Kyle Busch captures a win in the desert as Championship 4 is set for the season finale
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
The four-driver field is set for the 2018 Championship Round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, which will be contested on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The circuit’s “Big Three” winners of the year — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. — will go up against Joey Logano, who earned his spot by winning at Martinsville Speedway in the opening race of the Round of Eight, which concluded on Sunday at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
The drivers will begin Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead tied in points at 5,000, and the highest finisher among those four will win the season championship.
Many in the sport have been predicting for several weeks that Logano and the Big Three would be the final four, but only Logano’s berth was certain entering Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
Despite the advantages held by the Big Three due to playoff points they earned over the course of the season, there was drama aplenty from the drop of the green flag to the falling of the checkered at Phoenix.
Harvick’s Homestead berth, which he appeared to have secured last week through a win at Texas, was nullified by a penalty for an illegal spoiler.
He bounced back by winning the pole at Phoenix and dominating early. A flat tire just before the end of the race’s first stage caused some damage to his No. 4 Ford and put him a lap down, but he battled back and eventually finished fifth, earning his spot by virtue of his accumulated points.
Kyle Busch was in the safest spot of the Big Three entering Phoenix. For much of Sunday’s 312-lap race, Busch, who also lost a lap at one point, appeared to be content to maintain his points position so he could advance to Homestead. But in the latter laps of the race, he surged forward, took the lead from Erik Jones with 36 laps remaining and won for the eighth time this season — tying Harvick for the series lead — and the 51st time in his Cup career.
Truex had a so-so day, finishing 14th, but his points cushion put him in position to go to Homestead and defend his 2017 title.
Logano needed his Martinsville win in the biggest way as he blew a tire early and crashed, leaving him 37th in the finishing order.
Other drivers in the Round of Eight mounted serious challenges for a race win that would have put them in the final four. But, ultimately, each fell short.
Almirola made the front row for the race’s final restart, but his No. 10 Ford was no match for Busch, and he fell to fourth at the finish.
Both Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch had cars capable of winning, but both were collected in a Lap 269 crash that ended their playoff runs.
Denny Hamlin, already eliminated from playoff contention, slid into Busch just after a restart to start the wreck, and Elliott was hit by the spinning car of Busch and wound up 23rd.
Elliott said in a post-race interview that it was his own fault for being back in the pack in the first place, due to an earlier speeding penalty on pit road.
“Don’t speed before that and you don’t get caught back there in the back. It was completely my fault, and when you make mistakes like that, you get put behind, and that’s when you get wrecked.”
Also eliminated from the playoffs were Almirola, who needed a win at Phoenix to advance, and Clint Bowyer, who was in a similar position and wrecked early on, finishing 35th.
Kyle Busch said his late surge to victory was a matter of taking advantage of the opportunity provided him when his fellow playoff drivers had problems.
“A lot of crazy things happened there at the end and got us in position to where we could capitalize on that, and it feels good to go into next week with a win under our belt and hopefully do it again,” he said.
Brad Keselowski made a late charge at Busch but fell short and finished second, with Kyle Larson taking third.
Busch said that looking ahead to Homestead he believes the Championship Four is as competitive as it’s ever been.
“I don’t know how you could pick a favorite, necessarily,” he said. “Harvick has won [at Homestead], we’ve won there, the 78 [Truex] has won there. Harvick has beat us all. I beat Harvick the year I won. Truex beat both of us last year. …
“I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time.”
Photo: Kyle Busch unleashes a burnout after earning his eighth Cup win of the season and the 51st of his career. By Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR
Harvick and his No. 4 unstoppable at Texas
By Rick Minter/ Andrews Mc Meel Syndication
As the Monster Energy Cup Series drivers head into the final two races of the 2019 season, the year’s dominant driver is leading the points standings and coming off a powerful performance in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick scored his league-leading eighth win of the season, and the 45th of his career, with a near-perfect drive. He won both of the opening 85-lap stages and led 177 of 377 laps, including 38 of the final 45 circuits, to take the victory over Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson.
Playoff drivers Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Martin Truex Jr. took positions six through nine, respectively, with Austin Dillon completing the top 10.
Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who with Harvick make up the Cup circuit’s “Big Three” drivers this season, both suffered numerous setback in Sunday’s race, but were able to hold their spots among the top three in the standings, mostly because of the playoff points they’ve accumulated over the course of the season.
Truex recovered from having to start in the rear due to an engine change, loose wheels during the race and a pit-road penalty to finish ninth and remain third in the points standings heading into this weekend’s race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
Busch also fell laps down due to a loose wheel and a speeding penalty. He rejoined the lead lap near the end of the race but finished 17th.
The bottom four playoff contenders are in must-win positions heading into Phoenix if they want to be among the final four at Homestead on Nov. 18.
Tony Stewart, who co-owns the Stewart-Haas Racing team that still has all four of its drivers — Harvick, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer — in the playoffs, said he’s not surprised how the playoff field looks at this point.
“The reality is we knew, everybody knew, when they started the playoffs that those first three spots were already for the most part taken, unless they had a natural disaster happen,” he said. “From our standpoint now, we got one [Harvick] in. There’s one more race left. We’ve got one more opportunity to get one more of those three in.”
While many feel that Harvick’s domination on Sunday indicates that he’ll be the driver to beat in the finale at Homestead, Stewart is more cautious in his approach.
“I don’t even know how you have a favorite,” he said. “When you think of the reality of what Homestead is, you’re loading all your chips into one race. You never know what can happen. There are still 40 cars in the race, four of them racing for a championship, and 36 guys that can make a mistake and change the outcome of the event.”
But, Stewart added, Harvick is plenty capable of winning his second Cup title.
“I like the fact that we got Kevin Harvick there,” he said. “That’s a guy that — I don’t care who he’s up against — that’s a guy you kind of want with the ball in the bottom of the ninth.”
At Texas, a track similar in length and shape to Homestead, Harvick showed that he and his team have the speed to win the title.
His only real challenge in the closing laps came from Blaney, the runner-up, who was able to briefly wrestle the lead from Harvick on the next-to-last restart but was unable to keep it.
Harvick quickly motored by him on the final restart to seal the win.
Harvick said he raced with the same intensity at Texas that he will at Homestead in two weeks.
“We swing for the fence every week,” he said. “The only way you can control anything is to win. …
“When you go to Homestead, you’re going to have to win the race, most likely. Every year the champion has won the race. You have to have a winning mentality to approach the week in and week out.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart celebrates with his winning driver in Victory Lane at Texas.
Logano knocks Truex aside for Martinsville win
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway provided the NASCAR world with some badly needed drama as the Monster Energy Cup Series enters its final three weeks of the 2018 campaign.
Joey Logano employed a classic bump-and-run maneuver on Martin Truex Jr. on the final turn of Sunday’s 500-lapper on the tight, paper-clip-shaped half-mile and took the lead — and the win — from Truex, who now has gone 78 career short-track races in the Cup series without a victory. The victory, Logano’s first at Martinsville, assures him of a spot among the four drivers who will decide the Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in three weeks.
An angry Truex promised payback in a nationally televised post-race interview and vowed that he, not Logano, would be the 2018 champion.
NASCAR fans and participants in the sport immediately took to social media to debate the fairness of Logano’s move, with most in agreement that, whether they sided with Logano or Truex, the day’s events made them want to see more short tracks on the Cup schedule.
For his part, Logano, who led a race-high 309 laps and lost the lead with a little over one lap to run before regaining it at the finish line, said he didn’t do anything unusual for a last-lap battle for the win on a short track like Martinsville.
“My goal was not to wreck [Truex] in any way,” he said. “My goal was to win the race. I don’t want to win by dumping somebody. I want to win by making a move.
“That was the classic bump-and-run. That was the move that our sport and Martinsville, in particular, was built on.
“I think I owe it to my race team to do everything I can to win a race, get another shot at winning a championship. That’s my job. They did their job today. I had to do my mine.”
Logano’s car owner, the respected veteran Roger Penske, said he saw nothing wrong with his driver’s move.
“I think Joey drove a great race,” Penske said in the winner’s interview. “He didn’t knock [Truex] off the race track. It was side-by-side racing at the end. You could see that. Nobody lifted. “I want to make sure people know my position: I thought it was fair, I thought it was square, and Joey deserved the win.”
Truex, obviously, disagreed.
“[Logano] won the battle, but he didn’t win the damn war,” he said. “I’m just not going to let him win it. I’m going to win it.”
Truex said he raced Logano clean in the closing laps only to be treated otherwise on the final lap.
“I was next to him for six laps,” he said. “I never knocked him out of the way. We were going to race hard for it in my book. I cleared him fair and square. We weren’t even banging doors for me to pass him. He just drove into the back of me and knocked me out of the way. That’s short-track racing, but what goes around comes around.”
Denny Hamlin moved from third to second as Logano and Truex rubbed each other en route to the checkered flag, while Kyle Busch finished fourth and heads to Texas Motor Speedway with the series points lead. Brad Keselowski finished fifth after battling his fellow Team Penske driver Logano for the lead in the final 100 laps.
PHOTO CAPTION: Joey Logano celebrates a Martinsville win and a berth in the championship in Victory Lane.
BY Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for NASCAR
Chase Elliott continues hot streak at Kansas
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
With NASCAR’s Big Three of the 2018 season off their usual pace in the Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs, Chase Elliott has stepped up as the hottest driver on the circuit of late.
In Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Elliott took his third win of the season — and the third of his career — after Kevin Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road on his final stop of the race.
With Harvick out of the picture, Elliott took the lead when the cycle of pit stops ended and led the final 44 laps to take the victory over Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. Harvick recovered to finish 12th.
Sunday’s race also was the cutoff race for the Round of 12 in the Playoffs, and the four eliminated from championship contention were Larson, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Alex Bowman.
But the Big Three of Harvick, Busch and Truex are still in the driver’s seat as far as the playoffs are concerned, largely due to the playoff points they accumulated throughout the season via race wins (five points each) and stage wins (one point each).
The Big Three combined to win 17 of the 26 regular-season races, with Harvick winning seven, Busch six and Truex, the defending champion, four.
Since drivers carry playoff points all the way to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, they’re still atop the standings due to those points. Busch leads all drivers with 55, while Harvick has 54 and Truex 38. Elliott is fourth with 18.
So far in the playoffs, of the Big Three, only Busch has won, at Richmond, while Elliott has won at Dover and at Kansas. Brad Keselow-ski won the playoff opener at Las Vegas, with Ryan Blaney winning on the Roval at Charlotte and Aric Almirola victorious at Talladega.
Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said in the winner’s interview at Kansas that the points advantage that Harvick, Busch and Truex enjoy will be hard for Elliott and others to overcome in the next four races.
“The 18 [Busch] and the 4 [Harvick] have a pretty significant point advantage,” Gustafson said. “As well as they run, getting past them via points is probably a stretch. I mean, it’s possible, but probably a stretch.”
Even so, Elliott’s recent performances indicate that he’s not only getting some breaks in races that didn’t go his way early in his career, but also becoming a driver capable of winning multiple races and contending for championships. Elliott can assure himself of a spot among the four who will race for the championship at Homestead by winning one of the next three races.
Gustafson said his young driver is poised to do just that because, among other things, he now has the confidence he can win after finishing second eight times before his first victory came at Watkins Glen in August.
“I don’t feel like [Elliott’s] personality has changed, this, but I think now when he looks at that opportunity, he is looking at it more: ‘Yes, I can do this,’ [instead of thinking about] the hundred things that can go wrong.”
Elliott acknowledged he needs to win a race in the Round of Eight to advance to the championship round at Homestead. And if that happens, he’ll need to win there to be the champion.
“I think that needs to be the mindset, for sure,” he said. “I think every week has to be pressure-packed. You have to keep the pressure on yourselves. If you were to make it to Homestead, you have to pretty much win Homestead. I think you have to have that mentality every week.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Chase Elliott celebrates in Victory Lane following his triumph in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
PHOTO CREDITS: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for NASCAR
Aric Almirola emerges with win as Stewart-Haas Racing drivers dominate Talladega
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Aric Almirola entered Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway having endured more than his share of heartbreaking disappointments this season. At the wheel of the No. 10 Ford at Stewart-Haas, he finally got a good break, and with it snapped a string of 149 winless races dating back to his first Cup win, in July 2014 at Daytona.
Almirola, who came close to winning at Daytona, New Hampshire and last week at Dover, before having his hopes dashed in the closing laps, appeared destined to finish behind one of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates at Talladega.
The four SHR drivers — Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Almirola — dominated the race from the start, often occupying the top four spots.
But when a wreck involving Alex Bowman, William Byron and J.J. Yeley with two laps remaining sent the race into overtime, fuel mileage became a turning point in the race.
Harvick, who had led 46 laps and was set to restart on the front row, ran dry coming to the green flag for the final restart. And Busch, who had led 108 circuits, saw his engine sputter due to low fuel coming off Turn Four with the lead on the final lap. That opened the door for Almirola, who surged forward and took the win over Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
The 193rd and final lap was the only one Almirola led all day, and it delivered SHR its 11th win of the season, with Harvick accounting for seven, Bowyer two and one apiece for Busch and Almirola. It also marked the third straight race that a driver won for the second time in Cup, with Ryan Blaney winning on the Roval at Charlotte and Chase Elliott claiming victory at Dover.
“This is so awesome! It’s Talladega!” Almirola said as he climbed from his No. 10 Ford.
“Four or five times this year I feel like we’ve had a shot to win and haven’t been able to seal the deal. To come here, a place that I love — I won an Xfinity race here last year — I just love racing at Talladega.”
Almirola also thanked his team and the employees at Roush Yates Racing, where engines are prepared for the Ford teams.
“There are 400 employees back at Stewart-Haas Racing. There are close to 200 employees at Roush Yates’ engine shop. Thank you,” he said. “This was an incredible race for us. We [SHR drivers] were so committed to each other and so organized, and nobody in the field could touch us. It was us against the field. What an impressive run. I’m just proud to be the one on top today.”
The finishing order also scrambled the playoff standings heading into Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, where four drivers will be eliminated from championship contention as the playoff field is reduced to eight.
The four drivers currently below the cutline are Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman.
Sunday’s race didn’t produce a “Big One” multi-car crash that often occurs at Talladega, but other incidents and fuel issues affected the playoff standings, as six playoff drivers, including former champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, finished outside the top 25.
Chase Elliott seizes control at Dover to advance in playoffs
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Last fall at Dover International Speedway, Chase Elliott led a race-high 138 laps and was poised to get his first Monster Energy Cup Series victory, only to see Kyle Busch pass him for the win with two laps to go.
On Sunday at Dover, it was Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola who were left empty-handed, as Elliott took control on a late restart in the Gander Outdoors 400 and led the final 11 laps to get his second win of the season and a guaranteed advance to the third round of the Cup Series playoffs.
Harvick was the first to see his hopes dashed. A valve stem of a tire was cut during a pit stop on Lap 319 after he’d led a whopping 286 laps and won both stages.
His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Almirola quickly took over and led 64 of the next 75 laps and was four laps from victory when another teammate, Clint Bowyer, wrecked and brought out the caution flag.
As Almirola and the rest of the leaders headed to pit road for fresh tires, Elliott stayed on the track and took the lead, but on worn tires.
On the restart, Almirola, then running sixth, bounced off the wall attempting to take third place and triggered a five-car crash that collected four other playoff contenders — Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr.
After a brief red flag to clear the track, the green flag flew for an overtime run to the finish. Elliott took the lead from Denny Hamlin at the drop of the flag and sped away to get the win, with Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Kurt Busch completing the top five.
Elliott, who like his father, Bill Elliott, had eight runner-up finishes before scoring his first Cup win, said the lessons learned in past disappointments — like the one at Dover last fall — helped him seize the moment at Dover on Sunday.
“[The earlier losses] definitely make you learn for sure, and it makes you appreciate a day like [Sunday] more,” Elliott said in his winner’s interview. “I can assure you if last year wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much as I do today. When you have those hard days, that certainly makes you learn and gives you no choice but to grow up a little bit.”
The decision by Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson to stay on the track at the end meant that Elliott’s tires had 50 laps on them, while his challengers behind him had fresh rubber. But Elliott said he supported the call all along.
“I actually thought it was the move,” he said. “I was shocked that those other guys didn’t stay out there with only seven laps to go. … I’m glad they didn’t, so it worked out for me.”
While Elliott was celebrating, there was a mix of reactions from the drivers who saw their chances of victory at Dover slip away.
Harvick recovered from his tire troubles to finish sixth and retain the points lead heading into Talladega, but Almirola finished 13th and dropped to ninth in the standings, outside the top eight who will advance after two more races.
For Almirola, it was yet another opportunity to win that slipped away at the end, just like at Daytona, Chicago and New Hampshire earlier this year.
“We’ve had so many opportunities and been so close and had the car to win and been in position and, I don’t know, it just seems to not come through,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m frustrated and mad and angry.”
Photo Caption: Chase Elliott emerges from his No. 9 Chevrolet after performing a burnout to mark his win at Dover.
by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR
Wild finish highlights the Roval’s Cup Series debut
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
For many a NASCAR fan, the fall race on the 1.5-mile oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway had become just another race on a “cookie cutter” racetrack, as several of the Monster Energy Cup Series events are run on tracks very similar to Charlotte.
With at-track attendance and interest on the decline, Marcus Smith, the track’s president, and others in his company — with the blessing of NASCAR officials — decided to step way out of the box and create a track that was part road course and part of the aforementioned oval.
The 17-turn, 2.28-mile Roval track uses parts of the 1.5-mile oval at Charlotte and a radically redesigned infield road course.
For the first 103 laps of Sunday’s Roval experiment, the race was different, but not the kind of event that would have people talking NASCAR at water coolers across the country on Monday.
But the last six laps delivered the kind of drama that Roval backers were hoping for when they transformed the infield of the 59-year-old track.
On a restart with six laps remaining, Brad Keselowski, who had led the previous 29 circuits, drove off the track and into the Turn One barrier, taking five other contenders for the win with him.
After a red-flag period for clean-up, the green flag flew for a three-lap dash to the checkered flag with two former champions — Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. — leading the way.
Truex held the lead until the duo were within sight of the checkered flag, but Johnson made a desperate move into the final turn, lost control of his car and bounced into Truex, knocking them both around.
That opened the door for third-running Ryan Blaney to scoot by and get his first win of the season over Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch.
But the drama didn’t end with the Johnson/Truex spin. With the Roval race being the cutoff event for the first round of the playoffs, four drivers faced elimination, and it wasn’t until all the cars had crossed the finish line that the four losers were determined.
Among them was Johnson, who fell to eighth place and wound up tied for the 12th and final transfer spot with Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola. Johnson wound up the odd man out due to the tiebreaker of best finishes in the opening playoff round. Also eliminated were Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon.
Larson, who led a race-high 47 laps before being swept up in the 15-car crash on Lap 105, made the most dramatic run to the finish as he was able to overtake the spinning Jeffrey Earnhardt despite heavy damage to his own car. Almirola also had to gain spots in the final three laps in his banged-up No. 10 Ford.
Truex blamed Johnson for making a move that he said had no chance of succeeding.
“[Johnson] just over-drove it and was never going to make it and used me as brakes and turned us both around,” Truex said. “It sucks. We could have raced side-by-side off the last corner for a win, and that would have been cool. The fans would have been digging it, but instead we finished 14th and he’s locked out of the playoffs.
“I guess that’s what he gets.”
Johnson said a playoff berth wasn’t on his mind when he attempted to wrestle the lead from Truex.
“I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive,” he said. “But we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me.”
Blaney acknowledged that he wouldn’t have won had Truex and Johnson not wrecked.
“They were so far ahead I wasn’t even really trying, and then I saw them kind of close to each other through the oval track in [Turns] Three and Four and I was like, ‘Oh, something might happen here,’” he said in his winner’s interview. “They touched just trying to win the race, and I was lucky to sneak through there.
“That’s not how you really want to win them. I’d rather go out and dominate the race and win by a lap, but you’ve got to take them how you can get them nowadays.”
For Smith, the track president, the last-lap drama exceeded his expectations for the Roval.
“I think it was incredibly exciting,” he said. “The roar from the fans was all I needed to know that that was the moment that everybody will remember for a long time.”
Kyle Busch wins his seventh race of 2018 season, advances in Cup Series playoffs
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Brad Keselowski’s three-race win streak on the Monster Energy Cup Series came to an end on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway as the season’s Big Three drivers reclaimed their spots at the top of the pecking order.
Kyle Busch came back from a disappointing 39th-place qualifying effort to take the lead from Keselowski with 37 laps remaining and score the win. Kevin Harvick finished second, and Martin Truex Jr., who won the first two stages and appeared to have the fastest car, came back from a pit-road penalty to finish third.
It was the first time this season that the Big Three have all finished in the top three in a race.
The win was Busch’s seventh of the season, tying him with Harvick for the series lead. Truex has four wins this year and Keselowski three.
It also was Busch’s 50th Cup win, which tied him with Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 11th place on the Cup circuit’s all-time wins list. It also assures him of advancing to the second round of the Cup playoffs, which begins after the upcoming race on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Playoff drivers swept the top 12 finishing positions at Richmond, with the other four all finishing inside the top 20.
Busch, Keselowski and Truex enter the upcoming weekend at Charlotte worry-free. Harvick, who wrecked early at Las Vegas in the playoff opener, has a good chance of being among the 12 drivers advancing to the second playoff round, as he’s 57 points ahead of 13th-place Clint Bowyer, thanks to the playoff points he accumulated throughout the season.
The bottom four drivers in the standings after the Roval race will be eliminated from the playoffs.
That foursome currently consists of Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.
Busch, in his winner’s interview, explained why so many drivers are worried about the Roval.
“I think everybody is just nervous because it’s very slick,” he said. “When you go to the Roval, though, you’re just on edge the entire time. It feels like ice. You’re never comfortable. …
“I think a lot of guys will have different mentalities going in this week and what they expect and what they are looking to achieve. We’ll go in there with a good mindset and a good attitude about it, and hopefully it’ll come out well for us.”
Brad Keselowski’s hot streak continues
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
For most of the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series season, the weekly storylines were about the Big Three of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who combined to win 17 of the first 23 races.
But in the past three weeks, Brad Keselowski has emerged as the driver to beat in the 10-race playoffs, as his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday was his third in a row, following wins at Darlington and Indianapolis in the final two races of the regular season.
Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford hasn’t appeared to be the fastest car in any of his three wins, but between quick work by his crew, good race tactics from crew chief Paul Wolfe and determined effort from the driver, he’s been able to beat the Big Three as well as the rest of the field.
Truex, who finished third in spite of his No. 78 Toyota being the fastest car for much of the South Point 400, said Keselowski has found a lucky horseshoe.
“Obviously, he hasn’t led the most laps in any of those races, and he showed up at the end with good pit stops and good short-run speed,” Truex said. “He’s hot right now. He’s on a streak.”
At Las Vegas, Keselowski led 75 laps to Truex’s race-high 96 and took the lead for good with 22 laps remaining. He was the dominant driver from that point forward, as six caution periods in the final 50 laps turned the end of the race into a series of short sprints.
Keselowski excelled on restarts to take the victory, the 500th in major-league motorsports for team owner Roger Penske. Kyle Larson finished second ahead of Truex, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch, as playoff drivers swept the top seven finishing positions.
Harvick, who entered the race as the points leader, was one of eight playoff drivers who finished 19th or worse.
Still, Keselowski said he’s not ready for the conversation to shift to a “Big Four” that includes him.
“I feel like we’re proud of this win, but it’s one win in a long grind, and there are nine weeks of long grinding left,” he said. “In 2014 we won the first race, I think, in Chicago, and that was terrific. … But we were eliminated out of the playoffs four or five weeks later. … You look too far ahead, you get in trouble.”
Keselowski also said he agrees with Truex’s comments that he’s been extremely fortunate the past three weeks.
“I feel like we stole the last three races,” he said. Keselowski and other drivers said the heat on Sunday at Las Vegas, measured at more than 100 degrees, was hard on drivers, crews and fans.
“I’ve heard stories about living in an oven before, and I think I’ve lived it now,” he said. “This was a mentally grueling race because when you get hot, when you’re stuck in those situations and then you add the chaos of the restarts and all those things come together, it really tests you and challenges you mentally, and our team was able to make the most of that.”
Photo Caption: Team Penske drivers Joey Logano, left, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski celebrate the team’s 500th victory in motorsports following Keselowski’s win at Las Vegas.
By Matt Sullivan/Getty Images for NASCAR
Brad Keselowski takes regular season finale; playoff roster set
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
After going winless for the first 24 races of the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series season, Brad Keselowski has scored back-to-back victories, and they came in two of the sport’s marquee events.
On Sept. 2 at Darlington Raceway, Keselowski made a late charge to win his first Southern 500. On Monday, in a rain-delayed Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he took advantage of fresher tires on his No. 2 Ford and wrestled the lead from Denny Hamlin coming to the white flag.
Sophomore Cup driver Erik Jones made a late surge to take the runner-up spot over Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
The victory, arguably the biggest of the 26 that Keselowski has scored in his 11-year Cup career, was the first at Indianapolis in the NASCAR Cup Series for his car owner, Roger Penske, who has 17 wins as an owner in the Indianapolis 500.
Penske also won the 500 in May, giving him a sweep of the track’s top two races this season.
Keselowski was a nonfactor for most of Monday’s race. Bowyer, who led 37 laps, appeared to have the fastest car as the laps wound down. However, he made his final pit stop a couple of laps after Hamlin, running second at that point, made his stop. When Bowyer returned to the track, he was in second place and unable to overtake Hamlin.
Then Keselowski entered the picture, having stopped for fresh tires 15 laps after the leaders. He lined up eighth on the next-to-last restart and drove to third place before the race’s final caution set up a three-lap run to the finish.
Hamlin took the early lead, but Keselowski put his fresher rubber to work. After a couple of door-to-door bumps, he surged ahead to take the win.
“We weren’t the fastest car by far, but this team never gave up on it, made the most of the strategy and executed a perfect race,” Keselowski said. “That is something I am so proud of.”
The finish of Monday’s 400-miler also set the field for the 10-race, season-ending playoffs.
Kyle Busch, with an eighth-place finish, secured the regular season championship and the 15-point bonus it carries, while Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman held onto the bottom two spots among the 16 drivers who will start the playoffs this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Johnson finished 16th and Bowman was 33rd after being collected in an early crash.
Busch and Harvick will start the playoffs with 2,050 points apiece, while Martin Truex Jr. begins with 2,035. Keselowski opens with 2,019, and the rest of the drivers fall in line based on the playoff points they’ve accumulated this season by winning either races or stages. Johnson and Bowman start with the playoff minimum of 2,000 points apiece, as neither has won a race or a stage this year.
Busch said the playoff points are important, as drivers carry them through the early rounds of the playoffs and they can help a driver overcome a bad finish in one race and continue to the next round.
“Any bonus points you can pick up are obviously good ones, and I feel like we did a good job of gaining some of that stuff here this year,” he said.
Photo Caption:Brad Keselowski passes by his crew following the team’s victory in the rain-delayed Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis.
By Michael Reaves/Getty Images for NASCAR
Keselowski dominant late at Darlington
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Brad Keselowski scored two victories this past weekend at Darlington Raceway, a track where he’d never before won in any series. Keselowki capitalized late in both the Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup series races when the No. 42 Chevy owned by Chip Ganassi, which dominated both events with drivers Ross Chastain in Xfinity and Kyle Larson in Cup, respectively, fell by the wayside.
But in the overall picture, the weekend’s biggest winner was the track itself, as NASCAR’s original superspeedway continues to pack its grandstands with a successful throwback-themed weekend.
Darlington, which hosted its first Cup race in 1950, once appeared on a path to suffer a similar fate to North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and North Wilkesboro Speedway, both of which were once-popular venues but now are idle ghost tracks.
In 2004, Darlington lost its marquee Labor Day weekend race date to Auto Club Speedway in California, then lost its second race date the following year.
The track eventually was left with a race on the Saturday night before Mother’s Day, a date once considered unworkable.
But the employees of the track kept working, and the fans kept coming, and in 2015, Darlington got its Labor Day weekend date back.
Between the date reinstatement and the throwback weekend, Darlington has become one of the highlights of the season for a sport struggling with declining at-track attendance and TV viewership.
On Sunday night, the grandstands were packed with enthusiastic fans, and the weekend included appearances by numerous NASCAR Hall of Fame members who participated in fan events and a parade.
In the winner’s interview Sunday night, Keselowski spoke about what it meant to win at Darlington.
“This is such a special race track,” he said. “It always has been, and I think it always will be.
“And when we added in all this retro stuff a few years ago, it’s like a spark that just reignited this track as just being stupid-cool.”
To make the win even more special, Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford was decked out in a paint scheme reminiscent of the Miller Genuine Draft colors once used by NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, who spent much of his career driving for Keselowski’s team owner, Roger Penske.
Amazingly, Wallace never won at Darlington, and Penske hadn’t won there since 1975, when Bobby Allison drove his AMC Matador to victory in the Southern 500.
“To win here and to win wearing Rusty’s colors and driving his car, I kind of feel like I’m in a dream from when I was 10 years old,” Keselowski said. “It’s something that I’ll carry forever. It’s probably the biggest win of my career, especially with it being a weekend sweep at one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.”
Kyle Larson, who finished third behind the Team Penske duo of Keselowski and Joey Logano, left Darlington heartbroken after dominating the 500, winning both of the first two stages and leading a race-high 284 laps.
But on the race’s final pit stop, Keselowski’s crew was just a tick of the stopwatch quicker, and he beat Larson off pit road. Once the green flag was displayed, Keselowski drove away unchallenged, leading the final 22 laps to score his 25th career Cup victory.
It was Larson’s second straight finish of second or third and his seventh of the season. For his career, he has 31 finishes of second or third with just five victories.
On Saturday, Larson saw his Ganassi teammate Ross Chastain lead the most laps but lose out on a chance for victory in the Xfinity race, but he took some satisfaction in the fact that both cars went far.
“It was cool to see both cars like that, leading a bunch of laps … but at the same time, coming up short like we have a lot of times with [sponsor DC Solar] on our car is disappointing,” Larson said. “I felt like from the first run on the track on Friday, I knew we were going to have a pretty good weekend. …
“Just wish we could have got the win.”
Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for NASCAR
Kurt Busch shatters 58-race drought with night-race victory
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
After several lackluster editions in recent years, the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway regained much of its magic Saturday night.
There was a villain, Kyle Busch, who was involved in three on-track incidents and drove like a madman throughout the 500-lap race. He put on some amazing moves, but also drew choruses of boos.
There also was passing aplenty, with 19 official lead changes and lots of other action on the track.
In the end, there was a surprise winner: 40-year-old Kurt Busch, who got his sixth career Cup victory on the half-mile oval and his first since the spring of 2006. It was his 30th career Cup victory overall and his first since the 2017 Daytona 500.
But it was younger brother Kyle who was the center of the attention up until the last few laps.
The younger Busch spun on the third lap of the race and went two laps down. His crew patched up his No. 18 Toyota as best they could, and Busch began his comeback.
At the caution period for the end of the race’s second 125-lap stage, Busch got the free pass and rejoined the lead lap. Despite his car being so battered and damaged that it took extra long pit stops for his crew to refuel it, by Lap 443, Busch was challenging Martin Truex Jr. for second place when he contacted Truex’s rear bumper and sent him sliding down the track and eventually into the oncoming car of J.J. Yeley.
Truex was done for the night and initially was angry with Busch, but later accepted part of the blame for the incident.
He said he should have moved race leader Clint Bowyer aside before Busch got to him.
“I probably should’ve bumped the 14 (Bowyer) out of the way just to get the lead, and I wouldn’t have been in that position,” Truex said. “Sometimes you’re the nice guy and you get knocked out of the way. We’ll just have to race him a little harder next time.”
Busch, undaunted, continued on until Lap 483, when he, Chris Buescher and Jimmie Johnson went three wide racing for third place. There was contact, and Busch and Buescher both wound up with flat tires. Johnson acknowledged on Twitter that he should have given the two more room. Busch wound up finishing 20th.
With the action behind him simmering down, Kurt Busch was left to battle Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson for the win.
On the restart following his brother’s final incident, Kurt Busch drove away from Bowyer initially, while Kyle Larson, on much fresher tires, charged from fourth place to second.
But Larson was unable to close on Busch and wound up second over Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Bowyer.
Larson said he just didn’t have a winning car, despite winning the pole for Saturday’s race.
“I was happy about running second, but just disappointed because I had a lot of confidence going into this race and thought our car was really good,” he said.
Busch’s win locked him into the Cup Series playoffs, which begin after the upcoming races at Darlington Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Also securing spots among the 16 playoff drivers were Larson, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski, none of whom have won a race this season.
In his winner’s interview, Kurt Busch noted how special a win at Bristol is for a competitor.
“This track brings out the best in everybody,” Kurt Busch said in his winner’s interview. “Just to come here, to feel that Saturday night atmosphere, racing under the lights, it brings you back to the roots. … When you come to the Holy Grail of short tracks, you want to win it.”
Busch also said he was glad to get the win with his dad, Tom Busch, in attendance.
“I’m always a little bit more nervous when my dad is at the track,” he said. “He’s watching, sees every move.
“There are things you do on restarts he taught me from the beginning. The Saturday night atmosphere is family — brings out the best in you. Glad we were able to deliver.”
The win was the first in Cup for Busch’s crew chief, Billy Scott, but his driver predicts there are more to come.
“It’s time now. We’ve been a consistent team, but we’re starting to crest that corner of now we need to win.”
Busch said his 30th career Cup win fulfills one of his bucket-list wishes. Now there’s another within reach: the Southern 500 at Darlington on Sept. 2.
Kevin Harvick wins at Michigan — and at being a dad
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Kevin Harvick figured out a way to turn a runaway win in Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway into a feel-good story.
After leading 108 laps and winning both stages of the race for his league-leading seventh win of the season, Harvick shared his victory celebration with his 6-year-old son, Keelan.
It was Keelan who walked across the track and accepted the checkered flag, then climbed aboard his father’s No. 4 Ford for a victory lap around the track.
As Harvick slowly circled the two-mile speedway, Keelan held the checkered flag out the passenger side window. Even in Victory Lane, Keelan joined in the festivities, spraying a bottle of water on an unsuspecting official.
“It was pretty cool,” Harvick said of the father-son moment shared on national TV. “We got to go celebrate together. He’s been with me for the last three weeks, so we’ve had a big time.
“It’s pretty cool to look over there on your victory lap and see your 6-year-old in the passenger seat and being able to enjoy it with you. That was definitely way up there on the bucket list of things that you didn’t expect.
“That was pretty neat.”
Harvick also said that celebrating with his son on Sunday isn’t the only part of his job that he’s relished recently.
“I think, as you look at the year, you’ve got to remember, I spent a lot of years not having the most fun and not having the most success,” he said. “Over the past five years, we’ve been able to win a lot of races and do a lot of things on the racetrack and winning races and a championship. It’s been an incredible amount of stuff and wins packed into almost five years now.
“I’m just enjoying every moment, because you never know when it’s going to go the other way, and right now, our guys are just doing a great job, and I’m enjoying everything.”
Harvick said his and Keelan’s time away from home, where mom, Delana, was home with the Harvicks’ 8-month-old daughter, Piper, has been memorable, including the youngster’s crashing a golf cart into a tree and his first ride in a Quarter Midget race car.
“We’ve had some unapproved mom moments this weekend with the golf cart crash and the Quarter Midget,” Harvick said. “I’m sure that she’d probably be OK with him riding in the right side of the car since we didn’t do any burnouts.
“But as you look at it over the summer, like I say, he’s been with me for the last three weeks, and what other sport can you take your kids to work and be able to enjoy things like that with them, and for me as a dad, there’s not much better — and all you dads know this — than looking over and sharing one of your cool moments and looking over and the only person with you is your son.
“That’s pretty special.”
Others in the sport quickly took to Twitter to express their joy at seeing the father-son victory celebration.
“I love it,” wrote Paige Keselowski, the wife of Cup driver Brad Keselowski, and whose father, Louis White, is a Late Model racer from North Carolina. “Reminds me of riding around with my dad after his late model wins!!!”
Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric posted: “How awesome was that?!? What a special memory just made that will last a lifetime for both.”
And Sherry Pollex, girlfriend of Martin Truex Jr., weighed in too: “Seeing Keelan get to ride to VL with his Dad is pretty freaking cool.”
While some went online to lament the fact that Keelan’s story was receiving higher play than the events on the track before the checkered flag, there was drama throughout the day.
Among the more interesting developments was Ty Dillon’s crash after running over what appeared to be a battery on the track.
“I was just hoping it was a glove or something that wouldn’t collect it,” Dillon said. “As soon as it hit, it was like hitting a wall and I had no control of the car. I just drove it straight at 218 mph into the wall, no brakes, no nothing. Hopefully, NASCAR finds whose piece that was, because that shouldn’t happen in our sport.”
Then there was a pit gamble by Martin Truex’s team that took one of the sport’s Big Three out of contention for the win. Truex, trying to stretch his fuel and win the race’s second stage, ran dry and lost a lap getting back on track. He wound up 14th.
“We had a rough day for sure,” Truex said. “Everything that could go wrong did. … We never could get on the right end of things. We had a good car and that was cool because we worked hard on it today and we learned a lot this weekend.”
Brad Keselowski finished the race in second place, ahead of Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney.