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.”
Keselowski survives mayhem at Talladega
By Rick Minter
The grandstands were packed at Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s Alabama 500, as fans came to witness Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race on a very special track for him and his family. Those fans left happy, having witnessed a strong run by Earnhardt, a trio of points-scrambling multi-car crashes, miscues by some of the sport’s most talented drivers and a strong comeback to victory by one of Earnhardt’s protegees, Brad Keselowski.
Earnhardt, who has struggled to be competitive for most of his final season, started from the pole and contended for the win all the way until the final lap before finishing seventh.
Martin Truex Jr., who has dominated the Cup Series this season, was never really a contender for victory and made a rare driving mistake, triggering a 16-car pileup that saw him and six other playoff drivers receive considerable damage.
Keselowski, who got his big career break when Earnhardt hired him to race in the Xfinity Series — and who carried a “#Cheers2DaleJr.” message on his car on Sunday — came away with the victory after seeming to be out of contention following a pit stop to repair the radio in his No. 2 Ford that left him in 30th place with a little more than 30 laps to run.
Truex, who is assured of advancing to the Round of Eight due to his win the week before at Charlotte, came to Talladega with no pressure and hoped to add another win to his total for the season.
But he was just a mid-pack driver before the 16-car crash that ended his day.
“We definitively had nothing to lose today, but at the same time, you don’t want to be the person who causes others problems,” he said. “I wish I didn’t make that mistake.”
Keselowski, who now has five victories at Talladega, said the key to success on restrictor-plate tracks is taking advantage of the breaks one gets.
“You’d love to be able to pat yourself on the back and say it’s all skill, but there is some luck that’s involved in this,” he said, adding that drivers often have more bad luck than good in plate races.
“You know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck or something like that happens. But the races where you have the good fortune, where you don’t get caught up in a wreck or you don’t have something break or any of those things, you have to take those races, run up front and win them. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
By avoiding crashes, Keselowski was able to overcome the setback due to his radio change and was leading when the 14 drivers still running took the green flag for the final time.
Ryan Newman passed Keselowski and led until the final lap, when Keselowski surged ahead to take the win by a margin of a few feet.
Newman, who finished second over Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, said his No. 31 Chevrolet wasn’t much of a match for the Team Penske duo of Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford and Logano’s No. 22
“I kept my foot in it and did what I thought was right,” Newman said. “I basically got double-teamed and the 2 and the 22 got a good run past me. …
“Not the end result that we wanted, but a good performance
Martin Truex Jr. continues his red-hot season
By Rick Minter
On several occasions this season — and in recent years as well — Martin Truex Jr. has seen other drivers surge forward in the latter stages and win races he’d dominated.
But on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was a slow-starting Truex who motored to the front and led the final 57 laps to get his sixth win of the season and one that guarantees him a berth in the playoff’s Round of Eight, which begins after two more races — first at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday and at Kansas Speedway the following week.
Truex qualified an uncharacteristically poor 17th and was unable to break into the top 10 in the first 90-lap stage. He did finish fourth in the second stage, earning seven points, as Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 149 laps, won both stages.
Truex took the lead for the first time on Lap 234 of 377, then took the lead for good from Harvick just after one of several restarts.
Truex survived two late restarts, including the final one, which was an overtime run to the checkered flag, to secure his 13th career Cup victory.
Chase Elliott finished second, an increasingly familiar scenario for him, with Harvick third, followed by polesitter Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray.
Truex said in his winner’s interview that if he’d had the same good fortune elsewhere that he had at Charlotte, his season win total would be much higher.
“I think, honestly, we could be sitting with 10, 10 or so, and that’s a realistic number,” he said. “This is racing. A lot of times things aren’t going to go your way. That’s just the way it works.”
He added that he’s plenty happy with the six wins he does have.
“Just an amazing year, and thankful for everyone, and honestly we don’t really think about the ones that got away, we just figure out how to not let it happen again,” he said. “We’ve lost enough that we’ve learned enough from them, I think, and hopefully that makes us better going forward.”
Truex became emotional in Victory Lane when he talked about his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who missed the race due to health concerns related to a chemotherapy treatment the Monday before.
“She probably could have come, but it was a little bit of the weather, and mostly that it’s kind of risky for her to be around too many people right now after having chemo Monday,” he said. “Germs and something as simple as a cold could put her in the hospital. It’s not worth the risk.”
Truex said that between his earlier career setbacks and Pollex’s battle with ovarian cancer, he’s learned to take the ups and downs of the sport in stride.
“You never know what can happen next week,” he said. “You could win 10 races in a row and then all of a sudden you can’t do anything right.”
Thinking about that in Victory Lane led to the tears, he said.
“There’s just so many things that you’re thinking about and so much emotion and so much you’re thankful for, because this stuff is so hard, and you never know if you’ll get another chance to do it,” he said.
Martin Truex Jr. turns in strong performance to open NASCAR Playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway
By Rick Minter
Martin Truex Jr., whose No. 78 Toyota has been the fastest car at any number of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races in the regular season, showed on Sunday in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway that he and his team are prepared to continue that dominance through the 10-race run to the championship.
Truex started the Tales of the Turtles 400 from the third position, but was nabbed for speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit stop at Lap 39. Compounding his early misery, he had to make a second, unscheduled stop due to loose lug nuts.
But with the speed of his car, overcoming the early setback was relatively easy.
He finished 10th in the opening 80-lap stage, and then third in the second 80-lapper. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 190 of 267 and led all but one lap of the remainder of the race, finishing 7.197 seconds ahead of runner-up Chase Elliott. Kevin Harvick finished third, ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.
Ten of the first 11 finishing positions were taken by playoff drivers, but four finished two or more laps behind the leaders. Pole-sitter Kyle Busch finished a lap down due to mistakes on pit road after he won Stage One and led a race-high 85 laps.
Truex said in his winner’s interview that as the laps wound down, he wasn’t thinking about his bad luck of the past two weekends, when he dominated at both Richmond and Darlington only to see likely wins slip away in the closing laps.
“Last week was last week,” he said. “We got over it by Monday or Tuesday, focused on Chicago.
“Just trying to move forward and look forward each and every week and race one race at a time.
“We knew that this week was a big one. We wanted to come here and just run like we knew we could, not do anything out of the ordinary, most importantly not let the pressure dictate how we raced or what we did.
“I think we did that.”
Truex said that while he’s set to advance to the next playoff round thanks to the Chicago win that automatically assures a berth in the next round, he’s going to continue to push as hard as he can, just like he did last year after winning the playoff opener. Last season, he finished seventh at New Hampshire and won again at Dover.
“I honestly don’t think we change,” he said.
And with this year’s rules, it’s always helpful to bank some bonus points, if possible, although he now has 58, more than any other driver.
Truex said those points are especially important going into a race at a track like Talladega Superspeedway, where a multi-car wreck or other setback could derail a championship run.
Last year at Talladega, Truex entered the weekend on a roll from his previous playoff successes. He started on the pole but blew an engine after 41 laps and finished 40th, putting his title hopes on the ropes.
One bad race shouldn’t be an issue for Truex this year due to his stash of bonus points.
For the rest of the playoff field, it’s a matter of making their equipment faster in hopes of chasing down Truex and his speedy No. 78.
“Obviously have some work to do to get to that bunch that won the race,” Chicago runner-up Chase Elliott said, adding that his No. 24 showed better speed than it has in recent weeks. “Aside from them, I think we were competitive to the rest of the field
Second clean sweep weekend for Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch dominated the NASCAR weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, sweeping all three major races for the second time in his career.
Busch, who also swept at Bristol in 2010, is the only driver in NASCAR history to do that even once, at any track.
His weekend of domination began Wednesday night, when he won the Camping World Truck Series race, leading 109 of 203 laps despite a penalty for speeding on pit road.
On Friday night, he led 186 of 300 laps, once again coming back from a speeding penalty to take the lead from Daniel Saurez with 81 laps to go. Suarez finished second ahead of Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon and Justin Allgaier.
On Saturday night in the 500-lap Night Race for the Monster Energy Cup Series, Busch led 156 laps, including the final 56, to get the win over a surprisingly fast rookie, Erik Jones, who started from the pole and led 250 laps before finishing second ahead of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
Busch now has 40 Cup wins, 91 in Xfinity and 49 in trucks, for a total of 180. He has 20 of those victories at Bristol, where he has won six in Cup, nine in Xfinity and five in trucks.
Kyle Larson, who led 70 laps before fading to ninth at Bristol, tweeted after the race about Busch, writing: “Love him or hate him I feel he is the most all around talented driver I will ever witness in my lifetime.”
In his winner’s interview, Busch was informed of Larson’s comments.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I appreciate that. It’s definitely an honor, a humbling statement.
“Larson is obviously arguably one of the most talented guys, as well, too, to hit our sport in a long, long time. People will continue to say that about him as well.”
While Busch dominated Saturday night’s race at the end, the outcome was far from certain most of the way.
“Those guys that were up there running in the front like Larson and Kenseth and Erik Jones especially, they kept us honest, made sure we had to go out there and get it done, achieve it,” Busch said. “I was driving for everything I had there the last 80, 60 laps, whatever it was, giving it everything I had.”
Not everyone at Bristol was with Larson in congratulating Busch. There were a fair number of boos from the grandstands. Busch pointed out that it’s nothing new for him.
“When I was at my local short track, I won 10 out of 15 races one year in my Late Model,” he said. “Driver intros were not always very pretty. So the locals at my local short track didn’t like me because I won too much.”
When he joined the Xfinity Series in 2003, the boo birds followed, even at his first race.
“I went through driver intros and I got booed,” he said. “I was like: ‘Why? What? I haven’t been here yet, give me a chance.’”
He blamed some of that on his brother Kurt, who was not among the sport’s most popular when he came along.
“My brother ruined that for me,” Busch said with a laugh. “I started out at a deficit already.
“There’s definitely positive, but there’s definitely still going to be those that want to be loud.”
Busch also offered praise for Jones, who he discovered racing his Late Model several years ago.
“I love Erik Jones,” he said. “He’s a phenomenal talent and a great race car driver.
“We knew that a long time ago. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing I found him or a bad thing I found him because one of these days, I’m going to lose to him and I’m not going to be thrilled, but I’m still going to congratulate him. I thought today was actually going to be that day.
“But he was awesome to race with. For as fast as we were, being up front, for as much as he wanted to win, I wanted to win, we gave each other room. We never touched each other. It was always smooth, clean, great. I really appreciated that from him.”
Jones said he was impressed with Busch’s sweep.
“It’s a great feat,” he said. “Obviously he puts himself in the situation to win a lot of those races. He still goes out and executes. It’s not easy to do.
“It’s every week, you know. People rag on him for the truck and Xfinity stuff, but he does a great job on the Cup side, too.
“Obviously he’s had a ton of speed all year long. He probably should have had way more than two wins this year. He’s really on it. He’s got it going on. He’s got it figured out.
“It’s hard to keep up with him at times.”
Martin Truex Jr. & Co. hold Cup racing clinic at Kentucky Speedway
By Rick Minter
As their dominating win at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night showed, driver Martin Truex Jr., crew chief Cole Pearn and the entire No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team are finding success in ways that few folks in NASCAR thought possible.
The team is based in Denver, Colorado, far from the NASCAR mecca just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.
For years, the conventional thinking was that a team couldn’t be a top-tier organization unless it was located in the Charlotte area.
Before then, organizations like the Wood Brothers, from Stuart, Virginia, and the Elliott Brothers from Dawsonville, Georgia, dominated racing with teams based in their respective hometowns. But eventually, both moved to Charlotte to be nearer a good supply of mechanical talent and racing technology.
Furniture Row owner Barney Visser decided to go back to the original Wood/Elliott model and keep his team near his hometown.
So far, it’s working, despite the obvious problems caused by geography — like the long road trips required by the team hauler and the quick turnarounds needed to prepare cars for upcoming races.
Pearn said there are obstacles to be overcome, but there also are opportunities to capitalize on the situation.
“It’s difficult at times,” he said in the winner’s interview at Kentucky. “I feel like a lot of times we’re hanging on by a thread, but it’s just the way it is.
“We’ve got a group out there … we’ve been together for a while, and we’ve been through the lows and we’ve sucked, and we’ve had those moments where it’s tested all of us.
“But when you stick together and you’re all out there, you’re not worrying about somebody running down the street to go to a different place for a better deal. It just breeds a lot of chemistry. It breeds family, actually. … “When you get everybody committed and a group of people like that committed to the same goal, it’s a unique opportunity for sure.”
The biggest challenge, crew chief Pearn said, is getting cars to the tracks on time, since their trip is often several days longer than for most teams in Charlotte.
“Our Mondays and Tuesdays are pretty much ‘hair on fire’ most weeks,” he said. “So it’s amazing sometimes, I feel like, [that] we make it to the race track, but when we do, we’re generally good.”
Then there’s the blossoming of Truex, who appeared to be out of good career options at his previous team, Michael Waltrip Racing, when he lost his sponsor at the end of the 2013 season.
It’s been a big turnaround for Truex, as the driver himself acknowledged.
“Five years ago, I thought my career was over,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome bunch of people around me from top to bottom, and honestly, this team I’m with now, it was my only option at one point, and I thought: ‘Oh, man, we’ll see what we can do with it,’ and here we are.”
Saturday’s win, Truex’s third of the season and 10th of his career, came on a night in which he had the dominant car, winning the first two stages and surviving a late-race restart with far older tires than his challengers.
Truex led a race-high 152 laps and was ahead by a 15-second margin, just half a lap away from the white flag, when Kurt Busch’s blown rear gear set up an overtime finish.
Truex stayed on the track and kept the lead despite having more than 50 laps on his tires. His challengers, including Kyle Busch, teammate Erik Jones and Kyle Larson stopped for fresh rubber. But on the restart, Truex used a bump by Larson to take the lead and sped away. He was comfortably ahead when another caution ended the race at that point.
“I was surprised that once we got clear down into Turn One that I could actually pull away from those guys,” Truex said. “I thought I was going to have my hands full trying to hold them off, even if we did get to Turn One with the lead, but fortunately we were able to hold them off, so that was pretty awesome.”
Larson took the runner-up spot over Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.