Long: Emotions boil in Phoenix, providing spark for NASCAR

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Michael McDowell’s actions can be questioned, but his explanation for the fight with Daniel Suarez on Friday was what NASCAR fans have waited to hear.

“It’s emotions,” McDowell said.

Amen.

“That’s just the way it is,” McDowell said.

Not exactly.

It was that way in NASCAR all the way to the 1990s before the sport gentrified to placate sponsors. The trade-off for money was losing one’s soul.

The sport seeks to reclaim its spirit and return to those rougher ways. That doesn’t mean going all the way back to the untamed “Wild West” days. But it’s OK for a driver to show their anger. And many have in recent years.

The fight at Phoenix between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell — during qualifying of all things — illustrates the heightened tensions this season.

Joey Logano predicted two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway that the new rules package, which is intended to tighten the field, “is going to cause probably more wrecks and more tempers are going to fly and more drama is going to be there.”

Other than Daytona, there haven’t been the wrecks — last week’s Las Vegas race had cautions only for the two stage breaks — but the tempers are rising.

NASCAR’s season of drama could be beginning. And that could be a good thing for fans, who want to see more emotion on and off the track.

Suarez was upset with McDowell on Friday for getting in his way during the first round of qualifying. That slowed Suarez, who failed to advance. Suarez will start 28th. McDowell starts 27th.

After the round, Suarez went to McDowell’s car to express his displeasure. McDowell, upset because he felt Suarez tried to wreck him, shoved Suarez to trigger the scuffle.

They soon became entangled before Suarez threw McDowell to the ground. McDowell’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, rushed in and shoved Suarez onto the hood of McDowell’s car. Suarez tried to kick McDowell while still on the car.

Suarez said afterward that McDowell’s actions hurt him for the race. Suarez’s team now has a later pick for pit stalls, which are selected in order of starting position. And Suarez will have to start deeper in the field in what is a short race, lasting 312 miles.

Qualifying poorly and having a bad pit stall pick hurt Logano at Atlanta. His stall was between the pit stalls of Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr. Logano lost at least 10 spots on each of the first two pit stops.

In a short race, that could be hard to overcome. Plus, drivers talk about the challenges of the “dirty air” of running behind a competitor. Starting deeper will provide a greater challenge for Suarez.

So it was understandable why he was upset when he headed to McDowell’s car on pit road.

This is what NASCAR has sought and tried to foster since the “Boys, have at it” years to now (NASCAR did not call either driver to the hauler Friday). Fans complain that drivers are too weary of upsetting sponsors by their actions. That mattered little to McDowell or Suarez.

This is the second time this season that McDowell has angered a fellow Ford driver.

Michael McDowell and Joey Logano discuss the end of the Daytona 500. Photo: NBC Sports

Logano was mad at McDowell for pushing the Toyota of Kyle Busch on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of Logano. McDowell, who had not been enamored with how Ford drivers raced him in that event, said after that race that “my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win.”

McDowell isn’t the only driver who has been at the subject of driver frustrations.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has upset a fellow competitor in each of the first three races. Logano was angered by a move Stenhouse made during the Daytona 500 and said on his radio: “Ricky Stanhkouse. God. He sucks.”

Truex was furious with Stenhouse, who was a lap down, for not getting out of his way as Truex attempted to chase down leader (and eventual winner) Brad Keselowski at Atlanta. Truex finished second but left convinced he could have won had he been able to get around Stenhouse sooner. Stenhouse discounted Truex’s argument.

Last week, Stenhouse and Erik Jones raced each other as if they were at Martinsville instead of Las Vegas.

Friday, Truex could enjoy the show. He was a fan as he watched McDowell and Suarez rumble.

Had Truex ever seen a fight on pit road during qualifying?

“I did today,” he said.

“It was awesome.”

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Kevin Harvick wins Bristol night race

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Kevin Harvick held off Kyle Busch to win Saturday’s Cup night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Harvick came out on top after a spirited battle with Busch over the last 40 laps of the race. Harvick claimed his ninth win of the season, a career-best mark. He previous high was eight wins in 2018.

“To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a ringer there,” Harvick told NBCSN. “I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right-front nose, but just kept fighting. We don’t have anything else to lose. We were here to try to win a race.”

The top five was completed by Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola. Clint Bowyer finished sixth and was the last car on the lead lap.

MORE: Race results, points standings

MORE: What drivers said after the race

Busch, who is now winless through the first 29 races of the season, finished second after he started from the rear due to two pre-race inspection failures. He took the lead for the first time when he left pit road first during the Stage 1 break. He wound up leading 159 laps to Harvick’s 226.

Harvick’s nine victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century. Harvick has won three of the last five races.

“It’s just been a weird year, but it’s been an unbelievable year on the racetrack,” Harvick said. “I can’t thank everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing enough.”

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.

The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.

Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Cole Custer entered the race below the cutline to advance to the Round of 12 and were all eliminated from contention.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Elliott

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Erik Jones earned his second top five in the last three races … Tyler Reddick earned his third top five of the season and his first since the July 19 race at Texas … Ryan Preece placed ninth for his first top 10 of the year … Michael McDowell finished 10th for his fourth top 10 this season, a career-best

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished last after he was eliminated in a crash on Lap 29 after he made contact with Jimmie Johnson … Matt DiBenedetto’s chances of advancing in the playoffs were dashed when he had to pit for loose right rear tire on Lap 187 and then was caught speeding on pit road after returning to the lead lap. He finished 19th …. Martin Truex Jr. finished 24th after he had to pit for a tire issue on Lap 214 … Denny Hamlin finished 21st after he rammed into the back of Truex moments after he exited pit road following his stop … William Byron was eliminated from the race and playoff contention late in Stage 2 after he ran into the back of Christopher Bell … Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski placed 34th after he lost power steering early in the final stage and was black flagged for not meeting minimum speeding. After a lengthy stay in the garage, Keselowski returned to the race with about 105 laps left in the race.

WHAT’S NEXT: Round of 12 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

 

What drivers said after Bristol night race

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Kevin Harvick – winner: “We had just a really, really good Busch Light Ford Mustang tonight. I got it a little dinged up with 50 or 60 laps to go. I knocked a hole in the nose and made it a little too tight through the center of the corner, but turned into a heck of a race, in and out of traffic there with Kyle (Busch). He got me once pinned up there in traffic and I was able to do the same thing back and then hold the lead there until the end. Just really proud of everybody for everything that they’ve done all year and just continuing to fight, and there’s not many races that you can win that are like winning here at the Bristol night race. That was a lot of fun.”

Kyle Busch – finished 2nd: “Frustrated over finishing second.  You know, just felt like this was one of our greater shots to win, and I don’t know. You know, just come up short. You know, Skittles Camry was fast and we had a good car, one that was in contention all night long.  Fired off the start of the race, I was like, oh, wow, this is a pretty good car and then got beat by another really good car, I guess.”

Erik Jones – finished 3rd: “I guess it was a solid day. I thought we had a good car there at the end. But had to start at the back and that took a while to work through there and get some track position. It is really challenging to pass here, even though it is a short track. But a good run. The Auto Owners Camry got better all night, and honestly the last run of the race was our best. We got up there into third and I kind of knew I couldn’t beat those guys straight up, so I tried to save a little bit on the front side of the run and run at the end hard, and just kind of ran out of time. I just started getting to those guys there when we took the checkered.”

Tyler Reddick – finished 4th: “Our No. 8 Childress Vineyards Chevrolet Camaro was a fast one tonight, and we had a great finish to show for it at Bristol Motor Speedway. It took a couple adjustments to get our car to where I needed it to be, but our communication as a team on what adjustments to make has been a big focus for us over the past few weeks and that paid off during tonight’s race. I fired off a little loose on the bottom and tight on the top, so our team had a decision to make on what to focus on. I felt that the top the better groove for our car, so we chose to work on loosening up our Chevrolet a little bit throughout the night and got it in a really good spot for the final stage.

“Those adjustments made it so I was able to cut through traffic during that last stage and race our way into the top five for the last 100 laps or so. I think I may have pushed my front tires a little bit too much on that final run, but this was a really good night for our team. We’re chasing wins in these remaining races while also working on building a strong notebook for next year, and this is a solid step in the right direction for both of those goals.”

Aric Almirola – finished 5th: “We had a solid top five tonight at Bristol and we’re moving on to the Round of 12 again. It was a great run. We missed it a bit to start. This Smithfield Ford team worked so hard to make the right adjustments all night. I was scrapping in the car to get everything I could get. Really proud of everybody on the race team. Ready to see if we can’t make it happen again in this next round.”

Clint Bowyer – finished 6th: “We definitely did what we needed to do. Our Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Engine Ford Mustang was pretty good tonight. We were just way too loose to run with (Harvick or Busch). The cycle on the tires when we actually had that caution, had a cycle on the tires and that usually makes it tighter and that was by far our best run. We drove up through them pretty good and put ourselves in position there, but as soon as the green flag dropped right there at the end I was right back loose again.  We did what we had to do. Obviously, you come here to win a race and be on top of that building over there, but proud of the guys and all their efforts.  We’re moving forward and that’s all that matters right now.”

Chase Elliott – finished 7th: “Definitely excited to move on in the playoffs. I thought the NAPA team had a solid race tonight. It’s unfortunate the way the pit cycle went there, but I felt like we were close. Not sure if we were as good as (Harvick) and (Kyle Busch), but I thought we were close to them. I am proud of the effort and I hope this next round is good for us. It’s definitely not going to get any easier as it goes. Nice to get the stage point and stage win and we will try again in Vegas.”

Ryan Preece – finished 9th: “That was a really fun night at Bristol Motor Speedway. This year has obviously had its challenges for us, and we’ve worked so hard to try and make the strategy play in our favor and get JTG Daugherty Racing the finish we deserve and it feels really good to be able to put it all together. Our BUSH’S Beans Chevrolet was really good on the long run … The cautions finally fell our way and we were able to capitalize on it. Every week for the rest of the season is so important to keep focusing on the positives and get as many good finishes as we can and to be able to get BUSH’S Beans as top-10 finish at their home track is something we’re all proud of.”

Michael McDowell – finished 10th: “Well, what an awesome night for our No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang. We got a top-10 at Bristol. I’m really proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports. I’m so thankful to Bob Jenkins and all of my guys for giving me this opportunity. It’s the best season that I’ve ever had and another top 10 really helps to keep our momentum rolling. We also have a Ford in Victory Lane, so that’s awesome. I’m just super-excited to get a top 10 at Bristol.”

Joey Logano – finished 11th: “We had a car that was probably top five. It wasn’t as good as (Harvick and Busch) but we had something that was competitive and had that longer run with a loose right rear wheel and we tried to make it last long and it started to get pretty bad. Here, if you go too long it will ruin your chances for the day. It felt like we were late enough in the run that maybe we would start to cycle if we pit. We were so close. The caution was because of (Harvick) pitting and bottling everyone up. We were probably 10 or 15 laps from the cycle being complete and getting our lap back and being in contention for an even better finish. That is how it goes sometimes. We had a solid car and we have a lot of momentum still into the playoffs with three really solid runs outside of one little hiccup here. We will move on to the next round and be happy.”

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th: “We did what we had to do tonight in our Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road/ E-Z-GO Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We advanced to the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Playoffs. We started off really strong, but our Chevy ended up getting extremely tight in Stage 2. We recovered from that and were running in the top 10 when Harvick slowed on the track to make a green-flag pit stop. I got on my brakes as hard as I could to avoid hitting him, but a lapped car was in the middle of the track and I had nowhere to go. My RCR team did a great job making repairs, but we were never able to catch the break we needed to get back into the top five. Our car was fast overall tonight, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish during the remainder of the season. We’ll go to Las Vegas next week and try to get a win.”

Ryan Blaney – finished 13th: “We started off tight and then that second run we got really tight after the competition caution and lost a lot of track position. After that, we kind of were able to drive up through there. We got to fifth or sixth the one time and we were super tight again and it went really long. That just kind of made it worse and we just kind of got behind there. The track just swung really tight. I was kind of tight all night, but it just swung really tight on us and that was just the wrong direction that the track needed to be at. That stinks.”

Kurt Busch – finished 15th: “It was a good day, we had a loose wheel and we battled after that, but our stage points are what really helped the Monster Energy Chevy tonight. That gave us the cushion we needed to absorb the problem that we had. All-in-all we advanced and that’s what we expected to do and that is what we have to continue to do. We will do it through teamwork and execution. The next round we have a mile-and-a-half Superspeedway and then the Roval. We’ve just got to be on our toes, keep adjusting and adapt to all the things that are coming our way in the next round.”

Alex Bowman – finished 16th: “That was pretty eventful. We had a really good car all night. Our Axalta Camaro was really fast. Probably going to end up somewhere in the top five, at least the top 10. We just had a tire issue under green there in the last stage and had to pit. Unfortunately, we were not in our window to pit. Once the caution did come out, we weren’t able to take the wave around. We were just kind of trapped there and unfortunately couldn’t recover from that. … So awesome to advance to the next round. Proud of my team. This is the strongest we have been going into the Round of 12. I feel like we have some great tracks for us coming up. This is the most consistent we have been as a race team. I am bummed we lost our streak of top-10 finishes, but we have plenty more opportunities throughout the year to have great cars and contend for wins. Wish we would have ended up a little better, but we are ready for Vegas.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 18th: “Our Germain Racing team battled all night long. It was a really good night for our GEICO Camaro ZL1 1LE. Everyone on our team executed throughout the entire race, from Matt (Borland) making good calls, the pit crew having great stops and Chris (Monez) on the spotter stand helping me navigate traffic. We all worked hard and it paid off. The car was its best at the end of the race, which is all you can ask for as a driver. I’m proud of our effort and we will keep digging to finish strong.”

Matt DiBenedetto – finished 19th: “If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all. I don’t know. It’s just frustrating. I hate it. I want to get Menards and Dutch Boy and this team a good run like they deserve because we’ve had a rough couple weeks, and had a loose wheel, overcome it — drive through the entire field with a lot of green flag. We get to seventh, hoping for a caution, but either way we drove to the top 10 — good run — and I was screaming, ‘Debris in (Turn) 1,’ three damn times and we found it. We ran it over multiple times and I cut the right-rear down and it just ruins our day.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 20th: “The crew put together a solid top 15, maybe even top-10 car tonight at Bristol. Our No. 38 Mystik Lubricants Ford Mustang was decent on the long run, but we struggled a little with drive off. After the first stage, it was looking like we were going to have a decent night. We tried a couple of different adjustments on pit road tonight – some of them helped, some not as much. Overall, we wanted to be able to finish a few spots higher. Thanks to our partners at Mystik Lubricants for coming on board with us this season. We’ll debrief this week and come back ready for Las Vegas.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 21st: “I think (Martin Truex Jr.) must have been on the splitter or something when he came out after he took a green flag pit stop. He just kind of went straight off of the corner. I was running the top and when he went straight, he saw he was going to hit the wall, so he slammed on the brakes and I was going, so I jammed up under him. That was unfortunate. That was bad luck for us. I think he was a couple laps down, but they were fighting their car all day. I’m sure they got in the next round, but we just had some bad luck. We drove up to fifth, and I felt pretty good. We caught the lead within three seconds – drove to them within three seconds, so I was pretty happy about where we were going to be, and then we crashed.”

Bubba Wallace – finished 22nd: “We had a pretty fast No. 43 Cash App Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE tonight – probably the best car we’ve ever brought to Bristol (Motor Speedway), so that was a positive. We got a stage point in Stage 1. I thought the guys were doing a really good job throughout the night. Our Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was on the tight-side a little bit. We didn’t really seem to help it, but we didn’t really hurt it all either – kind of just stayed the same balance from the start of the race to the finish. A little frustrating, but super frustrated that we just can’t seem to get some luck on the strategy side. Unfortunate that we got trapped three-laps down, or whatever it was, and you’re just stuck, especially that late in the race. We’ll go onto the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and see if we can turn it around.”

Cole Custer – finished 23rd: “We just struggled here. I don’t know why. I’ve always liked Bristol, it just hasn’t come together this year here. We’ve just really struggled. I just can’t thank everybody enough at SHR, everybody at HaasTooling.com, Autodesk.  I just wish we had a better night. We were just a little bit off. I think we can hang our heads high on what we’ve done this year, but we still have a lot of races to win the rest of this year, so we just have to keep building.”

Daniel Suarez – finished 26th: “We deserved better than that. I don’t know what happened at the end there, but it should not have happened. We had a few things to work on at the start of the race. Then, in the middle part of the race, we were super tight for a long time until the Toyota Genuine Parts & Service car really started coming to me on old tires. We didn’t make any changes on the last stop and it was feeling pretty good until what happened there at the end. That’s Bristol, I guess. Let’s go to Las Vegas.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 34th: “It was a frustrating night, there is no way around that. I am thankful we were able to lead some laps but that certainly was not what we were hoping for. We had a power steering pump issue. I am not sure exactly what it was. I will let the team guys get to that and chase it down. Obviously it killed out chances. I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have that problem but we did so we will move on to the next week and I am thankful we had the win at Richmond last week to fall back on.”

William Byron – finished 38th: “I think the No. 51 car (Joey Gase) checked up in the middle of the straightaway. As fast as we were running the top, I was right behind the No. 95 (Christopher Bell) and I had literally nowhere to go. You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that. Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out. I thought honestly we had a shot to run top-five or seven. The car was really, really good. We just needed a couple good pitstops. We were running probably ninth or tenth there. Just super disappointing – I’ve got to go back and watch that because that was kind of ridiculous.”

Kyle Busch criticizes lapped cars, predicts playoff elimination

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Kyle Busch took shots at Joey Gase, Garrett Smithley and Joey Logano after his second-place finish at Bristol Saturday night before predicting his elimination from the playoffs in the next round.

Busch expressed frustration with how lapped traffic factored in his runner-up finish, which extended his Cup winless streak to 29 races.

Busch shared his ire for Smithley and Gase when asked about why he didn’t attempt to dump Kevin Harvick on the last lap.

“It actually never crossed my mind,” Busch said. “You always try to win races clean, you always try to race hard, race clean and get the job done right. If that lapped car wasn’t there I would have blown it in on the outside or the inside and maybe we would have banged each other’s doors or whatever and had a greater finish to the checkered, but some of them (expletive) kids don’t know what the hell they’re doing or where they’re at and can’t stay out of the way. Nothing like a Gase and a Smithley.”

Harvick and Busch had to navigate around Gase in the No. 51 car as they went into Turn 3 on the final lap. Gase was in the outside lane and forced both of them to the inside.

Gase placed 31st, 37 laps down. Smithley, driving the No. 78, finished 32nd, 64 laps down.

This is not the first time Busch has been angered by Smithley or Gase. Busch finished a lap down in 19th in last year’s playoff opener at Las Vegas after he ran into the back of Smithley, who finished the race 12 laps down.

“We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack,” Busch said. “It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Both Smithley and Gase responded to the criticism by defending their careers on social media.

On Saturday, Busch also took aim at Logano when asked about being held up by the No. 22 Ford earlier in the stage.

“He’s nobody’s friend for a reason, so there you have it,” Busch said.

Busch’s runner-up finish Saturday night came after he started from the rear because of two pre-race inspection failures.

He led 159 of 500 laps on the way to his fourth runner-up finish of the season.

“Just didn’t have enough at the end,” Busch said. “The guys did a great job and gave me a really great piece tonight to contend and at least be up there and be close. Unfortunately, just didn’t have enough. Lapped cars were definitely a problem. It’s part of racing. You have to try to get around them where you can and there was just no room for me to do what I needed to do with a couple of those opportunities to get past them.”

Busch enters the Round of 12th in 10th in the standings. When asked if he felt the No. 18 team was close to Harvick and Denny Hamlin in terms of speed and performance going into next weekend’s race at Las Vegas, Busch bluntly answered “no.”

“We’ll be eliminated in the next round, so don’t care,” Busch said.

Bubble drivers see playoff hopes burst at Bristol

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The four drivers hoping to race their way into a transfer position for the second round of the playoffs all failed to do so Saturday night.

William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney saw their championship hopes end at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“Unfortunate end for this whole group,” Ryan Blaney told NBCSN. “Really proud of the effort. We’re not done. We can go try to win races.”

MORE: Click here for driver points report

Blaney was hurt by a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue before the Southern 500 playoff opener. Darlington and Richmond, the first two tracks in the opening round of the playoffs, also are among his worst and it showed.

“We just didn’t perform in the first round like we needed to to transfer,” said Blaney, who finished 13th. “We needed to step up. We had too many issues.”

DiBenedetto, in his first playoffs, struggled. He finished 21st at Darlington, 17th at Richmond and 19th at Bristol.

Saturday, a gamble to score points in the first stage backfired when the stage ended with a long green-flag run. He ran over debris in the second stage and had to pit under green for a flat right rear tire.

“If our didn’t team didn’t have bad luck lately, we wouldn’t have any at all,” DiBenedetto said.

With his playoffs over, he focuses on the remaining seven races and where he’ll race next year. Wood Brothers Racing has till the end of the month to pick up his option for next season.

“I can’t possibly explain to people the emotional rollercoaster of doing this for a living,” he said. “I am very appreciative to do it and love it, and I hope I’m driving for this team next year and hope to keep on doing it.  We have a lot to build off of. We’re just barely getting started, but, man, it is tough.

“I’m glad we made the playoffs. I’m proud of my team. Tonight shows the fight that we have as a team, rebounding like that. I just hate that we miss the next round and had some not-so-good races, bad luck tonight, you name it, but we’ve got a lot of season left. We still have a lot of positions in points to fight for and we have fast race cars like you see tonight, so we still have a lot of stuff left and hopefully a lot of good things to come.”

Custer’s car was damaged during the race as a group suddenly slowed. He finished 23rd.

“That pretty much did us in for the night,” Custer said of the damage to the nose of his car. “Just part of running back there. We had to run better. I was probably a little better off. It’s just been hard to get the feel here that I want here.”

Byron finished 38th after his car was damaged in an incident.