Ryan Blaney’s acting up in more ways than one on the NASCAR circuit, earning first top-five of 2021 and guest-starring on The Crew.
As the world reaches its first full year under the ongoing pandemic, many have taken the time to reflect on where they’ve been and how they’ve grown as welcome normalcy begins to inch its way back into society.
The sensation is coming full circle for the NASCAR Cup Series, which will return to Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Recently refurbished, Phoenix hosted the last NASCAR event with the traditional trappings and fanfare normally seen on race weekend, including fully open grandstands. The ensuing event at Atlanta was postponed five days after Joey Logano took home the checkered flag in the desert.
That week was slated to be a forgettable one for Ryan Blaney. He was likely eager to get past Phoenix, as his No. 12 Team Penske Ford came home 37th after it was involved in a wreck with Denny Hamlin on lap 59 of 312. But he remembers being at Chase Elliott’s house in Georgia and that he and his close friend were on their way to the track before they received the shutdown notice.
“We were reading things of NBA shutting down and things like that, so we didn’t really know what was gonna happen, so we were about to head out the door and they said it got canceled,” Blaney recalled during media availability this week. He extended sympathy to what was happening to his fellow teams and competitors but lamented the loss of livelihoods beyond the track.
“It was a difficult thing for everybody on the teams and things like that, but in the bigger picture, it was very difficult for people around the world, any job,” he said. “It changes everyone’s lives, so it definitely doesn’t feel like a year. Hopefully, we’re making progress on this thing of getting the world healthy again, but it’s changed the way that our sport has operated.”
The two-month stoppage came at a strange time for Blaney and Team Penske. Prior to the 2020 season, the team played a de facto game of musical chair with the team’s crew chiefs. Blaney was assigned the services of Todd Gordon, a Camden, NY native and 2018 Cup Series champion alongside fellow Penske rep Joey Logano.
The pairing struggled in the early going after a runner-up finish at the Daytona 500, capped off by the wreck at Phoenix. But once NASCAR returned in mid-May at Darlington, Blaney rattled off top-four finishes in six of the next seven races, a stretch capped off in a photo-finish victory at Talladega.
A brutal first-round of the playoffs stifled the No. 12’s momentum, though his teammates Logano and Brad Keselowski were in contention for the championship at the return trip to Phoenix for the season finale last fall. But Blaney was pleased with what the team has been able to accomplish over the past year.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do, the whole team,” Blaney said. “(When) everything shut down, I thought we did the best we could of still communicating and unload with no practice and trying to make the most of it, so it’s just nice to build off of last year, coming back with the same people on your team I think really helps figuring out what you need to do to be better.”
Blaney had to rediscover his 2020 resilience when the ongoing season got off to a painful start at Daytona. Late contact with Elliott cost him a chance for the win at the Busch Clash exhibition before he was caught up in an early “Big One” in the main event. Another wreck with Aric Almirola ended his chances at the third race at Homestead, putting him in a 24th-place hole in the standings. With different winners emerging in each of the first few races thus far, Blaney sat in a somewhat-precarious 24th-place spot.
But the No. 12 crew got things together at Las Vegas, rounding out the top five behind winner Kyle Larson. It was the first time this season that he ran in the top five after the tough start to the year. He currently holds the 15th and penultimate playoff seed in the Cup Series playoff standings, three points ahead of first man out Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
“We’ve struggled getting going this year, but just unfortunate things happened. It was nice just to have a solid run. I didn’t think we had a car that could contend for the win,” Blaney said. “We all thought at Homestead our mile-and-a-half cars weren’t great and we put a lot of work in before Vegas changing some stuff up and it showed, so I apply that to both packages and definitely do that here this weekend for Phoenix going forward.”
Blaney will start eighth for Sunday’s race at Phoenix, the Instacart 500. Prior to last season’s wreck, he posted consecutive third-place finishes in the desert and recovered to sixth in the 2020 season finale, second-best amongst the non-championship contenders.
But the track on everyone’s mind in the near future is undoubtedly the newly muddied Bristol Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup Series’ first-ever dirt race on March 28. While Blaney hasn’t taken to iRacing like many of his compatriots, he might have a resource few other drivers own: secondhand experience through his father.
Blaney’s father Dave, who ran nearly 500 races at the Cup level, is an accomplished dirt racer in his own right, earning the 1995 World of Outlaws championship. The younger Blaney believes that the biggest factor in this unchartered endeavor will be the unpredictability of stock cars racing on dirt.
“It’s nice we have practice and it’s nice to have a dad that I can maybe talk to about what he thinks,” Blaney said. “His sprint cars are way different than what we’re gonna be driving, but just as far as looking at the dirt track, if it’s slicking off, if there’s a little bit of moisture everywhere, that’s just kind of heads-up.”
“You can expect all you want to, but until you get there and you see what the track is like and how much water they’ve put down on it, if it’s rubbering up, if it’s really slick, that’s just game time stuff. That’s what makes those dirt guys so great at what they do is they have to notice that every single lap and it changes every lap and they have great ability to really switch up what they’re doing.”
Like many innovators during the health crisis, it would appear that Blaney picked up a new skill during the lockdown period. Blaney guest-starred in a pair of episodes of The Crew, a Netflix comedy series starring Kevin James.
Surprisingly, however, it’s not the only screen credit to Blaney’s name. He appeared on episodes of NBC’s episodic adaption of the action film Taken and the Magnum P.I. reboot on CBS. He also held voiceover roles in Cars 3 and the animated Spider-Man series on Disney XD.
Blaney would be open to more acting roles, having gained a deeper appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work of on-screen.
“I really enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes on movie or TV sets,” It’s actually really fascinating if you’ve never seen behind-the-scenes sets of how many men and women are involved in production and preparation that are never on screen. Everybody from the writers to the director to the light person.
“There’s a lot of people that are involved with that that never get any recognition that aren’t on the TV, and it’s kind of the same with racing. There are a lot of people in these race shops that are never at the track, things like that, but they do a lot of work, whether it’s building chassis or putting body on the car, engineer work. I kind of compare it to that.”
But he made one thing abundantly clear: he’ll walk off the set if showbiz interferes with his racing career.
A last-lap get-together between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney allowed Kyle Busch to steal the NASCAR Cup Series’ season-opening exhibition.
Kyle Busch took advantage of chaos on the final lap of the NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Busch Clash exhibition at Daytona International Speedway’s road course on Tuesday night, stealing the opening victory when Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney made contact in the final turn.
Busch was running third in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota when Elliott tried to take the win from his close friend Blaney got together toward the final turn. With the cars ahead of him disabled, the two-time Cup Series champion took full advantage.
First run in 1979, the Busch Clash exhibition is typically considered the unofficial start of the NASCAR season. It is often run the weekend before the Daytona 500, but DIS’ Speedweeks festivities have been condensed to a weak to work with health protocols. The event was run on the speedway’s road course for the first time, nearly six months after the circuit ran a regular-season race for the first time. Criteria for entry into the event constantly changes, though this season’s event welcomed playoff drivers, race winners, stage winners, and pole sitters from on-track qualifying last season.
NASCAR will return to the road course on February 21, one week after Sunday’s main event on the oval (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox), for a points race.
Busch becomes the 11th driver to earn multiple Clash victories, previously winning on the traditional oval in 2012. This victory comes after a disappointing title defense in 2020. Busch won only a single race and failed to appear in the top four of the final standings for the first time since 2014. He also captured a win with new crew chief Ben Beshore, a former JGR engineer who served as Harrison Burton’s pit boss at the Xfinity Series level last year. Beshore was also Busch’s interim crew chief for three races during the 2017 season.
It was nearly deja vu all over against for Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Elliott came in as a popular pick for the Clash title, having won each of the last four races held on a road course (including August’s maiden voyage at Daytona). However, he was forced to start the rear of the field for the 35-lap event, a penalty for making unapproved adjustments to his Chevy. Elliott was previously sent to the rear at the last points event back in Phoenix in November. He’d brush to off to not only win the event, but his first Cup Series championship as well.
Elliott had made his way to third by lap 28 when leader Martin Truex Jr. wrecked in the sixth turn. The No. 9 would assume the lead when leaders Blaney and Denny Hamlin pitted. Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford won the race off pit road, situating him behind Elliott and five others who stayed out. Armed with fresher tires, Blaney took the lead from Elliott with two to go before engaging in a furious final lap. As they came to the frontstretch, Elliott bumped the No. 12, spinning him into the wall. Elliott tried to get back up to speed as Busch approached, but it was no use. As Busch celebrated in front of a limited crowd at the start/finish line, Elliott and Blaney shared a conversation on pit road.
Joey Logano recovered from a pit road penalty to finish third, while Tyler Reddick and William Byron rounded out the top five.
Preparation for the Daytona 500 will continue on Wednesday through single-car qualifying (7 p.m. ET, FS1) that will determine the front row for Sunday. The rest of the starting lineup will be settled through the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday night.
A common complaint from Tuesday’s event was that mud crept onto the track from the infield. Several cars needed their grilles scrubbed on pit strops to remove the intrusions.
23XI Racing, the team founded by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, unofficially debuted its No. 23 Toyota on Tuesday. Though regular driver Bubba Wallace did not qualify for the Clash, the team welcomed in veteran Ty Dillon for a one-off deal. Dillon finished 18th and will next attempt to race Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota into the 500 on Thursday. The former driver of the No. 13 for defunct Germain Racing will also pilot the 96 at the return to the road course in two weeks.
Other drivers in new rides included Alex Bowman in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (7th) and Erik Jones in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet (8th). Bowman is taking over the No. 48 for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson while Jones, defending champion of the Clash, replaces Wallace.
Busch’s win is the record 10th Clash victory for Joe Gibbs Racing and second in a row after Jones won in the No. 20 Toyota last season.
Team Penske accounted for half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ final four title contenders, but they feel they can do better.
2021 Team Penske Driver Chart
Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Austin Cindric (part-time)
Well regarded for his endeavors at both the NASCAR and open-wheel levels, Roger Penske’s first trek into the former came in 1972. After moderate success with Bobby Allison throughout the 1970s (four wins and a pair of fourth-place finishes), Penske left the sport after the 1980 season but returned 11 years later to enjoy prosperity through the “Blue Deuce”. Back by sponsorship from Miller Lite and the talents of 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, the No. 2 Ford won 36 races between 1991 and 2001. During that time, Penske opened a second car, the No. 12, driven by Jeremy Mayfield (1998-2001) and later Ryan Newman (2002-08). A third car began racing in 2004, becoming the No. 22 seven years later.
Wallace retired after the 2005 season, leaving the No. 2 to fellow Cup champion Kurt Busch. Former Hendrick Motorsports protege Brad Keselowski ventured over to the No. 2 in 2011 and brought home the organization’s first Cup championship the year after. Another transfer, Joey Logano from Joe Gibbs Racing, brought the title back to Penske six years later in the No. 22.
2020 in Review
One of the most-discussed transactions in NASCAR last season was the great crew chief swap at Team Penske, Jeremy Bullins, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe all moving to different pit boxes. All things considered, the gambit paid off, especially in a season where on-track activities were mostly limited to the race itself.
Logano won two of the first four races of the 2020 season at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the coronavirus-induced pause put things on hold. Once things rebooted, it took a while for Logano to regain his form, but Ryan Blaney took the June race at Talladega while Keselowski won at Charlotte, Bristol, and New Hampshire, allowing all three Penske cars entry into the playoffs.
While Blaney was eliminated after the first round, Keselowski won a playoff race at Richmond and finished no worse than sixth in the three-race semifinal. Logano regained his championship and advanced to title contention at Phoenix with a win at Kansas (also winning that venue’s summer event). The No. 22 would lead all but two of the first 119 laps at the finale, but the Penske duo proved to be no match for champion Chase Elliott. Keselowski was the runner-up while Logano came home third.
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 12th full season Career Cup Victories: 34 (last: Richmond, fall 2020) 2020 finish: 2nd Best standings finish: 2012 champion
Keselowski has quietly amassed quite the ledger since the 2016 season. He has won at least three races in each of the five seasons and has been in contention for the championship twice in that span. True to form in terms of showing up when it “matters”, Keselowski noted to the media this week that, after winning the 600-mile event in Charlotte last year, he has victories in each of NASCAR’s supposed “crown jewel” races…with the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500. The others are considered to be at Charlotte, Darlington, Indianapolis, and Talladega.
“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all, which is really cool and special for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me personally, so that’s definitely on the list is trying to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked, but I think the team is pretty good and really happy with a lot of people I’m working with. Jeremy has got an incredible attitude that is really healthy for our team and it was a really fresh, new challenge for me personally last year. I still have hunger and eagerness to achieve more results and that opportunity is coming up real quick here in the next few weeks, so nothing is taken for granted. Everything has to be earned.”
Keselowski’s fate was one of the most talked-about rumors in NASCAR last season, as many felt he was destined to return to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson was set to leave behind. But Keselowski re-upped with Penske for at least another year and there’s little to suggest that the relationship has deteriorated. Keselowski was particularly enthused by his relationship with Logano, as the two have collaborated in each of the last nine seasons.
“He immediately made me a better driver with a number of weaknesses I had,” Keselowski said of Logano. “I don’t think I was a very good qualifier. The things I was doing on the plate tracks some were good and some were bad, and he taught me a few good habits. He definitely made me up my game on restarts, so overall I think he’s made me better and I would hope that he would feel the same way that I challenged him to be better in other ways. So, I think that’s ultimately what would be your goal, is that you would have two teammates that make each other better.”
Experience: 6th full season Career Cup Victories: 4 (last: summer Talladega, 2020) 2020 finish: 9th Best standings finish: 7th (2019)
It’s hard to complain about Blaney’s Cup Series career. The son of sprint car legend Dave, Blaney’s first win ended Wood Brothers Racing’s 16-year winless drought at non-superspeedway tracks. Last season, his win allowed him to become the first driver to win consecutive races at Talladega since Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 set (also becoming the first Ford representative to pull it off since Buddy Baker in 1975). He led a career-best 668 laps last season, good for seventh in the Cup Series and just ahead of defending champion Kyle Busch. But Blaney struggled throughout the summer, earning only a single top five finish in the 13 races after Talladega. Those struggles followed him into the postseason, and he was a surprise first-round elimination. Blaney did manage to close things on a strong note, earning top tens in all but one of the last seven races (including a runner-up at the penultimate race at Martinsville).
Blaney knows that it’s time to show more, especially if he wants to solidify his status as one of the faces of NASCAR.
“I’m 27. It’s time to get rolling here and winning multiple races throughout the season and try to make it to the (final four),” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done yet, so it’s definitely time to step up and I think we have all the right tools in place to do so, it’s just about applying all of them and really capitalizing on moments. Great athletes and great players, they capitalize on big moments. That’s just what we have to put in our heads and put in our minds.”
Experience: 12th full season Career Cup Victories: 26 (last: fall Kansas, 2020) 2020 finish: 3rd Best standings finish: 2018 Champion
It feels like only yesterday that Logano entered the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread”. The Middletown, Connecticut native has more or less lived up to the hype behind such a name, winning the 2018 title and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three seasons.
Logano is ready to race “anything” as he goes into his 12th season on the full-time circuit. The biggest change in his repertoire has been his on-track confidence, which he spoke about in detail earlier this week. He’s also thankful for the tough times that have gotten him to this point in his career.
“As a younger driver or someone coming in, I went through (tough times) where I got my butt kicked and came in very confident thinking I was gonna be the man and then quickly realized I was not even the boy,” he said. “I was in trouble and being able to kind of overcome that has really helped me a lot now. I’m glad I’ve gone through that. Those are the experiences that I absolutely love that I had because it’s made me into who I am today, but in the moment it’s hard. It’s not fun, but it makes you stronger for sure.”
Austin Cindric (part-time)
Experience: 1st season (No previous Cup Series starts) Career Cup Victories: N/A 2020 finish: N/A Best standings finish: N/A
Penske will field a part-time third car for Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion. Cindric will protect his title in Penske’s No. 22 Ford before joining the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022.
While Cindric’s full schedule is subject to change, he will definitely attempt to reach the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying events on February 11, three days before the engines fire for the main event. Cindric won’t be the only talented name fighting for a spot. He’ll be joined by fellow Xfinity finalist Noah Gragson and former Truck Series runner-up Ty Dillon, all while preparing for the 300-mile Xfinity opener on the same weekend.
“I think you always as a race car driver, whether you have a good year, a bad year, or the best year, you have to continue to better yourself whatever that level is because everyone else around you is gonna keep stepping that up,” Cindric said of his 2021 goals. “I have some great opportunities to run some Cup races and get a taste for what it means to race against the best, because ultimately that’s what I want to be one day, is to race against the best and the best of the best.”
Keselowski and Logano will be constant contenders in 2021 and no one would be surprised if they reprised their roles in the final four. The real wild card is going to be Blaney, and if he can take the next step in his development. Winning multiple races, preferably prior to the playoffs, would be a great display of power, and there are high hopes he can do it relatively early. Blaney was the runner-up in last season’s Daytona 500 and placed third at Homestead-Miami, the site of the third event of the year.
In a year of chaos, NASCAR’s stability and adaptation brought hope and joy to the nation. Maybe we can all take a lesson from the circuit.
Enough has been written about American chaos, lunacy, childishness, violence, depravity, callousness, and heartbreak in the year 2020.
Yet, with circa 50 days remaining in this year of struggle and reckoning, there’s still time to come out clean on the other side. Through perseverance, talent, and faith, the American people still have time to emerge with a sense of betterment, if only on a personal level. The country has struggled at times to live up to the principles it was founded on, those of freedom and opportunity. But there are still individual cases throughout the land that showcase these American ideals. After all, it’s more often than not no one in the White House that makes America great…it’s We the People.
Cruel as life can be, it does have the decency to imitate the art of these ideals and virtues, often doing so through the canvas of sports. After all, that’s what made the 2020 NASCAR season so intriguing and a beacon of hope in a chaotic landscape.
Last Sunday marked the end of the 2020 circuit, the proceedings wrapping with Chase Elliott, the modern face of NASCAR, hoisting the Bill France Cup in the deserts just outside of Phoenix to commemorate his first championship title in the premier Cup Series. Elliott’s dominance of the 500-mile finale made the final laps of the campaign a tad anticlimactic…his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet beating Brad Keselowski by a 2.74-second margin…but everything else was consistent with a storybook ending.
The Season Finale 500, NASCAR’s championship race, was held on its originally scheduled date at its originally scheduled location. Even a few loyal, socially distanced fans were welcomed into the facility to witness Elliott’s dominance. The event was the 36th points event of the Cup Series season…no different from the number attached to a full schedule in a year unhindered by masks and six feet.
“The year has been, in short, I would say extraordinary, although I could probably use 15 or 20 other words to try to get to something,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said prior to the Cup finale at Phoenix. “It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport. I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.”
“But through it all this industry…I believe this industry does adversity better than any sport.If you think about it, we’re at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t own ourselves.We’re not franchised, right?We have independent contractors who come to race as one. What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable.We can’t do what we did as a sport without coming together.”
NASCAR was not immune to the world getting turned upside down at the onset of the ongoing health crisis. The circuit ran four races before shutdown and quarantine protocols across the country forced them to take an indefinite break after, ironically, the first race at Phoenix Raceway, the FanShield 500 on March 8. Working with their business partners and local governments, the series was able to negotiate a return on May 17, with proceedings moving to a doubleheader at the historic Darlington Raceway.
Like the rest of the country, drivers and crews had to make do with the temporary new surroundings. One of the most accessible sports from a spectator standpoint endured empty stands and empty garages. The typical hustle and bustle of fans enjoying not just a day, but a whole weekend, at the track, and the colorful and lively sponsor hospitality tents had all vanished.
NASCAR was stripped down to almost bare essentials, with a weekend’s work confined to mere hours after practice and qualifying were wiped out. With the starting lineup determined by random order and later a mathematical formula that prioritized those ahead in the standings, drivers essentially went from their streetcars to their racecars on the day of the event. Further draining perhaps emerged from the potential of running three races over the span of seven days, as weekday events were added to the schedule in an effort to get the full docket in.
Other efforts to not only complete every race but include the variety of different tracks that NASCAR has become known for were made as well. With road course events at Sonoma and New York State’s Watkins Glen International unable to be salvaged, the Cup Series moved their proceedings to a strange land in familiar territory: the road course at Daytona International Speedway. No NASCAR career is complete without running Daytona at least once, but the road course was unchartered ground. Yet, the sport pushed through, with Elliott winning a relatively clean maiden race back in August.
“If you told us we were going to a road course and never have practice and we’re just going to line up and race, and you told us that in January or February, we’d think you were nuts, that would never happen,” Joey Logano, championship finalist and the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, said of 2020. “We have to have a test session, we have to have a bunch of practice. It’s not possible. (But) we did it, and it was a great race, right, down in Daytona.”
As American sports adjusted to new, makeshift surroundings, NASCAR was able to provide a sense of normalcy to the landscape. While motorsports perhaps provide the best opportunity to social distance, they’re impossible to stage in a bubble that worked so well for the NHL, NBA, WNBA, NWSL, and several others. The health crisis would only add further chaos to the situation, with the necessary travel only increasing the potential for positive COVID-19 tests.
But NASCAR was able to navigate the situation fairly well, as drivers and crews alike adhered to protocols. From a participants’ standpoint, only two drivers (Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon) missed time due to a positive test and each was cleared to return to the track after one absence. With the exception of the ongoing NFL season, NASCAR is the only major North American sport that managed to complete a full-time, regularly scheduled season. Despite some venue shifts, every one of the 36 Cup Series races was completed.
“I would suggest that our sport did as well or better than other sports did with respect to how our protocols worked with our competitors. We have a significant number of competitors, not just our drivers but our crews, our officials, the safety workers,” Phelps said of the safety and health protocols. “When we shut down heading into Atlanta, we had no idea when we were going to get back to racing.It was our goal, and a stated goal, that we were going to run all races.Tomorrow when we crown a champion in our Cup Series, we will have run all our races.We did it through ways that frankly probably we didn’t think we could do, right? A bunch of midweek races. Three doubleheaders.No practice and qualifying. Things that were kind of significant in bedrock that we do, right?You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you’re on your way, right?”
“For us to be the first sport back without fans initially on May 17 in Darlington, to the first sport back with fans, I think it’s an extraordinary achievement.”
Even though he’s set to turn merely 25 in two weeks, Chase Elliott has perhaps spent more years around a racetrack than some drivers have been alive. That’s what happens when your dad is Awesome Bill From Dawsonville. In layman’s terms, Bill Elliott was a NASCAR driver hailing from Dawsonville, GA, and an accomplished racer in his own right. Bill Elliott won 44 Cup Series races, the 1988 championship, and 16 Most Popular Driver Awards.
NASCAR royalty appears to follow the younger Elliott wherever he goes. In addition to his parental ties, a good portion of Elliott’s NASCAR endeavors have come under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. Owned by Rick Hendrick, the team is more or less NASCAR’s answer to the Yankees, boasting 17 championships at the primary national levels, including 13 in Cup. Elliott also ran a pair of seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide/Xfinity Series with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team (winning the 2014 title) before making his transition to the premier league. When the time came, Elliott originally took over the No. 24 Chevrolet branding that the legendary Jeff Gordon left behind upon his retirement. That team made itself over to represent the No. 9 after William Byron earned a promotion of his own. Elliott had run that numeral in the minors and his father also ran it for the majority of his full-time Cup Series career. There, he has spent the past five seasons under the tutelage of teammate Jimmie Johnson, one of two seven-time Cup champions (alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt). In the commemoration of Johnson’s retirement from fulltime-time, Elliott’s “throwback” paint scheme at Darlington’s Labor Day weekend resembled the car the No. 48 drove to the 2009 title. His Phoenix vehicle bore a No. 9 dyed in the color of bright yellow digits that Johnson repped for nearly two decades.
But it’s almost a shame that Elliott’s story can’t be told without such prominent names attached to it, even if his support system was partly why his story can be so vital on a national landscape. The Dawsonville native and die-hard Atlanta Braves fan has built a sizable racing resume throughout his early 20s. His name already peppers the NASCAR record books as the youngest winner at several tracks on the circuit. He’s developed a reputation as a road course warrior, winning the last four races at such tracks (a mark bested only by Gordon). At NASCAR’s de facto victory lap at Bristol Motor Speedway’s All-Star Race in July (run in front of 30,000 fans), Elliott earned the literal million-dollar victory with a dominant effort. He’s even catching up with his father and former boss in Most Popular Driver Awards, earning the last two after Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement ended his reign at 15.
Yet, claims of nepotism, the belief that Elliott wouldn’t have the ride he had without his name persisted. Critics pointed no further than his lack of success in the NASCAR postseason’s semifinal segment, a Round of 8 curse that manifested itself through bad luck and factors that were often beyond his control. That trend showed early at several points this season. Late contact with Kyle Busch denied him a chance at victory at the Darlington reopener. An ill-advised decision to come to pit road during a late caution cost him victory at the 600-mile crown jewel at Charlotte. The Johnson-inspired car failed to capture victory at the late summer return to Darlington, making contact with Martin Truex Jr. in a furious battle for the lead. But Elliott still managed to create a strong season to the tune of wins at the Daytona/Charlotte hybrid tracks and another Charlotte win days after the Coca-Cola 600 miscue.
But the curse…the swing of eight, one could call it…nearly manifested itself yet again in the dying stages of the season. A pit road mishap in the middle event of the three-race segment at Texas Motor Speedway relegated him to a 20th-place finish at the worse possible time. It more or less put Elliott in a must-win situation, the standings too far spaced to hope to make it in through points.
Elliott would then go on to dominate the penultimate race of the season at Martinsville Speedway, a short track known for its chaos. But disaster nearly manifested with less than 100 laps to go. He was able to star as the first car with four fresh tires to leave, but NASCAR was set to send him to the rear of the field because they determined jackman T.J. Semke left the wall too early, necessitating a penalty. The No. 9 team would vehemently argue the penalty, reasoning that Semke made it back to the wall in time to escape without a foul. NASCAR reviewed the incident and determined that was indeed the case. Elliott got back on track and passed Truex Jr. to capture the necessary victory.
“This is a moment that we haven’t experienced together,” Elliott said after that race. “You just don’t know those emotions until you go through it, are able to experience it,” Elliott said after the Martinsville victory. “We obviously all put a lot of effort in to try to do our jobs to the best of our ability. T.J. made a mistake. He was heads up enough to go back and fix it, not to have to go to the back of the field. If he hadn’t have done that, I don’t think we’d have been able to win. There just wasn’t enough time left. That’s super heads up.”
“It absolutely is a team sport,” he continued. “We can’t do it on our own. I can’t do it by myself. No one on our team can do it alone. We recognize that. Feel like we have a great group, a group that’s capable of winning. I thought we showed that and proved that tonight.”
The curse, it appeared, felt like it hadn’t fully had its way with Elliott just yet, though. Going into the Phoenix finale, a failure of prerace inspection sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race. This time, there was no arguing the penalty, and Elliott indeed had to move things back to the rear of the field.
Between his youth and prerace misfortune, Elliott had a built-in excuse for emerging from his first final four without a trophy. Instead, the driver of the No. 9 rolled up his sleeves and smiled…far more worried about his losing the pit box closest to the exit than having no one in his rearview mirror at the start of the race.
“Starting position is great and all, whatever, I feel like from that standpoint, but that pit pick is huge,” Elliott remarked. “That starting position stays with you. It could potentially be done when you leave Turn 2, but that pit pick stays with you until the race is over.”
“The first thing that really kind of stuck in my head was, Dang, are we going to lose that, too? And once I realized we didn’t, I’m like, Okay, if we have our car good and our balance is right, who cares if you start at the back for the race? 312 laps, you know. That’s no excuse to not get the job done if your car is good.”
One thing that NASCAR could not check for was extra nuggets of inspiration. Elliott said in the Phoenix lead-up that he didn’t truly believe in the concept of bulletin board material. Thus, being Chevrolet’s first championship finalist in four seasons didn’t expand the hypothetical speedometer on the No. 9 machine.
But Elliott did say a special boost was waiting for him before lowered his window net before the green flag: a message from Johnson, whose seventh and final title came in 2016, when he likewise had to go the length of the field to earn a championship. Shortly after Elliott ran and led the 312th and final lap of the race, he and Johnson met on track for a high-five from their cars, unable to remember what they were saying due to the noise generated by the pure ecstasy of victory and revving of their respective Hendrick engines. It wasn’t the first time Elliott and Johnson celebrated a debut victory together. After Elliott’s first Cup win at the 2018 Watkins Glen even came through careful fuel management, Johnson’s No. 48 pushed the bone-dry No. 9 back to the front of the grandstands at the start/finish, where the celebration could officially begin.
This time, it wasn’t a push that kept the celebration rolling…it was a hug. Elliott, Johnson, and Hendrick shared a group hug the second the former pair emerged from their cars. With a fifth-place finish, Johnson was the best finisher amongst the non-championship contenders…an honor that was enough for his daughter Evie to tell him that he was also “a winner”. The familial themes were the perfect way to come full circle. One of the most recognizable images of sports in 2020 remains the shot of Ryan Newman being led out of a hospital by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn mere days after the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford endured a horrifying, airborne accident at the end of the Daytona 500.
“The last text message I saw before the race was from Jimmie. And he said, The road to the top…I forget what he said,” Elliott said with a laugh about his final steps into the championship car. “He said something about the road to the top can have some twists in it. I hate you guys are having to start in the back, but you can get it done. That was the last thing I saw before the race.”
“He’s a hero of mine. I think he’ll go down as the greatest to ever do this mess. For that type of guy to be reaching out lending support and genuinely wanting you to do good, hell, what else can you ask for?”
A championship American endeavor completed through teamwork and perseverance? That’s the type of story that everyone in this nation, civilian and politician alike, needs to read in these trying times.
One can fully admit that sports fandom is not a matter of life or death, and they rightfully took a backseat on several occasions this year. Yet, the role they can have on one’s psyche cannot be denied…even if it comes through something as simple as letting the folks at home know what day it is.
For some, the reality of the pandemic truly took hold when, one-by-one, sports leagues on both the professional and amateur levels began to shut down. NASCAR held on longer than some of their counterparts, but eventually hit pause hours before a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway was due to begin. Like many organizations, the shutdowns across the country stifled progress in a hopeful outlook. One of the biggest effects of the pause was the fact that NASCAR had to push back the debut of the “Next Gen” racecar by a year, as testing had to be shelved in the wake of lockdowns. The new car is now set to debut at the 2022 Daytona 500.
“What I would say is that on March 8th we were a sport that was coming back,” Phelps noted in reflection during his pre-race statements. “Our ratings had stabilized last year. Our attendance was going in the correct direction.”
After two weeks of lingering, waiting, NASCAR was the first sport to return to television screens…literally turning to television screens of sorts to get things rolling. On March 22, drivers took the virtual confines of Homestead-Miami Speedway, running a shortened version of the event that was meant to be held that weekend on the iRacing platform.
iRacing had long held a role in NASCAR. Some drivers partook in the program for fun, others opted to use it for testing purposes. This time, it was united in a cause of hope. A new, exciting addition to the NASCAR circuit was well-received by audiences. Through the platform, fans got to see the objects of their modern adoration do battle with iRacing virtuosos and legends of the past who came out of retirement to partake (i.e. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bobby Labonte). The event at Homestead proved so popular that it became a new, temporary circuit of its own, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Lower-budget drivers, who previously accumulated strong hours on the platform got their time to shine. For example, Timmy Hill, driver of the No. 66 Toyota for microbudget squad MBM Motorsports, went to victory lane at a pixelated Texas with an expert bump-and-run on Byron. The series ended with a special event at a recreation of North Wilkesboro Speedway, a North Carolina short track that has fallen into disrepair since running its last NASCAR event in 1996.
Through these races, called by Fox’s lead broadcast team of Gordon and Mike Joy with a perfect blend of seriousness and snark, NASCAR was able to not only stay relevant and provide new content while other sports bided their time through replays of classic events, but to provide hope and assurance to their fans and sponsors. As they enjoyed the virtual proceedings, fans were allowed to sit back, relax, and pretend things were normal again, if only for a short while.
“What a wonderful thing that landed in a world of NASCAR and motorsports’ lap. It is almost like it was built and prepared for this pandemic,” Clint Bowyer said during the summer. “Without it, I don’t honestly know that NASCAR survives and are able to turn the switch back on after we did. Bridging that gap and keeping our sponsors in the limelight under ratings that are competitive with any sport was phenomenal for all of us in the world of motorsports and in particular NASCAR.”
Bowyer partook in the iRacing events and helped Joy and Gordon called the races on Fox. Formerly the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Bowyer announced late in the season that he would step away from racing to join the Fox Sports booth full-time. One thing that will always stand to him will be just how much the sport cares and provides for their fans.
“I enjoy it. I enjoy this sport. I love this sport. I am proud of this sport and proud to be a part of this sport,” Bowyer said. “It has always been fun for me over the years to sell this sport to the fans or whatever the case may be. Having that access to be able to reach a fan in a different way, over the years I have just gone out to the infield and interacted with fans and got to know them and tell our story.”
That love culminated on the weekend of May 17, when conditions were declared safe, though things were a bit different when resumption weekend began at Darlington. The weekend traditions of qualifying, practice, were eliminated. But it assured that there would be no asterisk whatsoever next to a championship title. In fact, one could argue that the lack of preparation, the aforementioned, immediate transition from streetcar to racecar, makes a 2020 championship even more special.
It’s partly why Kevin Harvick’s season will be long-remembered, even with no championship waiting at the end. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won an astonishing nine races, dominating the circuit until hard luck cut his championship trek short in the Round of 8. It may not have ended with a trophy hoist in victory lane, but nonetheless helped Harvick solidify himself as one of the more dominant drivers in the sport’s history.
The current health crisis has done major damage across the country for months, but another disaster has raged on for centuries: that of systemic racism. America has accomplished much since its founding, developing into a land of prosperity and opportunity, but our country’s promise of liberty and justice for all has gone by the wayside far, far too often.
Ideally, sports could be a realm where real world issues can truly be set aside, but such a luxury has been rendered no longer tolerable in 2020, as ignoring the ongoing reckoning with the dark portions of the past would be to deny the humanity of the athletes that entertain us. As professional and amateur sports alike have made their way back from their respective hiatuses, the biggest names have used their First Amendment right of free speech to advocate for change.
As the first sports to return to action eyes turned to NASCAR in the process, as no one could deny its status as a predominantly white sport. Its roots in the Southeast have caused a vocal minority of naive and immature critics to label the entire fanbase as racist and anti-intellectual. But problems with the sport’s diversity couldn’t be ignored, not only in the scale of the national picture but the narrower personal frame as well. Doing so would’ve been especially difficult when Kyle Larson, one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, used a racist slur during an iRacing event streamed on Twitch. Larson was removed from his high-profile ride at Chip Ganassi Racing after the incident, replaced by retired Cup champion Matt Kenseth.
Larson’s firing was justified, but further incidents of injustice across the nation amplified voices of protestors, turning the attention to NASCAR, one of the few forms of recreation operating. It perhaps would’ve been easy for the circuit to sweep things under the rug, hope for the best, and keep things relegated to racetrack matters. Instead, NASCAR addressed things head-on, making their statement at a moment where most eyes would be watching: right before the start of the race.
Prior to the start of the rescheduled Atlanta event on June 7, Phelps paused the 40 starters at the start/finish line and addressed NASCAR..and the nation…directly.
“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said in a radio message played over the race communication networks and the national TV broadcast. “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.”
“The time is now to listen, to understand, and to stand against racism and racial injustice.”
NASCAR’s stand was immediately put to the test. Three days after Phelps’ announcement, and hours before a weekday event at Martinsville Speedway, the governing body announced that displays of the Confederate battle flag would no longer be welcome at sanctioned events. The series’ southern roots led to close association with such a flag and many of its flyers claimed it was simply a display of southern pride. NASCAR had previously tried to distance itself from the display by offering a trade-in program that encouraged fans to display an American flag instead.
But this outright ban made it clear that a flag that stood for preserving the institution of slavery and literally cut itself off from the ideals and territory of the United States of America was no longer welcome at their events. With rare exception, drivers understood the flag’s departure.
“For some people, it has different meanings,” Tyler Reddick, rookie drivers of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, acknowledged. “But for those that were affected by it and generations of families that have been through hardships, slavery, all sorts of things, racism, I just don’t feel like there’s a place for it. So, I’m glad to see NASCAR put their foot down and like ‘alright, we didn’t really like it at the track, but we’re not allowing it anymore’. It’s well beyond time and it’s kind of crazy to even think, whether its statues or whatever it is around our country, that we’ve kept these things up as long as we have, considering how much negative meaning that a lot of those statues and things we have around our country meant to people that have been affected by it the most.”
“We need to not allow that banner to be at the racetrack, personally. I don’t really care how you can justify what it means,” Corey LaJoie said in an exclusive interview with ESM. “I think, if anything, you can justify it as being insensitive to people it offends. This might not be a practical analogy, but if my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts and I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, right? Just because it has the possibility to hurt him, physically. If there’s something that I consciously do to offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoy eating peanuts.”
“When it comes to supporting our sport, we need to have everybody feel welcome,” the driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford. “No one should feel offended by anything, no signage, no opinions by anybody. Really, we’re one community trying to entertain people and that’s what we love and what show up 36 weekends a year to do. We don’t want to exclude anybody, we want everybody to feel welcome coming to the NASCAR track.”
The ultimate display, one of the most inspiring, unifying displays in all of sports came at one of the sport’s most prominent, most beloved Southern hubs: Talladega Superspeedway.
Talladega is known for its tight racing, rising tempers, and multi-car get-togethers known as “The Big One”. It seemed only appropriate that the first of two events at the longest track on the circuit came on June 21…the hottest and longest day of the year. But racing activities were overshadowed by an apparent incident, one where a rope tied into a noose was discovered in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the Cup Series circuit. NASCAR immediately called an investigation in cooperation with the FBI, who eventually determined that no hate crime was committed.
But there mere thought of a threat brought the forces of NASCAR unity and brotherhood out in full force.
Prior to the start of the GEICO 500, moved to a Monday, drivers and crews alike walked alongside Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, pushing to the front of the field and stood alongside him during the national anthem and invocation. After prerace ceremonies were completed, each of Wallace’s competitors embraced him individually.
Alex Bowman was one of those drivers. He and Bowman had their prior shares of on-track confrontations, namely during last fall’s tilt at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. Their battle came to a head on pit road when Wallace dumped a bottle of water on an exhausted Bowman at the end of the race.
But when the time came for the series to rally around Wallace, Bowman showed no hesitation whatsoever. He said that such unity was vital in the day and also praised Wallace for his own comments calling for justice and action against systemic racism.”
“I think there’s no secret, we’re not best friends, right? We’ve had our fair share of run-ins and the on-track stuff is just going to happen – tempers are going to flare and if you run into the same guy a couple of weeks in a row here and there, it’s not going to go great for your relationship,” the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said. “But that’s as a racecar driver and that’s on the race track. As a human being, I have a big appreciation for him pushing us all to be better, speaking up and us do the same. It really comes down to, on the race track, we’re probably not going to be friends. But as a person, I appreciate what he’s doing and just wanted to show my support for him.”
True to NASCAR form, the Talladega unity was capped by an incredible show, one that came down to the wire. Ryan Blaney took the race by a .007-second margin at the finish line over Rickey Stenhouse Jr., as the field went six lanes wide in a final push to the finish.
Blaney remains a close friend of Wallace. The two have been racing together since they were 10 years old and are regularly seen commiserating during rain delays through video games. In his postrace statements from Talladega, Blaney made it clear that those who wish Wallace harm would be dealt with swiftly…the display at Talladega served as a de facto reminder.
“I think it’s great that everyone rose up, Bubba included, and really came together,” Blaney said of the prerace demonstration. “I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR. I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore.”
“You may not like each other all the time, may tick each other off on the racetrack from time to time. (But) at the end of the day, we’re going to support each other. What really got me was when we got Bubba’s car to the front there, he had to take a little bit to pause and compose himself because it was a very emotional moment for him. I think it was emotional for him because everyone was supporting him. It’s just something different that I couldn’t personally be a part of because I’ve never been in Bubba’s position, but I’m going to support him the best I can.”
Wallace remained an active voice in the calls for change. His No. 43 scheme at Martinsville bore a message of unity as well as the “#BlackLivesMatter” slogan. The winner of six races at the NASCAR Truck Series level begins a new opportunity next season, as he will headline the newly formed 23XI Racing team under the watch of Cup Series star Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, set to drive a Toyota bearing Jordan’s iconic No. 23.
He acknowledges that while the steps NASCAR has taken have been inspiring, more must be on the horizon.
“I think we just have to get out in our communities and we’ve created a group of us to be leadership at NASCAR as some key drivers to be a part of how we can put action to our words that we’ve been speaking and spreading the gospel,” Wallace said over the summer, acknowledging things might be hard with the confined settings of the pandemic. “Let’s focus on how we can continue to push the message of compassion and understanding and let’s help fight the good fight in what’s going on in the world today. And let’s get new fans out to the race track and encourage our fanbase now to welcome them with open arms and show them a good time. I think that’s one important piece that we can focus on right now.”
For his part, Phelps said that NASCAR is ready to dip further into social issues. Phelps acknowledged that he doesn’t see it as NASCAR getting involved in political matters…rather a human rights battle.
“What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about…human decency,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities.We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally, and socially.We want them to feel part of this community.It’s a fantastic community, it really is.”
“I know when I go to a racetrack and I see people who are camping next to each other who are total strangers, that invite each other for a beer, do you want a hot dog, brat, whatever it is, that’s what our community is about.We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome when they come to those facilities.”
Calling upon NASCAR to solve the problems of a nation whose problems have not been subsided with the end of a bitter election process. Even things in their own house aren’t fully settled: some fans refuse to surrender the Confederate flag hill. Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli announced plans to leave the circuit, his reasons stemming from the ban.
But the lessons this campaign, the most unusual season in the history of NASCAR, have taught us can truly allow us to begin the healing process.
The 2020 NASCAR season featured so much from a standpoint of perseverance and unity…such a concept ironically coming in the sport where it’s the easiest to social distance. For the record, NASCAR did that pretty well too with the low number of medical absences.
A driver that could’ve well skated by with the sheer number of legendary names attached to his career and dealt with bad luck conquered those weights in tremendous fashion. Perseverance and love came through several further forms of personal triumph: Newman’s relieving walk and Chase Briscoe’s Xfinity Series win at Darlington shortly after being told his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage stood out as well. After his apology, Larson took the next, bigger step through truly educating himself and working toward a better understanding of the consequences and effects of his slur. It was enough to earn a new full-time ride with the defending champion team of Hendrick Motorsports, driving their resurrected No. 5 Chevrolet. Wallace plans to continue to use his voice to amplify cases of change and fighting injustice.
NASCAR took a dire situation and provided a grieving national hope and guidance.
It’s a shame that some refuse to acknowledge the lessons brought forward. But, much like a car fighting for its lap back or navigating through a Big One at Talladega…they’re not going to stop on this drive.
“I would say the biggest thing that I have learned throughout all of this is that when you think something is impossible or are too scared to try, you should try it,” Logano said of the biggest lesson he’ll take away from this season. “Because it is usually not as bad as you make it out to be in your mind. Case in point, a few times this year in this sport. Who would have ever thought that we would go to a road course that we have never raced at before and just line up and race without practice? Are you kidding me? If you say that in January or February this year we would have said you were nuts and we would never ever do that. We have been forced to do things like that.”
“That is just one case in our sport. Imagine all the things that every company is going through right now. Trying to find ways to become profitable again, or at least cover their costs. You have to be creative, you have to think outside the box and you can’t be scared of trying anything. I think that alone is probably the biggest thing I have learned that I can take forward with me for years to come.”
It’s not a full-on solution…but these lessons and more could well be part of the pit stop our country sorely needs.
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?
The course has been a bit bumpy, but NASCAR’s return to action can earn a proper salute during Wednesday’s All-Star exhibition.
Even when all is well, the art of the “All-Star Game” was becoming an endangered species.
The NFL’s Pro Bowl has been on life support for years, perhaps sustained by the concept of “hate-watching” normally reserved for reality shows. Winter showcases like the NBA and NHL have become increasingly gimmick-filled (via the “Elam Ending” and a divisional 3-on-3 tournament respectively) and are often remembered more for the weekend events that accompany them. MLB’s Midsummer Classic remains a tradition despite dilution via interleague play and free agency.
As for NASCAR, their upcoming exhibition showcase might be one of the brightest and most important nights in the circuit’s history.
Wednesday night will mark the 36th annual NASCAR All-Star event and the first at Bristol Motor Speedway(7 p.m. ET, FS1). It will be a celebration of racing and competition like no other, with a grand prize of $1 million due to the winning team. NASCAR is also set to welcome 30,000 of their closest friends to partake, as that limited number will be welcomed into the Tennessee-based stadium. Those who enter will witness just how far NASCAR has come in one of the most turbulent times in the country’s history.
The fact NASCAR is even able to stage such an event is a win on its own. Other leagues have not only scrapped their 2020 All-Star proceedings, but some are even willing to ditch the potential stagings in 2021 to complete modern seasons (the NHL, eager to not only finish this season but also play a full 82-game slate next year, seems most likely to do so). NASCAR is now holding an event that could be deemed “non-essential”, a race where only a large bag of cash is on the line.
Leading up to a fun event like the All-Star Race, NASCAR, its personnel, and its fans have had serious discussions that have perhaps avoided them for years. Current events seek racial justice and equality across the nation could’ve been swept under the rug, giving the drivers a chance to “shut up and drive”, if you will. NASCAR could’ve continued to simply frown upon continued usage of the Confederate flag, an emblem whose true, racist intentions and meanings have become more clear and well-known in recent years. It could’ve let Bubba Wallace, a rare African-American driver on the circuit, exist in an island setting, if only for keeping things “comfortable”.
But it simply refused to do so.
Not everything about NASCAR’s return and its desire for education and welcoming has been perfect. Their premature labeling of a hate crime against Wallace at the Talladega event was a (self-admitted) flaw in what was otherwise a right move to call in FBI investigators. When national protests against systemic racism began to rise across the nation, NASCAR addressed them and supported the endgame at a time when everyone would be watching: just prior to the green flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 500-mile event in June.
Time will tell just how effective this new outlook will be. Inviting a select few thousand to Bristol could perhaps serve as a good barometer. But going into the All-Star proceedings, it certainly appears that NASCAR is in a far better place and holds a much better future than it did when COVID-19 forced a two-month pause back in March. The sense of unity and family was perhaps best displayed after the aforementioned Talladega incident. Even if the noose was determined to not be a hate crime against Wallace, the mere thought of a threat brought the community together. Prior to the 500-mile race’s invocation and national anthem, drivers pushed Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet to the front of the field and let the world know that such hatred would not be tolerated on their watch.
“I want the weekend to be remembered by…I guess a good word would be ‘unity’, everyone coming together and showing support,” the Talladega winner Ryan Blaney remarked after the race. “I hate focusing on the bad things because that’s what gets a rise out of people But I feel like what everyone has said the last day has really shown that it’s not going to be tolerated anymore. We’re all going to stand behind the people who are mistreated. That just shows what a family we are. We’re competitors all on the racetrack, but at the end of the day, we’re one big traveling family. We’re going to support anybody who we compete with. If they get threatened in a way, we’re going to have their back.”
“I don’t want (Talladega) to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR,” he continued. “I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore, man. I’m getting sick of this (stuff). It’s not something that he should deal with.”
Speaking of operating during the ongoing health crisis, NASCAR’s ongoing efforts have allowed a grieving nation a rare semblance of normality. Along with golf, auto racing is perhaps the easiest sport adhere to social distancing mandates. It’s safe to say that NASCAR has taken advantage of the scenario
Even if they were only visiting while waiting for their usual favorites to return, a sports-starved nation has turned to NASCAR in this time of (admittedly small in the grand scheme of things) need. Things have, again, failed to be entirely clean. Several crew members of Stewart-Haas Racing were revealed to have tested positive, as did seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (who missed one race before testing negative twice in a 24-hour span to earn clearance to return).
But drivers have repeatedly stated that they feel safe in this process and hope such procedures will continue as the season continues to run through November.
“If any organization or sanction was to be ready for a challenge like this, I knew it would be NASCAR,” veteran Clint Bowyer said of the current health protocols. “We are a group that travels together and takes care of each other and looks after one another. Everybody knows everybody and in a time like this when you really have to hunker down and watch each other’s backs we do a good job of that and I think it shows.”
“I feel safe at the racetrack and I know my peers do as well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I feel like that is a good example of what we have going on. I think we are doing a good job with it.”
With so much change for the better, it’s almost forgivable to forget that there’s actual racing to discuss. The efforts to compact race weekends into single-day endeavors have eliminated concepts perhaps taken for granted, like practice and qualifying. But, in the eyes of some fans and observers, the quick transition from hauler to track has allowed teams and drivers to truly test their mettle and perhaps create a more equalized environment with everyone testing out the asphalt for the first time.
Wednesday could be a look into the future from both a social and racing standpoint. The All-Star has long been an experimental ground for NASCAR’s endeavors, and Wednesday will be no exception. Cosmetically, the competing machines will have their traditional “door” numbers aligned to the right and underglow light perhaps inspired by the early films of the Fast and the Furious franchise will paint Bristol all different colors. Speaking of the Bristol visit, a track that routinely sees post-race confrontations that violate every semblance of social distancing, this will be the first time that NASCAR holds the All-Star Race at a venue outside their Charlotte hub. Restarts will also enjoy a bit of a makeover, as the “choose cone” rule will see driver debate their position either on the leaderboard or on the asphalt.
“The choose cone kind of puts the fate in your own hands. If we can execute it well, that’s my main thing,” an excited Matt DiBenedetto said of the innovation. “I’m excited about the fact of being able to choose where you restart and maybe jump a couple of rows and if you want to go in the row that’s not preferred, but you can pick up a couple of lanes or whatever, that’s kind of cool and exciting. Hopefully, we execute it well and it goes smoothly because it would be really nice for a lot of other places.”
The Cup Series season will run through November, but with the return several other professional leagues on the horizon, the All-Star event will perhaps be the last time that NASCAR will be at the forefront of the American sports fan’s imagination. But the aura behind Wednesday is anything but that of a “last dance”. Instead, it’s a celebration, a celebration of what NASCAR was and continues to be…a circuit of close, no-holds-barred racing at one of its most volatile tracks. It can also provide a glimpse into the future and create a tremendous scale for just how far the organization has come in just a few weeks.
Such an outlook is apparent among the association’s most notable names.
“I enjoy this sport. I love this sport. I am proud of this sport and proud to be a part of this sport. It has always been fun for me over the years to sell this sport to the fans or whatever the case may be,” said Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and a part-time commentator for Fox Sports. “A lot of things you are seeing right now, the All-Star race, things that we have wanted to do with our sport for a long time. (These are) opportunities that we wouldn’t have been able to take because of courage or business or a lot of reasons that we wouldn’t have been able to go to those measures that we were able to because of COVID.”
“There is no handbook that comes with (this situation). You have to create it and you have to learn from your mistakes quickly and put them to use. (We) certainly have done that with NASCAR.”
An eventful afternoon of NASCAR Cup Series racing at Talladega Superspeedway ended with Ryan Blaney taking the win by a minuscule margin.
Blaney, Ryan Blaney.
Deja vu descended upon Talladega Superspeedway on Monday afternoon, as the No. 12 Team Penske Ford won its second consecutive event, the GEICO 500 at the NASCAR Cup Series’ longest track. Much like his win in last October’s postseason thriller, Blaney’s margin of victory was 0.007 seconds. This time, he held off Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in a finish that came down to the literal final line.
Blaney’s victory was his first since the aforementioned playoff race from last October and the fourth win of his Cup Series career. He has been one of the circuits hottest drivers since it returned from the coronavirus-induced pause five weeks ago, as Monday’s posting was his sixth finish in the top four over the last seven races.
“The past month and a half has been really good for us,” Blaney said in a postrace Zoom conference. “We’ve had some really good runs. We’ve had really fast cars, had a chance to win I feel like every race the last month and a half. It just really hasn’t fallen our way. We just haven’t been in the right place at the right time or not been quite fast enough.”
“(It’s) nice to finally break through, get the first one of the year. Hopefully, this opens the floodgates here and we can get on a roll. This team has been awesome. They’ve been so much fun to work with all year.”
The thrilling finish was the finishing touch of an emotional visit to Talladega. Before the race, the NASCAR community stood in support of Bubba Wallace, the driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. After the race’s postponement from its original date on Sunday, NASCAR revealed that a noose had been found in the garage stall of Wallace, the only African-American driver on the circuit.
Shortly before the green flag flew, drivers and crew members stood alongside Wallace as his car was wheeled to the front of the field. With team owner and NASCAR legend Richard Petty by his side, the racing community stood behind the No. 43 pair during the invocation and national anthem. Each of Wallace’s 39 competitors then embraced him, starting with his close friend Blaney. The two have been racing alongside each other since they were each 10 years old.
“I think it’s great that everyone rose up, Bubba included, and really came together,” Blaney said of the prerace demonstration. “I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR. I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore.”
“You may not like each other all the time, may tick each other off on the racetrack from time to time. (But) at the end of the day we’re going to support each other. What really got me was when we got Bubba’s car to the front there, he had to take a little bit to pause and compose himself because it was a very emotional moment for him. I think it was emotional for him because everyone was supporting him. It’s just something different that I couldn’t personally be a part of because I’ve never been in Bubba’s position, but I’m going to support him the best I can.”
Under a new technical rules package, competitive racing dominated the day. Monday’s race featured 177 passes for the lead under green flag conditions, with 19 drivers leading at least one lap. A tightly-packed battle for the lead was set to be altered by fuel mileage, but Jimmie Johnson’s spin on the penultimate lap set up a two-lap overtime finish. Several cars pitted for precious fuel, but Blaney stayed out to pace the field alongside Kevin Harvick.
Harvick got off to a quick restart thanks to a push from Chris Buescher, but the field narrowed up as a get-together in the penultimate turn took out several cars. As the lead pack reached the start/finish line for the final time, Blaney took the lead and made contact with Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek. Further chaos erupted as the field completed the final lap, but Blaney was able to narrowly steal the victory away from Stenhouse. A spinning Aric Almirola finished the race backward but came home in a respectable third-place while Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Jones respectively rounded out the top five.
Blaney’s win was his first under new crew chief Todd Gordon and the fifth win for Team Penske this season (teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have two each). He also becomes the first driver to win consecutive Talladega events since Jeff Gordon swept the yearly couple in 2007.
The Cup Series will return to Talladega for a playoff event in October.
Halfway through its regular season, Cup proceedings now turn to a weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, the first of its kind. The Pennsylvania landmark, known as the “Tricky Triangle” will run the Pocono Organics 325 on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) and will immediately follow it up with the Pocono 350 on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, FS1). Entries from each of NASCAR’s lower-tier national series will precede each event.
Toward the end of the first of two 60-lap stages, the event was stalled by a 57-minute rain delay. Rookie Tyler Reddick won the stage, becoming the first freshman to do so since Daniel Suarez at Watkins Glen’s 2017 event. A late stop for fuel relegated Reddick to the 20th position, but he departs Talladega as the holder of the final playoff spot.
Monday’s event welcomed 5,000 fans to Talladega, which normally draws crowds of about 175,000.
Wallace was in contention for most of the day and even led a lap, but low fuel forced him to pit during the Johnson-induced caution. He would finish 14th and be applauded by the crowd that was admitted.
Nemechek was the top finishing rookie, overcoming a spin at lap 96 of 188 to come home eighth.
Chase Elliott briefly took the standings’ points lead from Harvick, but a crash at lap 135 ended his day. He was one of four drivers whose day ended due to crash damage, joining Brennan Poole, Joey Gase, and Austin Dillon. Matt Kenseth’s rear hub issues relegated him to a last-place posting in 40th.
NASCAR’s visits to Talladega Superspeedway have always been unpredictable, but adjustments to Sunday’s race could bring a new form of bedlam.
The NASCAR Cup Series’ yearly pair of visits to Talladega Superspeedway produce untold gallons of sweat even during their normal visits in April and October. Affectionately known as “‘Dega”, the longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) routinely hosts tightly-packed racing and speeds that regular linger around 180-190 miles an an hour. These factors often play a big role in producing “The Big One”, the name given to the multi-car pile-ups that can turn contenders into afterthoughts in the blink of an eye.
Now add a new rules package and a lack of practice and testing…all on the first full day of summer.
The potential for chaos in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox) became so great that NASCAR forced James Davison to push his series debut a week. Davison, an Australian-born driver whose experience has come mostly on the open-wheel and sports car disciplines, was set to pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports (the car that won last year’s rain-shortened summer race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel), but NASCAR rescinded their approval just days prior to the race. Davison will instead premiere at next weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway and was replaced by B.J. McLeod (who will start 30th).
NASCAR’s ability to be one of the few American sports leagues running during the coronavirus pandemic has been built on its ability to shorten race weekends from a whole weekend to a single day. Cup Series haulers arrived at Talladega on Saturday evening while the lower-tier Xfinity circuit ran its 300-mile event (won by Haley). In this shrinking process, practices and qualifying have been eliminated (save for a session prior to last month’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte) and the field has been set by either inverting the finishing order from the prior race or through a random draw. That latter format is how Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday. In another metaphorical victory lap for the sport, Talladega will welcome in 5,000 fans to the race.
Those who repopulate the grandstands will see 40 cars take their first laps in a track characterized by its chaos. It’s an idea that makes even some of NASCAR’s most seasoned names a bit more cautious. Kurt Busch, for example, is worried not about his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but rather how other cars will be as they pack into Talladega’s congested lanes.
“With our group at Ganassi and the restrictor plate races that we’ve run together, our set-up balance has been really good in practice right off the truck,” Busch said in a Friday afternoon press conference. “So there haven’t been those challenges of where are we for balance, it allows go on offense right away. The problem with that is other teams. Are they just as good right off the truck? We don’t need to be caught up in a goofy situation early-on.”
Talladega is one of two “restrictor plate” tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the other being Daytona. Installed at an engine’s intake to restrict air and limit its power, the concept was introduced in 1987 and used through last season’s Daytona 500. Currently, NASCAR uses a modified plate concept known as tapered spacers similar to the ones used on other tracks and effectively keep the cars under 200 miles an hour. These modifications are for the safety of the drivers and fans but produce tight racing that often led to massive get-togethers in the cramped asphalt quarters.
Further safety innovations now come into play as NASCAR prepares to make its first visit a restrictor plate track since the most recent Daytona 500 in February. That race ended in near-tragedy, as Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was involved in a violent airborne wreck while going for the win on the final lap. In the tense aftermath, Newman was removed from the mangled car and taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
Two days later, Newman walked out of the hospital unassisted, accompanied by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. A head injury sustained in the accident temporarily sidelined him, but the pandemic-induced pause caused him to miss only three Cup Series events. Ironically, a safety feature known as the “Newman Bar” (a bar across the front of the car’s roll cage) was the result of Newman’s crusade to improve driver safety after he was involved in a separate airborne wreck at Talladega in 2009. Some credited the innovation for saving Newman from further injury in February.
Though Newman walked away relatively unscathed, NASCAR made some further adjustments in the name of safety to Talladega set-ups. Smaller holes in the tapered spacers will lead to lowered horsepower and the elimination of aero ducts on superspeedways could cut down on tandem drafting (further analysis on the changes can be found from Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass here).
“The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down,” NASCAR’s Senior Director of Safety Engineering John Patalak explained in another conference call. “In general, when we can slow the speeds down, it’s going to be of benefit for the crash itself, for the driver in the car. It will also affect the loads on the vehicle and how the SAFER barrier responds. Directionally, it’s the right way to go.”
While the speeds are expected to be down, the fact that not a single lap has been run with such a setup only ensures the potential for chaos to rise.
Drivers, however, are confident in both their own and their rivals’ abilities to keep things under relative control. Ryan Blaney, the winner of last fall’s Talladega playoff event, was particularly excited about the new adjustments.
“There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that,” Blaney said after a top-three run at last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Hopefully, we can find a fair in between. I’m looking forward to it. I know NASCAR did their research on hopefully trying to figure out a good balance of that.”
“I’ll know in the first couple laps how big the runs are, what kind of gap I need to have to the person behind me to give me the run forward. I’ll know pretty quick what to do with the package,” Homestead winner Denny Hamlin added. “I think we have probably a pretty good idea of it anyway. These ducts are actually a pretty new thing. Obviously the horsepower being down, that might counter the ducts a little bit with the runs.”
“These drivers are so good, they’re going to figure it out pretty quick. I wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.”
For those spaced out in the massive Alabama gallery, eager to see yet another exciting installment in NASCAR’s return, that last sentence is all they want to hear when it comes to Talladega.
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.”