Matt Kenseth notches first NASCAR win since 2016; Brad Keselowski advances to Cup championship
By Rick Minter
As the laps wound down in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway, the Monster Energy Cup playoff drama took a back seat to a heartwarming charge to victory by the soon-to-be-retired Matt Kenseth.
The 45-year-old veteran announced recently that he had no real driving opportunities after a career that has seen him win a Cup championship in 2003 and 39 Cup races, including Sunday’s triumph.
He entered the weekend already eliminated from the playoffs and riding a winless streak that stretched back to July of 2016, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. And he was down to two chances to end his career with a victory.
But he and his No. 20 team at Joe Gibbs Racing unloaded a fast car at Phoenix. He qualified seventh and took the lead for the first time on Lap 232 of 312. Playoff contender Chase Elliott, needing a win to advance to the championship round this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, surged ahead of Kenseth just after a restart and led for 19 laps before Kenseth retook the top spot and led the final 10 laps. Elliott, who finished second ahead of Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick, was among a host of drivers congratulating Kenseth after the race.
The winner was in tears as he was interviewed on TV.
“I don’t know what to say except, ‘Thank the Lord,’” Kenseth said. “It’s been an amazing journey, and I know I’m a big baby right now. Just have one race left, and everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today and nobody can take that away from us. …
“What a storybook ending. I wasn’t sure that I was ready for this and to move onto something next year, but honestly, God made the decision for me — he put me here for a reason and he’s taking me out for a reason.
“It’s been an incredible journey and there’s no way you could write it any better than this.”
For Elliott, who finished second for the seventh time in his Cup career, there was little to celebrate. He didn’t get the win he needed to make the championship round at Homestead, and he was involved in another incident with Denny Hamlin, who crashed him out of the lead at Martinsville two weeks prior to Phoenix.
Elliott was attempting to pass Hamlin late in the Phoenix race, and after an exchange of bumps, Elliott nudged Hamlin, who had led 193 laps, hard enough to send him into the outside wall and eventually out of the race.
“I raced [Hamlin] how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it,” Elliott said. “That’s about all I have to say.”
Hamlin said it was payback on Elliott’s part. “I got into [Elliott], and he chose to retaliate,” Hamlin said. “So I’m in the garage, and that’s the way it is.”
With Hamlin no longer a factor in the championship, Brad Keselowski, who entered the race with a 19-point edge over Hamlin for the fourth playoff spot, cruised to a 16th-place finish and a berth in the title round at Homestead.
Two other drivers in the Round of 8 also failed to advance. Ryan Blaney started on the pole but faded to 17th place, and Jimmie Johnson crashed early and finished 39th.
Three championship round berths had already been filled prior to Phoenix, as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick won spots via wins at Martinsville and Texas, respectively, and points leader Martin Truex Jr. had earned a spot with his comfortable points advantage.
Kyle Busch wins a wild day at Martinsville
By Rick Minter
NASCAR’s elimination-style playoff format was implemented to spice up the latter part of the season. The thinking was that the new rules would lead to drivers taking more chances and being more aggressive in pursuit of the coveted Monster Energy Cup championship.
But after a day of mayhem at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, one of the more aggressive drivers in the First Data 500 expressed regret at the move he made.
With three of the scheduled 500 laps remaining, playoff contenders Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott were battling for the win when Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville, wrecked Elliott to take the lead. Hamlin continued on, while Elliott dropped off the lead lap.
With one lap remaining, Hamlin lost the lead to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, whose victory assured him of being one of the four drivers who will compete for the Monster Energy Cup championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.
Points leader Martin Truex Jr. finished a close second to Busch, who led a race-high 184 laps en route to his fifth win of the season and his third in the seven playoff races run so far.
Clint Bowyer finished third, ahead of playoff drivers Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.
The race ended with a multi-car crash that littered the frontstretch with wrecked cars, but it was the incident between Elliott and Hamlin that had people buzzing after the race.
Elliott, who was poised to score his first-ever Cup victory after leading 123 laps, had the lead over Hamlin, who had overcome a penalty for speeding on pit road to take the second spot.
As the lead duo entered Turn Three, Hamlin rammed Elliott from behind, sending Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet slamming into the outside retaining wall.
Elliott dropped to 27th at the finish and fell to the bottom of the playoff standings. He’ll likely need a win this week at Texas Motor Speedway or next week at Phoenix Raceway to make the championship round at Homestead.
After the race, Elliott rammed Hamlin’s car into the wall on the cool-down lap, and the two exchanged words on the track. As that was transpiring, the crowd in the grandstands booed Hamlin, a fellow native of the Virginia commonwealth, and cheered Elliott.
Elliott said Hamlin simply wrecked him.
“I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn Three leading the race,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what [Hamlin’s] problem was. It was unnecessary. I hadn’t raced him dirty all day long. … It is so disappointing. We had the best car I’ve ever had here at Martinsville. And had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead, and because of him, we don’t.”
Hamlin, who wound up finishing seventh and dropped to seventh in the standings, initially said the contact with Elliott was just hard racing and something that is to be expected with a potential championship at stake.
Later, Hamlin had a change of heart and posted an apology on Twitter.
It read in part: “Today was the first time I’ve ever spun the leader. I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out, but I’m responsible for my own car and I take the blame. … I hate that I’m now in the discussion as a guilty party, but I’ll move on and hope Chase, his team and fans will accept my apology.”
There were numerous other bumps and bangs on Sunday, though others chose not to participate in the fender banging.
Among them was Truex, the runner-up, who said he had a chance to move Busch out of the way at the end but decided that wouldn’t be a fair move.
“I didn’t want to be the one to knock him out of the way for the win,” Truex said. “Maybe I should have, but I don’t know. Those guys kept knocking each other out of the way up there in the front. I’m not sure that’s the way to do it.”
Keselowski survives mayhem at Talladega
By Rick Minter
The grandstands were packed at Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s Alabama 500, as fans came to witness Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race on a very special track for him and his family. Those fans left happy, having witnessed a strong run by Earnhardt, a trio of points-scrambling multi-car crashes, miscues by some of the sport’s most talented drivers and a strong comeback to victory by one of Earnhardt’s protegees, Brad Keselowski.
Earnhardt, who has struggled to be competitive for most of his final season, started from the pole and contended for the win all the way until the final lap before finishing seventh.
Martin Truex Jr., who has dominated the Cup Series this season, was never really a contender for victory and made a rare driving mistake, triggering a 16-car pileup that saw him and six other playoff drivers receive considerable damage.
Keselowski, who got his big career break when Earnhardt hired him to race in the Xfinity Series — and who carried a “#Cheers2DaleJr.” message on his car on Sunday — came away with the victory after seeming to be out of contention following a pit stop to repair the radio in his No. 2 Ford that left him in 30th place with a little more than 30 laps to run.
Truex, who is assured of advancing to the Round of Eight due to his win the week before at Charlotte, came to Talladega with no pressure and hoped to add another win to his total for the season.
But he was just a mid-pack driver before the 16-car crash that ended his day.
“We definitively had nothing to lose today, but at the same time, you don’t want to be the person who causes others problems,” he said. “I wish I didn’t make that mistake.”
Keselowski, who now has five victories at Talladega, said the key to success on restrictor-plate tracks is taking advantage of the breaks one gets.
“You’d love to be able to pat yourself on the back and say it’s all skill, but there is some luck that’s involved in this,” he said, adding that drivers often have more bad luck than good in plate races.
“You know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck or something like that happens. But the races where you have the good fortune, where you don’t get caught up in a wreck or you don’t have something break or any of those things, you have to take those races, run up front and win them. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
By avoiding crashes, Keselowski was able to overcome the setback due to his radio change and was leading when the 14 drivers still running took the green flag for the final time.
Ryan Newman passed Keselowski and led until the final lap, when Keselowski surged ahead to take the win by a margin of a few feet.
Newman, who finished second over Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, said his No. 31 Chevrolet wasn’t much of a match for the Team Penske duo of Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford and Logano’s No. 22
“I kept my foot in it and did what I thought was right,” Newman said. “I basically got double-teamed and the 2 and the 22 got a good run past me. …
“Not the end result that we wanted, but a good performance
Martin Truex Jr. continues his red-hot season
By Rick Minter
On several occasions this season — and in recent years as well — Martin Truex Jr. has seen other drivers surge forward in the latter stages and win races he’d dominated.
But on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was a slow-starting Truex who motored to the front and led the final 57 laps to get his sixth win of the season and one that guarantees him a berth in the playoff’s Round of Eight, which begins after two more races — first at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday and at Kansas Speedway the following week.
Truex qualified an uncharacteristically poor 17th and was unable to break into the top 10 in the first 90-lap stage. He did finish fourth in the second stage, earning seven points, as Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 149 laps, won both stages.
Truex took the lead for the first time on Lap 234 of 377, then took the lead for good from Harvick just after one of several restarts.
Truex survived two late restarts, including the final one, which was an overtime run to the checkered flag, to secure his 13th career Cup victory.
Chase Elliott finished second, an increasingly familiar scenario for him, with Harvick third, followed by polesitter Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray.
Truex said in his winner’s interview that if he’d had the same good fortune elsewhere that he had at Charlotte, his season win total would be much higher.
“I think, honestly, we could be sitting with 10, 10 or so, and that’s a realistic number,” he said. “This is racing. A lot of times things aren’t going to go your way. That’s just the way it works.”
He added that he’s plenty happy with the six wins he does have.
“Just an amazing year, and thankful for everyone, and honestly we don’t really think about the ones that got away, we just figure out how to not let it happen again,” he said. “We’ve lost enough that we’ve learned enough from them, I think, and hopefully that makes us better going forward.”
Truex became emotional in Victory Lane when he talked about his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who missed the race due to health concerns related to a chemotherapy treatment the Monday before.
“She probably could have come, but it was a little bit of the weather, and mostly that it’s kind of risky for her to be around too many people right now after having chemo Monday,” he said. “Germs and something as simple as a cold could put her in the hospital. It’s not worth the risk.”
Truex said that between his earlier career setbacks and Pollex’s battle with ovarian cancer, he’s learned to take the ups and downs of the sport in stride.
“You never know what can happen next week,” he said. “You could win 10 races in a row and then all of a sudden you can’t do anything right.”
Thinking about that in Victory Lane led to the tears, he said.
“There’s just so many things that you’re thinking about and so much emotion and so much you’re thankful for, because this stuff is so hard, and you never know if you’ll get another chance to do it,” he said.
Martin Truex Jr. turns in strong performance to open NASCAR Playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway
By Rick Minter
Martin Truex Jr., whose No. 78 Toyota has been the fastest car at any number of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races in the regular season, showed on Sunday in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway that he and his team are prepared to continue that dominance through the 10-race run to the championship.
Truex started the Tales of the Turtles 400 from the third position, but was nabbed for speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit stop at Lap 39. Compounding his early misery, he had to make a second, unscheduled stop due to loose lug nuts.
But with the speed of his car, overcoming the early setback was relatively easy.
He finished 10th in the opening 80-lap stage, and then third in the second 80-lapper. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 190 of 267 and led all but one lap of the remainder of the race, finishing 7.197 seconds ahead of runner-up Chase Elliott. Kevin Harvick finished third, ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.
Ten of the first 11 finishing positions were taken by playoff drivers, but four finished two or more laps behind the leaders. Pole-sitter Kyle Busch finished a lap down due to mistakes on pit road after he won Stage One and led a race-high 85 laps.
Truex said in his winner’s interview that as the laps wound down, he wasn’t thinking about his bad luck of the past two weekends, when he dominated at both Richmond and Darlington only to see likely wins slip away in the closing laps.
“Last week was last week,” he said. “We got over it by Monday or Tuesday, focused on Chicago.
“Just trying to move forward and look forward each and every week and race one race at a time.
“We knew that this week was a big one. We wanted to come here and just run like we knew we could, not do anything out of the ordinary, most importantly not let the pressure dictate how we raced or what we did.
“I think we did that.”
Truex said that while he’s set to advance to the next playoff round thanks to the Chicago win that automatically assures a berth in the next round, he’s going to continue to push as hard as he can, just like he did last year after winning the playoff opener. Last season, he finished seventh at New Hampshire and won again at Dover.
“I honestly don’t think we change,” he said.
And with this year’s rules, it’s always helpful to bank some bonus points, if possible, although he now has 58, more than any other driver.
Truex said those points are especially important going into a race at a track like Talladega Superspeedway, where a multi-car wreck or other setback could derail a championship run.
Last year at Talladega, Truex entered the weekend on a roll from his previous playoff successes. He started on the pole but blew an engine after 41 laps and finished 40th, putting his title hopes on the ropes.
One bad race shouldn’t be an issue for Truex this year due to his stash of bonus points.
For the rest of the playoff field, it’s a matter of making their equipment faster in hopes of chasing down Truex and his speedy No. 78.
“Obviously have some work to do to get to that bunch that won the race,” Chicago runner-up Chase Elliott said, adding that his No. 24 showed better speed than it has in recent weeks. “Aside from them, I think we were competitive to the rest of the field
Second clean sweep weekend for Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch dominated the NASCAR weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, sweeping all three major races for the second time in his career.
Busch, who also swept at Bristol in 2010, is the only driver in NASCAR history to do that even once, at any track.
His weekend of domination began Wednesday night, when he won the Camping World Truck Series race, leading 109 of 203 laps despite a penalty for speeding on pit road.
On Friday night, he led 186 of 300 laps, once again coming back from a speeding penalty to take the lead from Daniel Saurez with 81 laps to go. Suarez finished second ahead of Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon and Justin Allgaier.
On Saturday night in the 500-lap Night Race for the Monster Energy Cup Series, Busch led 156 laps, including the final 56, to get the win over a surprisingly fast rookie, Erik Jones, who started from the pole and led 250 laps before finishing second ahead of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
Busch now has 40 Cup wins, 91 in Xfinity and 49 in trucks, for a total of 180. He has 20 of those victories at Bristol, where he has won six in Cup, nine in Xfinity and five in trucks.
Kyle Larson, who led 70 laps before fading to ninth at Bristol, tweeted after the race about Busch, writing: “Love him or hate him I feel he is the most all around talented driver I will ever witness in my lifetime.”
In his winner’s interview, Busch was informed of Larson’s comments.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I appreciate that. It’s definitely an honor, a humbling statement.
“Larson is obviously arguably one of the most talented guys, as well, too, to hit our sport in a long, long time. People will continue to say that about him as well.”
While Busch dominated Saturday night’s race at the end, the outcome was far from certain most of the way.
“Those guys that were up there running in the front like Larson and Kenseth and Erik Jones especially, they kept us honest, made sure we had to go out there and get it done, achieve it,” Busch said. “I was driving for everything I had there the last 80, 60 laps, whatever it was, giving it everything I had.”
Not everyone at Bristol was with Larson in congratulating Busch. There were a fair number of boos from the grandstands. Busch pointed out that it’s nothing new for him.
“When I was at my local short track, I won 10 out of 15 races one year in my Late Model,” he said. “Driver intros were not always very pretty. So the locals at my local short track didn’t like me because I won too much.”
When he joined the Xfinity Series in 2003, the boo birds followed, even at his first race.
“I went through driver intros and I got booed,” he said. “I was like: ‘Why? What? I haven’t been here yet, give me a chance.’”
He blamed some of that on his brother Kurt, who was not among the sport’s most popular when he came along.
“My brother ruined that for me,” Busch said with a laugh. “I started out at a deficit already.
“There’s definitely positive, but there’s definitely still going to be those that want to be loud.”
Busch also offered praise for Jones, who he discovered racing his Late Model several years ago.
“I love Erik Jones,” he said. “He’s a phenomenal talent and a great race car driver.
“We knew that a long time ago. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing I found him or a bad thing I found him because one of these days, I’m going to lose to him and I’m not going to be thrilled, but I’m still going to congratulate him. I thought today was actually going to be that day.
“But he was awesome to race with. For as fast as we were, being up front, for as much as he wanted to win, I wanted to win, we gave each other room. We never touched each other. It was always smooth, clean, great. I really appreciated that from him.”
Jones said he was impressed with Busch’s sweep.
“It’s a great feat,” he said. “Obviously he puts himself in the situation to win a lot of those races. He still goes out and executes. It’s not easy to do.
“It’s every week, you know. People rag on him for the truck and Xfinity stuff, but he does a great job on the Cup side, too.
“Obviously he’s had a ton of speed all year long. He probably should have had way more than two wins this year. He’s really on it. He’s got it going on. He’s got it figured out.
“It’s hard to keep up with him at times.”
Denny Hamlin’s return to Victory Lane ends drought for JGR
By Rick Minter
A season-long losing streak for Joe Gibbs Racing finally came to an end on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as Denny Hamlin took the lead from teammate Matt Kenseth with 34 laps remaining and sped away from Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. to win the Overton’s 301.
It was Hamlin’s first win in NASCAR’s elite Monster Energy Cup Series since last September at Richmond and JGR’s first since Carl Edwards won at Texas last November.
Hamlin said Sunday’s win came on a day in which his No. 11 Toyota wasn’t as fast as the No. 78 Toyota of Truex or the No. 42 Chevrolet driven by Larson. Hamlin was in a backup car Sunday after crashing his primary in practice on Friday, but there were no such errors on Sunday.
“We executed nicely, made no mistakes and capitalized when other guys faltered a little bit, and just [did] everything right to win the race,” Hamlin said in his winner’s interview.
Hamlin now has 30 career Cup wins, three of them at New Hampshire. He said his latest win came after a surge in performance in recent weeks. He finished fourth in three of the four races leading into New Hampshire.
“We’ve been treating every week as if it’s a playoff race and giving it all we’ve got,” he said. “We’ve been steadily getting better as the summer has gone on, and we need to continue to stay on that trend of getting better.”
Hamlin said the victory is a big relief because it all but assures him of one of the 16 playoff berths. But there’s also more speed to be found before the final 10 races that will decide the championship.
“I’m not going to think that [Sunday’s win] fixed everything,” he said. “I still think that we have some work to do to be guys that contend for a win every single week.
“We’re getting there. We really, really are getting there. But we still have some work to do.
“Today was just a bonus. We got some bonus points. It was a good points day overall, and we got another victory. All good things, but really when it comes to Monday, we’ll go to work on our next race track.”
Overall, it was a good day for the Gibbs team. Matt Kenseth, who is leaving the team’s No. 20 at season’s end, finished fourth, despite getting just two fresh tires on his final pit stop while most of his challengers got four.
Rookie Daniel Suarez finished sixth, and Kyle Busch appeared to have a car capable of winning, but after leading 95 laps he was nabbed twice for speeding on pit road and finished 12th.
Team owner Joe Gibbs said he was proud of his entire organization for turning its fortunes around.
“We got off to a slow start this year, and I think the thing I’d like to say most about our entire group there, nobody ever would point fingers or anything,” he said. “Everybody would just say: ‘We’ve got to go to work.’
“I think our guys back home working on the cars took it the same way, and I think everybody has been working extremely hard, and I’m hoping what’s happening now is we’re starting to hit our stride and get better and better down the stretch.
“That would be a big deal for us.”
Larson, the runner-up, had a strong performance after having to start the race from the rear of the pack. He was the fastest qualifier on Friday, but his time was disallowed for an unapproved modification to the rear spoiler on his car.
It was his seventh second-place finish of the season and the second time in a row that he finished second after starting in the rear.
Larson said the intense focus on his car by series officials is a sign that his car is a fast one.
“It means everybody is paying attention to us,” he said. “This is my fourth year, and I’ve never been in the position to where NASCAR and other teams are paying so much attention to our race car.
“That’s a compliment to everybody at our race shop.”
Martin Truex Jr. & Co. hold Cup racing clinic at Kentucky Speedway
By Rick Minter
As their dominating win at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night showed, driver Martin Truex Jr., crew chief Cole Pearn and the entire No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team are finding success in ways that few folks in NASCAR thought possible.
The team is based in Denver, Colorado, far from the NASCAR mecca just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.
For years, the conventional thinking was that a team couldn’t be a top-tier organization unless it was located in the Charlotte area.
Before then, organizations like the Wood Brothers, from Stuart, Virginia, and the Elliott Brothers from Dawsonville, Georgia, dominated racing with teams based in their respective hometowns. But eventually, both moved to Charlotte to be nearer a good supply of mechanical talent and racing technology.
Furniture Row owner Barney Visser decided to go back to the original Wood/Elliott model and keep his team near his hometown.
So far, it’s working, despite the obvious problems caused by geography — like the long road trips required by the team hauler and the quick turnarounds needed to prepare cars for upcoming races.
Pearn said there are obstacles to be overcome, but there also are opportunities to capitalize on the situation.
“It’s difficult at times,” he said in the winner’s interview at Kentucky. “I feel like a lot of times we’re hanging on by a thread, but it’s just the way it is.
“We’ve got a group out there … we’ve been together for a while, and we’ve been through the lows and we’ve sucked, and we’ve had those moments where it’s tested all of us.
“But when you stick together and you’re all out there, you’re not worrying about somebody running down the street to go to a different place for a better deal. It just breeds a lot of chemistry. It breeds family, actually. … “When you get everybody committed and a group of people like that committed to the same goal, it’s a unique opportunity for sure.”
The biggest challenge, crew chief Pearn said, is getting cars to the tracks on time, since their trip is often several days longer than for most teams in Charlotte.
“Our Mondays and Tuesdays are pretty much ‘hair on fire’ most weeks,” he said. “So it’s amazing sometimes, I feel like, [that] we make it to the race track, but when we do, we’re generally good.”
Then there’s the blossoming of Truex, who appeared to be out of good career options at his previous team, Michael Waltrip Racing, when he lost his sponsor at the end of the 2013 season.
It’s been a big turnaround for Truex, as the driver himself acknowledged.
“Five years ago, I thought my career was over,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome bunch of people around me from top to bottom, and honestly, this team I’m with now, it was my only option at one point, and I thought: ‘Oh, man, we’ll see what we can do with it,’ and here we are.”
Saturday’s win, Truex’s third of the season and 10th of his career, came on a night in which he had the dominant car, winning the first two stages and surviving a late-race restart with far older tires than his challengers.
Truex led a race-high 152 laps and was ahead by a 15-second margin, just half a lap away from the white flag, when Kurt Busch’s blown rear gear set up an overtime finish.
Truex stayed on the track and kept the lead despite having more than 50 laps on his tires. His challengers, including Kyle Busch, teammate Erik Jones and Kyle Larson stopped for fresh rubber. But on the restart, Truex used a bump by Larson to take the lead and sped away. He was comfortably ahead when another caution ended the race at that point.
“I was surprised that once we got clear down into Turn One that I could actually pull away from those guys,” Truex said. “I thought I was going to have my hands full trying to hold them off, even if we did get to Turn One with the lead, but fortunately we were able to hold them off, so that was pretty awesome.”
Larson took the runner-up spot over Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. comes out on top at Daytona
By Rick Minter
There have been lots of NASCAR drivers who have gotten a single win at Talladega Superspeedway and never won again. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won’t be in that group as he backed up his May victory at Talladega with another in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Stenhouse, who drives the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, in a race that saw a record 14 caution periods that eliminated many of the early favorites, including pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Stenhouse started sixth and took the lead for good on the backstretch during an overtime run to the finish, drafting past race leader David Ragan and motoring away unchallenged to the checkered flag.
Clint Bowyer finished second for the second straight week ahead of Paul Menard and Michael McDowell, who scored the first top-five finish of his Cup career.
Stenhouse, 29, is emerging as one of the better racers at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks where engines are restricted to slow speeds and where races are won by aggressive driving in large packs of cars. Of the 11 top-five finishes in his Cup career, five have come at these two tracks.
Runner-up Bowyer agreed in the post-race interviews at Daytona that Stenhouse has become a good restrictor-plate racer and has a fast car.
“Let’s face it, you get down to the end of that thing and look who the fastest car was,” Bowyer said, pointing out that Stenhouse qualified sixth at Daytona and was still running at the end after other faster cars had dropped out. “He’s the fastest car right then. He did a good job getting it to the front, and she set sail.
“He does a good job of blocking. He’s learned a lot. He’s become a good plate racer.”
Stenhouse was driving a new car, one that was built after he kept his Talladega car for posterity’s sake. The new one was just as fast, or faster, than the Talladega winner.
“All race I felt like I was really having to lift a lot [off the throttle] to keep from running over the cars in front of us,” Stenhouse said. “So I felt really strong about our car.”
For a time in the final laps, it looked as if David Ragan, driving the underdog No. 38 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, might pull off an upset. He led the field to the start of overtime, but when he moved high on the backstretch to block Ty Dillon, he left the bottom lane open for Stenhouse, who pounced in a hurry.
“David [Ragan] just didn’t get down quick enough,” Stenhouse said. “Looks are deceiving. When you’re looking in your mirror, you can really see the cars on the outside really good and it’s tough to see the cars on the inside.
“We just got a run at the right time, and he moved up at the perfect time for us to get to the inside and keep the lead from there.”
Stenhouse said he was surprised his car was as fast as it was given the fact that he’d made significant contact with the No. 42 of Kyle Larson as Larson sailed into the air during an earlier crash on the frontstretch.
“I think we got some rubber on the front bumper from his tires spinning,” Stenhouse said of the incident with Larson. “Everything just worked out just right for us right there.”
Kyle Larson puts it all together in FireKeepers Casino 400
By Rick Minter
After six second-place finishes and one win this season, some in the sport questioned whether Kyle Larson was racing as aggressively as he needed to be to realize his full potential.
On Sunday in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Larson surged forward at the end, taking the lead from Kyle Busch on a restart with 15 laps remaining, then held off all comers to get his second win of the season, his second in a row at Michigan and his third in a row when it comes to 2-mile tracks. His earlier win this season was at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Larson won Sunday’s race in a manner that seems to suit his personality. He didn’t rough up anyone; he simply outdrove them in the same manner that Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and other Hall of Famers did back in the day.
Larson’s emergence as both the Series points leader and a strong contender for the championship has come at a time when the NASCAR world is trying to figure out which young drivers will rise up to replace the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the recently retired Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Larson said that while some might say NASCAR as a whole is in a tough spot with its marquee drivers fading away, he sees the changing of the guard in a different light.
“I keep saying that NASCAR is in a great, great spot,” Larson, 24, said in the winner’s interview at Michigan. “Even with Dale Jr. retiring this year, I think it’s a huge opportunity for our sport.
“Dale Jr. has probably three-quarters of our fan base. You might lose a few thousand of his fans that might disappear. The rest of them are going to pick new drivers. I think new rivalries are going to be built. It’s going to bring some excitement back to the race track.”
Already this season, newcomers Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon have won races, and Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones are in top-notch equipment and poised to win as well. And there are others like Joey Logano, who has been around the Cup circuit for 10 years and won 18 races, but is still just 27 years old.
“I’m happy that I seem to be head of that youth movement right now,” Larson said. “So many drivers in great equipment right now that are running up front. It’s just a great time for NASCAR. I think everybody is kind of nervous about where it’s going to be, but I think a lot of us, our fan bases are going to grow as well as NASCAR’s fan base.”
Larson, who started from the pole at Michigan and led the most laps with 96, still didn’t appear to have the winning combination until the final laps.
“The 78 [Martin Truex Jr.] was by far the class of the field, I thought,” Larson said. “I know I led a lot of laps. Seemed like whenever he wanted to get the lead, he hit a nitro button and would cruise up to the lead, then check out. He was the class of the field. … I thought we were probably a third- or fourth-place car. To come out a winner, it makes it that much more exciting.”
Chase Elliott finished second for the third straight time in Cup races at Michigan. He was followed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray.
Elliott, who is fifth in the points standings on the strength of five top-five and nine top-10 finishes this year, said he felt like his No. 24 was faster than he thought it would be prior to Sunday’s 400-miler.
“The way we struggled Friday and Saturday [in practice], felt like we overachieved from what we thought we were going to have coming into the race,” he said, adding that the pit crew of his No. 24 Chevy did an excellent job. “I can’t express how nice that was to come in and gain two or three spots. It was unreal. Hope we can keep some of that moving forward.”
Elliott said his car just wasn’t handling quite well enough to beat Larson, who used the advantageous outside lane to bolt forward on a couple of late restarts to put himself in position to win.
“I tried to keep [Larson] behind me,” Elliott said. “Our car kind of fired off a little bit snug, just had to wait a little while to get freed up.
“He took advantage of that and went on to win. Happy for him. Had a fast car, did a good job, executed his race well.”
Austin Dillon drives the No. 3 to victory in Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte
By Rick Minter
A successful fuel-mileage gamble by Austin Dillon’s team propelled him to victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and put the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet in Victory Lane in NASCAR’s elite series for the first time since Oct. 15, 2000, at Talladega Superspeedway, when the late Dale Earnhardt scored his 76th and final victory.
Dillon, the 27-year-old grandson of team owner Richard Childress, is in his fourth full season in the Cup circuit. Childress, who also owned the No. 3 when it was driven by Earnhardt — and earlier when he drove it himself — did not use that number from the time Earnhardt died until his grandson joined the Cup circuit.
“I’m so proud,” Childress said in the winners’ interview. “Having my grandson [winning in the 3] just made it that much more special. I know Dale is up there smiling down because he would want this win. He’d want to see it with Austin.”
Childress maintained for years that it would have to be a special situation to return the No. 3 to the track. His grandson chose that number when he first started racing Legends cars and has used it throughout his climb up the NASCAR ladder.
Sunday night’s win was the culmination of a long journey for Childress and Dillon.
“Can you believe this, the Coke 600, Austin Dillon, the 3?” Childress said. “When I looked up and saw the 3 on top of the board, I was standing there doing an interview, that’s when I got emotional. It’s so special to see that 3 in winner’s circle again.”
Dillon said he was glad to be able to build on what his grandfather and Earnhardt had done.
“To be able to deliver a number that is legendary and has stats that are untouchable, just to add to those numbers … that [Childress] and his best friend were able to create, it’s very special,” Dillon said. “And to all those fans that have supported it, too, ’cause there’s always haters out there. There’s a lot of support, too.
“There’s a great support system. To deliver this to them, the people that are proud to see that No. 3 out on the track, it feels amazing.”
For much of Sunday’s 600-miler, which was interrupted for an hour and a half because of rain, Dillon and the rest of the field were chasing the No. 78 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr., who led a race-high 233 laps. But as the laps wound down, and the race ran without a caution flag, several teams elected to stay on the track and attempt to stretch their fuel to the finish, while Truex and most of the leaders stopped for fuel and tires.
While Truex and Kyle Busch were charging through the pack in a hurry, Dillon and race leader Jimmie Johnson were running slower, and saving fuel.
Johnson led until Lap 398 of 400, but ran dry, opening the door for Dillon to take the lead. Behind them, Busch passed Truex to take second place, but wound up .835 seconds behind Dillon at the finish. Truex finished third ahead of Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
Truex has led 756 laps in the past three Coke 600s, but won just one — last year’s race.
“That’s two out of the last three years that we lost this race on fuel mileage,” he said. “Same thing two years ago. But we got the win last year.”
He acknowledged that he didn’t have the speed he needed at the end of this year’s race.
“We just missed it a little bit tonight on our last adjustment,” Truex said. “I think if not for that, we probably could have gotten [Dillon]. And then lapped traffic is just so tough here. There are a few guys out there that you don’t ever know where they’re going to be when you get to the corner and it cost you so much time trying to pass them. Ultimately, that’s what got us.”
Dillon’s fuel strategy was devised by his crew chief, Justin Alexander, who took over the crew chief job the week before the 600. He said the fuel strategy wasn’t that much of a gamble.
“We had a good car all race,” he said. “We ran top 10 all race. Austin did a heck of a job, the whole team did.
We were right there in position on that last stop when the caution came out. We were two or three laps short, just right in that window where you have the option to stretch it, but there’s a risk with that. You give up a little track position early on trying to stretch it on fuel.
“We got good fuel mileage all day. It really didn’t make much sense to do anything but that. He didn’t really have to back off that much. We didn’t give up that many spots on the race track doing it. I think we were around 10th when we started saving.”
Martin Truex Jr. closes out Go Bowling 400 win at Kansas Speedway
By Rick Minter
For the past several seasons, Martin Truex Jr. appeared to have a jinx on him when it came to the spring race at Kansas Speedway.
But on Saturday night in the Go Bowling 400, Truex made all the right moves and came away with his first-ever win at Kansas, his second victory of the season and the ninth of his career.
Truex led 104 laps, including the final 19, to get the win over Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.
That reversal of fortune came after last season, when he started on the pole and led 172 laps before a broken bolt hung between the wheel and hub during a pit stop and dropped him out of contention.
The year before that, he was poised to win until a late caution flag foiled his run. When he stayed on the track, his challengers, including eventual winner Jimmie Johnson, stopped for fresh rubber and drove away from him on the restart. In 2012, he led 173 laps before finishing second to Denny Hamlin.
This year, he motored away from Blaney on a restart with 19 laps to go, then prevailed on four more restarts to take the victory.
Truex said in his winner’s interview that the earlier failures made this win seem much sweeter.
“It does, I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “As a racer, you don’t forget. You don’t forget those days that one got away or you screwed up and gave one away or anything like that. You never forget those things.
“Definitely last year was probably the biggest heartbreaker to have the craziest thing happen that you could ever imagine — an eight-second lead just gone.”
This time it was young Blaney — in position to claim his first Cup victory on the same weekend he won his first pole — who didn’t have enough speed at the end to take the win.
“[Saturday night] we did everything right,” Truex said. “When the pressure was on, when the money was on the line, we made the right moves, and everything worked out.”
Keselowski came back from two laps down to take the runner-up spot. He had to pit under the green flag to have a loose wheel replaced and was also penalized on that stop for driving through too many pit stalls.
He said he never really got a chance to show the speed of his No. 2 Ford.
“Every time we started to pass cars and cycle up to the front, we had some kind of issue, which was a real bummer to not be able to showcase the strength that we had,” he said. “Toward the end, we were able to get some runs and make the most of it. …
“If it would have just played out normal, I think we might have had a shot at [Truex].”
Third-finishing Harvick also had to overcome a mid-race setback. He made a pit stop at Lap 135 under green due to a vibration and lost a lap.
“We came back through the field,” he said. “It just didn’t line up for us there at the end.”
Early success has rocketed Erik Jones’ career into the fast lane
By Rick Minter
Whenever the subject of future NASCAR stars comes up, Erik Jones’ name is one that is frequently mentioned, along with Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
Jones, who will turn 21 on May 30, first came to the attention of the NASCAR world thanks to Kyle Busch, who lost the 2012 Snowball Derby to a then-16-year-old Jones. Busch then helped Jones get hooked up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. (The Derby, run at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, each December, is considered the most prestigious asphalt short-track race in America.)
Jones responded by winning seven races and the 2015 title in the Camping World Truck Series — and seven more races in the Xfinity Series, including one at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. This fast start to his career earned him a ride in the Cup Series in a second car fielded by Furniture Row Racing, the Denver-based Toyota team that has an alliance with Gibbs.
Seven races into his rookie Cup team, Jones, who drives the No. 77 Toyota Camry, has one top-10 finish and is 14th in the standings. His teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, three other top-10s and sits third in the standings.
So far, the Furniture Row team appears to be sailing along, even as the four drivers from the parent team, Joe Gibbs Racing, are winless for the season. Kyle Busch, in seventh place, is the only Gibbs driver in the top 10 in the points standings. The other three drivers are all behind Jones in the standings, with Denny Hamlin in 15th, Matt Kenseth at 22nd and Daniel Suarez at 23rd.
While most Cup Series drivers enjoyed the week off prior to Easter, Jones and four others — Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Alex Bowman and Joey Logano — were testing at Daytona International Speedway.
While in Daytona, Jones spoke with reporters about his season to date, saying he’s learning a lot and is pretty pleased with the speed his team has shown.
“I would say, performance-wise, other than last week at Texas [he finished 22nd], I’ve been really happy with where we’ve run,” Jones said. “We’ve run consistently in the top 10 at Phoenix, Fontana, Atlanta, but we just didn’t get the finishes we deserved.
“I think at Fontana and Phoenix we really had top-five cars, but things just didn’t play out at the end. Either way I look at it, we’ve done as good a job as we can, and we brought fast race cars to the track. We’re just learning more about how to execute, how to close these races out, and how to get the finishes we feel like we are capable of.”
Jones said being fast hasn’t been a problem for him and rookie crew chief, Chris Gayle. The challenge, he said, is in putting together a complete race without making rookie mistakes along the way.
“Driving the cars and getting the speed out of the cars hasn’t been too big of a deal,” he said. “It’s been more of a matter of everything else: the execution of getting on and off pit road, pit stops, strategy, everything that plays into these races.
“We’re learning more about that as a team. … We have a lot of guys on the team that are first-year Cup guys, so we’re all learning together and trying to figure it out more and more as we go.”
Jones said he’s looking forward to several of the upcoming races on the schedule, including this weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee.
“Bristol is a track I feel pretty good about, as well as when we get to Charlotte next month,” he said. “There are a lot of tracks I really enjoy. Dover is one I really enjoy going to, and it’s coming up here next month, as well.
“There are a few tracks I have marked off that we’ve always been fast in the Xfinity Series, and tracks I’ve always felt pretty comfortable on.”
Jones said that despite the fact that he, Elliott and Blaney are often mentioned together as young guns of the sport, he really hasn’t communicated much with either of them, both of whom are now in their sophomore years in NASCAR’s elite divisions.
“I have to be honest with you, I don’t hang out with the other drivers too much,” he said. “I kind of do my own thing. I show up at the race track to do my job, and that’s kind of always how it’s been.
“I’ve always lived by the mentality that you bring your friends to the race track with you.”