Kyle Busch dominates Coca-Cola 600 and captures first Cup Series win at Charlotte
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch checked another box on his career goals list on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as his runaway victory in the Coca-Cola 600 was his first in the Monster Energy Cup Series at that track.
It also made Busch the first driver in NASCAR history to win a Cup race at every track in which he competed, although that record will only be good for about three months. That’s because the fall race at Charlotte will be run on the combination road course/oval track, or the Roval, and NASCAR’s records will consider that a separate track.
Still, Busch, at the relatively young age of 33, continues to set career records at an amazing clip.
He already owns the record for most wins in the Xfinity Series with 91, and he’s one win shy of tying the retired Ron Hornaday Jr. for most victories in the Camping World Truck Series. Busch now has 50 truck wins, giving him 188 victories across NASCAR’s top three series, including 47 in the Cup series.
Sunday’s win was one of total domination. He started on the pole, won all three of the preliminary stages and led 377 of the race’s 400 laps to get his fourth Cup win of the season.
“It’s just something cool to be able to accomplish something that I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid,” Busch said in his winner’s interview. “I remember being 8, 9, 10 years old and wanting to win races at Charlotte, wanting to win the Coke 600, wanting to win the All-Star Race and just remembering watching those races under the lights and dreaming of one day going to Victory Lane, and now finally it’s here.
“It’s taken so long, but it feels so good in the same breath. Just going to cherish the next 100 days and we’ll be back here at Charlotte again trying to go for another win at a different venue.”
Busch said his primary worry in the final laps was that something unexpected would happen and spoil his night.
“When you’re running down those last 40 laps or whatever, it’s just, ‘What’s going to happen, what’s going to go wrong?’” he said. “You’re basically hoping that none of the other cars hit the wall or nobody spins out or nothing stupid happens in order to cause a caution because you have a decent-sized lead.”
Busch said that as runner-up Martin Truex Jr. closed the gap on him for a time, he simply tried to manage his lead to be sure he kept his car in good shape to take the victory.
“I knew I was kind of giving up a little bit of lap time and Martin was kind of closing on us a little bit there when we were getting through traffic,” he said. “But when you have a lead like that, you’ve got to take care of your car. You’ve got to take care of the situations you put yourself in, and so that’s what we were doing there.
“Our car was phenomenal all night long. We just didn’t want to force any issues there with it late in the going, and if there was anything that kind of would cause a late dash for cash, if you will, that we were ready to go for it.”
Kevin Harvick, one of Busch’s primary challengers at Charlotte and at other tracks this season, was fast in the early going, quickly driving from the rear of the pack to fourth place. But he had a flat left-front tire on Lap 83, slammed into the outside wall and scored a very rare last-place finish.
“I can’t complain about anything that’s happened this year,” said Harvick, who was going for his sixth points-paying win of the season and his fourth straight, counting the non-points All-Star race. “We have to take the good with the bad. The guys did a great job in basically guessing at where the car needed to be today with all the penalties, no practice and starting in the back.
“To come out and have the fastest car again was quite an honor to drive and they’re doing a great job. It was just bad luck.”
Harvick did not run a lap in qualifying because his car did not pass a pre-qualifying inspection.
Truex, who finished 3.8 seconds behind Busch to claim the runner-up spot over Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, said he just wasn’t fast enough to outrun Busch.
“I don’t know if that’s [Busch] taking care of his tires because he had such a big lead, because at the end of the long runs he was faster,” said Truex, who had to overcome two pit-road penalties that sent him to the rear of the pack during the race. “At the end of the day, we ran second. He kicked everybody’s tail. That’s just the way it goes. That’s how it is.”
Kevin Harvick takes advantage of late-race opportunities at Kansas Speedway
By Rick Minter
Two members of the Monster Energy Cup Series youth movement had good chances to win Saturday’s KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway. But in the end, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson were involved in a late-race incident and it was veteran Kevin Harvick who drove past another veteran, Martin Truex Jr., in a race-ending, 10-lap run to the finish to score his fifth win in the 12 races run so far this season.
Harvick started from the pole and finished second to Blaney in the first stage, and was second to Larson in the second stage. He led a total of 79 laps, but didn’t take the lead for good until surging past Truex as the pair raced to the white flag.
Harvick said that of his five wins this season, this one was especially satisfying because he was able to pass Larson, who appeared to have the fastest car all night, then overtake Truex for the win.
“I haven’t been that excited to win a race all year,” Harvick said of his run from sixth place to first in the final 10 laps. “Those are the moments that you live for right there, those late-lap winning passes and coming from behind and winning on a day when you don’t feel like you had the fastest car. That makes it a lot of fun.”
Harvick said the key to overtaking Truex, who won both races at Kansas last year, was a decision to try the high groove.
“[Truex] was getting smaller [out the windshield], and I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something different, this isn’t working,’” Harvick said. “I said, ‘I’m going to drive it into the next corner. I’ve got five laps to go, I’m going to drive it in here, and I’m either going to hit the wall or it’s going to turn.’
“It turned, and we gained about 15 car lengths in that lap, and I’m like, ‘Well, I guess that was OK, I’m going to do it again,’ and it just kept sticking.
“Those are the moments that you just kind of throw caution to the wind, see what happens, and it all worked out.”
Truex finished second ahead of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson, who made a late charge after his crew patched up the damage from the contact with Blaney with 20 laps to go.
Truex said his No. 78 Toyota wasn’t as fast as it needed to be most of the night, but he still had a shot to beat Harvick at the end.
“I tried all I could to hold off Kevin,” Truex said. “He got through traffic too quick, and he was too fast. I thought with five [laps] to go, we were going to be in good shape. We were running some really fast lap times and actually pulling away, and then the switch flipped and I got tight and started shaking the right front tire, and I knew I was in trouble. [Harvick] started coming quick after that.”
Logano, who broke a yearlong winless streak with a win at Talladega two weeks ago, said he and his No. 22 team still have some work to do if they want to challenge for wins on a weekly basis.
“I’m still chasing a car that’s way faster than me,” Logano said. “It used to be the 78 [Truex], now it’s the 4 [Harvick] at this point.
“The good news is we’re closer than we were last year, so we are consistent, we’re knocking off top fives, top 10s, getting stage points every time.”
Harvick’s fifth win equaled his previous high of wins in a single season, and his team’s competition director, Greg Zipadelli, said it’s likely that more wins are in the offing.
“Like Kevin said, he’s been doing this a long time, and I think he’s hungrier now and enjoying it more than he may have ever,” Zipadelli said. “So that’s really fun to be able to see and be a small part of.”
Joey Logano tames Talladega once again
BY RICK MINTER
With a masterful job of keeping his challengers at bay in the closing laps, Joey Logano raced to victory in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. It ended a 36-race winless streak and delivered Logano his 19th career Cup win and his third at Talladega.
Kurt Busch finished second ahead of Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Ragan, who scored his best finish since another sixth-place at Daytona International Speedway last summer.
Logano said the fact that the Ford drivers worked together until the last lap was a big factor in him winding up in Victory Lane in a race that saw 25 official lead changes.
“I think all the Fords had very fast cars,” he said. “There at the end you work together as much as you can. You just want to make sure a Ford wins, and you hope it’s you. …
“I had some Stewart-Haas cars behind me, which aren’t necessarily teammates, but with the Ford Performance relationship, it’s the closest thing that I’m ever going to have to it. I was thankful to have them behind me.”
But when it mattered, his fellow Ford drivers stumbled and Logano cruised to Victory Lane, never losing the lead over the final 42 laps.
“They got split up, and that changed the complexion of the race, where it came down to the end, the last few corners. It was all about making the right blocks, keeping them close so I didn’t pull away too far, they’d get a big run. Just staring in the mirror pretty much the whole time.”
And Logano pointed out that after a disappointing 2017 season — which began to unravel when an early win at Richmond was ruled encumbered by NASCAR after his car failed inspection and resulted in his missing the playoffs — his team has been on the rebound this season.
Entering Talladega, he had eight top-10s in the first nine races of the season, including six finishes of sixth or better.
“Any time you go through times of trial like [last year], that’s very challenging for everyone,” Logano said. “If you can get through that together, you’re stronger. For that reason, I feel like my team’s never been stronger.”
A new handling package this season, brought about by a relaxing of NASCAR’s rules for ride heights of cars running at Daytona and Talladega, had many drivers saying the cars were more difficult to drive than in past Talladega races, due to less downforce.
Elliott said the issue made drivers reluctant to make bold moves, even as the leaders were racing to the checkered flag.
“Those guys were being awfully patient with one another,” Elliott said. “I was very surprised. … Scared some people off from running three-wide and four-wide.”
Kurt Busch said he felt like he was in a winning position when he had his teammate Kevin Harvick and another fast Ford driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., behind him and in position to push him past Logano for the win. But it didn’t materialize.
“You wish you could go over and do it again,” he said. “I feel like I left that one out on the table.”
He added that part of the reason none of the three challengers were able to pass Logano was they all were kind of selfish.
“That’s how we got all strung out, trying to be the one guy by himself, where you need three to kind of hook up and go and try to pass the leader.”
Sunday’s race saw the usual “Big One” multi-car crash that has become commonplace at Talladega. It occurred in Turns Three and Four on Lap 167, when Jimmie Johnson and teammate William Byron collided while racing in the lead draft. The 14 drivers involved included Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard, who each scored a stage win early in the race and had cars fast enough to contend for the victory.
“We just got the bottom lane rolling decent and kind of got shuffled back,” Menard said of the laps leading up to the crash. “It is so hard to get back forward. We went for the top and that wasn’t working, so we went to the bottom and started going forward, but the 48 [Johnson] just cut across the 24 [Byron] from what I saw and caused a big wreck.”
Kyle Busch’s bid to win four straight Cup races ended with a 13th-place finish in which he never led a lap.
Kyle Busch overcomes weather, Kyle Larson for victory
By Rick Minter
First it was Kevin Harvick dominating the 2018 Monster Energy Cup season, with three consecutive wins, at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Now Kyle Busch has the hot hand, as he wrestled the lead from Kyle Larson with six laps remaining in Monday’s rain-delayed Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway to score his second-straight win. It was the sixth of his career at Bristol, the 45th of his Cup career and the sixth straight race this season that he’s finished third or better, a string that includes three runner-up finishes.
Busch started on the pole at Bristol on Sunday afternoon, but spent much of the race chasing other drivers, including Brad Keselowski, who won the first two stages and led a total of 67 laps before a flat tire late in the race relegated him to a 23rd-place finish.
Then there was Kyle Larson, who led early but was involved in a spin with Ryan Newman before recovering to lead a race-high total of 200 laps.
Larson led Busch to the final restart with 22 laps remaining, but he couldn’t hold off Busch when it counted.
“I was just checked out there that long run,” Larson said. “It was really, really good there, and was just hoping it would go green until the end, and then we pitted, and I was actually fine with that, too, because I knew we’d leave as the leader and restart on the outside. … Not sure if the track changed a lot there or what, but I lost the balance on the car.”
Behind Busch and Larson was Jimmie Johnson, who finished third for the first top-five finish of the season for the seven-time series champion and his first since last fall at Dover.
Several other drivers had strong showings, including rookie Darrell Wallace Jr., who sped into the lead in his No. 43 Chevy on Lap 365 and was out front for six circuits for the first laps led of his Cup career. But he faded at the end, windting up 16th.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished fourth in a backup car that was patched up from early contact on the track, while Alex Bowman finished fifth for his first top-five Cup finish.
Two drivers who appeared poised for season-best runs were swept up in early accidents in the Food City 500.
Michael McDowell qualified a season-best ninth, but was knocked out of the race due to contact from a lap five incident.
“There are no excuses,” McDowell said Sunday. “We had a fast Love’s Travel Stops Ford and just to be out this early is really heartbreaking.”
Heartbreaking also described the fate of Ryan Blaney, who led 100 of the first 124 laps and was in front when he came upon the spinning cars of Trevor Bayne, Chris Buescher and Harrison Rhodes.
With his path blocked, Blaney slammed into Rhodes’ car and was unable to continue.
“I kind of saw them spinning low, and I thought that top was going to be OK and then they slid back up and got us,” Blaney said. “That stinks. I thought we had a good car and nothing to show for it.”
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.”
Harvick wins again after Vegas penalty
By Rick Minter
For people in competitive environments, being mad can be a great motivation. Kevin Harvick proved as much when he bounced back from a week of controversy to win Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
Although Harvick doesn’t need much additional motivation to win at Phoenix, as his series-leading nine victories there attest, he did say his anger over the controversy surrounding the sagging rear window of his No. 4 Ford at Las Vegas the week before did affect him. (Although Harvick’s car passed a post-race inspection at Las Vegas, photos of the offending window were widely circulated on social media after the race, and NASCAR responded with a stiff penalty.)
“I’ve been mad as all get out because this team does a great job,” Harvick said in his Victory Lane interview. “This (Stewart-Haas Racing) organization does a great job, and we’ve got fast race cars. And to take that away from those guys just really pissed me off last week.
“To come here to a race track that is so good for us is a lot of fun, and everyone was just determined this week, and we just wanted to just go stomp them. We didn’t stomp them, but we won. That’s all that really matters. Just proud of this team. Put a fire in our belly.”
Harvick, who now has won three straight Cup races and 40 in his career, wasn’t as dominant at Phoenix as he has been in previous wins there.
Runner-up Kyle Busch led the most laps with 128, but the jack fell on his final pit stop and put him behind at the end. Third-finishing Chase Elliott had another strong performance at Phoenix but also was unable to match Harvick in the closing laps. Nor was fourth-finishing Denny Hamlin, who led 33 laps.
Harvick had the speed when it counted. As the 312-lap event neared the end, Ryan Newman gambled that there would be a late-race caution and stayed on the track, taking the lead as the rest of the leaders pitted. When he finally stopped for fuel and tires with 22 laps remaining, Harvick inherited the lead for good.
Sunday’s race also was an exhibition of strength for both Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing, as each team placed all four of its drivers in the top 10. (It was the first time that had ever happened for Stewart-Haas.)
Kyle Busch, who races for Gibbs along with Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, said he believes Harvick and his Stewart-Haas teammates, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola, are benefiting from their team’s quick adaptation to the new rules for 2018.
“They’ve just kind of picked up where they left off [in 2017],” Busch said of the Stewart-Haas contingent. “With some of the rule changes that happened over the offseason, we felt like that slowed our stuff down a little bit. Didn’t slow theirs down near as much.”
Harvick said his team is succeeding because all four drivers are helping each other figure out how to be fast.
“To see [Almirola] up there, I saw Clint up there, Kurt winning a stage, that’s really the most important thing,” he said. “Because that progression as a race team, when everybody ups the ante on the car, you learn something from each car and each person.”
Keselowski, Team Penske cruise in Sunday’s Clash
By Rick Minter
Brad Keselowski got the first Speedweeks win of his career with a victory in Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, a non-points event for pole winners from the previous season and other top drivers.
Keselowski, driving the No. 2 Ford for Team Penske, started last due to a random draw of starting positions, but wound up leading 43 of the race’s 75 laps, including the final 37, to lead a Ford sweep of the top four finishing positions.
Keselowski’s fellow Team Penske drivers, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, finished second and fourth, respectively, while Kurt Busch from Stewart-Haas Racing finished third.
“I have never won anything during Speedweeks, and I feel like I have choked them away, to be quite honest,” Keselowski said in his Victory Lane interview. “You need one to break through. Hopefully, this is our breakthrough.”
The Clash was one of the first real tests of the new NASCAR rules that allow teams to run whatever rear ride heights and rear springs they choose.
The cars are running much lower in the rear, and many drivers said they are more difficult to drive.
“The cars are a handful,” Keselowski said. “They are supposed to be.
“This is professional racing, and they are supposed to be hard to drive. This was no exception. This is probably the hardest I have ever had to drive a car at Daytona, but I am not complaining.”
Keselowski explained that, as with many other rule changes from NASCAR, teams quickly find ways to make the cars faster, yet still stay within those rules.
“You would think with the ride heights dropped down that conventional wisdom says the cars would drive better, but basically, it’s allowed everyone to trim the cars out so much for speed that then the handling goes away,” he said. “The cars are running faster.”
Kurt Busch said the Clash was a good test for the upcoming Can-Am Duels and the Daytona 500.
“Project No. 1 was to do all the laps so that we could understand more about our tires and our setup and the way that the car was going to handle,” he said. “Then, step No. 2 was to have fun. I had a blast.”
Denny Hamlin offered a more detailed explanation of the changed handling characteristics of the cars.
“It’s so much different because, typically, as your car comes out of the corner, the rear spoiler comes up and the car gains downforce,” he said. “Well, these cars are so planted to the racetrack, we’re doing everything we can to get the spoiler out of the air, which in turn means less grip.”
He added that the difficulty of driving the cars will be more noticeable in the 500, when the pack is three wide and the tires are getting worn.
“It will be tough for drivers to hold their lanes with the cars down as low as they are,” he said. “So we’re just going to play it by ear. … It’s going to be different. The Daytona 500 will be different.”
The Clash ended under caution with a multi-car crash that was triggered when Kyle Larson bumped Jimmie Johnson from behind in an attempt to boost him in the draft.
Larson took the full blame. “Yes race fans I caused that one,” Larson wrote on Twitter. “I admitted it and apologized. Lots of learning about new package that race that race. … Got some work to do before 500.”
Five set to join the NASCAR Hall of Fame this week in Charlotte
By Rick Minter
The NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, will induct its ninth class on Jan. 19, and the five inductees all made their mark on the sport, while they mostly did so in different ways.
One inductee, the late Red Byron, was a World War II hero who came home, adapted to his war injuries and became the first champion of the series now known as Monster Energy Cup, despite a leg injury that required a special brace to work the pedals in his race cars.
Joining him are the late Robert Yates, a crew chief, engine builder and team owner, and Ray Evernham, a onetime Modified driver who became a championship-winning crew chief and later a team owner and broadcaster.
Veteran broadcaster and racing promoter Ken Squier also is being inducted, along with driver Ron Hornaday Jr., who achieved his greatest success in the Camping World Truck Series and is the first predominately trucks driver to be voted into the Hall.
Squier, Hornaday and Evernham participated in a teleconference last week, and among the comments offered by Squier were his thoughts on the induction of Byron, who did most of his racing on the old Modified circuit, where he was the NASCAR national champion in 1948, the year before the formation of the series now known as Cup.
In Cup, Byron, who drove for another Hall of Famer, the late Raymond Parks, won just two races, both in ’48, and raced only 15 times before stepping away from the sport after the 1951 season.
“I’m really excited about it for Red Byron, who I truly believe is one of the most misunderstood heroes of that time period,” Squier said. “I’m thrilled that I’m one of the ones that will join him in the Hall of Fame.
“As far as I was concerned, from the outset, Red Byron should have been there. But that’s what it’s all about, because it’s voted by the peers. So many are younger than the generation that Red Byron came from and when he won the title in 1948. History has been rectified a bit. I’m thrilled about that.”
Squier also weighed in on Evernham, who started out racing Modifieds in New Jersey and went on to become a crew chief and win three Cup championships and 47 Cup races with Jeff Gordon as his driver.
He also won 13 more races as a team owner.
“[Evernham] found a way to continue to develop his ability to do things in racing,” Squier said. “He was one of those people that was going to be needed, and needed badly, who not only understood how to put some pieces and parts together, but he also was a good manager of people. That was a whole part of the act.”
Evernham is generally credited with refining the role of the NASCAR pit crew, advancing the techniques perfected by the Wood Brothers before him.
“I think I was maybe responsible for bringing it to a different level,” Evernham said. “You’ve got to go all the way back to the Wood Brothers when you look at the modern-day pit crew, the focus on how important it was to shave those seconds off.
“Those guys started it. Everybody else since then has pretty much just kind of developed it and reworked it.”
One of Evernham’s main contributions to the modern pit stop was the use of pit crew members whose sole focus was pit stops.
“We had the idea about bringing in professional athletes,” Evernham said. “The biggest thing I thought of back then is how can I expect a guy to work the way we’re working in the shop, at that time 14, 16 hours a day, then be able to pit the car on Sundays, be fresh, be focused?
“Let’s train some people that have skills and abilities and time to do that, that could be faster, and we could really gain something.
“I think that set the stage for what’s happening now.”
Evernham said that with the closeness of the on-track competition today, pit stops take on an even greater importance.
“It used to be if your car was fast enough, you could pass, you could lose a couple spots on pit road and get that back,” he said. “It’s not that way right now, it’s more equal. The more equal the cars become, the more important that pit crew becomes.”
Evernham was one of the last of the big-time crew chiefs to be a hands-on participant in the preparation and tuning of the car. Whereas today’s crew chiefs are more like business managers, the job in his day was more like that of a coach.
“Whether I should try to think that I deserve to be even mentioned in a [football coach Vince] Lombardi style or not, that’s kind of who I patterned after,” Evernham said. “Tough on people, drive them hard, but cared about them. You’ve got to be able to have that compassion along with determination. That part I enjoyed. I loved working down on the floor with the guys. I loved being at the race track.
“But as far as the actual managing without the personal touch, [it’s] just something I didn’t enjoy. I really believe that’s why I didn’t enjoy being a car owner as much as I did a crew chief, because we got so big so fast that I had to act more as a CEO and manager rather than one-on-one digging down with the guys, coaching.”
A Look Back at 2017
By Rick Minter
The 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season saw many an interesting storyline, from Martin Truex Jr.’s dominating run to a championship to a significant changing of the guard to the continued emergence of some of the sport’s stars of the future.
Carl Edwards’ Stunner
The big changes began in early January, when Carl Edwards, who came within a handful of laps of winning the 2016 championship only to be involved in a late-race wreck with Joey Logano, stunned the racing world by announcing that he was stepping away from his full-time ride.
The popular Edwards, who has won 28 Cup races and 38 in the Xfinity Series, plus the 2007 driving title, said in the news conference announcing his decision to step away that the bold move left him “about the most scared I’ve ever been about something.”
He said he simply followed his gut instincts.
“I really believe it’s the right thing,” he said. “It’s a personal thing. I feel strongly about it. I’m very confident in it.”
He did admit that the prospect of serious injury, such as the concussions that caused Dale Earnhardt Jr. to miss races in previous seasons and hastened his retirement, was a factor.
“I can stand here healthy, and that’s a testament after all the racing I’ve done and all the stupid stuff I’ve done in a race car, that is a true testament to NASCAR, to the tracks, to the people who have built my race cars, to my competitors, and to the drivers who have come before me who haven’t been so fortunate,” he said in that January news conference. “Having said that, though, it’s a risky sport. I’m aware of the risks.
“I don’t like how it feels to take the hits that we take, and I’m a sharp guy, and I want to be a sharp guy in 30 years, so those risks are something that I want to minimize.”
After making a few appearances at tracks early in the season to support Daniel Suarez, his replacement in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota, Edwards dropped out of sight and was rarely seen or heard from by the racing community.
Junior Makes It Official
In April, Earnhardt Jr. announced that the 2017 season would be his last as a full-time driver.
Earnhardt, who returned to the circuit at the beginning of the season after missing half of the 2016 campaign due to a concussion, said it was important to him to be able to end his career on his own terms rather than have the decision dictated by an injury or some other situation out of his control.
While Earnhardt was able to run the entire 36-race schedule without suffering a concussion, he was not as competitive as he had been in his prime. He had just one top-five finish, a career low, and eight top-10s on the way to a 21st-place finish in the final points standings. He did score two poles, which leaves him with 26 career Cup wins and 15 poles. He also has a commendable record in the Xfinity Series, where he has two driving titles, 24 wins and 10 poles.
Earnhardt, who scored his 15th-straight Most Popular Driver Award in 2017, isn’t planning to stay out of the limelight as Edwards has done. He’s planning to run a few Xfinity races and will be a commentator for NBC during its NASCAR TV coverage.
That TV gig will put him in an arena that his late father never entered, so the comparisons to his father, which were hard to avoid during his driving career, shouldn’t be a topic of discussion.
Even so, Earnhardt has never seemed to be affected by the comparisons to his father, who had 76 Cup wins and seven championships.
Earnhardt addressed that issue during a media session at Phoenix Raceway.
“I read something on Twitter the other day about my brother [Kerry],” Earnhardt said. “He said he has always lived under Dad’s shadow and that is not such a bad thing.
“I don’t know that you are always out from under it, but it didn’t bother me. But I was always compared to him and compared to his success, the person he was. People either liked that I was different or didn’t like that I was different and wanted me to be just like him or whatever.
“I really don’t know when that started to happen. I guess it is happening now. I am going to go do something else after I’m done driving.
“Hopefully, I’m just as proud of my accomplishments in the booth as I am on the race track. I would love for that career to be a success and that would definitely be out from under his shadow. But it’s not something I really put a lot of thought into.
“I just miss him so bad and wish he were here today to see all this happening.”
Kenseth and Patrick
The season ended with two more veteran drivers, Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick, stepping away.
Kenseth left involuntarily after it was announced that his ride in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing was going to Erik Jones, who won the 2017 Rookie of the Year title driving the No. 77 for Furniture Row Racing.
Patrick announced at Homestead-Miami Speedway that she planned to run the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 in 2018 before retiring for good. Her ride in the No. 10 Ford at Stewart Haas Racing is going to Aric Almirola, who is moving to Stewart Haas from Richard Petty Motorsports, along with sponsor Smithfield Foods.
Kenseth, who won the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix Raceway to push his career Cup win total to 39, left the door open to returning to driving, but also seemed at peace with the idea of being retired.
“It’s just been quite a journey, and today was a really special day for me, to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel,” Kenseth said in his winner’s interview at Phoenix. “A lot of things I don’t really understand, but I probably knew around August that it really wasn’t meant for me to be racing anymore at this level going forward.
“With that, I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought about doing something different, but then just really embraced it.
“Not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship.”
Truex’s season for the ages
They focused on winning stages, a new format for NASCAR’s major circuits, and collecting the bonus points and playoff points that came with them. Drivers in the top 10 in the first two stages of races earned stage points, and stage winners and race winners also earned playoff points.
Truex won a circuit-leading eight races, and led his fellow drivers in stage points and playoff points with 438 stage points, 19 stage wins and 69 playoff points.
The playoff points allowed Truex to be in a relatively safe position as far as advancing from one round to the next. But he didn’t end up needing them, as he scored four wins during the playoffs, including three that allowed him to advance to the next round.
In the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in which the highest finishing driver of the four championship contenders got the title, Truex outdueled Kyle Busch in the closing laps to get the victory and the championship.
Among those congratulating Truex and his T-shirt-wearing crew chief, Cole Pearn, was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who helped Truex make the move from the short tracks of the Northeast to NASCAR’s elite divisions.
“It’s so good to see him win this title,” Earnhardt told reporters at Homestead. “He is a professional and a gentleman and just a perfect friend. We’ve been pals a long, long time. I was glad to have a hand in getting his career going. I can’t take all the credit. … But he’s just such a great guy. … I am so proud of him.”
Earnhardt went on to say that Truex will be a great representative of the sport. He said it was also good to see Truex and his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who is battling cancer, celebrating with the Cup champion’s trophy.
“Everything that he’s gone through as a driver, and beyond that, everything he’s gone through in his personal life, everything Sherry has gone through, the whole sport has been behind them for so long and supported them for so long, but it’s just great,” he said, adding that he was happy for Pearn as well. “Cole, he’s just himself. He’s a really cool guy, comes to work in a T-shirt. You’ve got to love his attitude and personality. That personality and attitude encompasses the whole team. It’s just fun to watch. And they’re sort of the outsiders way up there in Denver. Beat all us boys down in North Carolina.”
Richard Petty Motorsports makes switch to Chevy, moves headquarters and aligns with RCR
By Rick Minter
Richard Petty is NASCAR’s leader in many on-track categories, including most wins (200), most poles (123) and most laps led (51,406), as well as being tied with Jimmie Johnson and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most Cup championships, with seven. He’s also one of the sport’s most tenacious participants. Even at age 80, he continues to make deals that keep him directly involved in the sport.
Last week it was announced that Richard Petty Motorsports, in which Petty holds a minority share but is the most visible part of the ownership team, is moving from Ford to Chevrolet and switching its alliance from Roush Fenway Racing to Richard Childress Racing.
The arrangement is similar to the one the Wood Brothers have with Team Penske in the Ford camp in that the Petty team will get its cars and engineering from Childress, but will remain an independent team.
Childress also will supply Richard Petty Motorsports from its engine-building subsidiary, ECR.
As part of the new arrangement, RPM will move from its current location in Mooresville, North Carolina, to a building on Childress’ complex in Welcome, North Carolina. The move is already under way and is expected to be completed next montho
Petty will field the No. 43 Chevrolet with driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who will compete for rookie of the year honors in the Cup series.
The move will begin immediately and be completed by January.
“This is our next chapter of Petty racing,” Petty said in a release announcing the new arrangement. “We need to provide Bubba, Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) and the rest of the team with the tools necessary to be successful on the track, and I feel strongly this is the best move for RPM, our partners and everyone involved with our team.
“Chevrolet has been a consistent winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for a long time, and we’re proud to be a part of the GM family again. We feel we can immediately win with Chevrolet and our new alliance with RCR.”
Petty’s teams have run General Motors products at times through the years, with 31 wins while campaigning GM cars.
Some of those victories were scored by the late Lee Petty, Richard’s father, who won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 driving an Oldsmobile.
Richard won two Daytona 500s in GM vehicles — in 1979 with an Oldsmobile and in 1981 with a Buick. He won six races in a Chevrolet and got his 200th victory in a Pontiac at Daytona in July 1984.
He also won as a car owner with a Pontiac driven by the late Bobby Hamilton in 1996 at Phoenix and in 1997 at Rockingham.
Childress said in the same news release that he’s happy to be aligning with an iconic car owner and car number.
“To bring a storied organization like Richard Petty Motorsports on board as an alliance partner is a win for each of our organizations,” he said.
The moves put two of the sport’s most recognized cars, Petty’s No. 43 and the No. 3 of Childress, now driven by Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon, in the position of competing as quasi-teammates.
Both will campaign Chevrolet’s new Cup entry, the Camaro ZL1, beginning with the 2018 season-opening Daytona 500.
Rookie honors don’t always ensure future success
By Rick Minter
Winning a NASCAR rookie of the year title hasn’t always been an indicator of future success in the sport, but sometimes it has.
The first rookie of the year for NASCAR’s top series was Blackie Pitt, back in 1954. He won on the strength of six top-10 finishes and an 11th-place spot in the final points standings, but he never achieved much success afterward.
Other rookie winners went on to become future champions, beginning in 1959, when Richard Petty, who went on to win seven titles, took rookie honors. David Pearson also was a rookie of the year, as were Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, the late Dale Earnhardt and five others who later became series champions — Alan Kulwicki, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
From 2010 to 2012, the rookie titles went to Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht, drivers who, for the most part, haven’t drawn much attention around the Cup circuit in subsequent years.
But this year’s rookie of the year winners — across all three of NASCAR’s elite divisions — appear poised for future NASCAR stardom.
The Cup rookie title went to Erik Jones, who is set to take over the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season after driving the No. 77 at Furniture Row Racing in 2017.
Jones took the title over Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding after earning five top-five and 14 top-10 finishes, plus a pole at Bristol.
Jones said in a media session following the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that he was proud of what he and his young team were able to accomplish,
“A rookie crew chief [Chris Gayle], a rookie driver, and we were able to have a strong season, compete for some wins along the way, and end up with rookie of the year,” he said. “That was one of our big goals was to get the rookie of the year, and it’s nice to close it out with that.”
Jones said he hopes he and Gayle can build on their 2017 season when they both move to the No. 20 next year.
“I’ve never worked in my career with a crew chief more than one year, so it’s kind of a new thing for me to have a year now where I’m going to be working with a guy for the second time and growing and building that relationship again,” he said. “I think firing off in Daytona and then to Atlanta, just knowing that we’ve worked together for a year and have those notes to go back on is going to be a big bonus.”
In the Xfinity Series, the rookie title went to William Byron, who also won the championship for his JR Motorsports team. He’s set to move to Hendrick Motorsports and drive the No. 24 in the Cup Series next year.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who co-owns the Chevrolet that Byron drove to the titles, said Cup fans will like Byron once they see the kind of person he is.
“As he goes on to the Cup Series and he gets introduced to the fans and the industry more, it’s going to be fun to hear everybody else see what we already see,” Earnhardt said.
Chase Briscoe, who won the season-ending Truck Series race at Homestead for his first major NASCAR victory, also took rookie honors in trucks.
Like Byron, Briscoe is set to move up a notch on the NASCAR ladder and will share Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 Ford with Austin Cindric and Ty Masjeski in the Xfinity Series next year.
Brad Keselowski, who owned the truck that Briscoe drove this season, is bullish on the youngster.
“I feel that Chase is one of the best young talents — if not the best — in the sport that is not in the Cup Series, so it is not a surprise to me to see him win a race and make the playoffs in his rookie year,” Keselowski said.
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.”