Ryan: Kevin Harvick has put his own spin on the Dale Earnhardt legacy

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HAMPTON, Georgia – Imitator of “The Intimidator?”

No, and that was always the blessing, curse and confounding part of following in the footsteps of a true icon. Kevin Harvick was unfairly thrust by some into the role of unwitting savior after winning in only his third start in NASCAR’s premier series.

When he held three fingers out the window for the second time on an Atlanta Motor Speedway victory lap Sunday, Harvick was saluting the memory of Dale Earnhardt — but he also was celebrating the peace of being a middle-aged champion who took a long, arduous path to a surprising state of grace and zen nearly 17 years after the overwhelming circumstances of his first Cup victory.

No one could ever be “The Man” in NASCAR that Earnhardt was, but Atlanta reminded us in many ways how Harvick has become a man in full.

“I’ve been waiting a long time, because 2001 was very confusing,” Harvick, 42, said of winning in the ride he inherited three races after the seven-time champion died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. “It was my first win and don’t feel like I remember really anything about it because it was just such a really confusing time in my life. Just on the racetrack and with Dale gone and getting in his car.

“It was fun to actually pay tribute and smile about what was going on and not know if you should actually stick your hand out the window — if somebody was going to be offended or mad and whether it was the right thing to do or wrong thing to do and it was your first win.  So there was just a lot of confusing things. So it felt good to pay tribute to that and park it in victory lane with a smile on my face and watch everybody smile with me.”

A communal theme was revisited often by the Stewart-Haas Racing driver during his nonstop reflection after the win, and it wasn’t by accident.

The guy who always proclaims to love challenges (because wisps of boredom have tended to be self-destructive to his career) now seems to be undertaking his biggest yet. Bigger than starting his own truck and Xfinity teams, or running for two national titles concurrently while racing 70-plus times in a season.

This challenge is a variation of what he faced when he scored a hugely sentimental and therapeutic win in the aftermath of NASCAR reeling from one of its biggest voids in history.

Just as when Earnhardt’s sudden exit left many pondering who could wear his unfillable shoes, so has the disappearing axis of Jeff GordonTony StewartDale Earnhardt Jr. left open questions about the lack of gravitational guidance for the next generation of stars.

The March 2001 version of Harvick, a 25-year-old only a few years removed from racing Late Models, wasn’t cut out for any such leadership roles, and the reasons went beyond age or a dearth of worldliness.

The Bakersfield, California, native always possessed a devious love of controversy that precluded much poise. “Harvick-ing” might have blossomed with his shove of Brad Keselowski into the fray with Jeff Gordon at Texas in November 2014, but its roots run much, much deeper. Harvick routinely butted heads with all comers and with an indifference that underscored he worried about himself and little else.

The perspective started to change when he became a team owner in the mid-2000s, a father in 2012 and then a series champion (with its inherent ambassadorial responsibilities) in 2014.

Last year, Harvick took on a SiriusXM Satellite Radio show (“Happy Hours”) with co-host Matt Yocum because he admittedly needed help connecting with fans. It succeeded in bridging that chasm but more importantly, it also seems to have given Harvick a better appreciation that a place in NASCAR existed as an elder statesman if he wanted it.

“I think I totally underestimated the power of the radio show,” he said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last year. “Having an opinion about things happening in the sport is something fans really enjoy. I think people who listen to the radio show realize how much I think about things and how much we push to make things change.”

While some of his viewpoints remain controversial, Harvick has made the radio show a weekly must-listen because he has something interesting to say and usually with a nod to the big picture. It hints at the TV career awaiting in the next phase of his life, and it’s brought a new polish to the star high school wrestler who once seemed to prefer making points through physical will instead of eloquent words.

The Harvick of only a few years ago wouldn’t have joked as he did Sunday about learning the correct messaging of “playoffs” and “optical scanning station” to keep in line with his SiriusXM producers.

But it’s obviously about more than just the media formalities.

“For me right now, the sport is what enthuses me and kind of is very intriguing to me because there’s a lot of things that need some help and guidance with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn,” he said. “But we have to teach them about it. Jimmie Johnson and myself have talked about it. Somebody has to explain to them how things work and show them the ropes. And that to me is fun. You want to go beat them on the racetrack still. It’s not anything about that.

“But we need to get back to where everybody can go drink a beer together and have a good time, and I walk in the garage and we try to do as many things as we can for the officials and people and NASCAR just because … it just feels like everybody has kind of forgotten exactly how much fun this is and how lucky we are to walk into this garage on a weekly basis or to sit in that car on a weekly basis and drive race cars around in circles.”

Many of the people who taught Harvick that are gone or on their way out. Sunday, he fondly recalled sitting in smoke-filled rooms and absorbing the admonitions and wisdom of longtime NASCAR executive Jim Hunter, who died in 2010. Former president Mike Helton, who delivered Harvick some sternly and succinctly worded lectures, has deservedly scaled back office hours in the garage now that he is in his mid-60s.

Can Harvick, who never had a chance (nor did anyone) laying claim to Earnhardt’s immense sway, be the “devil may care” rebel-turned-soothsayer who takes their place as a mentor? He seems to think so.

“I’ve just got a much better appreciation of how cool it is to sit in that race car and really enjoy the things that I do,” he said. “I want to spread that to the rest of them because it’s not all sponsors and politics and business and all the things that you think it all is right now. It’s fun.

“Everything we did to get to this point is fun, and I want to make sure that everybody hears me talk about how fun this is and realize, and maybe you spark some interest in somebody in the garage or working on the car or driving a car that we’re lucky to do what we do, so you’d better enjoy it, because it might not be here tomorrow.”

That’s a lesson NASCAR learned the hard way with Earnhardt.

It’s impressive to hear his unlikely successor articulate it so well.


The inevitable repaving of Atlanta assuredly will make drivers angry whenever it happens, so why not go a step further and get creative if the new surface is guaranteed to be poorly received?

Instead of repaving, what about reconfiguring (as Dale Earnhardt Jr. hinted at on Twitter, returning the original layout could be an option)?

And if that’s open for discussion, how about getting really radical and consider transforming the track into a new layout that isn’t the 1.54-mile length?

Granted, it’s easy to spend Bruton Smith’s money and dream about adding a fourth short track to the schedule. This isn’t necessarily realistic. But it at least is worthy of discussion.

While its abrasive asphalt makes for intriguing strategies and puts a premium on driver talent with tire management, it hasn’t delivered much for side-by-side entertainment.

The last three truly memorable finishes at this track were Carl Edwards slamming by Jimmie Johnson in 2005, Harvick nipping Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Earnhardt beating Bobby Labonte in 2000. As longtime scribe Monte Dutton noted, Sunday’s 500 miles were interesting but weren’t particularly exciting.

Yes, drivers are going to howl whenever Atlanta is redone, and it’s partly because it could take years before its current dynamics can be replicated (if at all).

With that in mind, how about taking an opportunity to truly start from scratch?


Excepting the criticisms of Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. (whose brutal and honest candor should be praised and also was understandable given the circumstances), there weren’t many complaints about the new pit guns despite multiple problems Sunday.

There also was a notable absence of vociferous disapproval during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, where there also were reports of some kinks with the Paoli-manufactured equipment whose use is mandated by NASCAR this season.

Because the Team Owner Council apparently worked closely with NASCAR in helping formulate the new policies, it would make sense if the word has been put out to quell disparaging comments in the early going.

But mouths won’t stay shut for long if the problems persist, especially (which Truex explained so pointedly) as the stakes rise during the season.


If Hendrick Motorsports continues to struggle at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, don’t expect the team to hit the panic button. The schedule puts limitations on what could be applied from its woes last weekend at Atlanta. With the next three stops at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California, it will be difficult to implement major changes on the fly.

Before the race, Chase Elliott said it probably would be until late March before Hendrick can adequately assess the impact of an offseason restructuring of its competition department.

“The thing about the West Coast swing is a lot of those cars are already prepared to go west,” Elliott said. “So, things that we may learn this weekend might not have the ability to be applied to the race car that we’re racing next weekend because that car is pretty much done. So I think once you get back from (the West Coast) and kind of evaluate where you are, hopefully you can put some of the things you’ve learned toward those weeks, but if it’s bigger changes and things that you need days in the shop to do, you’re not going to be able to make those changes until you get back.”


The new kids on the block never had a chance at Atlanta, which hugely favors experience over tire management. This was perhaps best exemplified by rookie William Byron, who fell a lap down before the first caution on Lap 30 (Harvick gave him the lap back just before the yellow). After getting acclimated, Byron still finished 18th.

This weekend at Las Vegas, where Byron was among the fastest in testing a few weeks ago, will be a much better indicator of how the youth in Cup will stack up this season. As third-place finisher Clint Bowyer said, it’s a track where “it’s qualifying laps every single lap, and those kids will show back up.”

At tracks where the balance shifts to rewarding the trust of blind bravery over track knowledge, it could be a repeat of 2002 when Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman regularly outran veterans who said it was because the rookies didn’t know any better.


Fords dominated and swept the top three spots Sunday, but Atlanta isn’t grouped as much as it should be in the category of early season fool’s gold the way Daytona is. Yes, it marked the start of the unrestricted “real” season, but its unique surface makes the track an unreliable indicator of what’s to come.

Fords also led 313 of 325 laps in the 2017 race at Atlanta. And it took 32 races before a Fusion was in victory lane again on a 1.5-mile track (Harvick at Texas last November).


If the new policy had the game-changing impact that some predicted in the preseason, Atlanta would have marked the first instance in which drivers truly could benefit from NASCAR freely releasing more EFI data to teams.

But though some big-name drivers remain steadfastly opposed to the concept, there were signs that maybe it won’t make the difference that had been feared.

“I don’t think it’s really a good idea to be letting all of the other teams see driver’s data from different teams,” Truex said. “I certainly don’t want other teams looking at what I am doing. I’ve worked for 13 years to work on my style and feel like the way I drive the car and the data that is produced by that is mine. It’s not for everyone to see. … We’ll just have to see what comes out of this and what it looks like.

“At this point in time, it’s pretty much useless to look at from a standpoint that it’s just not that accurate. So I am hoping it stays that way and we’ve talked to NASCAR and do as we much as we can to help them understand. And that’s because I don’t think we want everybody in the garage driving exactly the same way.”

Said Keselowski before Friday’s practice:  “I don’t know the quality that we’re going to receive from that. There’s a really, really technical, complicated discussion that goes with it. In theory, I’m against it. In practice perhaps different, and I haven’t seen it in practice, so I kind of want to see it in practice.

“My intuition says that in theory it will work, in practice it won’t, so I really would like to get through a couple weekends of seeing it because at this point in time, the little bit of access that I’ve had to it, which has been minimal at best, says that it’s probably not going to work in practice and we won’t have to worry about it. It’s kind of a non-story, but I could be completely wrong, so I want to see it in a working environment rather than an engineering lab.”

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.