Ryan: Chicagoland let us appreciate greatness beyond Kyle and Kyle

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JOLIET, Ill. – It truly was a sight to behold at Chicagoland Speedway.

An indomitable exhibition of grit and human spirit. A triumph over long odds and impossible circumstances. A sublime example of a superstar skillset.

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer put on a superb display of the finest driving NASCAR has to offer.

Wait, you thought we were talking about Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson?

Yes, the two principals in one of the most thrilling last-lap battles in recent memory were quite the show Sunday, particularly at a 1.5-mile speedway – the maligned track length most common in Cup and also constantly derided for delivering an aero-dependent sameness in NASCAR’s premier series.

The past 12 wins on 1.5-mile tracks – every race since Austin Dillon’s fuel-mileage miracle in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 – belong to either Truex, Busch or Harvick. That’s been criticized in some corners as indicative of a dearth in the parity necessary to make NASCAR enticing.

The trio’s supremacy even has earned a ubiquitous nickname (the last time we heard so much of “The Big Three,” Chrysler was still selling K-Cars) that often is muttered with a resigned undercurrent of resentment.

But dominance still can be highly watchable, particularly when the performances are as brilliant and gutty as Sunday. The top five finishers at Chicagoland also have been the best five teams in 2018 – and each showed why in overcoming significant adversity.

All of the focus was on the two Kyles after the race, but you could make a case that Harvick, Truex and Bowyer actually drove better overall races (particularly given that the winner, Kyle Busch, earned no stage points and was a nonfactor for the first half).

  • In a No. 4 Ford that he said “was just off all weekend,” Harvick still managed to win a playoff point with the race’s most eye-popping pass that didn’t involve contact (though he nearly kissed the wall with his breathtaking move to the outside of teammate Kurt Busch to win Stage 2). Highly overlooked but nearly as impressive was how Harvick snatched the lead during a green-flag cycle on Lap 123 – picking up nearly 2 seconds on teammate Aric Almirola mostly through his smooth and swift entry and exit from the pits.
  • Truex finished fourth after starting 36th with an unfortunate pit stall that left him wedged between Larson and Ryan Blaney for 400 miles. The defending series champion still needed only 22 laps to crack the top 10, and his team kept him there despite a 14-hour Saturday in the garage (when the No. 78 Toyota was the last to clear technical inspection).
  • Though it was of his own making because of multiple pit penalties, Bowyer stayed focused to rally from briefly being two laps down to finish fifth.

“Add a fast car and a bit of a pissed-off attitude, and it is amazing what you can do,” Bowyer said.

Of course, it helps to have a good driver, too. The Cup Series has many of them.

Chicagoland provided many reasons for celebrating their greatness — a nice change of pace from the usual darts that regularly get thrown at NASCAR’s best teams simply for being … too good.


The slam-bang battle between Busch and Larson evoked memories of the best last-lap duels in which drivers still finished 1-2 despite turning their cars into smoking hulks of twisted sheet metal.

When solicited for comparisons, many Twitter users singled out the closest finish in NASCAR history – the fender-banging classic of Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven at Darlington Raceway on March 16, 2003 – as the best example of this genre.

But Busch vs. Larson felt more of a kindred spirit to the 1976 Daytona 500 when David Pearson and Richard Petty wrecked off the final turn (Pearson won because his battered Mercury was able to limp across the finish line).

The parallel was magnified by Busch’s postrace reaction to watching the final lap on NBCSN’s postrace show (1:50 of the video below). “What’s most impressive about this whole thing,” Busch said with a rising voice and widening smile. “is Larson saves it! Did he finish second? That’s awesome!”

Hey, even “The King” didn’t officially cross the finish line in ’76 (Petty finished second because there were no other cars on the lead lap).


Sunday was undoubtedly the best Cup race in Chicagoland Speedway’s 17-year history.

Was it the best race of the 2018 season?

There haven’t been many moments from the first 16 races that were as good as Chicagoland, but the Daytona 500 also had a last-lap crash for the lead and an outcome that seemed even more in doubt.

It partly resulted from several contenders crashing earlier, but there were five cars that had good chances to win in the final 10 laps at Daytona four months ago.

That should whet everyone’s appetite for Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.


The hours might have been insanely long, but kudos to NASCAR: The debut of sandwiching inspection between qualifying and the race (with no practices in between) was a success, at least in terms of avoiding the distraction of negative storylines.

Because they needed to pass only basic checks on engine, fuel cell, safety and splitters, every car made a lap in qualifying unlike many sessions at 1.5-mile tracks in recent seasons.

By the time inspection was completed at 9:51 p.m. CT (more than 14 hours after the garage opened), the disallowed times of Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Chris Buescher were barely a blip in newsworthiness (aside from the handful of reporters still waiting at the inspection bay) – and certainly less of a storyline than if they hadn’t made a lap.

Fans saw every car take a qualifying lap, even if it turned out that four didn’t count.

“The storyline was about the race, which is what it should be,” NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel, indicating the policy could be tweaked but likely would be used more often in 2019. “We’re always looking at how you can continue to focus the story just on the race. Anything to take us out of the inspection story, that’s a win.”

The schedule (which had been intended to be used in March at Martinsville Speedway before weather intervened) will be used five more times this season: Pocono, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Talladega and Martinsville.

The only drawback seemingly would be the extraordinarily long day for teams and officials, but that might be something the garage has to live with because of mitigating factors. Teams need three hours to prepare for qualifying, and NASCAR needs roughly at least two hours to complete inspection after qualifying ends.

Throw in the hour for qualifying, and that’s a six-hour window that gets trickier because NASCAR can’t inspect Cup cars while also managing an Xfinity race (which took place before qualifying last Saturday).


That schedule also could be credited with helping improve the action because teams had only two hours to get acclimated to a race held in summer heat for the first time in eight years. As often is the case during race weekends affected by inclement weather, the lack of practice seemed to have little adverse effects (Chase Elliott said he’d be fine with no practice on a weekly basis).

Other reasons the race was so good?

Some speculation centered on whether moving from the playoffs helped, but that seemed mostly circumstantial (though the cars raced Sunday assuredly won’t be as developed as in the Sept. 16 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout).

A more likely factor was the mid-90s temperatures that were tough on drivers but afforded the slick conditions amenable to producing the difficult handling that rewards first-class talent.

And then there’s the magically abrasive asphalt at Chicagoland, which has plenty of tire wear but somehow still has avoided a repave despite the beating from nearly two decades of Midwestern winters.

Consider that Kansas Speedway, which opened the same year as Chicagoland in 2001, already underwent a repave six years ago.


Why does Kyle Larson’s No. 42 seem so much better than every other Chevrolet in Cup?

“I don’t know,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said after his second at Chicagoland – his sixth top five this season — was eight spots better than the next bow-tie driver. “I don’t know if we did extra planning or what.  Last year we outran the other Chevys a lot, too, even with the old style body.  I think our team is just ahead of the other Chevy teams.

“I feel like typically at Chicago I’m an eighth-place car, and today I felt like I had winning speed.”

Unfortunately for Chevy, none of the other Camaros did, and Daytona now looms as a critical stop for drivers such as Chase Elliott (who plummeted from eighth to 19th during the 55-lap green-flag run that ended the race).

As good as Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy was in Speedweeks, Daytona might be his best shot at a playoff-clinching win over the final nine races of the regular season.


Noah Gragson is the NASCAR driver who tweets that he likes to tell it like it is.

So does his team owner Kyle Busch, who didn’t mince words when asked about the recent performance of his truck teams. Kyle Busch Motorsports hasn’t won in five races and placed fourth (Gragson), fifth (Brandon Jones) and 16th (Todd Gilliland) at Chicagoland.

“Truck stuff, man, it’s been frustrating lately,” Busch said after his win Sunday. “I don’t know why. It’s like they’re allergic to victory lane right now.  Every week they seem to figure out a way to throw it away.  Certainly got to get a lot better at being able to close out some of these races.

“Noah was good first stage, second stage. Third stage he wasn’t there. Todd passed him. Todd was horrible for the first and second stage, then had a flat there at the end.

“We got to get some wins.  That’s what it’s all about.  Those guys got to show what they’re made of.”

Busch’s blunt comments were a reminder that for all the hype surrounding the next generation of stars, there also is an accompanying demand to produce results.

Gragson, Brett Moffitt, John Hunter Nemechek and Justin Haley have given the Camping World Truck Series four winners under the age of 26 this season.

But are they on the same trajectory that sent recent heralded truck graduates Erik Jones and William Byron to Cup?

The most likely would seem to be Gragson, but there doesn’t seem to be buzz yet around a driver whose omission from a top-20 prospect list caused a minor stir earlier this year. There still are 12 races remaining this season for him to change that narrative, though.

Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 2% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races

Trevor Bayne says fire remains to run more races

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Former Cup driver Trevor Bayne says he’d like to continue racing in NASCAR after running the past three Truck races for Niece Motorsports.

Bayne crossed the finish line fifth in Thursday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway but was disqualified when his truck failed post-race inspection.

He will not drive for the team in next weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but looks to be back for an undetermined number of races.

“We’ll see what happens from here,” Bayne said after Thursday’s race. “Obviously, I don’t want to be done. I don’t feel like I need to be done. I’m 29 years old and I have a lot of experience and the fire to still do this thing.”

Trevor Bayne and his crew celebrate in Victory Lane after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, last competed in NASCAR in 2018 before his return.

He made 187 Cup starts from 2010-18. He won the Daytona 500 for Wood Brothers Racing in his second career series start. Bayne didn’t run a full schedule until 2015 when he moved to Roush Fenway Racing.

He ran 21 Cup races in 2018 season, sharing his ride with Matt Kenseth at Roush. Bayne was not retained after that season and had not competed until driving for Niece Motorsports at the Darlington Truck race on Sept. 6.

“I’m trying to make the most of every lap and enjoy every lap because you don’t know when it’s your last lap,” Bayne said. “For me I would love to rebuild. If I could run a truck full-time and battle for a championship, I think that would be awesome. I think that would be great. If down the road it led to a Cup deal, then I wouldn’t be mad about it, but that’s also not really the goal right now. The goal is to make the most of it at Niece Motorsports with how many races I get.”

Since losing his ride, Bayne opened Mahalo Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee shop in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bayne admits to mixed emotions since his exit from racing.

“It was a roller coaster,” he said. “There were weeks when I was blowing everybody’s phone up that I knew in racing, like, ‘Hey man, what do you got? Is there anything we can put together?’ Probably getting on everybody’s nerves. Some weeks I was just over it.”

Bayne said he decided recently to compete in Super Late Model races and was preparing a car when he got the chance with Niece Motorsports to run at Darlington.

“It’s putting a smile on my face to be turning laps,” Bayne said.

Friday 5: Thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

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Ryan Blaney’s message to competitors in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race is simple.

I caution those in front of me that I am not going to be behind them for very long if we are faster than them,” he said.

Ditto for Matt DiBenedetto.

“You’re not going to do anything stupid, he said, “but you can’t sit and wait behind them.”

Those two drivers face the biggest challenges to advance to the second round of the playoffs. DiBenedetto is 25 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the final transfer position entering Saturday’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Blaney trails Bowyer by 27 points.

No driver so far back entering an elimination race has made it to the next round since the playoff format debuted in 2014.

“I would love to say it is another race weekend, but it is our season, pretty much,” Blaney said Saturday’s race.

It will take a mix of aggression and patience during the 500-lap playoff race by Blaney and DiBenedetto to advance.

The line between aggressive and dirty driving can be blurry. Not every driver will see it the same way. With the need to move through the field and score as many points as possible — or win stages and the race — Blaney and DiBenedetto will have less patience, but where is the line?

DiBenedetto goes back to the All-Star Open in July. He restarted deep in the field after pitting in the first stage when not all the cars did. He worked his way through the field to win the final stage to advance to the All-Star Race.

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race were aggressive to get through the field,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything’s on the line and you’re trying to make the All-Star Race and it’s a very short race. 

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race, if it were a regular points race and we’re at the beginning of the race or something, some of those moves probably at that time were just considered aggressive because everyone knows what we’re doing and what’s at stake. In other situations, they could have been dirty because I moved some people out of the way. That’s a little bit of a moving target, so it’s hard to answer that question. 

“I would say for this weekend that everyone usually knows what’s on the line for different people.”

2. Out of sight but not out of mind

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier knew that he faced a one-race suspension late in the Southern 500 when it was evident that Clint Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not tight.

From my vantage point on the pit box, I kind of watched the tire changers, and I saw that it didn’t look like he was hitting all the lug nuts,” Klausmeier said. “He was swinging for them, but not making contact and then the car left. I kind of knew that we would have some kind of issue there, so we kind of went back and looked at the video and made sure that it wasn’t going to be a safety thing.”

Johnny Klausmeier and driver Clint Bowyer enter Bristol holding the last transfer spot to the second round. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The team didn’t see a safety issue so Bowyer stayed on track, finishing 10th. Had Klausmeier called his driver back to pit road to secure the lug nuts, Bowyer likely would have lost at least 10 points. Instead of holding on to the final transfer spot entering Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer would have been outside the cutline.

Saving those points, though, meant that Klausmeier would miss last weekend’s race at Richmond because of the suspension.

What was it like not to be at the track and still call the race?

“I didn’t feel like it was more efficient than actually being there,” Klausmeier said. “There is a delay in the audio. There is a delay in the broadcast. There is a delay in the information transfer.

“Then just being there and when the tires come off the race car on a pit stop, being able to walk down behind the pit box and visually look at the tires and see what the wear looks like. (Also) coming up and calculating changes and things that you’re going to do based on what you see and feel looking at the racetrack and getting that information real time. 

“I do not think the role of a crew chief can be done virtually. I think you have to be there. You have to be immersed in it. You can’t just go down and get the pit crew guys rallied up. You can’t see what’s going on with the car, so you miss out on those things and there is a little bit of a delay in the communications, so it’s not ideal but we managed to do it.”

3. Pit road speeding

Pit road speeding penalties could play a key role in Saturday’s Cup race.

Twenty-one speeding penalties were called in the May Cup race there. Each of the last three Cup races at Bristol has had at least 11 speeding penalties.

Brad Keselowski overcame a pit road speeding penalty to win the May race — but he was helped by leader Denny Hamlin hitting the wall and then Chase Elliott and Joey Logano later making contact racing for the lead in the final laps.

Matt DiBenedetto was caught speeding on pit road after Stage 1. He finished the stage seventh and restarted 28th because of the penalty. DiBenedetto was 22nd when he was collected in a nine-car crash, ruining his race. He finished more than 40 laps behind the leaders.

Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also were penalized for speeding on pit road in the May race. Austin Dillon was penalized twice in May. Both times came after he was involved in a crash on Lap 330.

4. Almost there

Brandon Brown is set to clinch the final spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs Friday night at Bristol. He enters with a 49-point lead on Jeremy Clements for the final transfer spot. Brown will clinch a playoff spot provided there is not a new winner outside the top 12 in points.

Brandon Brown is in position to make the Xfinity Series playoffs on Friday night for the first time. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brown’s family-run team has eight employees. He spends part of his time at the shop helping with the vehicles. Brown also is focused on trying to find sponsorship for this season and next year.

He has been to a simulator only once this season, going before the Daytona road course race. When he wants to get some sim time, he starts his iRacing rig. And his physical training? It’s limited to running. The gym he uses in his apartment complex is closed because of COVID-19.

So with all that around him, he’s about to clinch a playoff spot.

Brown also knows some view him as being aggressive on the track. He doesn’t hide from such viewpoints.

Getting down to the playoffs and having an opportunity like this, it’s not something that comes around for everyone,” Brown said. “So for me, it pushes me that much harder to want to make that happen.

“It’s hard to back yourself down to ‘I need to run smarter to make sure we’re bringing the car home all four corners on it.’ At the same time, I want to get everything out I can out of the car and push to get the best result possible because this is our run, our chance at the playoffs.

“Taking a little bit extra risk, to me, it’s worth it, to really put my name out and to really make something happen this year. The risk is worth the reward to me, but I’m sure that others would view it differently.”

5. Odds and ends

# Matt DiBenedetto said his contract with the Wood Brothers is through this year with options for 2021, ’22 and ’23. He said the deadline for the team to pick up the option for next season is the end of this month.

I guess I should know pretty soon,” he said. “I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes.”

# The Joey Logano Foundation will donate $22,000 each week of the playoffs to organizations that support children and young adults in crisis. The organizations selected help those that are homeless, within the foster care system or aging out of the foster care system.

Those organizations include Children’s Hope Alliance, The Relatives, Youth Villages, Least of These and Crossnore School & Children’s Home.

# Martin Truex Jr. has won four of the last seven races at short tracks.

# Kyle Busch has one victory in his last 50 Cup races.

# Kevin Harvick has scored 46% of his Cup wins after turning age 40.

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Bristol Truck race results, driver points

Bristol Truck race results
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Sam Mayer scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win Thursday night. The 17-year-old finished ahead of GMS Racing teammate Brett Moffitt.

Mayer is the youngest driver to win a Truck race at Bristol.

Tanner Gray placed third and was followed by Parker Kligerman and Chandler Smith.

Gray’s finished tied a career high. Kligerman’s finish was his best this season.

Trevor Bayne crossed the finish line fifth but his truck was disqualified for failing post-race heights in inspection.

The next race in the playoffs is Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

POINTS

Brett Moffitt leads the points after the opening race in the first round of the playoffs. He leads Sheldon Creed by nine points. Zane Smith trails Moffitt by 12 points.

Click here for points report