Chase Elliott scores first Cup Series win
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
In a time of sagging attendance figures and declining TV ratings, NASCAR finally had a Sunday that has the potential of being the start of a turnaround.
Chase Elliott, one of the young drivers who is in a position to help rejuvenate the sport, scored his first Cup victory in front of an appreciative sellout crowd at Watkins Glen International.
And in a move that symbolized what the day meant for many, when Elliott ran out of gas on the cool-down lap, the likely superstar of the future got a push to his victory celebration from a superstar of the present, his teammate and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
The Elliott family history also was on display with the youngster’s first win.
Elliott’s first Cup victory is remarkably similar to that of his father, Bill Elliott, who was a 16-time most-popular driver and still remains one of the sport’s main attractions.
Both Elliotts got their first Cup victories on road courses, Bill at the old Riverside International Raceway in 1983 and Chase at the Glen on Sunday. Both had eight runner-up finishes before breaking through with a victory, and both had to beat the best in the business to score the breakthrough victory. Bill Elliott defeated Benny Parsons, Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond.
Chase had to outrun two of the season’s Big Three — Kyle Busch in the early going and Martin Truex Jr. in the latter stages — to win a race on the same track where his father got his lone Xfinity Series victory.
And of course both drove race cars numbered 9, a number that has become synonymous with the Elliott family.
Elliott said being able to celebrate with a sellout crowd, the fourth straight for the track, made the moment even sweeter.
“I ran out of gas, so I was coasting around, had a great view to see all the people,” he said. “It looked like a sellout.
“They were standing up, so that’s just a cool thing to see. There’s nothing that can re-create that feeling and looking in the stands and seeing people that excited for you for something that you did.”
Elliott, 22, said he’s enjoyed great fan support through his time in support series and in his 99 Cup starts.
“The fans have been a big part of my career thus far, voting us in a couple All?Star Races and so on,” he said. “I appreciate the ones who don’t support, too, because that drives you to be better, and the whole bit. Appreciate all of them, good and bad.”
Kyle Busch, who led 31 laps in the early going and appeared to have the fastest car most of the day, saw his bid for the win go awry on a pit stop with 34 laps remaining. His crew was unable to completely fill his gas tank, so he had to make a second stop, which put him in 31st place when the green flag flew with 32 laps remaining. Even without the benefit of a caution flag, Busch drove through the field to finish third behind Elliott and Truex. Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones finished fourth and fifth respectively, accomplishments for the young drivers that were largely overlooked with Elliott’s win.
Busch said in his postrace comments that Elliott drove mighty well for someone who has relatively little experience on a high-speed road course like Watkins Glen.
“What impressed me the most was just that he was hammer down and elbows up and flying — loose here, loose there and going through everything and doing everything right and really attacking the racecourse and not putting the wheel too far out of shape,” Busch said. “He looked like a pro. That was cool to see.”
Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric summed up the feelings of many in the sport with his postrace Twitter post: “I feel like I just won! Pumped for @chaseelliott. It’s a good day when our sport wins.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. weighed in on Twitter as well: “Incredible day for @chaseelliott and @nascar and THE FANS!!!”
Team owner Rick Hendrick, who watched the race on TV from his North Carolina home as Elliott delivered his company its 250th Cup win, said he hopes his four-driver outfit is getting some momentum with four races left to run before the start of the 10-race, season-ending playoffs.
“This is the right time to be closing the gap and building that momentum,” he told representatives from Chevrolet. “I’m so proud of all the folks at Hendrick Motorsports for keeping their head down and working hard.”
Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson, who celebrated his 43rd birthday with the victory, said his young driver has stood strong through the highs and lows of the previous 98 races.
“We all strive for greatness, and everybody wants to do the best things possible, and you want to win the race or hit the three?pointer at the buzzer or catch a touchdown, whatever it is,” Gustafson said. “And when it doesn’t go your way and you have those opportunities, sometimes that can be deflating.
“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to take some solace in what you do, and the fact that you gave it your best and learned from it and moved on, and certainly he has and will continue to do that.”
Kyle Busch bolts to sixth Cup win of the season
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Kyle Busch’s win in Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway was his sixth of the season and allowed NASCAR’s Big Three to maintain their stranglehold on the Monster Energy Cup Series.
In the 21 races to date this year, Busch and Kevin Harvick have six victories apiece, while Martin Truex Jr. has four.
Busch and Harvick posted the two fastest times in qualifying on Saturday, but were among 13 drivers who had their times disallowed when their cars failed post-qualifying inspection.
But that didn’t hamper either of them for long. Busch started 28th, took the lead for the first time on Lap 112 and led a race-high 52 laps, including the final 42.
Harvick started 27th and was in front by Lap 65, then led a total of 30 laps before a pit-road collision with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola sent him to the rear of the field late in the race. Still, he rallied to finish fourth in what many described as the fastest car at the track.
Truex was the only one of the Big Three to struggle at Pocono. He passed inspection after qualifying on Saturday and started eighth, but he never led a lap and finished 15th.
For Busch, it was a memorable weekend, as his win in Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race was the 51st of his career, tying him with the retired Ron Hornaday Jr. for most wins in that series. He already holds the all-time record for wins in the Xfinity Series with 92, and now is tied with Tony Stewart for 13th on the all-time Cup list. One more Cup win will tie him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. And Busch’s 192 victories across NASCAR’s top three series are second only to the retired Richard Petty, who got all of his 200 wins in the elite Cup series.
Busch, who is just 33 years old, said in his winner’s interview after Sunday’s race that he’s proud to be in such legendary company, and that he plans to keep adding to his totals.
“Tony [Stewart] is a great friend of mine and really one of the guys that I kind of looked up to coming up,” Busch said. “Tony was a great teammate, great friend and still is, so it’s pretty cool to tie him, and certainly means a lot to kind of keep climbing the ladder and getting to the next bunch of guys, and eclipsing that 50 is going to be pretty special.”
A group of relative newcomers, led by sophomore driver Daniel Suarez, posted career-best finishes at Pocono.
Suarez, who started on the pole after the disqualifications of Busch and Harvick, led a total of 29 laps and challenged Busch for the lead on two late-race restarts before finishing second — the best result of his two-year Cup career. He said that’s even sweeter considering the next stop on the Cup circuit, the road course at Watkins Glen International, is where he finished third last year, his best finish in 2017.
“I was just talking about that, how good is this result for our race team and for everyone in the 19 group because we know how good we run in the Glen, and we had a good result my first time there in the Cup car,” he told reporters at Pocono. “We are not expecting anything less. We have good momentum right now on our side, and hopefully, we can keep that going.”
Hendrick Motorsports youngsters Alex Bowman and William Byron finished third and sixth respectively, both career-bests as well.
The finish allowed Bowman, who holds the 16th and final spot in the playoff standings, to put 56 points between him and his two closest challengers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard, with just five regular season races left.
“It was great to have a good points day, but not trying to watch it too much, just trying to do the best job I can and that we can each and every week,” Bowman said. “If we maximize each and every week, hopefully they won’t catch us in points, and we’ll go from there.”
Short-track racer gets another crack at Xfinity Series
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Super Late Model racing standout Casey Roderick is returning to the Xfinity Series this weekend at Iowa Speedway after a six-year absence from NASCAR’s No. 2 circuit.
Roderick, from Lawrenceville, Georgia, once was a top young driving prospect, quickly moving from Legends cars to Late Models to ARCA and to the Xfinity Series, where he ran 11 races in 2011 and 2012.
But his career stalled at that point, and the then-19-year-old driver was facing the prospect of never having a career as a professional racer.
By 2013, he’d taken a job working with a moving company. He was in a house in Franklin, Tennessee, packing the owner’s furniture for a cross-country move, when a friend from Georgia who owned a Late Model team called and offered him a ride.
Roderick returned home and began building a car, and the next year he won several major races, including the World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park and the Rattler at South Alabama Speedway.
He continued to find success on the short tracks, and now drives a car for Southern racing legend Ronnie Sanders.
But Roderick never gave up on his dream of returning to the upper levels of NASCAR. Now, he has a one-race deal to drive the No. 23 Chevrolet for GMS Racing.
Roderick said he likely wouldn’t have gotten the chance if his fellow Georgian Chase Elliott hadn’t recommended him.
“I don’t think this would have happened if not for Chase,” Roderick said, adding that he’s also grateful for GMS’ team manager Mike Beam and others on the team who supported him. “That’s a great group at GMS.”
Although it’s just a one-race deal, Roderick, now 26, believes he still has time to realize his dream of racing full-time at NASCAR’s highest levels.
“That’s been my goal since I was 5 years old,” he said. “I ran Xfinity before and had to come back to Super Late Model racing, but I kept the faith and believed in myself that I could succeed at that level.
“Sometimes the timing’s not right, but maybe this is the right time. It’s the best opportunity I’ve had in good equipment with good people surrounding me.”
Justin Allgaier is feeling all good after Iowa win
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
The stats from Sunday’s Iowa 250 Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway don’t tell the whole story of how hard Justin Allgaier had to fight to score his second Xfinity win of the season and the seventh of his career.
The Father’s Day race was NASCAR’s marquee event for the weekend, as the Monster Energy Cup Series was idle, and no Cup drivers ran the race.
The statistics show that Allgaier started 11th, took the lead for the first time on Lap 59, won both of the first two stages and led a total off 182 of the race’s 250 laps, including the final 45, to get the victory over Christopher Bell.
What the numbers don’t show was that Allgaier had to rely on his years of experience both in Cup and Xfinity to hold off Bell, who had to start from the rear after his car failed a pre-qualifying inspection but drove his way to the front and challenged Allgaier for the top spot throughout the second half of the race.
Bell said he just couldn’t overcome the aerodynamic advantage Allgaier had by having the lead.
“I just needed to be in front of him,” Bell said. “Our Rheem Camry was really good. It was really good on the bottom in both corners, but I just didn’t have enough to clear him.”
Allgaier, who is sponsored by an agricultural company, Brandt, and had an ear of corn painted on the hood of his No. 7 Chevrolet, said winning at Iowa was really special.
“Incredible,” he said. “We’re in the middle of corn fields — how could you not enjoy this? … Doing it on Father’s Day, it was really cool having my daughter here.”
The victory secured a playoff berth for Allgaier, one he needed because his earlier victory at Dover International Speedway didn’t count for a playoff spot after his car failed a post-race inspection there.
Daniel Hemric finished third ahead of Cole Custer and Brandon Jones, while Riley Herbst came back from a penalty for speeding on pit road to finish sixth in his Xfinity Series debut.
Elliott Sadler maintained his series points lead despite a long, frustrating afternoon at Iowa. Sadler blew a tire early in the race and the impact with the wall damaged the suspension of his No. 1 Chevrolet.
He wound up finishing 28th, 11 laps in arrears. That followed a similarly disappointing finish the week before at Michigan International Speedway, where he finished 30th after starting third and leading 10 laps of a rain-shortened race.
Rookie driver Austin Cindric finished 11th at Iowa after earning his first career Xfinity pole and leading the first 58 laps of the race.
The Xfinity Series returns to action on June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway for the Overton’s 300.
Martin Truex Jr. tames the Tricky Triangle
By Rick Minter
Fourteen races into the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series season, three drivers have emerged as the dominant front-runners.
Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. added his name to the list on Sunday with a victory in the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.
It’s his second win of the season, and he joins Kevin Harvick, who has five wins, and Kyle Busch, who has four, as the only drivers with multiple wins so far this year.
At Pocono, all three were potential race winners, and all three finished among the top four, with Busch in third place behind runner-up Kyle Larson and Harvick fourth, ahead of Brad Keselowski.
Harvick led the most laps with 89 circuits out front, and Busch led 13 late in the race before a decision to pit for four fresh tires on a late caution did not work in his favor.
Ironically, Busch lost last year’s first race at Pocono when he chose not to stop for tires late in that race, and those with fresh rubber outran him.
“I don’t know if it was the clouds or different tires, but those tires didn’t mean anything,” Busch said of his fresh rubber on Sunday. “We couldn’t get back up through there for anything. … It didn’t give any advantage. The fresh air didn’t mean anything today. That was frustrating and disappointing.”
Truex said in his winner’s interview that he wasn’t certain that staying on the track on older tires was the right call when the caution flag flew for debris on the track with 20 laps remaining. But he knew his car had been fast on older tires in Saturday’s final practice session.
“The final restart, really the end of the race just kind of played into our hands,” Truex said. “We decided to stay out there when some guys pitted. …
“Luckily, it worked out for us. We ran some really fast lap times at the end, but the restarts are always, always a question mark. You’re always a little bit nervous just hoping you do everything right and hoping two guys don’t get that bumper-to-bumper kind of tandem thing going and get a run on you.
“We were able to hold them off, and I felt like if we could get to Turn One with the lead, I felt pretty confident we could hold them off, and that was the case.”
Truex acknowledged that Busch and Harvick both had cars capable of winning if circumstances had played out in their favor instead of in his.
“Towards the end of the race there, it was 18 [Busch] leading, we were second, 4 [Harvick] was third,” he said. “We were all just sitting there, couldn’t get any closer to each other, and I felt like whoever was out front at that point was going to be the car to beat. We were all so closely matched.”
Harvick said his fortunes took a negative turn when Busch took the lead by beating him off pit road after a caution flag flew on Lap 126 of 160 for a spin by Derrike Cope.
“We just lost our track position of being in the lead and lost control of the race,” Harvick said. “That is what did us in there. We restarted second and then third and lost a spot on each restart as you start on the inside.
“Our Busch Ford was really fast, and the guys did a really great job. When you are racing the 18 [Busch] and 78 [Truex] you are splitting hairs, and they were just better than us on pit road today.”
Larson, whose runner-up finish was his third of the season, to go with earlier second-place runs at Auto Club Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, said his No. 42 Chevrolet just wasn’t as fast as the cars of Truex, Harvick and Busch.
“Happy we finished second, but needed a lot more to kind of compete with the three guys that ran up front all day,” he said, adding that his Chip Ganassi-owned Chevy was fast. “I felt like my car today was kind of as good as it’s been all year.
“I feel like the Hendrick [Motorsports] guys have definitely gotten better, as well as [Richard Childress Racing] guys. but I feel like I’ve kind of just been a step behind the [Busch, Truex and Harvick]. …
“I think that three of those guys are definitely Head over Heels better than the rest of us, but I think from fourth- to sixth- or seventh- best car, it’s pretty close.”
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.”