends its regular season in spectacular fashion in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The Xfinity and Truck Series likewise inch their way toward the playoffs with respective events on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Sunday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, FS1).
Which do the four turns take the ESB this weekend? Read on for their predictions and thoughts…
Turn 1: For the first time in NASCAR history, Daytona will host a regular season finale, eschewing its traditional July 4th spot. Thoughts?
Geoff Magliocchetti: I was a bit wary of the prospect in the beginning. July 4th weekend at Daytona was a fun, midsummer tradition in the win of the MLB All-Star Game. It felt almost sacrilege to deny The World Center of Racing an American tradition. But, looking at the standings, it’s impossible to deny just how smart it was to give the unpredictable Daytona the final race of the regular season. Daytona desperation is a new kind of chaos, one that can create pulse-pounding moments in the grandstands and behind the wheel. It’s insanely poetic as it is that three drivers at the end of the playoff picture are separated by only nine points. But combine that with Daytona’s propensity to produce unexpected winners…remember Justin Haley last season?…and we could see an unexpected playoff man rise to the occasion. If you think drivers go all-out to win February’s Daytona 500…the first race of the season…just imagine what they’ll do to win a race that determines the NASCAR playoff bracket.
Dylan Price: I love the move. Daytona is always the most unpredictable track on the circuit. Yes, intense bubble racing is fun, but what about everyone remotely close to the bubble giving it their all for a win. Everyone has something to prove with the playoffs a week away. Who knows, we may even see a driver come out of nowhere to make the playoffs for the first time in their career.
Nathan Solomon: I think that having Daytona as the season finale is overall a good move. It gives anyone that isn’t already in the playoffs a chance to get in with a win and puts more pressure on drivers and spotters. It should also boost ratings since it’s, well, Daytona. On the other hand, someone could get lucky and win and take away a playoff spot from someone already in the hunt. But, the new playoff format has always favored wins, and a win gets you in.
Turn 2: Yet ANOTHER win for Kevin Harvick at Dover; where’s he going to rank in terms of the greatest drivers ever when all is said and done?
Geoff Magliocchetti: What Harvick has been doing since the return to the track is not a Hall of Fame case. That was probably happening long before this season began. Instead, it’s a case to be included in the top ten greatest drivers off all-time. One cannot effectively tell the story of American auto racing without Kevin Harvick. The start to his Cup career…replacing the late Dale Earnhardt…was enough pressure to live up to as it was. He had made a strong impact on both the Cup and the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series levels. But for him to go out and continue to not just run strong in, but straight up dominate, race in this new era of no practice or qualifying is nothing short of extraordinary. He’ll perhaps need another championship or two to truly warrant consideration for NASCAR’s “Mount Rushmore”, but the second could very well come this fall at Phoenix.
Dylan Price: Harvick has written a hell of a chapter in the book that is his career in 2020. With seven wins and still 11 races to go, Harvick is on pace to contend for the record books in terms of single-season wins in the modern era (since 1972). Not only that, but he and Denny Hamlin are the clear favorites for the championship.
Nathan Solomon: Harvick will no doubt be one of the best the sport has ever seen, and likely a unanimous first ballot hall-of-famer when it comes time. He seems to get better and better each year at Stewart-Haas. His seven wins are so impressive, and all have come after the coronavirus stoppage. This year is a big year for him, as another title would certainly cement his legacy. If he keeps racing for a long time, he may be one of the winningest drivers in history.
Turn 3: Three years, still no win for William Byron. What do you make of his Cup career thus far?
Geoff Magliocchetti: To call Byron a downright “bust” would be cruel. His Cup Series debut has been laden with expectations. The hype alone can derail otherwise promising careers and only exacerbate struggling careers…remember Casey “The Next Jeff Gordon” Atwood under Ray Evernham? Additionally, his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is not Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet, but rather the declining No. 5 that Kasey Kahne left behind with a fresh coat of (Axalta) paint. Thus, it’s not fully appropriate to get down on Byron, who has also been a constant victim of bad luck. But it’s fair to say he could be on some sort of hot seat next season (his fourth at the Cup level and third with Chad Knaus) if he doesn’t get a win. Such a finish at Daytona would certainly go a long way in soothing some concerns.
Dylan Price: To this point, William Byron has not even close to filling the shoes left behind by Jeff Gordon. Byron has yet to tap into his true potential and finds himself on the bubble of the playoffs this year. Rick Hendrick and Gordon supposedly both think very highly of Byron. With that said, on track production is needed and that means a win or at least consistent finishes. So, I’d say Byron is at a point where he’s underperforming and could find himself looking for a new ride if he doesn’t step up by the end of next season at the latest.
Nathan Soloman: William Byron needs to step it up a little bit in he wants to stay at Hendrick for a long time. That all starts this weekend if he can secure a birth into the playoffs. Has he had some bad luck? Yes, he absolutely has. But that’s no excuse since he’s in the same cars that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon had extreme success in. Byron could use a win at a track like Daytona and has won a Duel race there in the past. Could luck finally be on his side this weekend?
Turn 4: Which driver outside of the top 16 has the best chance to steal a playoff spot at Daytona?
Geoff Magliocchetti: The thing about this Daytona field is that there are so many talented drivers that can steal a playoff spot. Perhaps the most attractive underdog driver is one who has no chance at the playoffs…Ross Chastain is back in a Cup car, taking over the same No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Haley navigated to victory last July. Chastain, who is competing for Xfinity Series points, was running well in the same car during February’s Daytona 500, but a late crash took him out of contention. He has run two other races in the No. 77, finishing on the lead lap in the latter at Indianapolis. A strong run at Daytona would give him some well-deserved exposure and a chance to impress potential suitors for a new, better-equipped ride next season.
Dylan Price: I have a lot of guys I’d love to eye with this pick. I really would love to see an underdog come from out of nowhere and win. Especially a back of the pack guy like Corey Lajoie could use a career-defining win. Still, outside of the top 16, one guy sticks out to me: Erik Jones. Jones is now without a ride for next season and he’s racing like a man with nothing to lose, and that’s scary. Jones could win this race and likely lock down a top tier ride for next season, so I’ll go with him outside of the top 16.
Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson is outside the top 16, but could still easily make it in on points. However, I see either Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Ryan Newman stealing a win to get into the playoffs. Both are known to be pretty good plate racers, and now they have one final chance on the last day of the regular season. Plus, what an awesome story it would be for Newman to win his first plate race back at Daytona after his horrific crash in February.
In the midst of the vaunted Hendrick Motorsports battle, Matt DiBenedetto is fighting for his own playoff life…and he couldn’t be happier.
Matt DiBenedetto has enough to worry about at Daytona International Speedway as is.
The track’s reputation for tightly-packed racing is exhilarating in the grandstands but nerve-wracking behind the wheel. Multi-car get-togethers are common, be it via pushes for position or the Big One…or Big Ones…that seem to strike in the race’s most crucial stages. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford also starts Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC) in the 15th position, so he has some work to do if he wants to secure the first win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
Oh, and he’s also fighting for the first playoff berth of his NASCAR career…and members of one of NASCAR’s most lauded teams will do anything to keep him out.
For the first time, the unpredictable asphalt of Daytona will sort out the Cup Series’ 16-driver playoff field. The 400-mile race held a midseason spot on July 4 weekend since its inception in 1959, but the switch over to the regular-season finale slot has cast even more drama on one of the circuit’s most unpredictable races.
“I don’t know if it’s excited or anxious or what the emotion is,” DiBenedetto said on Thursday morning. “It’s definitely different going to Daytona with so much on the line than if we were going to a regular short track or whatever you want to call it.”
Ten drivers are already in the playoffs by virtue of a victory over the previous 25 races. Three more have reserved a spot through points. Barring complete disaster, Clint Bowyer (57 points above the cutoff) likely has his ticket punched. Any winless driver that remains in the top 30 in points can earn a ticket with a win. Daytona is the ideal place to it, as the track has produced a Cup Series-high 20 first-time winners. Otherwise, the fight for the final two spots is down to DiBenedetto, and the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and William Byron.
DiBenedetto has the current 15 seed and is nine points of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, the first car out. Byron is five points behind DiBenedetto in the 16th spot…one that would automatically turn over to a driver outside the top 30 that stole a win. Such a concept is hardly outlandish. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., trapped in 23rd place, earned his most recent win at Daytona in 2017. Down in 25th, Ryan Newman was mere feet away from winning February’s Daytona 500 before getting involved in a scary accident on the final turn.
The Hendrick duo would likely be the playoff seeds that draw ratings and headlines. Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion, is looking to end his career on the right note. It’s awkward enough that Johnson is fighting a teammate, one of the heirs to Jeff Gordon’s iconic No. 24 Chevrolet, for a playoff spot. But Johnson is also battling the crew chief that helped him win all those titles, Chad Knaus, who oversees the No. 24’s matters now.
Frankly, there’s a bit of disappointment on DiBenedetto’s end. A visit to victory lane has yet to materialize, but DiBenedetto had been one of the series’ more consistent drivers in 2020. He has been running at the finish in all but one race this season and his average finish of 15.2 is tied with Ryan Blaney and ahead of Johnson and Byron, as well as playoff drivers like Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, and Cole Custer. July saw DiBenedetto take part in his first All-Star Race, winning the All-Star Open at Bristol to gain entry.
After a third-place finish at Kentucky, DiBenedetto had a healthy 84-point on the playoff’s cutoff line. But tough finishes, including a brutal doubleheader at Dover last weekend, doomed him to standings watching at Daytona.
“Our intention is going to be focused on those guys that we’re racing for the playoff spot, and also knowing that there could be a surprise winner in there, too,” DiBenedetto said when asked if he wants constant updates on the standings during the race. “Somebody could jump in the playoffs as well that’s outside of it right now. Daytona is known for situations like that, so there’s gonna be a lot of variables and things, but that will be a big part of the focus is maybe coming to the end of stages, where those guys are, and then obviously towards the end of the race.”
“It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” he continued. “He’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing, where they’re at, if they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona so we’ll probably do that what you asked within reason.”
The Hendrick group certainly wouldn’t mind any route that allows them both to earn playoff glory. If it means DiBenedetto has to be the odd man out, so be it.
“I think we have a chance and an opportunity to get both Hendrick cars in and be able to bump the No. 21 out,” Byron said in another session on Thursday. “That’s kind of our goal and, hopefully, it works out that way.”
It’s more than likely not personal, but DiBenedetto’s No. 21 will have a huge, invisible target on its back come Saturday. But that’s perhaps just the way he likes it.
“A lot of normal people would probably be freaking out and on edge, kind of like my wife is,” the driver affectionately referred to as “Dibby” or “Matty D” said. “That would be normal. She’s having a normal reaction. She’s kind of a basket case every day and having heart failure and just can’t wait until Saturday night gets here and praying every day that we make the playoffs.”
“Those are normal human reactions to this type of stressful situation, and I think I’ve just been groomed and been through so much stress and crazy situations to fight to get here that being in this really tough situation has made me extremely mentally tough and prepared for something like this to where I’m able to stay very focused.”
DiBenedetto, 29, has earned a bit of a following for working his way up to one of NASCAR’s longest-running rodes. Save for a seven-race stint as a teenager with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series program, DiBenedetto has rarely, if ever, had strong equipment to work with. His full-time Cup career began with stints at the mid-to-low-budget efforts at BK Racing (which closed in 2018), Go Fas Racing, and Leavine Family Racing (which is set to close at the end of this season).
Throughout his career, DiBenedetto showed flashes of brilliance. In 2016, he brought home BK Racing’s first top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega in their history with a sixth-place finish at Bristol. A year later, he recorded the first top finishes for Go Fas’ No. 32 Ford.
If anything, DiBenedetto knows he’s in a much better spot than he was last season. LFR’s No. 95 Toyota offered potential for exposure through a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs. But a tough start to the season, which placed him at 23rd in the standings by mid-August, led to LFR informing him that they’d be going in another direction at the end of the year.
“Luckily, I don’t think anything quite matches the emotion I was going through around this time last year when I was unsure if I had a job or anything. That was next level,” DiBenedetto said. “My situation last year and all that is what’s made me a lot mentally tougher to come up on instances like this, where there’s a lot of pressure and a lot on the line, going into Daytona, which is crazy, and trying to make the playoffs and your whole season basically rides on right now.”
Two days after his de facto firing, DiBenedetto led a career-best 93 laps in the annual Bristol night race. He was passed by Denny Hamlin with 11 laps to go, but it left a lasting impression on the NASCAR world. Hamlin even said he felt sorry for passing DiBenedetto and denying him an elusive first victory.
The runner-up finish, the best of his career, was part of a streak of nine consecutive top 20 finishes for the No. 95. Overall, they finished in the top 20 in all but two of the final 19 races, good for LFR records. DiBenedetto earned a career-best seven top-ten finishes. That was caught the attention of Wood Brothers Racing, who chose DiBenedetto to fill in the seat the retiring Paul Menard left behind.
“It’s a big deal for us, for the 21 team, for the Wood Brothers, for us to be fighting,” he said. “To make the playoffs would be an amazing accomplishment for us and for the team most importantly. It’s so cool to be having this opportunity.”
Daytona always carries the potential to turn dreams into nightmares. DiBenedetto knows that better than most, especially in more recent times. The No. 95 led the most laps (49) at the 2019 Daytona 500 but it got caught up in a big wreck (ironically thanks to contact initiated by the No. 21 driven by Menard) with ten regulation laps to go, ending any chance at victory. Another crash in the most recent edition in February denied him a stronger finish, pushing him to 19th.
But DiBenedetto knows that no matter the result on Saturday, he’s pleased where his NASCAR journey has taken him. No one, even any of his detractors watching this weekend, can take that away from him.
“I think just my path and my journey to get here has been so out of the ordinary and so tough, where I fight and claw, it’s just taught me that all I can do is worry about what I can control,” he said. “There are always going to be things that are out of my control that I really just can’t sit and worry about too much, and my path to get here has taught me that because I have pushed and pushed and pushed as hard as humanly possible and dedicated my entire life to it.”
“But even aside from all the hard work, a million different things out of my control had to happen for me to still be here and this playoff situation is another one of those instances that my whole career has been packed full of is there’s gonna be things that are out of mine and our control because Daytona is just kind of a crazy race. You can’t be in control of what everybody does in the field that can affect you, so as my dad put it this week he was like, ‘Do the best you can and the rest of it is gonna be in God’s hands, so don’t sit and worry about it too much all week.’”
Nobody in NASCAR is making a bigger current impact than Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Toyota…on and off the track.
Even the most casual NASCAR fan is likely familiar with the axiom “if you ain’t first, you’re last”, the catchphrase of Will Ferrell’s titular character from the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Martin Truex Jr. is at least partially defying that trope as he works his way through the final stages of the premier Cup Series’ regular season.
The tradition of posing the top three race finishers on a podium has rarely made it to NASCAR…that’s probably for the best these days with social distancing still necessary…but if they did exist, the footprints of the Mayetta Township, NJ native would perhaps be etched into the platform. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished in either second or third place in eight of the last nine races. That streak continued last weekend, as Truex was the silver-medalist in both halves of a Saturday/Sunday doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.
“It has definitely been good to run right out front, be running top three,” Truex said after the race on Sunday. “That’s where you need to be running to make your way through the playoffs.”
The Cup Series’ regular season ends in grand fashion on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the iconic superspeedway, known for producing surprise winners, will host the final lead-in to the 16-driver playoff.
Truex doesn’t have to worry about his invitation to the postseason, as the win at Martinsville allows him to compete for the seventh consecutive season. Still, once the playoffs start at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend, an extra win may come in for the No. 19 squad. Recent events have allowed Truex to surge to fourth place in the standings, but, with only a single win to his name, he will own the sixth seed once the playoffs begin. The NASCAR playoff system affords five extra points for each win and one more for every stage triumph. Truex has earned seven such points, which would place him 11 points ahead of the first cutoff. Drivers placed 13th through 16th after the first three playoff races will be eliminated from championship contention.
If anyone knows about the importance of postseason bonus points, it’s Truex. His 2017 Cup Series title, won when he was driving the No. 78 Toyota for the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing, began with a 48-point advantage over the original cutoff thanks to a plethora of wins, stage wins, and the regular-season title. It was the biggest advantage for a regular-season points leader until current point leader Kevin Harvick set himself up with a 54-point lead after his seventh win of the season on Sunday. That tally might only increase depending on how things go at Daytona.
“Obviously, we wish we could have won a few more,” Truex said. “Our bonus point situation isn’t the greatest, and that’s something that we’ve really been working hard on trying to get some more here lately. Just seems like we’re always just right there second or third.”
“Overall it was good. It’s good momentum. It’s good to be consistent. We’ve just got to keep working to find a little bit more.”
This unusual season is Truex’s second in a Gibbs Toyota after FRR shut down due to financial woes. While many employees from the No. 78 came over with Truex, his championship crew chief, Cole Pearn, left to pursue other opportunities in auto racing, including a role as a pit road analyst on NASCAR.com. In Pearn’s place went James Small, who served as an engineer on prior Truex endeavors. But, save for a brief two-race stint on Erik Jones’ No. 77 during FRR’s heyday in 2017, Small had never been a crew chief at any of NASCAR’s national levels.
Truex himself admitted prior to the All-Star Race exhibition last month that he “didn’t know we’re where we want to be”, the challenge of a new crew chief only exacerbated by the lack of practice and qualifying in an attempt to trim race weekends down to single-day endeavors. But the past few races have built a strong rapport in the No. 19 garage, one that will be exceptionally dangerous come playoff time.
“He’s doing a great job,” Truex said of Small. “I think for his first year, he’s doing good and making good decisions. I think the biggest thing is leading the team, and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. It’s not just how fast is our car going and how are our finishes and how many races have we won and all that. There’s a lot behind the scenes going on there.”
“All the guys really have a lot of respect for him, all the team guys, and the guys working on the cars and mechanics and everything,” Truex continued. “He gets along well with all the other crew chiefs. So all those little things. He really fits in well, I think, and does a good job. Again, he’s really similar to Cole, I think, and obviously learned a lot from him and has been around him a long time. I think he’s done a really fine job, and I think for us, the communication is going well and we’re on the same page.”
Even if Truex hasn’t left the impact he has desired to leave in the winner’s circle, he’s going on to leave a huge impact off the asphalt.
Prior to Sunday’s race, Truex’s self-named foundation announced a partnership with The NASCAR Foundation that will raise money for cancer research. Fans will have the opportunity to bid for a spot to nominate a “cancer hero” to appear on a car across NASCAR’s three national series. Suggested nominees have been described in a release as “a childhood or ovarian cancer champion or a medical provider who made a difference during a cancer patients’ battle”. Over 40 drivers have agreed to partake in the endeavor, with bidding running through September 1.
The charitable endeavor hits close to home for Truex. His girlfriend Sherry was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer in 2014. The two have been together since 2005 and formed the foundation two years later, during his days driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“I’m really proud of it and I’m really proud of the idea that the girls came up with it at our foundation,” he said. “It’s been a tough year for us fundraising, and with COVID and all that’s gone on, our big fundraiser of the year had to get canceled. It’s been a bit of a challenge to try to raise money to continue helping all the great people that we’ve been able to have partnerships with and things.”
“I’m really excited about this thanks to NASCAR for teaming up with us and allowing us to do this, and obviously all the teams that have so far agreed to do this…just really proud to be able to do this and continue to help raise money for women and children battling cancer.”
Further information on the Nominate a Cancer Hero Program can be found here.
Kevin Harvick wasn’t letting NASCAR nostalgics get in the way of his seventh win of the season, which made history for his manufacturer.
Kevin Harvick wasn’t going to get the feel-good potential of a Jimmie Johnson victory lap get in the way of his own personal history in the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ doubleheader in Delaware.
Just over 24 hours after Denny Hamlin tied him in the first segment, Harvick won his series-best seventh race of the season at the Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway. Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford passed Johnson with 17 laps remaining, denying Johnson a chance to clinch a berth in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The final race of the regular season comes next weekend at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.
With the win, Harvick clinches the Cup Series’ regular-season championship, which affords him 15 bonus points. Between his seven wins and stage victories each (including two more at Dover on Sunday), Harvick has a 57-point advantage over the first cutoff line, which eliminates the 13th through 16th-place drivers after the first three races.
“It’s something that we’ve never done before, so any time you can do something for the first time is definitely fun to accomplish, and I think in this instance, it definitely pays dividends in the playoff points,” Harvick said of the regular-season title. “That’s really what you want to accomplish in the regular season is to gain as many playoff points as you can. We’ve done that by winning races.”
Harvick also moves into a ninth-place tie with fellow former champion Kyle Busch on the Cup Series’ all-time wins list with 56. Next up on the list is the late, legendary Dale Earnhardt. Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, began his Cup career by taking over for Earnhardt after the latter’s death in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s also the 700th victory for manufacturer Ford, second-most in series history behind Chevrolet.
“It’s an honor just to be up there on that list,” Harvick said. “I feel like it’s definitely a huge responsibility to be up there and be around those guys. Hopefully, we can keep this thing rolling and make up some ground on the next gap. But it’s been a lot of fun at Stewart-Haas Racing, and you’re only as good as the race cars that you have, and it’s been an honor to drive the race cars and be able to take those race cars and have success with them and capitalize on winning like we did today.”
Harvick began his conquest by stealing the first 75-lap stage from Ryan Blaney on the final stanza. From that point forward, Harvick went on to dominate the event, leading all but 19 of the remaining 236 circuits.
The biggest threat to his authority came with just over 20 laps to go, when his massive lead was erased by a caution flag brought out by the slow car of Corey LaJoie. All 16 lead lap cars came to pit road for service, including Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, the seven-time champion retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season, was running a strong race in fighting for playoff position. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team had a three-point advantage on teammate William Byron entering the second half at Dover, but a speeding penalty on pit road after the first stage allowed the No. 24 to retake the spot. Johnson worked his way back toward the front after Byron earned points by finishing ahead of Johnson in each of the first two stages.
But on these final stops, Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels opted to take only two tires, leading to a quicker stop. The move allowed the No. 48 to take the lead for the final 17-lap dash. A win for Johnson would’ve clinched his spot in the playoffs.
He’s one of the few drivers ahead of Harvick with 83, but the No. 4’s pass extended the longest drought of his career to 118. Dover had played host to 11 of those prior victories.
I knew he was at a huge deficit,” Harvick said of Johnson’s two-tire endeavor. “I think as you saw the restart there, he had a little bit of trouble getting grip, and my main goal was to just try to be beside him as we got off of turn two and he pushed up the racetrack.”
“I felt like we were still in a really good position, and obviously Jimmie has had a lot of success here, I feel like, over the last several years. If it weren’t for knocking the dang valve stems out of it, there would have been three or four more opportunities to have won races. It’s been a really good racetrack for us and felt good about the position that we were in at the end.”
Johnson and Daniels’ gutsy decision was not all for naught. Martin Truex Jr. passed him for the runner-up spot but Johnson held off Byron and another teammate, Alex Bowman, to finish third, his best finish since May’s race at Bristol. Byron holds a four-point advantage headed into the Daytona finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, NBC).
Truex finished in the runner-up spot in each of the weekend’s Cup Series events at Dover. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished no worse than third in eight of the past nine races (albeit with no wins).
The race endured a red flag period that lasted just over 12 minutes to repair a portion of the concrete surface.
Aric Almirola (7th), Kyle Busch (11th), and Kurt Busch (13th) each clinched playoff spots via points. Clint Bowyer (14th in points) is 57 points over the cutoff.
Matt DiBenedetto started on the pole after a 20th-place finish on Saturday with the field’s first 20 starting positions determined through an inversion of the prior running order. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford led the first 11 laps but a 17th-place finish leaves him only nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff.
Bowman’s top-five finish was his first since the series made its return from the coronavirus-induced pause at Darlington Raceway in May.
Saturday’s winner Denny Hamlin was relegated to a 19th-place finish after being forced to pit from second for a loose wheel at lap 227 of 311.
The days of Chase Elliott and Joey Gase ended in the opening laps when they got caught up in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spin on the sixth lap. Stenhouse was eventually able to run enough laps to finish 37th.
Austin Dillon capped off a successful return to the track in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with a top-ten finish (9th). Dillon missed last weekend’s event at Daytona’s road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19 and was replaced by Kaz Grala. The No. 3 led 46 laps on Saturday and finished 15th.