NASCAR: Kyle Larson caps Round of 12 with win at the Roval

Larson already clinched his spot to the NASCAR Cup Series’ semifinal round, but captured his first victory at Charlotte’s road course.

Faced with rare adversity after last week’s visit to Talladega, Kyle Larson clinched his spot to the NASCAR Cup Series’ semifinal playoff round in style.

Larson earned his circuit-best seventh victory of the season by leading the final eight laps of the Bank of America Roval 400 held at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. The win helps Larson reestablish himself as the Cup Series’ playoff favorite after Monday’s rescheduled race at Talladega saw him finish 37th after contact with the wall. He’ll advance to the Round of 8, the three-race prelude to the championship race at Phoenix.

Non-playoff entrants Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher finished behind Larson, while Joe Gibbs Racing postseason representatives Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five and likewise advanced to the last eight.

Other qualifiers to the semifinals included Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Martin Truex Jr. It wound up being a bittersweet day for Hendrick Motorsports, which saw Larson and Elliott advance while dealing with the subsequent eliminations of Alex Bowman and William Byron. Other exits include those of Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick, the 2014 series champion who suffered his earliest elimination since ousting rounds were introduced in the same season.

The 5 Comes Alive

Larson had a healthy 22-point lead on the cutoff to the semifinals entering Sunday’s event. But an early elimination was a realistic possibility when voltage issues forced the No. 5 HMS Chevrolet crew to make a battery switch and get a new alternator belt at lap 35 of 109 during a caution period induced when the Fords of Buescher and Chase Briscoe got together. Larson fought back to become the first driver in Cup Series history to win three road course events in a single season, having also won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

“My team did an amazing job today,” Larson said after the win. “(Hauler drive Steven Legendre) got the belt changed, (car chief Jesse Saunders) changed the battery, my pit crew stayed calm, I listened to (crew chief Cliff Daniels)…It’s so satisfying because I really did not think that we were going to have a shot to win today. I had a lot of different emotions throughout the middle portions of that race, thinking that this is so depressing and sad and crazy that I’m going to lose my shot at a championship because of an alternator issue, to, okay, now we got it fixed, let’s try to get away with a top 15 finish, keeping all the fenders on it.”

“I don’t even really want to think about luck, good luck, bad luck, anything right now. I just want to go out there and do our jobs and it will all take care of itself.”

Larson is renowned for his prowess in all kinds of racing, but he struggled on road courses before earning the historic trio this season. The scariest part is that Larson feels that he and his No. 5 team have only scratched the surface of what they can accomplish on such tracks.

“I still feel like I’m so far away from being where I could be as far as road course racer,” Larson said. “I still think there’s lots of, tons of, room for improvement. I think there are so many more people out there that are better than me at underbraking, just doing little things better than me and we’re able to get wins like we are. I feel like if I can put some more work in, I should hopefully get a lot better.”

Chase the Past Away

Despite Larson’s win, Hendrick headlines are likely set to center on defending series champion Chase Elliott, who also won the prior two visits to the Roval.

The young yet storied rivalry between Elliott and Harvick embarked on a new chapter on Sunday: halfway through the event, Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford made contact with Elliott’s back bumper, and the subsequent damage spun Elliott out of control and eventually cost him his rear just over 30 laps later. It might’ve been fair to assume that Harvick’s gambit was revenge for an incident between the pair at Bristol Motor Speedway’s night race three weeks prior: each blamed the other for costing them a chance for a valuable playoff win and confronted each other on pit road after that event. Harvick took the lost victory especially personally, as he’s still searching for his first win of the season after winning a series-best nine in 2020.

Elliott was able to stay on the lead lap and rallied back to finish 12th. His efforts paid off when Harvick’s day ended in heartbreak with 11 laps to go: his tires locked up going into the first turn, sending his No. 4 into the wall and relegating him to 33rd.

There was no love lost between the respective teams as Harvick’s departure was labeled “karma” by Elliott’s spotter Eddie D’Hondt. Elliott himself tried to keep things centered on his advancement during a postrace interview with NBC Sports, but he slipped in a sly reference to Harvick’s nickname of “Happy”.

“I’m really proud of our team, just proud of moving our NAPA team. (They) did a really, really good job of fixing this thing. It’s destroyed,” Elliott said. “Our team has a lot of fight. I’m just super proud of that. As far as Kevin goes, just want to wish them a merry off-season and a happy Christmas…Opinion (of Harvick) is certainly not changing. But it’s all good, just glad we’re moving on. (I’m) proud of our team.”

Bye-ron

Further Hendrick heartbreak awaited Byron and Bowman, who saw their postseasons in the Nos. 24 and 48 Chevrolets end. With each facing a 40-plus point deficit, their Chevys faced a must-win situation at Charlotte.

Bowman was never a factor after enduring electrical and mechanical issues similar to Larson’s early woes, though he did manage to secure his 15th top-ten finish of the season, tying a career-best set last year. Byron, on the other hand, led a race-best 30 laps but a subpar pit stop with just over 20 laps to go cost him some track position. As he tried to get back to the front, Byron made contact with Reddick’s No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, causing him to miss a required chicane. He worked his way back to third on the penultimate lap but contact with the wall relegated him to an 11th-place finish.

Byron would later criticize Reddick, who was amongst the first four drivers eliminated from the playoffs in the Round of 16, for his “lack of awareness”.

Up Next

The Round of 8 kicks off next Sunday afternoon’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Kyle Busch disrupted the final eight’s party last fall with a rain-delayed victory, his fourth in Fort Worth. Larson won the most recent visit to the track, winning the oval’s first hosting of the NASCAR All-Star Race in June.

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

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

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

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

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

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

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

FedEx Toyota finally delivers a win

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drive Stuck at Five

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

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

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

Ross Is Boss Amongst the Remainders

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

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

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

Lady in Black Scorns Playoff Drivers

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Blaney finished 22nd after his spin.

Ware Released After Carbon Monoxide Scare

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

What’s Next

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

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney steals another as playoff field is set

Blaney’s second consecutive win came in the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season finale at the hallowed ground of Daytona.

Ryan Blaney’s spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs was well-secured, but that didn’t stop him from going all-out for the win in the regular season finale on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

As the victor in an overtime finish, Blaney has won consecutive Cup Series races for the first time in his career after last week’s triumph at Michigan. The win at this weekend’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 makes him one of only four drivers to win at least three races this season, joining Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., and Alex Bowman.

Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford beat out several drivers who desperately needed a win to qualify for the Cup Series playoffs, which begin next Sunday at Darlington Raceway. As late wrecks dominated the final stages of Daytona’s summer event, Blaney took the lead from the winless Chris Buescher before holding off a final challenge from other trophy-seekers like Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain, and Daniel Suarez. Chaos eventually erupted behind Blaney, as one final wreck that took out several contenders shut down the affair.

Buescher finished in the runner-up spot, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman, and Ryan Preece rounded out the top five in the 400-mile event originally scheduled for 160 laps.

Blaney lingered in the upper half of the field for most of the evening, which was a mostly peaceful affair before desperation took over. The first two stages, 50 circuits apiece, were taken by Chase Elliott and Blaney’s Penske teammate Joey Logano. Blaney, Logano, and the other Ford Mustangs in the lead pack topped off on fuel with 37 laps to go. Chevrolets and Toyota were expected to pit shortly after but neither group made it to pit road when Garrett Smithley’s No. 53 Chevrolet spun, collecting Rick Ware Racing teammates Joey Gase and Cody Ware. The Fords jumped back out to the front of the pack while the other lead-lap cars pitted.

Two separate multi-car wrecks at laps 146 and 157. The latter saw Matt DiBenedetto miss out on his first career victory once again, as the 238th career start of his Cup career ended when he got together with leader Chase Elliott. Other notable vehicles involved included Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Christopher Bell.

That latter incident set up the overtime finish which allowed Blaney to capture his third win, as well as the second seed in the Cup Series playoff bracket, earned through victories and stage wins throughout the 26 regular season races.

Other big winners on Saturday were Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick. Larson (21st) clinched the regular season championship, which affords him an extra 15-point advantage in the playoff standings while Reddick (6th) beat out his teammate Dillon (18th) for the final postseason slot. View the whole Cup Series playoff grid below:

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

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

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

Kevin Harvick (+700)

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

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

Erik Jones (+8000)

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

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

Tyler Reddick (+4000)

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

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

NASCAR: Three drivers in need of a strong run this weekend at Homestead-Miami

Through two races in the 2021 Cup Series season, we’ve seen some of NASCAR‘s top drivers have a mixed bag of results thus far. Denny Hamlin sits first in points after two top-5s to start the year, while Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are right behind him.

However, there are a handful of drivers who have gotten off to brutal starts this year. Headlined by wrecks, Matt Dibenedetto, Tyler Reddick, and William Byron are already in a giant points hole and have a lot of work to do if they want to make the playoffs. All three drivers need strong runs this weekend at Homestead-Miami to begin their points comeback.

Matt DiBenedetto

DiBenedetto has gotten off to a terrible start in 2021, getting caught up in wrecks during both the Daytona 500 and the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 Road Course race. He’s received just five points all season and sits 37th in points.

Homestead hasn’t ever been a great track for DiBenedetto, but he’s only raced there once in good equipment. He finished 14th there last season but has otherwise never placed in the top-20. This weekend’s a great time for DiBenedetto to finally get a top-10 in South Beach.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick, like DiBenedetto, has wrecked in both races to start 2021. A 27th place in the Daytona 500 and a 38th place finish at the Daytona Road Course puts him 33rd in points heading to Homestead-Miami.

This race is definitely one of the events that Reddick has had circled on the calendar for this season. Homestead-Miami is one of Reddick’s best tracks and a place where he could contend for the win. Reddick finished fourth in Homestead last year and won the Xfinity Series race there in both 2018 and 2019. Expect Reddick to run up front all day and collect a lot of stage points.

William Byron

Byron has had tough sledding to start 2021, wrecking in the Daytona 500 and finishing a lap down on the Road Course. 26th and 33rd place finishes have him 29th in points and well outside the playoff line.

In three Cup Series starts at Homestead, Byron has one top-10 and two finishes outside the top-20. He does, however, have a win in South Beach in the Camping World Truck Series and a top-5 in the Xfinity Series. Expect Byron to run up front and contend for the win and stage points.

 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Richard Childress Racing

Reenergized after the No. 3 returned to victory lane, RCR is looking to get both of its cars into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

2021 Richard Childress Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Austin Dillon 3 Justin Alexander Dow/Bass Pro Shops/American Ethanol/Symbicort
Tyler Reddick 8 Randall Burnett Caterpillar/Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen/Alsco

History

RCR is best known for running the No. 3 Chevrolet, which Childress himself ran for a majority of his own full-time driving career (1973-81). The numeral was made legendary by Dale Earnhardt, who drove it to 67 victories and six of his record seven NASCAR Cup Series titles (1986-87, 1990-91, 1993-94). It was retired after Earnhardt’s tragic passing after a wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but it returned to the Cup level when Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon began his own full-time endeavors in 2014. Kevin Harvick drove the car, under No. 29 branding, for 13 seasons before departing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Childress opened a second full-time vehicle in 1997, with the current No. 8 Chevrolet running under previous identities of Nos. 30, 07, and 27. Notable names to pass through each respective incarnation include Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Paul Menard.

2020 in Review

The 2019 Cup Series season had been a struggle for RCR, as the team failed to put a car in the top 20 in points for the first time in its full-time racing days, a streak dating back to 1976. Reddick, the winner of back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series championships, took over the No. 8 from Daniel Hemric while Dillion was reunited with crew chief Justin Alexander. The latter pair previously united for a last-lap victory at the 2018 Daytona 500, the No. 3’s first victory in the Great American Race since Earnhardt captured a long-sought-after triumph in the 1998 edition.

Their reunion paid big dividends. Dillon earned one of the best seasons of his career and ended an 88-race win drought at the O’Reilly Auto Parts at Texas in July. The win secured his spot in the postseason, which came up big when he was forced to skip August’s Daytona road course event due to a positive COVID-19 test (Kaz Grala brought the No. 3 home in seventh in his absence). He further impressed in the opening round of the playoffs, earning consecutive top-five finishes in the first two races (including a runner-up at the opener in Darlington). Dillon’s 11th-place finish of the standings tied a career-best previously set in 2017.

Reddick got off to a decent start to his career, leading the 2020 rookie class with three top fives and nine top tens. He was in contention for wins at several points during the season, including the aforementioned Texas event, where his runner-up posting created the first RCR sweep of the first couple spots since October 2011 at Talladega (Bowyer and Burton). Reddick nearly stole a playoff spot during the regular season finale at Daytona, but his involvement in a late wreck forced him to watch from the outside.

Meet the Drivers

Austin Dillon

Experience: 7th season
Career Cup Victories: 3 (last: Texas, summer 2020)
2020 finish: 11th (Round of 12)
Best standings finish: 11th (2017, 2020)

A target’s always going to be on Dillon’s back because of his status as both Earnhardt’s successor in the No. 3 and as Childress’ grandson. Dillon had proven his racing mettle at several points in the past, winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title and the 2013 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, as well as his aforementioned Daytona triumph. That meant little to NASCAR’s hard-to-please fanbase, but it appears that the latter stages of 2020 could be the start of something bigger for Dillon and the No. 3 team.

“I hope we can keep giving them something to talk about…The confidence is building,” Dillon said after a fourth-placing finish at Richmond in September. “I feel like a lot of people know that we’re here right now. And even if I get knocked out, eventually the naysayers are going to say, ‘See, I told you so,’ so I’m not worried about all that. My confidence comes from within my group. I’m so proud of the team that I’ve got surrounded by around me.”

Dillon might be glad to see on-track qualifying return to select races this season. He was one of six drivers to sit on the pole in at least three races during the 2019 season.

Tyler Reddick

Experience: 2nd season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 19th
Best standings finish: 19th (2020)

Reddick was by far the most consistent of the 2020 Cup rookie group. His lack of victories cost him the official award, with brief playoff contender Cole Custer taking it home through his triumph at Kentucky.

“He always wants as much as he can’t he’s a champion. He’s done a great job this year found a lot of speed at different tracks,” Dillon said of his teammates rookie season prior to the playoffs. “I think he did and does has done an amazing job all year as a rookie and I think it’ll be in the playoffs for years to come. So it’s one of those things that he’s probably disappointed that but I think everybody knows that he’s got the speed and the pace to win races and get in the playoffs as a real contender for years to come.”

Outlook

Last season saw RCR vehicles take down several dubious streaks, but there’s plenty of work to be done. No RCR participant has finished in the top ten of the standings since Ryan Newman’s runner-up posting in 2014 while driving the defunct No. 31. RCR is also looking to put multiple cars in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, when Dillon and Newman finished 11th and 16th respectively. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Reddick earn his first Cup Series win and playoff berth in 2021, while Dillon can truly force the racing world to take notice if he can make it to the semifinal round of eight this fall.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Is now the right time for a Kyle Larson return?

Kyle Larson has been out of the NASCAR Cup Series since he used a racial slur in an IRacing event in April. Since then, Larson has been racing dirt and rebuilding his image. Everyone knows he was a successful driver. Larson has been to victory lane six times and was the 2019 All-Star Race winner. Along with a 2014 Rookie of the Year, Larson has the best resume of any free agent available. The thing is, is now the right time for Larson to return?

Will He?

Just a few days ago reports emerged that Kyle Larson was spotted meeting with Chevrolet executives in Philadelphia. The consensus is that Larson needs to repair relations with Chevy and NASCAR before he’d be cleared to sign with a team. He has already begun working on it with Chevy and it’s expected if he inks a deal, NASCAR would allow it.

The 28-year-old is one of the highest potential young drivers in the sport, and prior to his obscene language incident, one of the emerging stars of the sport. For a team to take a chance on him based on his previous success and popularity would make complete sense. The only thing that would hold teams back would be his reputation.

Yes, the slur used by Larson wasn’t okay by any means, but the situation fell into the laps of the sports media at a time when sports weren’t on the television. Networks and shows that would typically give very little if any time to a situation like this in the NASCAR world gave it a huge amount of spotlight. Analysts called for NASCAR to move swiftly and they did, getting Larson out of the sport.

Now, you can make the case the sport moved way too quickly on the decision and didn’t wait for things to settle down before re-evaluating Larson. Still, you can see how in a time of such social unrest, his comments as a face of the sport held immense weight.

When Could He Be Back?

Now, a few months later, Larson has had time to reflect and make a change. He’s begun to rebuild his image and now may be the prime time for him to do so. With Hendrick Motorsports looking for a talented and proven driver to fill Jimmie Johnson’s shoes, Larson sticks out amongst the pack. Compared to Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, and other rumored targets, Kyle Larson is clearly the most talented. Larson is a proven contender in the sport and from a racing perspective is the perfect replacement for a legend.

 Sponsors need to sign on to represent a driver who would stand as a reflection of the companies image. The only reason I could think of for Hendrick not naming a driver yet is that they’re jumping over those hurdles. I personally expect to see Larson be tabbed as the next driver for Hendrick. 

NASCAR: Four Turns with the Eastern Speedboard

ESM’s NASCAR experts commemorate the second half of the season, starting on Thursday at Kansas, by kicking off a new debate series.

As the NASCAR circuit carries on, ESM presents a new debate series, one where our resident NASCAR experts (Geoff Magliocchetti, Dylan Price, and Nathan Solomon) tackle four burning questions concerning the racing world. They’ll also give their predictions for the upcoming races at each of NASCAR’s three national levels.

Their first edition starts below…

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 1: Halfway through the season, who’s your ONE man to beat? 

Geoff Magliocchetti: The no-practice era has been one of solidifying legacies and the tossing of hats into the championship ring. Kevin Harvick has made a first-ballot Hall of Fame case. Chase Elliott has cooled off after a hot start, but he has shown he’s not going anywhere in this process. Aric Almirola has spent the whole summer in the top ten or better. But right now, the man to beat is Ryan Blaney. Few would quarrel that Blaney has earned his elite No. 12 Team Penske Ford ride. It’s almost obscene that Blaney (leader of 497 laps this year, third-best in the Cup Series) only has six wins to his Cup Series name and has only earned one of Penske’s five wins this season. But the racing gods of luck have been particularly cruel to Blaney, and this has shown he’s finally ready to fully fight back. I chose Elliott at the start of the year, but it’s going to be really hard to ignore Blaney moving forward.

Dylan Price: This is a pretty tough question. I’d say the obvious answers have to be between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Ryan Blaney has also run particularly well in recent weeks. With that said, Harvick is “the closer” and he’s proven to be lethal towards the end of the season. He also has more Top 5s and Top 10s then Hamlin right now, so I’ll go with him.

Nathan Solomon: Right now, the man to beat right now is Denny Hamlin. He has four wins already and would have had five if it wasn’t for a late blown tire in Indianapolis. It seems that Hamlin is up front competing for a win every week, along with Kevin Harvick. But, Hamlin has had more near wins than Harvick, in my opinion, and won the Daytona 500 all the way back in February.

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 2: We’ve got 10 drivers locked into the Cup Series playoffs and several more on the bubble. Which driver outside of the current 16 seeds makes it and who does he replace?

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve already seen one rookie visit victory lane (Cole Custer in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway) but there’s no denying that Reddick has been the most consistent rookie out there, leading a talented class of yellow-stripers in top tens, laps led, and stage wins. Many see him as being the spark that brings Richard Childress Racing back into racing’s mainstream, though helped his teammate Austin Dillon do just that at Texas last weekend. Reddick has nonetheless maintained enough consistency to find himself only 14 points out of the current playoff picture at this current time, but don’t expect him to rely solely on points to make his postseason mark. As for who he replaces, it might start to get late early for Clint Bowyer. The veteran driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Ford is 36 points up on the cutoff but has struggled since a runner-up posting at Bristol. Combine that with the looming threat of an expiring contract and the rise of Chase Briscoe in the Xfinity Series, Bowyer has a lot on his plate for the rest of the season.

Dylan Price: Tyler Reddick is my guy for this one. Despite how impressive Cole Custer’s win was, Reddick has flashed a lot more consistency. With a pair of top-fives (including a runner up finish this past weekend) and six top-tens, he’s been near the front in quite a few races. I truly believe he has a bright future. In an “out with the old, in with the new” sense, I think Reddick takes Jimmie Johnson’s spot and maybe even his ride next season.

Nathan Solomon: I’ll go with Erik Jones on this one. Despite just six top-tens, he’s seemingly running better every week and has had a little bad luck in his way as well. With the equipment he has, I bet you will see more top tens in the near future and more stage points. He’s also a dark-horse guy at almost any track. The guy most likely for him to bump out would be William Byron, who’s gone five races without a top 10 and has seemed to have trouble keeping his car in one piece lately.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Turn 3: Let’s talk surprises…most pleasant and most disappointing?

Geoff Magliocchetti: NASCAR could well be in the midst of its most intriguing Rookie of the Year since the Jimmie Johnson-Ryan Newman clash in 2002. Custer and Reddick are leading the way, while Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek are posting respectable results in subpar equipment. But perhaps most impressive has been the rise of Almirola. Freed from the racing purgatory of Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola rewarded Stewart-Haas’ faith in him with a win and a fifth-place finish in the final 2017 standings, but, for the most part, has simply been a playoff also-ran during his in their No. 10. Partially aided by some good luck in the qualifying draws, Almirola been able to capitalize and climb up the standings. He’s currently the top-ranked winless driver and is one of only six drivers with double-figure top-ten finishes. Expect Almirola to be a popular pick on playoff brackets when we get to the fall. As for most disappointing, my pick goes to Chris Buescher. The 2015 Xfinity Series champion flashed major potential in lesser equipment, but has struggled to maintain consistency in a better ride with Roush Fenway Racing.

Dylan Price: Matt DiBenedetto immediately strikes me as the most pleasant surprise. He has consistently been competitive, which is something new for him. With a better car at Wood Brothers Racing, he’s had much better success, and quietly is sitting 12th in the points. Look for him to snatch a win or two in the latter half of the season. As for disappointments, you could immediately pinpoint Kyle Busch. With that said, I think at some point he’ll get it together, so I’ll go with William Byron since he has such high-level machinery and remains on the outside looking in of the points battle.

Nathan Solomon: The most impressive driver this season has been Tyler Reddick. He’s running 17th in points and has three straight top-tens with chances to win at Texas and Homestead. All of that, and he’s only a rookie. One of the biggest disappointments this year has been Kyle Busch. Although well in the playoff picture, he’s winless and has struggled most races. The no practice concept has really hurt him.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Turn 4: NASCAR has shut down qualifying/practice for the rest of the season. Thoughts on the change?

Geoff Magliocchetti: Let ’em run…fresh! The switch to no practice has been perfect for NASCAR parity. Counting the winners prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, the Cup Series has seen 10 different winners at the midway mark. Last season as a whole, 13 different drivers won races. The facts that the concept is keeping drivers, crews, teams safe and that a majority of lap-runners have come to appreciate the change only help the idea’s case and perhaps strengthen the idea that it should be maintained when things return to “normal”. This system’s lone flaw will be the lack of preparation for the Daytona road course race on August 16. Will the drivers be ready, or will lap one look like the third act of The Blues Brothers?

Dylan Price: I think it’s a very good maneuver to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spreading. However, in reference to my last answer, a guy like Kyle Busch has really struggled without practice and qualifying. For some lower-level drivers, they’ve had success with that way of racing as they are on a more equal playing field. I do think that as the season wears on and drivers return to tracks they’ve got more experience on then some drivers like Kyle Busch will be more prepared for success.

Nathan Solomon: For the most part, I think no practice or qualifying is fine. The only exception should be the Daytona road course, as NASCAR has never run there. But we’ll see how much IRacing helps the drivers. They’ll be relying heavily on it for that race.

Kansas Predictions

Race Cup Xfinity Trucks 1 Trucks 2
Geoff Magliocchetti Aric Almirola Brandon Jones Zane Smith Sheldon Creed
Dylan Price Kevin Harvick Noah Gragson Brett Moffitt Christian Eckes
Nathan Solomon Brad Keselowski Chase Briscoe Sheldon Creed Matt Crafton
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Thursday night with the Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). 

NASCAR: Austin Dillon ends a victory drought, steals another playoff spot

A bold decision from Dillon and teammate Tyler Reddick allowed Richard Childress Racing to recapture NASCAR glory at Texas Motor Speedway.

How ’bout that cowboy?

Once known for his array of cowboy hats in the garage area, Austin Dillon took home a long-awaited in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Dillon and rookie teammate Tyler Reddick united to create a one-two finish for Richard Childress Racing.

“Having Tyler right there to work with, he has a teammate that he’s really working good with,” team owner Richard Childress said afterward. “To see both those guys racing for the win, I was hoping they didn’t wreck each other. It was pretty cool to see RCR in the front.”

RCR is perhaps best known for winning six NASCAR Cup Series titles with Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 Chevrolet. On Sunday, Dillon piloted the same car to victory lane for the first time in 88 races. Their previous victory came in the 2018 Daytona 500 and Sunday saw them sweep the top spots for the first time since October 2011 (when Clint Bowyer held off Jeff Burton to win the fall Talladega event).

Dillon, the grandson of Childress, has driven the No. 3 since 2014. His Chevrolet is the first to adorn the No. 3 since Earnhardt’s passing at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Sunday marked Dillon’s third win in the car, having previously won two of NASCAR’s crown jewels. He also won the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 via fuel mileage.

“Sports are sports. You got to have someone you don’t like,” Dillon said of fans’ perception of him. “Maybe it’s just my background, where I come from.  But I got a lot of people that love me, too.  It doesn’t bother me at all really. They can either get on the bandwagon and love me. It’s okay. It’s part of sports. Haters are going to hate sometimes, but we’ll be all right.”

Both Dillon and Reddick hovered in the middle of the pack for most of the 334-lap event. Reddick worked his way back from two laps down by the time the final, 124-lap stage rolled around. Ryan Blaney had won the first two segments, lasting 107 laps each, en route to leading a race-best 150 circuits. It appeared the race would come down to Blaney and Denny Hamlin as green flag pit stops cycled through, but Quin Houff’s accident with 28 laps set up a chance for teams who stretched their fuel runs (last pitting at circa lap 220) to pit under easier circumstances.

With Blaney, Hamlin, and other contenders still a lap down before the pit cycle was complete, both Reddick and Dillon enacted bold strategies for the finish. Reddick took fuel only, while Dillon opted only for left-side tires. The fresher wheels allowed Dillon to move ahead of his teammate and build a sizable lead.

Two separate incidents (both involving Hamlin) brought out the yellow flag twice, forcing Dillon to undergo the restart process all over again. He was able to re-establish his lead on each occasion while Reddick held off hungry contenders like Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. With the win, Dillon more or less clinched a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Logano came home third while Busch and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

A surprise winner rose to the occasion in the final laps for the second straight week, following up rookie Cole Custer’s win at Kentucky Speedway last weekend. Reddick and his No. 8 Chevrolet are currently 14 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final postseason spot.

The NASCAR Cup Series will enter the second half of its 36-race season with the Super Starter Batteries 400 on Thursday night at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Harvick made his 700th Cup Series start on Sunday, becoming the 18th driver to do so and second on the active circuit (joining Kurt Busch). He ironically began his Cup career at RCR in 2001, taking over for Earnhardt after his passing (in a rebranded No. 29 Chevrolet). Harvick leads the point standings by 91 points over Blaney at the midway mark.

 

  • The red flag came out on lap 220 for a multi-car wreck that ended the days of Custer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Martin Truex Jr. also sustained heavy damage.

 

  • Kyle Busch and Timmy Hill each partook in all three national series events at Texas this weekend. Busch in fact won the Xfinity and Truck races on Saturday, but had the former win revoked after his No. 54 Toyota failed postrace inspection (runner-up Austin Cindric was granted the win). Hill’s best finish was 17th in the Xfinity event, but he was honored by the speedway for winning the O’Reilly Auto Parts 125, part of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series held during the coronavirus-induced pause.

 

  • Hendrick Motorsports had a brutal day at Texas, with only Chase Elliott (12th) finishing the race. Johnson hit the wall and finished 12 laps down in 26th while William Byron’s day ended early after wrecking with Ty Dillon (Austin’s brother). Byron is two points behind Johnson for the final playoff spot. Alex Bowman, locked into the playoff after winning at California, crashed with Hamlin late in the race and finished 30th.

 

  • Pole sitter Aric Almirola led 35 laps and finished 10th, extending his streak of top decalogue finishes to seven.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR, Tyler Reddick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags