NASCAR: Five underdogs who could steal Talladega

This Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will visit Talladega on the first day of summer. Is there a red hot upset in the making?

This weekend, Talladega Superspeedway’s 2.66-mile course will feature mischief and mayhem…and 5,000 of its closest friends will be there to witness it.

The NASCAR Cup Series will welcome back a select number of fans to the track as the GEICO 500 will run 188 circuits on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Talladega is one of several “superspeedways” on the NASCAR schedule and its longest track, one that has been known for big pile-ups and close racing. While Sunday’s race will feature a new technical rules package (one created to avoid scary wrecks like the one involving Ryan Newman at the end of the Daytona 500), Talladega’s penchant for tight racing (similar to Daytona) has often seen upset winners steal the show. Winners of NASCAR races are more or less afforded a spot in the NASCAR playoffs, provided they finish in the top 30 in points.

The Cup Series’ usual suspects (I.e. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, etc.) will undoubtedly be in play for GEICO glory. But there could be several underdogs on hand ready to seize their postseason moment…

Austin Dillon

To say it has been an eventful two weeks for Dillon would perhaps be the understatement of the year. He was forced to retire from last Wednesday’s Martinsville race early when the loss of crush panels in his car caused the interior to reach sweltering temperatures. Four days later, he and his wife Whitney welcomed their first child (a son named Ace) before he drove the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to a seventh-place finish. It’s been part of a solid return to the track for Dillon, who (the Martinsville incident aside) has finished no worse than 11th over the last five races. Such a performance has allowed Dillon to enter Talladega holding the final playoff spot. Ending his win drought at 83 races would certainly help him breathe a lot easier, that last win coming at the 2018 Daytona 500.

Brendan Gaughan

Gaughan has run one full-time Cup Series season (2004) but has kept active on NASCAR’s lower-tier national series. He has been a staple in the part-time car of Beard Motorsports, having run each Cup event at a superspeedway since 2017. The No. 62 Chevrolet has been reasonably competitive in such races, as Gaughan came home seventh in February’s Daytona 500. Last fall, he ran up front all day, posting as high as second at Talladega (after finishing eighth in the spring event) but an aerial wreck relegated him to 27th. Gaughan announced in February that 2020 would be his final NASCAR season. Could he earn an early retirement gift in his penultimate Talladega visit? As a part-time driver with no playoff burden, Gaughn will have zilch to lose on Sunday.

John Hunter Nemechek

The rookie Nemechek (second behind Tyler Reddick in the Rookie of the Year race) has remained competitive in his full-time Cup debut. His No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford has been running at the end of each of the first dozen events in 2020 and Nemechek has completed all but 12 laps on the circuit thus far. Nemechek also finished in the top ten in a pair of Xfinity starts at Talladega, including a sixth-place result last season. A Talladega steal from the mid-budget Front Row squad is not unheard of. The first win in team history came in 2013 when David Ragan and David Gilliland swept the first two slots in an overtime finish at the spring race.

Ryan Newman

It’s great to see Newman back in his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford after the scary incident at the end of the Daytona 500, but his return has been a bit of a struggle thus far. He has yet to finish in the top ten since his return and an early spin at Homestead long to a long day that ended in 30th. But a Newman victory at Talladega would make for an incredible headline. In addition to his last-lap crash in February, Newman was literal inches away from a victory at last October’s Talladega event, but he lost to Ryan Blaney by .007 seconds. If he’s going to race his way into the playoffs, Newman would have to break a 113-race winless streak. Talladega could present his best opportunity. In five events since October 2017, Newman has earned four top ten finishes, including a pair of runner-up postings.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Mired in a 21st-place hole in the standings, it may be a lot to ask Stenhouse to make up a 63-point playoff deficit, even with the regular season running through late August. Stenhouse has often gone the “wreckers or checkers” route at Daytona and Talladega. Back in 2017, he was able to swipe a playoff spot by winning at both tracks, including his first career victory at the latter, when he started on the pole and held off a furious challenge from Jamie McMurray for the win. If he and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty team have playoff aspirations, they might have to go all out on Sunday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney inspired by winless but strong run in return to the track

Ryan Blaney has yet to visit victory lane this season, but he and his No. 12 Team Penske Ford team are feeling confident moving forward.

A generation of filmgoers perhaps generalizes the NASCAR experience with “lessons” learned from the 2006 comedy Talladega Night: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. A relative catchphrase of the titular driver of the No. 26 Wonder Bread Chevrolet is “if you ain’t first, you’re last!”, an axiom bestowed upon by him by his father.

Ryan Blaney could perhaps sympathize with the Bobby mantra. He has been one of the hottest drivers on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, having finished no worse than fourth in five of the past six races. The one exception was a 40th-place posting at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Blaney was fighting for the lead of the Supermarket Heroes 500 when his car got sideways, a situation that became disastrous when Ty Dillon was unable to avoid him and hit him across the front bumper.

Fortunately for Blaney, no cougar needs to be placed in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford for him to realize that things could always be worse.

“We could be running 20th every week, so…” Blaney said with a laugh when asked if there’s been any frustration after yet another top-four run, this one being a third-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “You’re proud of the runs that you’ve created and the speed our team’s got.  I’m proud of that.  I mean, yeah, we haven’t won yet with running really good this year.  The way I look at it is, just keep running up towards the front like that, I think those things come.”

NASCAR’s bad luck spirits have done what they could to derail an otherwise strong career for Blaney. Currently in his fifth season of full-time racing (his third in Roger Penske’s No. 12), Blaney has just three wins to his name but has been a relative mainstay at the front. He could easily have several more victories under his belt, but the “Any Given Sunday” concept normally reserved fro football has waddled its way into Blaney’s hauler. He was leading another event at Bristol, the 2018 Food City 500, when a nearby wreck involving lapped traffic gobbled up his Ford. After a runner-up finish at February’s Daytona 500, a tire issue shuffled him the top five to 19th after contending all day. Even virtual endeavors featured calamity, as he wrecked with Kyle Busch during a televised iRacing event at pixelated Texas.

Fortune has occasionally given Blaney a pass, like when he was the beneficiary of Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.’s get-together at the inaugural Charlotte roval event during the 2018 playoffs. But Blaney has showcased plenty of talent to ensure that luck will play a minimal role when it comes to his championship aspirations.

Blaney grew up watching his father Dave succeed on the sprint car World of Outlaws and circuit and later power through a Cup Series career that saw him represent several underfunded rides. Ryan was afforded a better NASCAR start, taking over Penske’s Nationwide Series (now known as Xfinity Series) car and hopping on board Cup Series’ champion (and current teammate) Brad Keselowski’s Truck Series ride. He got to hook up with the long-running No. 21 Ford of Wood Brothers Racing in 2014, piloting a car that hadn’t finished in the owners’ points’ top 20 in over a decade.

Blaney just missed the mark with a 21st-place finish in his first full-time season and then moved the Woods’ car into ninth, their first top ten standings placement since 1994. A victory awaited at Pocono Raceway, when he passed Kyle Busch’s superteam in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the dying stages of the Pocono 400. His Penske call-up came shortly after in 2018 and playoff appearances have come at the end of each of his No. 12 seasons thus far.

So one could easily excuse Blaney if he’s not going to quarrel with a recent run of winless success that has moved him into the fifth-place slot in the current standings.

“(I’m) just proud of the speed we have, that we’re close, just little things will go a long way when you’re this close. If you have to find 15 spots worth of speed, that’s when it’s troublesome,” he said after the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead. “Just proud of the efforts, not frustrated or anything. Hopefully, we can keep this up and keep getting a little bit better week in, week out.”

Logic should dictate that Blaney should at least somewhat struggle at the onset of the 2020 season, being armed with a new crew chief in Todd Gordon. Team Penske recently shuffled the crew chiefs of its three-car stable. Jeremy Bullins (who followed Blaney from the No. 21 days) went to Keselowski’s No. 2 stall, while the No. 12 gained Todd Gordon, the winning chief behind another teammate, Joey Logano, and his championship campaign in 2018.

Blaney credited Gordon for the No. 12’s speed in the early going.

“I feel like Todd and I have gotten along really well. We’ve communicated great,” he said. “We haven’t worked together that long, (but) to be able to communicate like that kind of in the early part of our relationship has been really nice. I look back at a lot of the finishes, bad finishes we’ve had, of me wrecking in Bristol, tire coming apart at Fontana, the caution coming out in Vegas, we’ve had some really strong runs. That’s something to be proud of.”

“I was looking forward to it, looking forward to working with Todd.  It’s been a nice run we’ve been on here. I hopefully can’t wait to get that first win together here soon. The group deserves it. We’re running good enough to do it. Just got to get a little bit better.”

The circuit now returns to the site of Blaney’s last victory, as the chaos of Talladega Superspeedway appropriate falls on this Sunday, June 21, the first day of summer (3 p.m. ET, Fox). October’s last triumphant visit allowed Blaney to automatically move onto the NASCAR playoffs’ round of eight, as he held off Ryan Newman by .007 seconds to take home the victory. The longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) has been a special place in the Blaney family’s NASCAR endeavors. Dave previously earned third-place finishes at the track in 2007 and 2011, the best postings of his Cup career.

“I grew up there watching dad run there a lot,” Blaney said of Talladega. “Obviously the history of that place is pretty special. To do it in the Playoffs in the fashion we did it, the finish was pretty neat.”

Sunday’s GEICO 500 is set to welcome in 5,000 fans to view the proceedings, as NASCAR becomes the first North American sports league to welcome back spectators.

If Blaney hasn’t been able to lead on the race track, it’s clear that he has taken a leadership role off of it. While one of NASCAR’s most fun-loving personalities, he knows it’s anything but business as usual beyond the asphalt and grandstands. He has emerged on the frontlines to use his platform for an improving world.

The High Point, North Carolina native revealed after a runner-up finish at Martinsville Speedway’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 that he attended one of the peaceful demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice in Charlotte. Blaney, however, wanted to make sure that his participation was not the story, but rather encouraged that the message he was there to declare took center stage.

I’m not a person who, if I go to a peaceful protest, I’m not going to like boast it out that I’m there,” he said. “You’re there to learn. You’re there to understand and talk to people.  You’re not there to say, Look, I’m here.  I just want to go there and learn and talk to people and support them as well.”

“I think it’s great. I think a lot of people should check the peaceful protests out. You can learn a lot from people just talking and hearing their stories.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin takes home Cup Series-best third victory of 2020

Denny Hamlin swept all three stages of the Dixie Vodka 400 en route to the 40th victory of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

Denny Hamlin is giving an all-new definition to “Florida Man”.

Nearly four months after his victory at the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin pulled off a clean sweep at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won all three stages en route to victory, his third of the 2020 season, at the Dixie Vodka 500. It’s Hamlin’s third victory at Homestead and the 40th of his Cup Series career. He joins 19 other drivers in that exclusive realm. Every member of the club has reached the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the exception of Hamlin and the three other active drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick). Hamling previously took home the Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway last month.

Weather threatened to end Hamlin’s dominance before it truly began. Rain showers delayed the start of the race by over an hour before a brief five-lap run that was stopped by lightning. Further strikes led to a delay of over two hours and one more awaited the drivers at lap 34.

Once the skies became relatively clear, Hamlin took over. He led a race-high 137 laps and became the first 2020 driver to take all three stages in his victory trek. The winning move came on lap 238 of 267 when he took advantage of pesky lapped traffic in the form of Joey Logano to pass Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott kept pace with Hamlin for a majority of the final laps, but an overzealous challenge at the lead in the last stanzas forced him to settle for the runner-up spot. Hamlin won the race by an 0.895-second margin and replicated Michael Jordan’s famous shrug after exiting the No. 11 Toyota for his postrace interview with Fox. The Jordan Brand is one of No. 11’s sponsors and Hamlin later revealed that the NBA legend was among the first to congratulate him on his victory.

The victory was the finishing touch on a joyful return for Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart. Hamlin’s second-year pit boss was suspended for four races when ballasts fell out of the No. 11 at the start of the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 in Charlotte. The two have since united for nine wins in 48 races together and collaborated on a fourth-place finish in last season’s championship standings.

Elliott settled for second-place, his third top pair placing over the last seven races. Ryan Blaney also continued a hot streak in third (his fifth top-four finish over the last six events) while rookie Tyler Reddick came in a career-best fourth. Aric Almirola rounded out the top five, his first such finish of the season.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon for the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Spectators returned to the track on Sunday, as 1,000 South Florida servicemen and women and first responders were welcomed into the grandstands. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was also in attendance and opened the race by waving the green flag prior to the first lap. Next weekend’s event at Talladega, Alabama will up the ante with 5,000 fans in attendance.
  • New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara was also in attendance, welcomed as a guest by NASCAR. Kamara was adorned in gear supporting Bubba Wallace, who drove the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet to a 13th-place finish.
  • Back in March, Hamlin also won the Dixie Vodka 150 at a virtual recreation of Homestead on the iRacing platform. The event was part of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series formed during the coronavirus-induced pause.
  • Hamlin is one of three of Homestead Cup Series winners that has yet to win a Cup title, joining Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards (the trio own a combined 77 circuit wins between them). Each of the 11 other winners has won at least one championship on the premier circuit.
  • All three NASCAR national series ran races at Homestead this weekend, but, for the first time since 2001, the track will not play host to the circuits’ season finales. Phoenix Raceway will have the honors for the first time in November.
  • Sunday was an eventful excursion for Austin Dillon. Hours before the race, Dillon and his wife Whitney welcomed their first child, a son named Ace. Dillon later overcame a pit road penalty to pilot his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to a seventh-place finish.
  • Reddick’s fellow Rooke of the Year contender Christopher Bell finished a career-best eighth. The two became the first rookies to finish in the top ten at Homestead since David Ragan did so in 2007.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Tyler Reddick going beyond the rookie stripe on and off the track

NASCAR Cup Series rookie Tyler Reddick is off to a fast start, as he’s on the cusp of the playoff picture nearly a third of the way through.

Homestead-Miami Speedway may no longer be the site of NASCAR’s championship festivities. But Tyler Reddick is nonetheless looking to fulfill, or at least help solidify, postseason dreams at the 1.5-mile oval.

Reddick is looking to become just the fourth rookie to reach the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, an endeavor he’s currently 25 points from reaching entering Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). The driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has finished in the top 20 in all but one of the Cup Series’ seven events since the circuit returned from the coronavirus-induced pause. He currently leads the premier racing showcase’s Rookie of the Year standings over John Hunter Nemechek.

Official as it may be, the rear bumper of his No. 8 Chevy adorned with the traditional yellow rookie stripe, it’s hard to truly give Reddick the freshman label. The 24-year-old Corning, California native has earned a combined 12 wins in NASCAR’s lower-tier national circuits, the Xfinity and Truck series. South Beach has already been a regular host of Reddick’s championship parties, as he visited the winner’s circle over the past two autumns to celebrate not only his consecutive victories in the Xfinity Series’ 300-mile event but also the last two titles in NASCAR’s equivalent of AAA-baseball. Other hoisters of multiple Xfinity titles include Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.

Between the two lower circuits, Reddick’s worst Homestead finish is a third-place posting in the 2015 Truck Series event. But his non-rookie demeanor carries on through his prerace statements, as he knows no number of “minor league” wins will guarantee success in the Cup version.

“I just have to stay on my toes. We’re working really hard to just bring the best car that we can and, from there, it’s going to be important to keep on top of the balance,” Reddick said in a Thursday afternoon press conference. “The track is going to lay rubber, it’s going to change. Just staying on top of those things are important. I think keeping on top of the balance, staying ahead of the curve of the race track as it changes will be very important. The veterans of our sport understand that very well, so we’re just going to have to dig down deep and really make sure that we don’t go too far or go to little on the adjustments we need to make when the track does change.”

The coronavirus hiatus and a roller-coaster season has put Reddick through a trying rookie season. He ran with the leaders for most of the final race before the pause at Phoenix Raceway back in March, but a late crash took him out of contention. A multi-car incident also ended his Bristol endeavors early, putting him in an 18th-place hole in the current standings. After Sunday, 14 races stand between the drivers and the late summer cutdown to 16 championship contenders at Daytona International Speedway.

Reddick’s quest to make up the lost ground on both the asphalt and the leaderboard has the added obstacle of dealing with a crowded schedule as NASCAR attempts to run the entirety of its 36-race Cup Series slate. Sunday’s trip to South Beach will be the third Cup Series event over the last seven days. The marathon nature of the Cup circuit has only been exacerbated by the cancellation of on-track practice (to limit events to one day at the facilities) and sweltering conditions brought on by visits to locales like Miami, Atlanta, and Martinsville, Virginia in the late stages of spring.

Reddick, however, is taking the endless wave of calamity with stride. Cup races have been a bit longer than he’s used to, but, like any sport, he’s been studying game film and new techniques to get ready.

“Preparing for these races has been more important than ever before, whether it’s the hydration factor,” Reddick said. “our body’s not used to that and it’s hard. It’s hard for mine because I haven’t been Cup racing long and it’s hard for anyone that’s just used to running just one race or one event a weekend. So, that’s been tough, but we’re catching up to it and we’re really focusing on the hydration and preparation for the heat going into Homestead.”

Team efforts have been crucial at RCR, which is looking to send multiple drivers to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Reddick took the time to praise his veteran teammate Austin Dillon, who is 19 points ahead of him in the standings and six tallies behind William Byron for a playoff spot. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has had a calming effect in this topsy-turvy year, almost labeling him as a living, breathing practice session.

“Austin breaks down the cars and the performance of them in different ways than I even think about,” Reddick said of the 2018 Daytona 500 winner. “The things he brings to the table are different than I could ever offer and our differences, hopefully, and have at times this year, been very beneficial in bringing together a great product when we were able to practice and debrief after those sessions.”

NASCAR, Tyler Reddick

On-track exploits aren’t the only environments where Reddick has displayed his sagacity. He was one of the first drivers that eschewed the notion of “sticking to sports” in the wake of the current events in the United States. As protests and demonstrations against police brutality and white supremacy rose in all 50 states, Reddick shared an image of George Floyd on his social media accounts, accompanied by the message “I want to let everyone know out there, I hurt with you and I stand with you” and tags such as “#BlackLivesMatter” and “SystematicOpression”. Floyd was an African-American man who was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Many drivers have followed him in his early footsteps.

Drivers who have spoken out have faced scrutiny for tackling issues off the track and Reddick has been no exception. But there was never any hesitation in terms of speaking for the No. 8 Chevrolet’s driver.

“For me, I didn’t care about backlash. To me, it’s very simple: we’re all human beings, so why should you be treated differently because of the color of your skin. That’s not right. For me, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t care about the backlash. Those that had negative things to say, they clearly don’t fully understand what’s going on. It was the right thing to say and I felt compelled to say something.”

Reddick was also supportive of NASCAR’s recent ban of the Confederate flag, which went into effect hours before last Wednesday’s Cup event at Martinsville. He’s hoping the changes and displays of unity offered by both the drivers and NASCAR as a whole remain prevalent as normalcy starts to creep back into American society.

“When the headlines finally clear and it goes back to a sense of normalcy, if you will, it’s just important to remain adamant that we need to go out there in our communities…we need to go vote and get the right people that we feel that are going to make those changes that we’ve been crying out for the last couple of weeks. (We can’t) lose sight of that. (We have to) stay diligent and not lose sight of what’s important here.”

The No. 8 Chevrolet will start 24th on Sunday afternoon.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Homestead-Miami Speedway enters a new era this weekend

When the green flag drops at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, the track will begin a new era in NASCAR.

For the first time since the 2001 season, the South Florida venue will not be host to the championships of NASCAR’s three premier series. Instead, they will be hosting early season events.

The 1.5 mile oval with turns banked up to 20 degrees will be host to just the 12th race of the Cup Series season. However, all three premier series will still have events. The Xfinity Series will actually have events on both Saturday and Sunday, with 15-time Cup Series most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. participating on Saturday.

Like all Cup Series races at Homestead, the Dixie Vodka 400 will be 400 miles long and 267 laps. Each of the first two stages will be 80 laps with the final stage being 107 laps.

Last time at Homestead, Kyle Busch won the race en route to his second Cup Series Championship. On Sunday, he will roll off 4th. His teammate, Denny Hamlin, has the pole.

The starting positions were determined via a random draw dependent on owner points. 1-12, 13-24, and 25-36 in owner points  are determined by separate draws for starting positions. Spots 37-38 are represented by non-chartered teams. With no qualifying, it provides more incentive for teams to get better finishes to have a better chance to start further up-front.

It will be really interesting to see how Sunday’s race plays out. Now, there’s more than just the Championship 4 fighting for something big. Instead, it’s the whole field competing for the same prize. It will also be the first time that FOX will be broadcasting this race.

The race is at 3:30pm ET on Sunday. The Truck Series and Xfinity series run on Saturday afternoon, and the Xfinity Series runs again before the Cup race on Sunday.

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. takes home Martinsville’s first night race

New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. overcame a penalty to earn another victory at Martinsville Speedway in NASCAR’s Wednesday event.

Martin Truex Jr. was literally lights out on his way to victory on Wednesday night at Martinsville Speedway.

The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Mayetta, NJ native led the final 130 laps of Wednesday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500, earning his first victory of the 2020 season at the first NASCAR Cup Series night race in Martinsville history. It’s also the first win Truex has earned under the guidance of first-year crew chief James Small.

Truex posted a fourth-place finish after the first of two 130-lap stages, but was forced to start part two toward the back of the field after failing to adhere to the pit road commitment line. While he made his way back to the front, Joey Logano took home victory in the first stage en route to leading a race-high 234 circuits. Truex made it back to 15th by the end of the second stage while Jimmie Johnson ended Logano’s near-monopoly with a pass on lap 202. Johnson would go on to earn his first stage win since last season’s July Pocono event.

As the third stage commenced, Johnson failed to break up a Team Penske party at the front, as Logano battled his fellow Fords Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski for the lead. Truex was able to get back up to the front by the time the caution flag came out at lap 327 of 500 for an incident involving Erik Jones and David Starr. He eventually passed Keselowski for the lead with 130 circuits remaining and preserved it during pit stops under caution when Quin Houff spun shortly before the 400th go-around. After retaining the lead once more after a furious restart, Truex was able to coast to victory, taking home his second consecutive victory at the short track by a 4.7-second margin.

It’s the 27th Cup Series win for Truex, breaking a tie with his mentor Dale Earnhardt Jr. Truex previously drove in the NASCAR Busch Series (now NASCAR Xfinity Series) in a car owned by Earnhardt Jr., winning two titles at that level.

Ryan Blaney finished in the runner-up spot after an eventful evening of his own. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford started on the pole via draw but found himself a lap down before the end of the first stage. He eventually was able to work his way back to the lead, winning the race off pit road at the end of stage two, but a disastrous pit stop (that included a penalty for having men over the wall too early) pushed him to the rear of the field. He recovered well enough to chase down everyone but Truex, the 2017 Cup Series champion.

Logano and Keselowski finished third and fourth, while Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Wednesday’s race was the first to be run after NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag at races. The announcement was made hours before the green flag.
  • The No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the circuit, bore the “#BlackLivesMatter” insignia. Earlier this week, Wallace called for the banning of the Confederate flag on CNN. He finished fifth in the first stage and sixth after the second and wound up 11th on the evening.
  • Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet lost its crush panels in the very early stages of the race after an incident with his tires. Situated near the driver compartment and wheel wells, crush panels keep heat and fumes out of the car. Dillon was eventually removed from the car with just over 100 laps to go and treated for overheating.
  • Matt DiBenedetto finished seventh, his best finish since a runner-up spot at Las Vegas back in February.
  • In addition to Elliott finishing fifth, every Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet finished in the top ten. Johnson came home 10th, just behind Alex Bowman (sixth) and William Byron (eighth).

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Truck series driver quitting over new confederate flag and National Anthem policy

After NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace suggested that the confederate flag should be banned from events in an interview, the front office listened. On Wednesday, the sport announced that the flag will indeed be banned from NASCAR events. Additionally, competitors are no longer required to stand for the National Anthem.

This comes after NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed drivers and fans about the racial injustices in our country before Sunday’s race at Atlanta. For Wednesday’s race at Martinsville, Wallace will be running a “Black Lives Matter” paint scheme.

For part time Truck Series owner Ray Ciccarelli, he’s decided that’s enough. In a recent Facebook post, he announced that 2020 will be his last season in the sport.

“If this is the direction NASCAR is headed, we will not participate after [the] 2020 season is over,” said Ciccarelli. “I don’t believe in kneeling during the [National] Anthem nor taken people [away the] right to fly whatever flag they love.”

The Maryland native hasn’t raced yet in 2020, but ran 18 races over the prior three seasons. He scored one top-10 finish last season.

While many fans are happy with the changes that NASCAR is making, others are very upset.

“Sorry but no longer watching NASCAR thanks to you” said a fan to Wallace on Facebook. Another saying “If he runs with Black Lives Matter, I’ll turn my tickets in and never watch or attend another NASCAR race.”

The reaction from many fans is very disappointing, and proof that racism still exists far too frequently in society. If many fans are really choosing to no longer follow the sport over these new rules, then it may improve NASCAR’s reputation in the long run. It’s good that the sport realized that change was needed and did something about it.

What you need to know about NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban

NASCAR has banned the display of the Confederate flag at its events. Here’s what you need to know about the developments.

NASCAR announced on Wednesday that they will ban display of the Confederate flag at its sanctioned events. The ban comes hours before the premier Cup Series drops the green flag at Martinsville Speedway for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” a statement from NASCAR reads. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

Terms of how such a ban will be enforced have yet to be disclosed.

The Flag

Different versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America have been displayed by fans at NASCAR events, which primarily take place in the southeast United States. The CSA seceded from the United States of America in 1861 to protest of President Abraham Lincoln’s election, one that threatened to end the institution of slavery. Their secession led to the American Civil War, which ran from 1861 through 1865. CSA General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General and future American President Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, leading to the abolition of slavery and freeing scores of black slaves imprisoned on southern plantations.

The most renowned variant of the flag is likely most similar to the Confederate’s naval jack flowing in the latter stages of the war. Another extremely similar, rectangular variant was used as the battle flag for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Despite the loss, attempts have been made to readapt the flag as a symbol of Southern pride and states’ rights. Critics have countered that the flag has been used as a glorification of racism and white supremacy, as well as a sign of intimidation toward African-Americans.

NASCAR and the Flag

In 2015, NASCAR began to discourage display of the flag after a white supremacist-inspired shooting left killed nine African-Americans at a Charleston, SC church. The perpetrator had previously posed with Confederate paraphernalia and engaged in white supremacist rhetoric. NASCAR publicly supported the decision of then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate flag from the State House. South Carolina is home to Darlington Raceway near Myrtle Beach, one of NASCAR’s original and most renowned tracks.

Then-Chairman and CEO Brian France later expressed a desire to ban the flag outright. At the time, NASCAR asked fans not to display the flag at events and offered an exchange program to trade in Confederate flags for American flags at the July 2015 race at Daytona International Speedway.

NASCAR has been a predominantly-white league since its inception in 1949. Only seven black drivers have partaken in events at the Cup Series level, including current full-time driver Bubba Wallace, who drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports. It has unfortunately not been a stranger to racial controversy. During a virtual race on the iRacing platform, Cup Series star Kyle Larson casually used a racial slur in an event live-streamed on Twitch. Larson was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR and fired from his ride in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

In 2004, NASCAR began the Drive for Diversity program, which set up a platform to attract minority individuals to the sport, in a variety of roles, including those as drivers, crew chiefs, sponsors, and more. Former NBA All-Star and top overall pick Brad Daugherty played a role in the program’s development. The former University of North Carolina and Cleveland Cavaliers star is currently a co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing, which fields the respective No. 37 and No. 47 Chevrolets of Ryan Preece and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MAY 31: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Driver Response

The debate regarding Confederate symbols has reopened in the wake of nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality against African-Americans. Removal of statues bearing the likeness of Confederate representatives has become more prevalent and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also called for such statues to be removed from the U.S. Capitol Building.

During the initial tone down in 2015, NASCAR’s most prominent faces supported NASCAR’s decision. Four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon told CBS This Morning that “there’s no place for it” and Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed.

“It really does nothing for anybody to be there flying,” Earnhardt Jr. said to Dustin Long of NBC Sports. “It belongs in the history books, that’s about it.’’

Yahoo!’s Jay Busbee recalled a story from his 2016 book Earnhardt Nation: The Full-Throttle Saga of NASCAR’s First Family in which seven-time Cup champion and NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. removed a Confederate flag bumper sticker from his truck after his housekeeper, an African-American woman, told him of the flag’s connotations.

Prior to last Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR President Steve Phelps called for a change in a radio message to drivers. “Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”

Since then, more drivers have been proactive in the fight against systemic racism and injustice. Wallace appeared on CNN earlier this week calling for an end to the Confederate flag’s display. Prior to the Atlanta event, Wallace was seen wearing an American flag facemask and a shirt bearing the words “I can’t breathe”, referencing the words spoken by Eric Garner and George Floyd, who died at the hands of officers in New York City and Minneapolis. On Wednesday night, Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet will bear the “#BlackLivesMatter” insignia. The image of a black and white hand together will be displayed on the hood.

Brad Keselowski stopped short of calling for an outright ban (telling USA Today’s Michelle R. Martinelli “it wasn’t (his) right”), but united with Penske Racing teammate Ryan Blaney to call for respect to another flag: the stars and stripes of America.

“I only salute one flag and that’s America’s,” said Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 2 Ford. “I recognize that (the Confederate) flag might mean something different to different people, but it doesn’t mean United States of America to me.”

“It’s tough, but I don’t really enjoy it because sometimes I feel like the people that wave them mean the negative when they wave them, and that’s not cool,” Wednesday’s polesitter Blaney added to Martinelli. ” I’d love to not see them at the race track, honestly, because it doesn’t make everyone comfortable, so that’s kind of where I stand on that. Bring your 50 stars flag; I think that would be way better.”

In an exclusive interview with ESM, Corey LaJoie, driver of the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, put in the simplest, most relatable terms possible hours before the ban.

“We need to now allow that banner to be at the racetrack,” LaJoie told ESM. “I don’t really care what it means, how you can justify what it means. I think, if anything, you can justify it being sensitive to the people it offends.”

“If my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts, but I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, just because it has the possibility to hurt him physically. If there’s something that I consciously do that would offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoyed eating peanuts.”

“We are one community trying to entertain people. That’s what we show up 36 weekends out of the year to do, to entertain. We don’t want to exclude anybody. We want to have everybody feel welcome coming to a NASCAR race.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick dominates the final stage of another win in Atlanta

Martin Truex Jr. won the first two stages, but Kevin Harvick led all but three of the final 108 laps to win NASCAR’s yearly visit to Atlanta.

Time will tell when Trae Young and Matt Ryan are allowed to provide the Atlanta area some clutch fourth quarter antics again. Kevin Harvick was more than happy to fill the quota on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Ford led all but three of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500’s final 108 circuits en route to his second win of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series campaign. His second win of season, both coming during NASCAR’s ongoing return from the coronavirus-induced pause, has now afforded him a 48-point cushion in the Cup Series points standings.

Harvick previously won The Real Heroes 400 last month at Darlington Raceway.

Atlanta has always been a special place for Harvick. The 1.5-mile oval played host to Harvick’s first Cup Series victory back in 2001. Then driving the No. 29 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, it was only his third start in NASCAR’s premier division after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in his rebranded No. 3 car. Harvick held off Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds to secure the emotional win.

No such dramatics were needed on Sunday. After leading 46 laps during the opening stage, Harvick retook the top spot from Kyle Busch on a semi-permanent basis at the onset of the third stage. The three-lap mercy was granted only when Harvick made his final pit stop on lap 269 of 325, forcing him to briefly relinquish the lead to Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. He would retake first place after the two fellow Fords made their own stops for service and faced little resistance en route to victory lane with a 3.527-margin over the aforementioned Busch.

Harvick commemorated his latest win as he did his first, wielding three fingers from his car as he made a victory lap around the track to pay tribute to Earnhardt. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion passed away in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Overall, Harvick has now won three races at Atlanta, the second coming in March 2017. 

The newest Atlanta triumph was historic in several ways. For one thing, it came as Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, celebrated his 44th birthday. They have been paired up since they each joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Together, they have finished the final standings’ top three in all but one of their six full seasons, the first of which ended with the Cup Series title. 

Additionally, Harvick’s 51st Cup Series victory earns him sole possession of 12th-place on the circuit’s all-time wins list. He was previously tied with NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.

Martin Truex Jr. won the first two stages of the race, his first pair of the season. He finished third after a hard-fought battle with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch, while Blaney and another Gibbs Toyota, that of Denny Hamlin, rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series will quickly return to action, as series travels to Martinsville Speedway for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Martinsville’s starting lineup will be determined by a tiered draw based on car owner points.

Race Notes

  • Prior to the start of Sunday’s race, NASCAR addressed the ongoing nationwide protests against systematic racism and police brutality against African-Americans. With each of the 40 participating cars stopped at the start/finish line, NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed both drivers and fans about the current events, encouraging action in fighting racism. “Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”
  • After Phelps’ speech, several renowned drivers appeared in a video urging fans to take action in the battle for justice and equality.
  • Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the Cup Series level, was seen sporting a shirt bearing the words “I Can’t Breathe” and an American flag face mask during the prerace ceremonies. The shirt’s words refer to Eric Garner and George Floyd, African-American victims of police brutality six years apart. Members of Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet crew were also seen holding the shirts.
  • After finishing 21st on Sunday, Wallace appeared to faint during separate interviews with Fox Sports’ Jamie Little, an apparent result of exhaustion and dehydration. Wallace was later examined and released from the infield care center.
  • Kurt Busch (brother of Kyle) was forced serve a pass-through penalty on pit road after his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet failed prerace inspection three times. Busch lost a lap, but earned it back prior to a competition caution on lap 25. He would go on to recover and finish sixth.
  • In addition to the competition caution, only four other yellow flags came out on Sunday. Two signaled the end of the first two stages, while the others accounted for separate spins from Front Row Motorsports teammates John Hunter Nemechek (lap 96) and Michael McDowell (lap 203).
  • B.J. McLeod (clutch) and Timmy Hill (electrical) were the only two cars that failed to finish the race.

For full race results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

NASCAR, Tyler Reddick

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

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

Tyler Reddick

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

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

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

John Hunter Nemechek

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

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

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