On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series stays home in Charlotte for the running of the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the year. The event is 400 laps long around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway and is one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races. Sunday’s race is also the only race on the schedule with four stages instead of three.
Kyle Larson won Saturday’s qualifying and will lead the field to green at about 6:05 pm. Here are three drivers to watch:
Martin Truex Jr. (+550)
Charlotte Motor Speedway has always been one of Martin Truex Jr.’s best tracks, especially of late. Truex Jr. has three wins at the circuit, and all have come within the last five seasons. He has an average finish of 13.6 at Charlotte with 7 top-5s and 13 top-10s.
With wins at Phoenix, Martinsville, and Darlington, Truex Jr. is just one of two drivers with more than one win this season. The other driver with multiple wins is Alex Bowman, winning twice. Truex Jr. is having one of his dominant seasons this year, so expect him to contend in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.
William Byron (+1600)
William Byron has thrived under new Crew Chief Rudy Fugle this season and is having a career year. Byron has placed in the top-10 in 11 of 14 races this season, including 11 of the last 12. He’s currently second in Cup Series points, only trailing the winless Denny Hamlin.
At Charlotte, Byron has just one combined top-10 in NASCAR’s three premier series, that coming in the 2019 Coca-Cola 600. However, his 1.5-mile track performance is improving over time under Rudy Fugle and he’s showing that he can win just about anywhere. Be sure to watch Byron on Sunday.
Kurt Busch (+5000)
Kurt Busch hasn’t performed well this season but he’s looking for a bounce-back performance on Sunday in Charlotte. He has just 2 top-10s in 14 starts this year and is currently 18th in the Cup Series points standings.
In 39 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch has one victory: The 2010 Coca-Cola 600. He has an average finish of 17.1 at the track along with 8 top-5s and 15 top-10s. Busch has been very consistent at this track over his career, so expect him to have a chance on Sunday.
No team in the NASCAR Cup Series has been on a longer roll than Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet group.
The NASCAR Cup Series’ official throwback festivities commence next weekend at Darlington Raceway. Thanks to the efforts of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team, fans and observers have been getting a steady dose of nostalgics when they look at the leaderboard.
No vehicle on the premier Cup Series circuit has been hotter than the Camaro piloted by William Byron, who has earned top ten finishes in each of the last eight races, a streak that began with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February. That win allowed him to become the first driver to drive Rick Hendrick’s No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane since Jeff Gordon’s 93rd and final Cup Series win at Martinsville in 2015.
The streak has allowed Byron to create an average finish of 10.3, second-best amongst full-time drivers behind Denny Hamlin, the only other driver with eight top tens over the first ten races.
The scariest part? Byron feels that the No. 24 squad has emerged from one of the harder portions of the Cup Series schedule. The series resumes action on Sunday at Kansas Speedway for the Buschy McBusch Race 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1). He has finished in the top ten in each of the last three visits to the Sunflower State, including an eighth-place posting in the most recent endeavor last October. His Chevrolet will start in the front row next to Brad Keselowski.
“I think for us, we’re going into some of these tracks that are some of our best tracks,” Byron said in a Wednesday conference call. “I feel really confident that Kansas is a place we can go there and try to win. I think we’ve gotten through a couple of obstacles with the Bristol dirt race. That was definitely one that we thought we were going to really struggle, (as well as) Talladega and Richmond.”
Overcoming obstacles has been a common theme of Byron’s season. Despite relatively little dirt experience he finished sixth at Bristol and overcame a spin at Talladega last weekend to finish in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski’s Ford. In between, Byron scored his best finish at Richmond, a site where he’s often struggled to stay on the lead lap.
These conquests have allowed Byron to develop confidence, which he credits for setting the pace for what’s been his most lucrative season to date. This campaign is Byron’s fourth in the Cup Series, his best standings finish being 11th in 2019. He entered the circuit with a fair amount of hype after taking home the 2017 Xfinity Series title as a 20-year-old driving a Chevrolet owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“For two years, I really felt out of the box,” Byron said of his first two Cup seasons. “I felt uncomfortable I guess, in a way. I kind of felt like in order to produce the results and be up front, I had to really drive kind of over your head in a way.”
Even with the newly built confidence, not every race is going to end in victory lane, but Byron said the perfect source was finding wins that didn’t exactly show up on the scoring pylons.
“In NASCAR, I think performance is that needle-mover for confidence,” Byron said. “The biggest thing I heard coming from Legend Cars is oh man, you’re not going to win as much. So, how do you find confidence in other ways? Well, I think it comes from working with your crew chief and figuring out how to make the car faster. There are small victories in finishing top ten at Richmond, which has been a track where I usually get lapped. There are small wins along the way that help build that confidence.”
“(Today,) I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I don’t look at any of the people I race against as any different…I raced for Kyle Busch, so that was nerve-wracking to race against him every week. And those things were there and those elements of feeling like I was out of place were there. Once you get past that feeling, which, you have to have those results to have that feeling go away, so it comes hand-in-hand with results.”
Byron’s confidence is healthily subsidized by his chemistry with a relatively new crew chief in Rudy Fugle. The pair previously collaborated during the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, winning seven races in a truck owned the aforementioned Busch. He also credited last season’s crew chief-turned-vice president of competition Chad Knaus (a seven-time champion pit boss with Jimmie Johnson) for his work as well as the hard-working men and women in the HMS shop.
The No. 24’s return to glory is perhaps one the NASCAR world should’ve seen coming. Byron worked his way into the NASCAR playoffs with a win in the regular season finale at Daytona. Though he failed to advance past the first round of the postseason, momentum and confidence were developed with four top ten finishes over the last six races.
True to form, Byron said there was no singular, lightswitch-flipping moment. He instead credited teammates for assistance in a path forward, including those beyond the No. 24 garage stall. Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott has been a particularly strong mentor, a relationship that includes providing a lofty benchmark to live up to.
“I think there’s not really a specific turning point. I think we’ve really relied heavily on our teammates,” Byron said. “Chase has run really well over the past six or seven months and winning the championship and all that. We’ve relied heavily on some of their set-ups and some of the things that Chase says; trying to get my driving style a little bit closer to what the set-up needs and the car needs. It’s a little bit of everything.”
“We’ve got to try to match that standard or try to improve upon it. We have a lot of respect for (Elliott’s No. 9 team) and their effort and the way that they execute races, the way that Chase drives, and all those things. So, we try to work on that and make it our own.”
Byron’s next win could prove historic: Hendrick Motorsports is currently two wins away from tying Petty Enterprises for the most Cup Series victories by one team, a tally aided by 2021 wins from Byron and teammates Kyle Larson (Las Vegas) and Alex Bowman (Richmond).
William Byron led the final 58 laps of the Dixie Vodka 400 to earn his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
Hendrick Motorsports ruled the day at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as William Byron brought the team’s iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane at the Dixie Vodka 400. Byron earned his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory, the 264th in HMS history. Hendrick is now four wins away from tying Richard Petty for the most wins as a Cup Series team owner.
Byron took his first extended lead of the race at lap 160 of 267, when stole the second stage victory from Martin Truex Jr. The win in the second 80-lap stage was settled in a single session shootout after Corey LaJoie’s down vehicle brought out a caution. Byron dominated the final 107 laps, leading all but the final eight circuits to secure his first victory since last summer’s regular-season finale at Daytona. His victory in just his third Cup race with crew chief Rudy Fugle, with whom he previously collaborated on seven wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
The win was earned shortly after the last caution flag of the day flew at lap 200 for a get-together between Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney. Byron lost a few positions after the stops, but a strong restart allowed him to swipe the lead from Truex once again by lap 210, a lead earned through a push from his teammate Kyle Larson. He eventually built a five-second lead over the final laps to earn the victory, the first for HMS since Chase Elliott won the 2020 season finale at Phoenix last November.
Byron’s victory is also the first for Chevrolet after Ford and Toyota respectively took the first two events of 2021. Those races, each coming at Daytona International Speedway, put Byron in an early points hole. Wrecks marred the season-opening Daytona 500, as he lost separate cars in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying race and in a multi-vehicle pile-up in the main event. After finishing a lap down in 33rd last weekend on Daytona’s road course, Byron sat in 29th place in the Cup Series standings. He came into Homestead simply hoping for a strong run but departed with his first career victory on a 1.5-mile track. His best prior finish at such a venue was a fifth-place posting at Kansas last October.
“It was a tough start to the season, but we didn’t really think about that going into this week,” Byron said. “We just thought about executing a good race. It’s always nice when the speed is there, but I feel like we put in the effort to make sure it was, and it was kind of a flawless weekend really.”
With the win, Byron is now more or less guaranteed a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. He has reached the playoffs in each of his last seasons, each of those clinches came down to the last event of the 26-race regular season. He is the third different winner in three different 2021 events, joining Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell, who each won in the Cup Series for the first time.
“It’s going to be fun this year,” Byron declared. “I think I’ve spent kind of a lot of my Cup Series career kind of on the bubble of the playoffs and now I don’t have to worry about that. It’s crazy; I’m going to take all that stuff in, and just got a great team, got an awesome crew chief. It’s going to be a fun year.”
Tyler Reddick earned his second top five in as many Cup starts at Homestead, putting on a late charge to finish second ahead of Truex and Larson. Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell continued his surprisingly strong opening run with a sixth-place finish. This marks the first time both McDowell and his team, Front Row Motorsports, have earned three consecutive top ten finishes at any point in their tenures. McDowell and Harvick are the only drives to earn top ten finishes in each of the first three races this season.
Chris Buescher won the first stage and led 57 laps, the most a Roush Fenway Racing Ford has led since Greg Biffle led 58 at Talladega in October 2014. However, Buescher faded later in the race and wound up in 19th. The day was not a total loss for RFR, as Ryan Newman finished seventh in the No. 6 Ford.
Points leader Denny Hamlin sat on the pole, but was forced to start at the rear after making unapproved adjustments to his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Hamlin made it to the front by the midway point of the race and even battled Truex aggressively for the second stage win (drawing Truex’s ire over the radio) but a pit road speeding penalty forced him to start from scratch. Hamlin finished 11th and continues to hold a 20-point advantage over Harvick for the points lead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR watch has ended at HMS. Are Chase Elliott and his teammates ready to follow in the steps of Johnson and Jeff Gordon?
2021 Hendrick Motorsports Driver Chart
NAPA Auto Parts/Hooters/Llumar
In metropolitan terms, Hendrick Motorsports could well be the New York Yankees. Since North Carolina auto dealer Rick Hendrick entered the sport in 1984, some of the finest names in the sport have driven his Chevrolets…including fictional ones, as Hendrick provided the cars used in the NASCAR blockbuster Days of Thunder.
The early days at HMS were dominated by strong runs with names like Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, and Ken Schrader, but championships proved elusive. That all changed in 1995, when wunderkind Jeff Gordon, in just his third season on the Cup Series circuit, held off Dale Earnhardt to earn the 1995 championship with the No. 24 team. Hendrick vehicles took each of the next four championships, with Terry Labonte triumphing in the ensuring 1996 season before Gordon captured two more. The fourth and final championship for Gordon came in 2001. Each of his 93 Cup Series victories, third-best all-time, came in Hendrick’s No. 24.
Just when the circuit had enough of Hendrick dominance…Joe Gibbs Racing was rising to power through championships for Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart…Hendrick and Gordon unleashed the monster known as Jimmie Johnson unto the racing world in 2002, driving the newly formed No. 48 Chevrolet. It took a little more patience for Johnson to earn his first championship, but once he did so in 2006, his fifth full year in the Series, there was no stopping him. Johnson would go on to win five consecutive championships (2006-10) before adding two more (2013, 2016) to solidify himself as the driver with the most titles alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Like Gordon, Johnson won each and every one of his Cup Series races under a Hendrick banner, tallying 83 when all was said and done.
So, suffice to say…there’s a lot to live up to for Hendrick’s current crop.
2020 in Review
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as Semisonic routinely sang during Jeff Gordon’s heyday. That perfectly defined the Hendrick Motorsports mindset in 2020. As Jimmie Johnson struggled in a swan song, failing to earn one last win or a playoff berth in a tough season, Chase Elliott followed in his father Bill’s footsteps behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott had been consistent all season…his three-win tally entering the penultimate race at Martinsville could’ve been more than doubled if not for some bad luck along the way…but many were expecting him to perform to a higher standard with strong equipment and a legendary NASCAR pedigree.
But Elliott proved his mettle in historic ways during the final segments of the season. An advancement to the championship round thanks to a win at Martinsville was seemingly for naught when he was forced to start the title-clincher at Phoenix at the back of the field due to failed inspection. But Elliott looked at the best possible way a racer could: more cars for him to pass.
“The confidence level with Chase Elliott is unbelievable,” Hendrick told the media this week. “That’s something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me one time. He said you have to know when to race. He said you have to know how to race, but you have to know when to race. And Chase does that.”
Elliott not only worked his way up to the front at Phoenix, but he wound up leading a race-best 153 of 312 laps to clinch the title, the 13th in HMS’ treasured history. He and Bill also became the third father-son duo to take home matching Cup Series championships, joining the Jarretts (Ned and Dale) and Pettys (Lee and Richard).
Other drivers had their chance to shine for Hendrick as well. Alex Bowman, the internal successor to Johnson in the No. 48 Chevorlet, finished out his career under No. 88 branding with an appearance in the semifinal round of eight drivers, ironically dominating the California native Johnson’s final visit to Fontana early in the year. William Byron, bearing Gordon’s iconic numerals, earned his first victory at the regular season finale at Daytona.
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 7th full season Career Cup Victories: 6 (last: Dover fall, 2019) 2020 finish: 34th Best standings finish: 6th (2019)
By now, both the casual observer and the die-hard fan alike knows about Larson’s transgression that led to his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing, uttering a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Larson’s return was earned through not only undergoing mandated sensitivity training from NASCAR but lending his time and resources to several charitable causes to educate himself on modern affairs and to be a better person. It was enough to convince Hendrick that Larson had earned a new opportunity, one to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet that Labonte drove to a championship a quarter-century prior.
“When you look at the character of what he is; a lot of people do things and they say I’m sorry, right?” Hendrick asked rhetorically. “They just say I’m sorry and go right on running their life. And that’s all they have to do. And people say okay, we’ll give you another shot. This guy did ten times that. And he’s created an image and things in that community that people really respect him. So, I guess the answer to the riddle is that I’m a part of it, but it was Kyle’s heart and Kyle’s desire that got him back.”
There’s no denying that Larson has the talent to succeed in racing. He won six races driving CGR’s No. 42 (four during the 2017 campaign) and earned countless victories driving dirt cars during his suspension.
Experience: 6th full season Career Cup Victories: 11 (last: Phoenix fall, 2020) 2020 finish: 2020 Champion Best standings finish: 2020 Champion
It truly is a bit of a shame that Elliott’s career is connected to so many of the sport’s most memorable names. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, originally took over for Jeff Gordon after racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team in the Xfinity Series. Such connections have helped Elliott reach this point, but may be used by detractors to discount his incredible success. With his first championship under his belt, Elliott is now ready to truly leave a mark on the sport; he knows that NASCAR is a world of “what have you done for me lately”, a feeling he feels has permeated every professional sport. He compared it to those who asked Jimmie Johnson the same questions toward the end of his career.
“In any sport, it’s what have you done lately,” Elliott remarked. “I think about all the disrespect that Jimmie Johnson got toward the end of this career. It’s like everyone forgot about how great he is just because he had a bad race or a bad stretch of races. The lesson that taught me is that no matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, then they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently.”
“On the flip side of that, if you have a good run after being trashed for a year or something, everyone is going to be hyping you up, be excited for you and jumping on the bandwagon. It’s all about performance and all about what you’ve done lately. We want to push; we want to continue to do good for ourselves and push our team internally. That’s all that matters to me, and that’s all that matters to our entire group.”
Only making Elliott ever more dangerous this season? As the winner of the last four visits to road course events, perhaps no one is more excited to see a record seven on the 2021 slate than Elliott.
Experience: 4th season Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Daytona summer, 2020) 2020 finish: 14th Best standings finish: 11th (2019)
Byron has had a little trouble racing up to the reputation that his numerals mandate, failing to finish in the top ten in any of his first four seasons. He did get one monkey off his back by earning his first career victory at the regular season finale at Daytona that punched his playoff ticket. Byron mentioned that going into the new year liberated from the burden of missing out on his first Cup win will work in the team’s favor.
“It’s great that there is not as much attention on that headline and not as much outside noise. For us, the goal is still the same – to win. Our goal has always been to win and now we can do it with some confidence. We can just focus on just doing our jobs.”
Experience: 6th full season Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Fontana 2020) 2020 finish: 6th Best standings finish: 6th (2020)
To put things in metropolitan terms, Bowman replacing Johnson in the No. 48 is the equivalent of what Didi Gregorious went through when he took over the mantle of New York Yankees shortstop from Derek Jeter. It’s a spot that will feature increased eyes and heightened scrutiny, a challenge Bowman believes he’s handling well going into this fateful season.
Bowman is eager to fulfill those sky-high expectations but stays grounded by reminding himself that he’s working his way through NASCAR for himself.
“The biggest thing for me is there’s not a car number or situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I feel like all race car drivers are selfish but I’m really selfish,” he said. “I just want to win for me. Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible.
“But more so than any of that, I want to win for me. I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well and to run how we should. I think outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress on myself and too much pressure on myself at times, but it’s all from me because I care about how we run and because I want to run well. It’s not really because somebody is saying oh the No. 48 has to go win or needs to go win a championship. It’s because I want to win and because I want to win championships.”
Elliott is obviously going to be someone to keep an eye on in the grand scheme of things, while it’ll be interesting to see how Bowman handles the newfound responsibilities that are attached to the No. 48. Both Byron and Larson will each face heightened expectations as well, as Hendrick Motorsports undergoes a youthful revolt.
In NASCAR, some things never change. Jimmie Johnson has retired and Jeff Gordon will be in the media booth, but their respective vehicles will nonetheless pace the field at the Daytona 500.
Alex Bowman christened his new number with a run of 47.056 around the iconic 2.5-mile oval on Wednesday night, earning the pole for Sunday’s Great American Race (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). It will mark Bowman’s first race in the No. 48 Chevrolet after the retirement of its seven-time Cup Series champion Johnson. William Byron (47.314) will be right beside him in the No. 24 previously occupied by Gordon.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 consists of two different stages. Single-car qualifying, where each car runs a single timed lap, settles only the front row, while the rest of the field is determined through qualifying races known as the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, FS1).
Bowman, 27, earns his fourth consecutive front row start in the 500, also winning the pole for the 2018 event while driving Hendrick No. 88. He also started in the front row next to then-pole sitter Byron in the year after. Alas for Bowman, coming off a career-best sixth-place finish in last year’s standings, no pole-sitter has won the 500 since Dale Jarrett did so in 2000 for Robert Yates Racing.
Byron will return to Daytona’s oval for the first time since earning his first Cup Series win at the regular season finale in August, a win that clinched him a spot in the NASCAR playoffs. The No. 24 rounded out the top five in Tuesday’s Busch Clash exhibition held on Daytona’s road course.
In addition to Hendrick Motorsports, Wednesday night proved to be a big one for both Ryan Preece (8th, 47.585) and David Ragan (13th, 47.730). Those two drivers were the fastest non-chartered drivers, guaranteeing them a spot in the main event on Sunday. Preece drives the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing, while Ragan, who won Daytona’s 400-mile summer event in 2011, will pilot a part-time car for Front Row Motorsports. All other non-chartered drivers will have to race their way in through their respective Duel races. Among the contenders are defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric (driving a part-time car for Team Penske before making his full-time Cup debut next season) and his competitor at the de facto AAA-level Noah Gragson.
Wednesday’s qualifying saw 42 cars partake. Gragson’s No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet was barred after failing inspection while Derrike Cope had battery issues with his No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, is locked into Sunday’s race through an RWR charter, will be making his first Cup Series start since 2018.
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.
William Byron’s first NASCAR Cup Series couldn’t have come at a better time, but a late wreck ruined Jimmie Johnson’s playoff chances.
The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet returned to the familiar settings of victory lane, but a victorious sendoff for another iconic ride was not meant to be.
William Byron had perfect timing for his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, taking home the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. A win in the regular-season finale allows Byron to earn a last-minute berth into the NASCAR playoffs, which begin next weekend at Darlington Raceway.
“I feel incredible. On Cloud 9 for sure,” Byron said after the race. “There was a point in that race that I didn’t really think things were going to work out in our favor to make the Playoffs, really have an opportunity next week. This was kind of one of those do-or-die situations. Kind of crossed that fork in the road tonight. We were able to be aggressive and make it happen.”
Saturday marked the first time that Daytona hosted the regular season finale, moved from a July 4th weekend schedule slot its 400-mile race had held since its inception in 1959. The track’s propensity for tightly-packed racing, speed in excess of 200 miles per hour, multi-car wrecks, and first-time winners made it a perfect site for the 26th and final race before the playoffs.
Byron becomes the 21st Cup Series driver to win his first race at Daytona, a circuit record.
“You couldn’t have picked a more pressure-packed race,” Byron said of making Daytona the season finale. “When you’re at a superspeedway, the running order changes every two laps practically, it’s incredible to put that much pressure on a couple of points. You really can’t points race, which I think is probably what they want us to do. They want us to go for wins, try to compete hard. It was a perfect format for that.”
Byron entered Daytona in the 16th and final playoff seed, five points behind Matt DiBenedetto and four points ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Had Byron retained the 16th seed, he could’ve been eliminated if a winless driver behind him won the race. His first career victory locked his spot up without further drama.
The jubilation for Byron, the first driver representing the No. 24 banner to win a Cup Series race since Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville in 2015, was countered by personal heartbreak for Johnson his No. 48 Chevrolet team. One of three winners of a record seven Cup Series titles, Johnson is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the season. He ran well for a majority of the evening and earned precious playoff real estate through a dozen stage points.
But with two laps to go, Johnson got caught in a wreck that began when Joey Logano, the winner of the first two stages, made contact with Denny Hamlin and bumped into an attacking Bubba Wallace who was leading a third lane for the lead. Chaos ensued, taking out several drivers seeking a crucial win, including Matt Kenseth, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, and John Hunter Nemechek.
Johnson’s crew was able to repair the car to the point it was able to meet minimum speed standards, but by then it was too late. Johnson finished 17th and missed out on the playoffs thanks to Byron’s win and DiBenedetto’s 12th place finish.
DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, makes the playoffs for the first time in his career.
With the race going into overtime, Byron held off a challenge from Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott and a recovered Hamlin over a two-lap dash to earn his first win in his 98th Cup Series start. Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth while Wallace also recovered to finish fifth.
The 16-driver playoff will begin next Sunday night at Darlington’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Three races await in the first leg of the playoffs, with dates at Richmond and Bristol filling out the remainder.
Prior to the race, Kevin Harvick was presented the Regular Season Championship. Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won seven races and beat out Hamlin by 134 points entering Saturday’s race to win it. He will enter the playoffs as the top-seeded driver thanks to 57 playoff points earned through seven race wins (five points each), seven stage wins (one-point each), and a 15-point bonus for the regular-season crown. Harvick finished 20th at Daytona after getting caught up in an incident on the final lap.
Incidents were kept to a minimum, with only cautions for the first 143 laps coming for a competition caution and stage pauses. The first yellow for an on-track incident came when James Davidson and Brendan Gaughan made contact.
The first big wreck of the night came at lap 153 of 160, when Reddick’s block on Kyle Busch ignited a big wreck that took out both Busch and his brother Kurt, as well as Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Newman, making his first start at Daytona’s oval since a scary wreck at the end of February’s 500-mile opener, was critical of Reddick in an interview with NBC Sports, declaring that “the No. 8 ran out of talent”.
As NASCAR’s regular season winds down, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron are in a “weird” situation.
NASCAR has changed a lot since Jimmie Johnson began his full-time Cup Series career in 2002. He has raced under the Winston, Nextel, Sprint, Monster Energy, and plain old Cup Series banners. His record-tying seven championships have been won under four different playoff formats. The entire full-time journey, set to end at the end of the season, has been spent in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
One thing hasn’t changed, however: Johnson is locked in an intense battle with a Hendrick teammate driving the No. 24 car.
It was Jeff Gordon, the man most associated with the No. 24, that personally scouted Johnson and got his Cup career rolling. Subsequent battles between the two have had lasting implications on NASCAR history and altered the Cup Series’ postseason picture. The battle ended upon Gordon’s retirement in 2015 but reignites in the most dramatic and sensational fashion at Daytona International Speedway.
The World Center of Racing’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 will host the NASCAR regular season final for the first time on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Johnson enters a familiar place on the schedule in the most unfamiliar spot: on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. He’s four points out of the 16th and final seed…held by third-year driver William Byron, the new bearer of the No. 24. Only adding to the drama is the fact that Byron’s crew chief is Chad Knaus…who was atop the No. 48’s pit box for each of its seven titles.
The reality of the situation only hit Knaus through a conversation with Johnson after last weekend’s doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.
“I was like ‘man, it’s so weird that I’m going to be battling the No. 48 car going into Daytona’,” Knaus recalled when speaking with the media this week. “Then the next morning, at like 8 a.m., he sent me a text. He’s like ‘man, isn’t it weird that we’re competing with one another for this?’ So, we had a text right there and then we had a phone conversation a little bit later in the week. And hey, it is what it is. We’re both professionals here. We understand what’s going on. It’s racing. It’s competition.”
“Chad and I are great friends and have stayed really close through all that’s happened,” Johnson would say of the conversation. “Sure, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun at some different points here recently, but I wish him the best. We talk often. I want the best for Chad and his family, and for Chad and his race team.”
“We certainly both look at the year and know there are moments that could have kept us both from being in this position, but it is what it is and we’re going to Daytona, which makes it even more awkward. We’ll see how things play out.”
Unlike Johnson’s relatively quiet Cup Series arrival, Byron entered the Cup Series with a fair amount of hype. He won a rookie record seven races in the Camping World (now Gander RV & Outdoor) Truck Series’ 2016 campaign and then took home the Xfinity Series title at the age of 19. When Hendrick Motorsports rebranded their No. 5 Chevrolet to be the iconic 24, it was Byron who was called upon to take over.
Nearly three years in, a combination of bad luck and strong competition has Byron still searching for his first Cup Series win. If it came at Daytona on Saturday, it would clinch his second consecutive playoff berth. He won a qualifying event at the track for the Daytona 500 back in February, but an early accident relegated him to a last-place finish in 40th. The No. 24 car has shown speed throughout the season, the development stifled by factors beyond Byron’s control. For example, he had the lead at Indianapolis in July and won the first stage, but a lost tire relegated him to a 27th-place finish.
Johnson, stuck at 83 wins in the midst of a career-long 119-race winless streak, was quick and eager to note the improvements Byron has made in his third year behind the wheel.
“He’s a true student of the sport and his life is dedicated to racing,” Johnson said. “With his interest in sim racing, he can literally day in and day out learn tracks, drive cars, think about racing, think about setups, interact with his team on that level. During my generation, we could go test quite a bit and we did a lot of that. But still, I think he can get more reps in today’s world than the world that I grew up in and it’s been really interesting to watch him grow in his path. I think he probably has the fastest path to a NASCAR Cup car in the history of our sport.”
“Hats off to him. He’s doing a great job and I know he’s going to be a tough competitor at Daytona.”
Knaus was moved to Byron’s garage after the latter’s rookie season. The driver, a Charlotte native, grew up watching Johnson dominate the Cup Series circuit. A childhood incident only adds to the Daytona intrigue. As a child, Byron trick-or-treated at Johnson’s home in Charlotte…dressed as Jeff Gordon.
Now, Byron can deal the cruelest trick of all: denying Johnson a playoff berth in his final full-time season.
“I think it’s a great storyline. Jimmie is the guy that I looked up to as a kid,” Byron said. “I was really a 48 fan through and through. I’ve got a lot of 48 stuff at my parent’s house and a lot of different diecast cars.”
But with the Hendrick competition topping the list of Daytona storylines, Byron has no intention of actively kicking Johnson out of the playoff bracket. In fact, he’s hoping that both cars can partake in the first postseason party on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway. Their HMS teammates, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, have already clinched their playoff spots through wins.
“I really don’t look at it as me versus him. I know that’s what the bubble is right now, but it really is an opportunity for both of us to get in,” Byron continued. “I’m trying to look at it (like) that. That’s ultimately the goal: to get both of us in. Jimmie is an awesome competitor and somebody I really look up to.”
“Hopefully, we both get in, you know?” Knaus asked rhetorically. “We both run really well at superspeedways. Hendrick Engines and the guys at the shop build some amazing race cars. So, hopefully, we can get out there and get some stage points and race well and get both the No. 24 and the No. 48 into the playoffs.”
Both Byron and Johnson can still get in on points, which would come at the expense of 15th-place Matt DiBenedetto (nine points ahead of Johnson in the cutoff). But the Daytona factor looms large over the proceedings.
As long as he’s competing for Cup Series points and is placed in the top 30 of the standings, Saturday’s winner will be partaking in the playoffs. Daytona’s propensity for tightly-packed racing and multi-car wrecks has created the perfect formula for surprise winners. Just last summer, in the most recent version of Daytona’s 400-mile event, Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley navigated his way through a big accident and a Floridan summer storm to earn an unlikely victory in the microbudget No. 77 Chevrolet of Spire Motorsports in just his second Cup start. Saturday’s field is rife with talented drivers that can steal the final spots. Both competitors are aware of the danger presented…both in the standings and on the track…but they’re loving every minute of it.
“It’s going to be great from a fan’s perspective,” noted Byron. “It’s going to be stressful in the car, but sometimes those are the most fun times and the most rewarding times in the race car, those times where you’re under pressure. It should be fun.”
Johnson is also excited, but perhaps a more accurate way to describe his Daytona mindset is one of peace. As he discussed with Knaus, opportunities were there to secure a playoff berth. There’s nothing he could’ve done about the Indianapolis event, sidelined due to a positive test for coronavirus, but a runner-up finish and the points that came with at Charlotte’s renowned Coca-Cola 600 in May was wiped out due to a failure at postrace inspection.
The calamities that have befallen 2020 have done nothing to change Johnson’s mind of retirement from full-time racing. His resume nonetheless continues to expand, adding the duty of professor to his resume through home-schooling his daughters Evie and Lydia. Having recently spoken on several societal issues since NASCAR’s return from the coronavirus-induced pause, Johnson expressed concern about the current state of the country but hopeful of what he’s seen from his children.
“At times, I’m discouraged by where we sit as a nation, as a world, and just how divided we all are,” Johnson admitted. “But then when I see my kids, their questions, and their genuine concern about the future of our country, of our environment, of racial inequality issues, gender-related issues, I do become encouraged. To hear a ten-year-old and a six-year-old weigh in on some conversations really has blown my mind. So, I do have some optimism for the future.”
On the track, Johnson isn’t looking to get sentimental. Whereas some see his final start at Daytona and what could be his final start in a “playoff” race, Johnson just sees an opportunity to drive his iconic Chevrolet again. That’s the way he wants it.
“We have a lot at stake and, again, it could be a great storybook ending for my last full-time race or race on an oval at Daytona. We all understand the storylines. I’m excited, I’m ready to go. I’m not one to spend too much time getting overly sentimental. I’m more excited about the opportunity to go racing and drive that 48 car. So, I’m just excited to get there and get to work.”
ESM’s NASCAR experts return to debate the hot topics heading into the final Cup Series regular season race at Daytona.
ESM’s panel of NASCAR experts is back to debate the sport’s hot topics as the Cup Series ends its regular season in spectacular fashion in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The Xfinity and Truck Series likewise inch their way toward the playoffs with respective events on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Sunday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, FS1).
Which do the four turns take the ESB this weekend? Read on for their predictions and thoughts…
Turn 1: For the first time in NASCAR history, Daytona will host a regular season finale, eschewing its traditional July 4th spot. Thoughts?
Geoff Magliocchetti: I was a bit wary of the prospect in the beginning. July 4th weekend at Daytona was a fun, midsummer tradition in the win of the MLB All-Star Game. It felt almost sacrilege to deny The World Center of Racing an American tradition. But, looking at the standings, it’s impossible to deny just how smart it was to give the unpredictable Daytona the final race of the regular season. Daytona desperation is a new kind of chaos, one that can create pulse-pounding moments in the grandstands and behind the wheel. It’s insanely poetic as it is that three drivers at the end of the playoff picture are separated by only nine points. But combine that with Daytona’s propensity to produce unexpected winners…remember Justin Haley last season?…and we could see an unexpected playoff man rise to the occasion. If you think drivers go all-out to win February’s Daytona 500…the first race of the season…just imagine what they’ll do to win a race that determines the NASCAR playoff bracket.
Dylan Price: I love the move. Daytona is always the most unpredictable track on the circuit. Yes, intense bubble racing is fun, but what about everyone remotely close to the bubble giving it their all for a win. Everyone has something to prove with the playoffs a week away. Who knows, we may even see a driver come out of nowhere to make the playoffs for the first time in their career.
Nathan Solomon: I think that having Daytona as the season finale is overall a good move. It gives anyone that isn’t already in the playoffs a chance to get in with a win and puts more pressure on drivers and spotters. It should also boost ratings since it’s, well, Daytona. On the other hand, someone could get lucky and win and take away a playoff spot from someone already in the hunt. But, the new playoff format has always favored wins, and a win gets you in.
Turn 2: Yet ANOTHER win for Kevin Harvick at Dover; where’s he going to rank in terms of the greatest drivers ever when all is said and done?
Geoff Magliocchetti: What Harvick has been doing since the return to the track is not a Hall of Fame case. That was probably happening long before this season began. Instead, it’s a case to be included in the top ten greatest drivers off all-time. One cannot effectively tell the story of American auto racing without Kevin Harvick. The start to his Cup career…replacing the late Dale Earnhardt…was enough pressure to live up to as it was. He had made a strong impact on both the Cup and the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series levels. But for him to go out and continue to not just run strong in, but straight up dominate, race in this new era of no practice or qualifying is nothing short of extraordinary. He’ll perhaps need another championship or two to truly warrant consideration for NASCAR’s “Mount Rushmore”, but the second could very well come this fall at Phoenix.
Dylan Price: Harvick has written a hell of a chapter in the book that is his career in 2020. With seven wins and still 11 races to go, Harvick is on pace to contend for the record books in terms of single-season wins in the modern era (since 1972). Not only that, but he and Denny Hamlin are the clear favorites for the championship.
Nathan Solomon: Harvick will no doubt be one of the best the sport has ever seen, and likely a unanimous first ballot hall-of-famer when it comes time. He seems to get better and better each year at Stewart-Haas. His seven wins are so impressive, and all have come after the coronavirus stoppage. This year is a big year for him, as another title would certainly cement his legacy. If he keeps racing for a long time, he may be one of the winningest drivers in history.
Turn 3: Three years, still no win for William Byron. What do you make of his Cup career thus far?
Geoff Magliocchetti: To call Byron a downright “bust” would be cruel. His Cup Series debut has been laden with expectations. The hype alone can derail otherwise promising careers and only exacerbate struggling careers…remember Casey “The Next Jeff Gordon” Atwood under Ray Evernham? Additionally, his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is not Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet, but rather the declining No. 5 that Kasey Kahne left behind with a fresh coat of (Axalta) paint. Thus, it’s not fully appropriate to get down on Byron, who has also been a constant victim of bad luck. But it’s fair to say he could be on some sort of hot seat next season (his fourth at the Cup level and third with Chad Knaus) if he doesn’t get a win. Such a finish at Daytona would certainly go a long way in soothing some concerns.
Dylan Price: To this point, William Byron has not even close to filling the shoes left behind by Jeff Gordon. Byron has yet to tap into his true potential and finds himself on the bubble of the playoffs this year. Rick Hendrick and Gordon supposedly both think very highly of Byron. With that said, on track production is needed and that means a win or at least consistent finishes. So, I’d say Byron is at a point where he’s underperforming and could find himself looking for a new ride if he doesn’t step up by the end of next season at the latest.
Nathan Soloman: William Byron needs to step it up a little bit in he wants to stay at Hendrick for a long time. That all starts this weekend if he can secure a birth into the playoffs. Has he had some bad luck? Yes, he absolutely has. But that’s no excuse since he’s in the same cars that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon had extreme success in. Byron could use a win at a track like Daytona and has won a Duel race there in the past. Could luck finally be on his side this weekend?
Turn 4: Which driver outside of the top 16 has the best chance to steal a playoff spot at Daytona?
Geoff Magliocchetti: The thing about this Daytona field is that there are so many talented drivers that can steal a playoff spot. Perhaps the most attractive underdog driver is one who has no chance at the playoffs…Ross Chastain is back in a Cup car, taking over the same No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Haley navigated to victory last July. Chastain, who is competing for Xfinity Series points, was running well in the same car during February’s Daytona 500, but a late crash took him out of contention. He has run two other races in the No. 77, finishing on the lead lap in the latter at Indianapolis. A strong run at Daytona would give him some well-deserved exposure and a chance to impress potential suitors for a new, better-equipped ride next season.
Dylan Price: I have a lot of guys I’d love to eye with this pick. I really would love to see an underdog come from out of nowhere and win. Especially a back of the pack guy like Corey Lajoie could use a career-defining win. Still, outside of the top 16, one guy sticks out to me: Erik Jones. Jones is now without a ride for next season and he’s racing like a man with nothing to lose, and that’s scary. Jones could win this race and likely lock down a top tier ride for next season, so I’ll go with him outside of the top 16.
Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson is outside the top 16, but could still easily make it in on points. However, I see either Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Ryan Newman stealing a win to get into the playoffs. Both are known to be pretty good plate racers, and now they have one final chance on the last day of the regular season. Plus, what an awesome story it would be for Newman to win his first plate race back at Daytona after his horrific crash in February.