Friday 5: Anger building during NASCAR’s season of rage

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Call this NASCAR’s season of rage: Drivers sniping, fussing and even a few fighting.

The anger was evident last weekend at Watkins Glen International. A seven-time champion ridiculed a competitor in an interview on NBCSN. A young driver’s expletive-laced comments explained why he spun a former champion.

The confrontations and cross words are not surprising in a season that might best be described with an angry face emoji.

The Cup Series is going though a transition. A new rules package is meant to excite current fans, coax new fans and create tight racing that can lead to clashes on and off the track. While the new rules have enhanced racing at 1.5-mile tracks, drivers say that passing remains a challenge. Thus blocking, once a tactic found primarily at Daytona and Talladega, has become commonplace. So have the conflicts.

There’s also a battle between veteran drivers and the next generation. The last few years have seen many veterans leave, and several new drivers arrive. Seventeen of the 40 starters in the Daytona 500 three years ago are no longer full-time Cup drivers, a list that includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. One driver who missed that race with an injury was Tony Stewart. He returned nine races into the year for what was his final Cup season.

Mix blocking with a generational gap in how to race, and one gets a mercurial situation. Add the pressure to make the playoffs and simply stand back because somebody is about to lose their cool.

So there was Jimmie Johnson, who holds the final playoff spot entering Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), confronting Ryan Blaney last weekend at Watkins Glen after Blaney’s contact spun Johnson. After their talk, Johnson told NBCSN that “I couldn’t hear what (Blaney) was saying, his lips were quivering so bad that he can’t even speak. I guess he was nervous or scared or both. I don’t know what the hell the problem is.”

Farther up pit road, Bubba Wallace said he wasn’t backing down. He turned Kyle Busch — Wallace’s former boss when Wallace ran in the Truck series — in retaliation for contact that sent Wallace into a tire barrier.

“I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said. “That’s for when guys fail to think about the young guys, I guess, or with me.

“I won’t put up with no shit. So I flat out wrecked his ass back.”

These disagreements have been going on throughout the season. It’s just that they’ve become more common lately.

Ryan Newman said he had a discussion with Blaney about blocking after a couple of incidents at Charlotte. Newman says blocking is not racing and he doesn’t do it.

“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down,” Newman said. “You, as a racer, are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”

As for his discussion with Blaney, Newman said he told the fourth-year Cup driver: “The next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.”

Blocking was an issue Clint Bowyer had at the end of the Kansas race with Erik Jones in May. Jones, who is in his third full season, moved multiple lanes to block Bowyer’s charge and then drifted up to keep Bowyer behind.

“I had a huge run on both those guys but that kid, I guess he was willing to wreck himself to hold the position,” Bowyer said of Jones that night.

There have been other cases of veterans trying to lay down the law with a younger driver. After declaring last year he wasn’t going let off the gas when he was blocked because he had been wrecked from behind doing so, Brad Keselowski delivered “a message” at Daytona in July. He turned William Byron when Byron blocked him in practice.

“It would have been, I feel like, more professional to come talk to me about what was wrong instead of tearing up a race car and make my guys have to bring out a backup and have to work all the way through last night and show up early this morning and have to work even more,” Byron said the day after the incident. “I don’t think that’s the way to handle it. That’s kind of the unnecessary part for me that I don’t appreciate.”

It hasn’t just been veterans and young drivers having issues. Bowyer and Newman had contact after the All-Star Race that spun Bowyer. After exiting his car, Bowyer, ran to Newman’s and started punching Newman as he sat in his car.

Even young guys have been upset with one another. Alex Bowman was not happy with Joey Logano‘s driving at Charlotte, saying Logano “about crashed us in practice and then he drove into Turn 1 and tried to turn us (in the 600). I like Joey a lot. It is what it is. We’re all racing hard. I’m not super mad about it, I just thought it was dumb, that’s all.”

Asked about how drivers are racing each other, Bowman said: “Everybody has to race everybody hard with this package. There’s not a lot of room for give and take. I thought the situation was, there was a good chunk of the race left, it was pretty unnecessary. Probably wouldn’t have been as mad as I was about it if (Logano) didn’t about crash us in practice, which I thought was really unnecessary.

“It’s all good, and he’ll get his for sure.”

Bowman, who has a victory this season, doesn’t face the pressure to make the playoffs that Johnson does. Johnson, who has never failed to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason since it debuted in 2004, holds the final playoff spot by only a tiebreaker on Newman with four races left in the regular season. Earlier this month, Johnson’s team changed crew chiefs in the middle of the season for the first time in his career.

Johnson and Newman trail Bowyer by 12 points. Bowyer is trying to make the playoffs while he doesn’t have a contract for next season. Daniel Suarez, who has had run-ins with Michael McDowell (ISM Raceway) and Wallace (Pocono), is 23 points behind Johnson and Newman.

The tension is only going to increase in the Cup garage.

2. Life on the playoff bubble

Alex Bowman understands the pressure of trying to make the playoffs. A year ago, he held the final playoff spot with four races to go. He made the playoffs, but he admits to the anxiety he felt, something he doesn’t have to worry about with his win at Chicagoland Speedway qualifying him for a chance at the title this year.

“It’s definitely tough,” Bowman said of the pressure last year. “It’s not a lot of fun. It’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. It really wasn’t that bad last year until we got to Indy (for the regular-season finale), and we crashed pretty early, and we were kind of riding around just trying to finish. And I could see that Jamie McMurray was pretty close to the front, and, I’m like trying to look past 30 cars on restarts and see where everybody’s at. So, that was really stressful.”

3. Quest for tires that wear

NASCAR and drivers have made it clear that they seek a tire that wears more and that’s something Goodyear is looking to deliver.

When it comes to tires, no secret that we want more wear, especially on the short tracks, and that’s the goal,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’re going to work closely with Goodyear to get that. We think that’s a huge component of what goes into a race. The more we can deliver on that, that’s where the drivers want to see us go, and we’re going to push hard to do that.”

Case in point was a recent tire test at Martinsville Speedway.

“I think the main deal for that tire test was finding a left rear (tire) that fell off,” said Ryan Blaney, who took part in the test. “We ran through a bunch of different sets and combinations and things like that. Some were better than others. I don’t know what we’re coming back there with.”

Paul Menard, who also participated in the test, likes the idea of a tire that wears more.

“I think that Goodyear kind of sees that and is making a push to maybe be more aggressive to give us a softer compound that wears out more,” he said.

4. Winning again

Chase Elliott‘s win last weekend at Watkins Glen International gave Chevrolet four wins in the last six races: Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona), Kurt Busch (Kentucky) and Elliott.

Chevrolet drivers had won only four of the previous 51 races before this recent streak.

5. Racing is in their blood

While Sterling Marlin looks to return to racing Saturday night at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville after brain surgery, another former Cup driver will be racing Saturday night for the first time at Bowman Gray Stadium.

Bobby Labonte will get his first taste of “The Madhouse” in his first career modified race.

“The modified races there are really competitive, and the teams and drivers are serious and talented,” Labonte said in a media release. ” I am sure they will make it tough on me, but I am looking forward to strapping on my helmet and giving them a run.”

Short race: Michigan Cup race lasts just over 2 hours

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Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway lasted just over 2 hours, making it the shortest Cup points race to run a full distance since 2017.

Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s Cup race, which lasted 2 hours, 9 minutes, 35 seconds. The short race was reduced to 312 miles since Cup teams ran twice there this weekend. Michigan races are typically 400 miles.

Sunday’s race is the shortest Cup race since the rain-shortened June 2018 event at Michigan that went 2 hours, 15 seconds.

The last Cup race that ran a full distance that was shorter than Sunday’s event was the 2017 Watkins Glen race that lasted 2 hours, 7 minutes, 3 seconds.

MORE: What drivers said after Michigan race

MORE: What’s in the future for Kevin Harvick’s undefeated car?

Nine of the 22 Cup races this season have taken less than 3 hours to run, including six races that were shortened this season after the series resumed in May from the COVID-19 pause.

The issue of shorter races has been a topic in the sport for years. The doubleheader weekend in two weeks at Dover will see both those races shortened from 400 miles to 311 miles each.

“The shorter races, seems like it’s been a good thing,” crew chief Rodney Childers said after Harvick swept the weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “Keeps things exciting.  Everybody is racing harder the whole time, shorter stages. Not much for people riding around or waiting till the end, any of that kind of thing.

“I think the doubleheaders so far have been good. I think putting two of them in the same weekend has been something that probably saves a lot of money for the teams, you’re able to put on a good show two days in a row. We’ll just have to see how that plays outgoing forward.”

Here are the nine races that lasted less than 3 hours this season:

2:09:35 — Michigan II (312 miles)

2:25:01 — Pocono I (325 miles)

2:29:23 — Charlotte II (312 miles)

2:34:55 — Michigan I (322 miles)

2:37:07 — Auto Club (400 miles)

2:42:23 — Darlington II (284 miles)

2:50:54 — Pocono II (350 miles)

2:58:11 — Las Vegas (400 miles)

2:59:49 — Kentucky (400 miles)

What’s in the future for Kevin Harvick’s undefeated car?

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The car is referred to as 081 by Rodney Childers’ crew and in the three Cup Series races it has run this year, it’s unbeatable.

It’s the No. 4 Ford that Kevin Harvick is now 3-for-3 with after his win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team first brought the car to the track for the July 5 Brickyard 400.

In the three races the car has raced, including both parts of this weekend’s doubleheader, Harvick has led 250 of 478 laps and earned four stage wins.

On Sunday, Harvick officially started 20th after a field inversion of the top-20 finishers from Saturday. Harvick won the second stage and eventually led the final 41 laps, holding off Denny Hamlin by .093 seconds to keep 081’s winning streak alive.

Surely, they’ll bring it back at some point in the final 14 races of the season?

“I bet we don’t run it anymore, to be honest with you,” Harvick said after Sunday’s race. “I think there’s so many different styles of racetracks that we’re going to as we go forward here. Obviously, we’re going to a road course (Daytona) next week, then we go to a low downforce track two races in a row at Dover, then a superspeedway car (Daytona), then you go into short tracks, Darlington with high downforce cars. I know you won’t run it at Vegas or Charlotte.

“Honestly, I don’t think you’ll run this car anymore.”

When asked about the future of 081, Childers wouldn’t budge.

“That’s kind of up to me to decide. It’s top secret,” Childers said. “It’s going to be a surprise.”

Don’t expect the No. 4 team to christen 081 – a number assigned to it in production – with any affectionate nicknames, like the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave to a car a few years ago, “Amelia.”

“We don’t really talk about that kind of stuff,” Childers said. “We’ve had some good cars over the years with the 4 team and some of them have won a lot of races. We call it 081 and we keep it going through the system just like any other car. Just have to figure out our car schedule and figure out where we’re going to run it again and keep moving forward with it.”

What drivers said after Sunday Cup race at Michigan

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Here is what drivers had to say after the Sunday Cup race at Michigan:

Kevin Harvick — Winner: “I think when you look at my team we’ve been together for going on seven years now and you look at the confidence everybody has in each other. The details of the race cars and the thought of everything that goes into everything that we do is untouchable. That’s what it takes are details to make these race cars go fast. Our car wasn’t quite as good as it was yesterday. I think it was obviously still really good, but I had a little bit more trouble going through traffic today than I did yesterday just because of the tight into three that I had today. Like I said earlier, I could still get through one and two really good, but I couldn’t make those great low passes like I could yesterday and stay in the throttle. If I carried too much speed in there I would push up into the center of the corner and just have to pedal the thing on exit.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Just needed to maneuver a little bit better and I think that we could be a little better. Overall, our car handled well. Just needed a little more speed there and a little bit more handling to pass. Obviously, I thought we were definitely the fastest car by running him (Kevin Harvick) down there. Once we finally got to second, I knew we had something for him, I just got stalled there and he was tight, I was tight. We were better, that’s for sure. I thought if I could maybe get to his quarter panel, I could shove him higher and make him tighter, but just couldn’t quite do it.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 3rd: “We don’t do anything easy, that’s for sure. We were awful at the start of the race. I don’t know, we didn’t make a lot of changes from (Saturday). We tried to do different things to try to get better. We definitely were worse. Just have to grind them out, that’s what we do. It’s good to be grinding out top-three finishes, that’s what the Playoffs are all about. We need to get some more points before that starts. We battled back. The car was pretty far off to start the race. We’re all pretty disappointed in that obviously, but really proud of the effort to get the Auto Owners Camry back up front.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 4th: “The long runs went away later in the race and that’s just what we had. We got about all we could get out of the day. I felt like the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was the best car. The 2 (Brad Keselowski) was second-best. The 11 (Denny Hamlin), there at the end showed up and was pretty fast, but the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) and myself were really even. That was about all we had. We come to Michigan not normally looking for top-five days, but this has been a good two days. Hopefully we can keep some momentum rolling here and get ready to go next week and turn right and turn left. Yesterday and today, the car drove great. The best driving car I’ve had here at Michigan.”

Joey Logano — Finished 5th: “Overall we learned some things this weekend. Both races we were just a little too far off to start. A top-five finish today was good. We’re starting to build some momentum and when you start clicking off top-five finishes you know wins are just around the corner. Obviously next week is a big unknown for everyone going down to Daytona to run the road course. A lot has gone into that so it should be an interesting race for the fans.”

Aric Almirola – Finished 6th: “Today is how we’re supposed to run. We drove from 32nd to the top 10 and had a great Smithfield Hometown Heroes Ford Mustang. We were able to rally there at the end from 22nd to sixth in 12 laps. It felt like we were going to get to third and just ran out of laps. Really proud of Mike Bugarewicz and everyone on our team. Yesterday was a tough day and a character building day. The team worked their guts out last night and we had a great day with the result of it. We’re back on track with our top five and top-10 capability. Congrats to Kevin Harvick on back-to-back wins here and keeping the heritage trophy in Ford’s backyard.”

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 7th: “It was tough. The car had our tongue hanging out all day, so it’s good we made improvements from yesterday. We were really struggling yesterday and our team worked super-hard and made some good improvements so we could at least run further up there. We didn’t play a lot of defense all day and had to drive the thing for all it was worth, so just glad we were able to get a top 10 out of it finishing seventh. You can take a car that’s a struggle and something that we’re not satisfied with and struggled with all weekend and make some improvements with, but if we take a car like that and finish seventh with it and move on, that just shows the strength of our team and how we keep getting better. If you can make your bad days a top 10, sometimes that’s all you can hope for.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 8th: “It was a good day. We had to start last after going to a backup car and we were issued a pass-through penalty on lap one for making unapproved adjustments on pit road. Despite the challenges, we stayed on the lead lap in Stage 1, which just shows how fast our Chevy was today. The race played out pretty similar to yesterday with strategy and the call to take fuel-only on our last pit stop. We were digging at the end of the race, moving from outside the top 15 to eighth. I thought we had something for seventh but just ran out of laps. It feels good to work as a team to overcome what we had to, and to finish the race as the first Chevrolet in the field.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 9th: “We struggled to get the Mountain Dew Chevy dialed in today. It was pretty tight, and we just weren’t able to improve the handling. We squeaked by with a top-10 finish. All in all, it was a decent weekend, but we have some work to do.”

MATT McCALL (CREW CHIEF for Kurt Busch) — Finished 10th: “Another top-10 finish to roundout a doubleheader weekend. Our Monster Energy Chevy was a little bit better on the short-run speed today, which helped us on some of those restarts. We’ll continue to work hard still to be better to contend for wins. We need to stay focused in trying to turn these top-10 into top-five finishes.” 

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 11th: “We put up a good fight today. Track position was important, and we fought the balance most of the day. I’m looking forward to the road course and both Dover races.”

William Byron — Finished 12th: “Hard fought day for us at Michigan today and this weekend overall really. After this weekend we came out of Michigan with a bit larger of a points gap than we started which is good. Hopefully we can go on to the road course at Daytona and keep building that point buffer. I think we’re really good at road courses so hopefully we can run well there despite it being an unknown. I’m looking forward to it though and the challenge it will bring. I will definitely be doing a lot of iRacing this week to get ready for it.”  

Clint Bowyer – Finished 14th: “We had a pretty good DEKALB Ford today. Leading laps is a lot of fun. We could run wide open out front, but we had to lift behind other cars. We were OK until we got hit and that forced us to make an extra stop and that put us in the back. It was good to get some stage points today. We need to do that again next weekend in Daytona.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 18th: My GEICO-Germain Racing guys did a good job this weekend. We made adjustments from yesterday to today and it definitely improved the handling. At the end there, it took our Camaro ZL1 1LE about three laps to come in and then it started rolling. We ran our fastest lap of the race in the final 10 laps, so I think if we had a few more, we would have finished even better. I’m happy to leave with a top-20 finish though. I’m looking forward to the Daytona Road Course next week.”

Bubba Wallace — Finished 21st: “Well, today wasn’t as good as yesterday, obviously. Our Camaro just kind of lacked a little bit in overall speed and overall grip. I couldn’t really find it throughout the race, so the restarts didn’t go our way there, towards the end. I kept getting trapped and everything. I guess we used all of our eggs on the first day. All-in-all, it was a solid day coming out of Michigan. A good points day, a good points swing for us. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to climb up the ladder, but we’re heading in the right direction from the last couple of races. So, progress is showing. On to the Daytona road course.”

John Hunter Nemechek — Finished 23rd: “We struggled today. We were tight at the start and dragged a lot, particularly when I would get within a few car lengths of another car. We made adjustments throughout the day, and the last one definitely helped us get more speed at the end, but we came home P23. My crew did a great job of sticking with it to the end and never giving up.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 24th: “We fought hard today at Michigan International Speedway, but our No. 8 Chevrolet Accessories Camaro ZL1 1LE was a challenge during the race. We fired off extremely tight, which made it hard to move around and run the bottom like I needed to be able to do. My crew chief, Randall Burnett, made some good adjustments during the race that helped loosen me up, but we just needed a little bit more today. We’ll definitely look back at this weekend as a team to see what we can learn from it and regroup for next weekend.”

Cole Custer – Finished 25th: “We got the car handling better throughout the race, but at the end all of the sudden it wouldn’t turn. That dropped us back quite a few spots, but I think we learned a lot today. We had to overcome some adversity with starting in the back and then getting the pit road penalty, but we’re growing as a team and we’ll move forward to the Daytona road course next week.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 26th: “It was a good job by Dave (Winston, crew chief) making changes, a good job by the pit crew, a good job by everyone. We got the most out of what we had. We thought our Toyota was going to be better at the start of the race – definitely didn’t expect it to be as loose as it was. But we were able to make it better. I just wish I could have some more straightline speed to race some of those guys ahead of us, but I know we’ll get there. We’ll just keep on digging.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 28th: “It was just an overall difficult weekend for our No. 34 team at Michigan. We didn’t unload how we had hoped in race one and then got collected in a late-race incident that forced us to a backup car for today. My guys fought hard on pit road all weekend to try and get our race cars better, and I felt like we were continuously making improvements, but we just ran out of time at the end of the race.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 36th: “That was not what we wanted or needed today. It was just unfortunate events. Greg (Ives) and the guys made great adjustments from yesterday and got the car pretty good. We battled some snug conditions, but the team made great adjustments on pit road. Obviously not the way we wanted to end the double header weekend. We will learn from this and move on to next week.”

Ryan Blaney —Finished 38th:  “It’s just unfortunate for the whole Penske organization. We had two fast cars battling for the lead and it just stinks that happened. He had a run, like he said, and he didn’t think he had as big of a run as he had and just got loose and, unfortunately, got us both. It’s a shame to end our day like that with the Knauf/Menards Ford Mustang. We were so fast.  We had to battle back from having to pit again and got to 10th for the second stage and then got the lead. I was like, ‘All right, we can finally go back at it,’ and just got together there. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not gonna carry over. Things happen. Mistakes happen. It’s just a shame both of us got taken out.”

BRAD KESELOWSKI — Finished 39th:  “I just lost it. It’s my fault. I feel really bad for my teammate, Ryan Blaney.  He didn’t deserve that. I just came off of turn four and the 4 car was behind me and he gave me a push and I swear I went into the corner like 20 miles an hour faster than I had been all day and got past the 11 and I went to get underneath the 12 and I just slipped. I lost the back a little bit and when I went to collect it he was there and I wiped him out and myself out, so I feel terrible for everyone at Team Penske and especially Ryan Blaney. Gosh, he didn’t deserve that. I should have whoa’d way up. I had been running wide-open on the bottom all day and thought I could do it again, but with that big push I overestimated the grip and ruined our day.”

Michigan Sunday Cup results, point standings

Sunday Cup results
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Kevin Harvick completed the weekend sweep with his victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, his sixth win of the season.

Denny Hamlin placed second in the Sunday Cup results. Martin Truex Jr. placed third and was followed by Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

Click here for race results

Point Standings

With four races left in the regular season, the last three drivers currently inside the top 16 in points are William Byron (+26 points above cutline) and Erik Jones and Jimmie Johnson, who are tied with 511 points.

The first driver outside the top 16 who has not won a race is Tyler Reddick. He’s 10 points behind Johnson and Jones.

Click here for the points standings.