NASCAR: Denny Hamlin avoids playoff chaos, finally earns a win in 2021

Denny Hamlin got the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs off to a strong start, capturing his first win of 2021 as other contenders faltered.

The Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is no longer considered NASCAR’s “throwback” race, that honor instead being bestowed to the legendary track’s spring event. Sunday night’s winner, however, provided perfect throwback vibes as a victory lane staple finally got to hoist another trophy.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finally earned his first race of 2021, holding off championship favorite Kyle Larson to win the opening race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Hamling stood atop the regular season standings for most of the year, but his lack of victories allowed Larson to take over.

As several other playoff contenders dropped out due to on-track incidents, Hamlin stayed out of trouble and held off a furious last-lap push from Larson to secure the win, his fourth at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”. Hamlin also earned automatic advancement to the second round of the Cup Series playoffs, which began with 16 drivers on Saturday night. The bottom four in the playoff grid will be eliminated after the upcoming race at Bristol on Sept. 18.

Non-playoff driver Ross Chastain finished third, while Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

FedEx Toyota finally delivers a win

Hamlin winning the regular season title seemed like a certainty, as he sat atop the points standings for nearly six months despite failing to visit victory lane. Entering last season’s playoffs, Hamlin and the No. 11 group had won six races before appearing amongst the championship-contending quartet in Phoenix. He maintained general consistency throughout this season (he remains the only driver in the Cup Series that has run and finished all 27 races) but saw his points lead evaporate thanks to Larson’s five victories in his return to the circuit.

The streak finally ended on Sunday night at a familiar locale. He needed no guidance toward victory lane, as he earned his fourth career victory at the legendary Darlington. That breaks a tie with Harvick for the most amongst active drivers and he becomes the eighth driver to win at least four times at a locale that has hosted NASCAR events since 1950.

Hamlin won the first of two 115-lap stages and was running second before some late damage at the end of the latter shuffled him to fourth. The No. 11 crew earned a chance to set up Hamlin for a victory when pole sitter Ryan Blaney’s spin at lap 318 of 367 brought out the caution. Hamlin beat out Chastain for the lead and then secured it for good on the restart.

“We had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races…For us, it certainly is significant,” Hamlin said of his win. “I’m not going to downplay the significance of it. It’s not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.”

The No. 11 team now has a pair of consequence-free opportunities to tinker with their Camry before the playoff field is sliced down to a dozen.

“We didn’t have the playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these playoffs,” he continued. “There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.”

Drive Stuck at Five

Eager to earn another win, Larson gave Hamlin everything he could handle on the final lap. Catching up to the No. 11 by running close to Darlington’s famous wall, eventually getting too close for comfort on the final lap. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the start/finish line in a shower of sparks but managed to finish second.

“We got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something,” Larson said with a smile, admitting he went for the video game-style finish. “Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave (him) everything I had.”

Larson nonetheless owns a healthy 80-point lead above the 12th spot occupied by Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, a lead built through a series-best five victories and the 15-tally bonus offered to him through winning the regular season title.

Ross Is Boss Amongst the Remainders

Chastain missed out on the Cup Series playoffs but nearly disrupted the postseason party on Sunday night. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was leading at the time of Blaney’s spin after a strong green flag pit stop situated him in front of Larson with 67 laps to go.

Chastain and his teammate Kurt Busch are looking to send CGR out on a strong note. The team is set to shut down its NASCAR operations at the end of the season, having sold its assets to Trackhouse Racings (where Chastain will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet next season). Busch, the current driver of the No. 1, is seeking his second Cup Series title. He led 13 laps on Sunday and finished sixth to establish a 26-point lead ahead of the cutoff.

“This McDonald’s car, I think it was the fastest car here tonight,” Chastain said. “It’s humbling to come with this CGR group these final 10 races here, a place where my career kind of took a totally different trajectory three years ago and to have people like Clover and the Moose (Fraternity) and Advent Health on board supporting me and still letting me race three years later, it means the world. I’ve just got to clean up some more, though.”

Lady in Black Scorns Playoff Drivers

Darlington lived up to its reputation as The Track Too Tough to Tame, claiming the vehicles of several playoff drivers…

  • Larson’s runner-up finish salvaged a brutal night for Hendrick Motorsports: Bowman made contact with the wall at lap 16, damaging teammate William Byron’s car in the process. Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed to finish after a blow tired put him into the wall at lap 200, dropping him to 34th in the final running order and 15th in the playoff standings, nine points behind Reddick and Bowman’s cutoff. Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished the race in 26th, four laps down.

 

  • Defending series champion Chase Elliott, another HMS rep, was not immune to the struggles. His No. 9 Chevrolet was forced to make another stop after clipping a tire being held by a crew member from James Davison’s No. 53 stall at lap 28. Like Byron, a downed tire ruined Elliott’s day, as contact with Christopher Bell cost him his steering and relegated him to 31st.

 

  • Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell’s quest to shock the NASCAR world in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford was derailed by when he got loose coming out of Turn 2. His subsequent meeting with the inside wall pushed to dead last in 37th. Now 22 points away from advancement, McDowell may need another surprise victory to keep his Cinderella run alive.

 

  • Kyle Busch got loose in Turn 2 while racing Austin Dillon for the 12th position, putting his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall. A disgruntled Busch immediately went to the garage area and finished 35th, pitting him two points behind the cutoff.

 

  • Truex, the winner of May’s Darlington event, undoubtedly earned his top five finish. An unscheduled pit stop to fix a loose wheel put him a lap down before a late speeding penalty on pit road possibly cost him a chance at the win. Such a strong finish put Truex in third place, 36 points ahead of the cutoff.

 

  • Blaney finished 22nd after his spin.

Ware Released After Carbon Monoxide Scare

Cody Ware retired from the race early after reportedly showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. His No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet was previously involved in a stage one incident with teammate Davison and spent an extended stay in the infield care center. Ware was in good spirits on Twitter after the race and thanked both the Darlington medical staff and well-wishers.

What’s Next

The second leg of the Cup Series’ opening playoff round comes at the short track at Richmond Raceway, where drivers will compete in the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This will be the second visit to Richmond this season, as Bowman earned his first victory in the No. 48 Chevrolet, passing Hamlin on a restart with 10 laps to go in securing the victory. Kyle Busch is by far the most accomplished driver at the track, earning six Cup Series wins (his last in September 2018).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kurt Busch takes home a family affair at Atlanta

After his team made a major announcement, Kurt Busch held off his younger brother Kyle to earn the 33rd win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

With Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious mantra turned meme embarking on a relentless invasion of social media, it was only appropriate that Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series affair would take on a familial theme.

Kurt Busch, driver No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, held off his younger brother Kyle to win the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The elder Busch made the fateful pass with just over 23 laps to go in the 260-circuit event to become the 12th different winner of the 2021 Cup Series season.

“We beat Kyle! I taught that kid everything he knows; he should be grateful,” Kurt Busch jokingly remarked, per notes from NASCAR. “What a battle. What a genuine, awesome, old-school racetrack.”

Kurt Busch’s victory comes at a crucial time for his team. All properties of Chip Ganassi Racing, including equipment and characters, were sold to Trackhouse Racing on June 30, a sale that will fully take effect after the 2021 season. Trackhouse is owned by former driver Justin Marks (who previously partook in Ganassi’s defunct Xfinity Series program, winning the 2016 Mid-Ohio event) and philanthropist/recording artist Pitbull, who field the No. 99 Chevrolet driven by Daniel Suarez.

Sunday’s event at Atlanta was thus poetic in more ways than one: Kurt Busch may have had some assistance from teammate Ross Chastain.

As the Busch brothers battled for the lead in the final stanzas, they approached Chastain’s slower No. 42. While Chastain didn’t appear to actively block Kyle, he more or less mimicked his draft, cutting off his access to clean air. Kurt was thus able to get by and build a healthy lead before his brother made one last push to no avail. The final margin of victory was 1.237 seconds.

Kyle was reportedly upset with Chastain’s apparent interference but nonetheless ventured to victory lane to congratulate his brother. Afterward, Kurt defended his teammate’s actions. Chastain is running his first season in Ganassi’s No. 42, previously piloted by Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kyle Larson.

“He did stop by Victory Lane and do the Kyle Busch grumpy. That’s what I expected,” Kurt Busch said of Kyle’s reply. “What happened on track was the perfect scenario for a teammate to do the work that he needed to do. If I’m running third, Ross isn’t part of the equation. That was exactly what a teammate needs to do, and Ross did that in a way that gave me a sense of pride in the education and the mentorship that I have helped Ross with this year. It was a perfect give-back.”

Chastain, who finished 21st, was among the first to congratulate Busch after he crossed the start/finish line. He’ll likely need a win to join the No. 1 in the Cup Series postseason as he sits 145 points out of the final playoff spot, now held by sixth-place finisher Tyler Reddick.

“Can we do that in the playoffs? No,” Kurt Busch said. “Can you do that in a regular season where one guy has won and one guy is trying to run hard? Today was a perfect scenario for that to unfold, and Kyle will get over it pretty quick.”

“I believe that no line was crossed, and it was that right finesse to make it happen.”

The Busch brothers each took home the victories in the first two 80-lap stages of the race. Kurt, the 2004 Cup Series champion, earned the 33rd win of his career to tie Fireball Roberts for 25th place on the all-time wins list. His return to the playoffs guarantees Ganassi at least one more shot at a NASCAR championship. CGR has earned 18 major racing championships (including nine in IndyCar) but none at the NASCAR level, its closest attempt coming in 2001 with Sterling Marlin (3rd).

Busch’s victory, his first since last September at his home track of Las Vegas and his fourth all-time at AMS (most amongst active drivers), also comes at the final NASCAR event at Atlanta before the track is repaved and reconfigured for next year’s visit. The old surface required repairs shortly after the end of the second stage, necessitating a red flag period that lasted about 20 minutes.

Martin Truex Jr. finished third, while Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on July 18, as the Foxwoods Resort Casino will be held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For full Sunday results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Chip Ganassi Racing

CGR’s 2021 roster features a former NASCAR champion gearing up for another run, and an Xfinity standout looking to make an impact.

2021 Chip Ganassi Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kurt Busch 1 Matt McCall Monster Energy
Ross Chastain 42 TBD Clover

History

Chip Ganassi Racing began competition in 1989, formed by the eponymous Ganassi and millionaire Felix Sabates. Ganassi has also formed successful ventures at the IndyCar and Grand-Am levels. He took over a controlling interest of the team in 2001, enjoying a brief period of prosperity with Sterling Marlin driving the No. 40 Dodge dubbed the “Silver Bullet” thanks to its sponsorship from Coors Light. Marlin finished third in the final 2001 Cup Series ledger and was at the top of the pack for a majority of the 2002 seasons before he was sidelined with a neck injury. After Jamie McMurray won in his second career Cup Series start while subbing for Marlin, the team won only a single race over the next 13 seasons, with Juan Pablo Montoya triumphing at Sonoma in 2007.

Ganassi vehicles have run more consistently over recent seasons. Kyle Larson won four races in the No. 42 Chevrolet in 2017, while Kurt Busch has earned a win in each of the last two seasons in the No. 1.

2020 in Review

2020 was a year of controversy and resurgence for CGR. Larson got off to a strong start (three top-tens in the first four races) but was dismissed during the coronavirus-induced pause for using a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, came out of retirement to pilot the No. 42 the rest of the way, but never found momentum save for a runner-up finish at Indianapolis in July.

Meanwhile, Busch managed to stay consistent in his second year driving Gannasi’s No. 1 Chevrolet. He hovered around the latter half of the playoff bracket with 14 top-ten finishes in the 26 regular season races and reached the postseason festivities for the eighth straight year. Busch earned a statement victory at his home track of Las Vegas, leading the final 26 laps to win the South Point 400. It earned him automatic advancement to the semifinal round that featured eight drivers contending for the championship, but an engine failure at Kansas stifled his chances at reaching the championship quartet.

Meet the Drivers

Kurt Busch

Experience: 21st season
Career Cup Victories: 32 (last: Las Vegas, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 10th (Round of 8)
Best standings finish: 2004 Champion

It’s not officially silly season without pondering Busch’s future. Set to turn 42 in August, Busch is one of three remaining full-time drivers to race during NASCAR’s days under the “Winston Cup” moniker (Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman are the others). Busch appeared to be leaning toward retirement after 2019 but signed on for two more years at the helm after coming home 13th in the final standings and stealing a win from his younger brother Kyle at Kentucky earlier that season.

In an interview with Matt Mayer of CBS Sports after his win at Las Vegas, Busch said that there was a “50/50 chance” that 2021 could be his final season.

“I’ve been at this game a long time,” Busch said at the time. “I’ve been out there 21 years and my wife is a great supporter of mine and she loves the racing but it’s been a bunch of years out on the road and out on the circuit and we’ll see what 2022 brings us when we get there.”

Busch is best known for winning the 2004 Cup Series championship, the first held under a playoff format.

Ross Chastain

Experience: 1st full-time season (79 prior Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

This will be Chastain’s first year racing full-time on the Cup Series circuit, but he’s anything but a rookie. Chastain, now driving the No. 42 vacated by Kenseth, has made 79 Cup Series starts, often in low-budget cars, though he did get some experience prior to the pause in Roush Fenway’s No. 6 Ford in relief of an injured Newman. In the meantime, Chastain has become a force to be reckoned with on NASCAR’s lower national levels, finishing in the runner-up slot on the 2019 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series circuit. He didn’t win a race on the Xfinity level last season, but he led all drivers with 27 postings in the top ten.

“He’s a great addition. Ross Chastain will fit in right away,” Busch said of Chastain’s entry after the announcement was made. “He’s had some tough situations stacked against him with different sponsors and movement. But he’s had the strength to rise above that.”

Outlook

Busch should secure a spot among the playoff contenders again, and will likely be in contention for wins at multiple points this season. As for Chastain, it’s going to be interesting to see how the No. 42 car comes out this year after struggling under Kenseth’s watch for the majority of 2020. Reaching the playoffs in his first full-time endeavor would be a realistic, attainable goal as both he and the No. 42 team as a whole seek to get back on the right track.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kaulig Racing to ramp up Cup Series efforts in 2021

Known for their recent exploits on the NASCAR Xfinity Series level, Kaulig Racing will run select races at the premier Cup level in 2021.

Kaulig Racing’s efforts toward full-time status at the NASCAR Cup Series level took a big step forward on Thursday. The Xfinity Series squad announced that they will run select races on the 2021 Cup circuit, including the Daytona 500 on February 14. They will continue to compete for an Xfinity championship as well, with their season getting underway the day before.

“Kaulig Racing is always building toward the future and I believe this is the next step in that process,” said team owner, Matt Kaulig, in a statement. “We have the ultimate goal of becoming a powerhouse team in the Cup Series, and we are excited to continue our team’s growth.”

Drivers, sponsors, and other information for the Cup events will be revealed at a later date, but Kaulig’s statement indicated that “road course and superspeedway events” will be the likely destinations. The Cup Series is set to visit a record seven road courses in 2021, including Watkins Glen International in New York State.

Kaulig, the founder of gutter protection and cleaning system LeafFilter, opened his NASCAR team in 2016 with technical support from Richard Childress Racing. The team has been one of the most successful on the Xfinity level over the past two seasons, winning seven races over the past two seasons. Kaulig planned to run more Cup events last season, but was prevented from doing so by the ongoin health crisis.

“From where we started in a go-kart shop to a now championship-contending team, I have seen the growth of Kaulig Racing first-hand over the last 5 years,” said team president Chris Rice in the same statement. “It has been a privilege to be able to have Matt Kaulig’s trust in establishing ourselves as a competitive team in one of NASCAR’s top series, and I am confident we are ready to take that next step as an organization.”

Justin Haley won a team-record three events last season and was one of four drivers in contention for the series title at the finale at Phoenix, eventually coming home third. Haley is set to return for his third season in Kaulig’s No. 11 Chevrolet. The 21-year-old represented Kaulig in the team’s Cup debut at last season’s Daytona 500, finishing a respectable 13th in a car bearing No. 16. With his Xfinity win at Talladega in June, Haley became the 32nd driver in NASCAR history to win at least one race in all three of the circuit’s national touring series (Cup, Xfinity, Truck). He previously won in only his third Cup Series start at Daytona’s summer event in 2019 with low-budget Spire Motorsports by virtue of leading when inclement weather washed out the race with 30 laps to go.

It wouldn’t be a shock to see Haley take the superspeedway events at Daytona and Talladega, where he earned each of his 2020 wins. Kaulig’s garage also boasts the talents of former Cup starter and road course A.J. Allmendinger, whose lone win at the premier series came at the Watkins Glen event in 2014 with JTG Daugherty’s No. 47 team. Allmendinger ran 16 races on a part-time basis for Kaulig over the past two Xfinity seasons, winning three of them, including both visits to Charlotte’s road course. He will race for Kaulig on a full-time basis in 2021 on the Xfinity level, keeping his No. 16 branding.

Also joining the group this season is Jeb Burton, who takes over the No. 10 Chevrolet from Ross Chastain. Burton, the son of 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward, has run sporadicly at each of NASCAR’s national levels, including a single full-time season in the Cup Series in 2015. He was a part-time driver with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team over the last two Xfinity seasons, taking home three top-five postings with JR Motorsports (including a runner-up finish at Richmond in September). Chastain was promoted to a full-time Cup ride in September, taking over for Matt Kenseth in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Championship Preview with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard

Kevin Harvick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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