One Month Back: Key moments from NASCAR’s return

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It may be hard to believe, but NASCAR’s return to racing is now one month old.

On May 17, NASCAR became one of the first major sport leagues to come out of hibernation amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ending a 71-day hiatus.

Since then, 17 races have been held across NASCAR’s three national series: Eight Cupn races, six Xfinity and three Truck Series events.

Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from a whirlwind month.

‘Dead Silent’

It would become the norm quickly, but Kevin Harvick‘s frontstretch celebration after winning the May 17 race at Darlington Raceway was surreal.

Denny Hamlin with his unique face covering. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He emerged from his No. 4 Ford to the sound of … nothing. As would be the case for the next 15 races before Sunday’s Cup visit to Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick was greeted by empty grandstands.

“We won the race and it’s dead silent out here,” Harvick said. “It is weird because there’s nobody up there (in the stands). … I’m speechless.”

Then, in another first, Harvick went to an empty Victory Lane to have his picture taken while wearing a mask.

Three days later, in the first Wednesday Cup race since 1984, Denny Hamlin won and wore a very unique mask: one with his own smiling face.

Birds and Bounties

Kyle Busch made a mistake. Chase Elliott wrecked.

The May 20 race at Darlington saw this happen late as Busch failed to clear Elliott on the frontstretch as they raced for second place.

Afterward, an upset Elliott displayed the middle digit on his right hand to Busch as he drove by the incident scene.

A new rivalry was born and it continued on May 26 in the Truck Series race at Charlotte. The first race back for the series was also the “Bounty Race” that was originally set to be run at Atlanta in March. Elliott, John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole were attempting to beat Busch to claim a $100,000 prize posted by Harvick and Gander RV & Outdoors CEO Marcus Lemonis (which would be donated to charity).

Elliott won the race and the bounty and afterward performed Busch’s trademark bow on the frontsretch.

Briscoe’s Emotional Win

It was one of the more dramatic finishes in recent memory and easily the most emotional.

A day after revealing his wife had suffered a miscarriage, Chase Briscoe participated in the Xfinity Series race at Darlington on May 21.

The race ended in a duel between Briscoe and Busch, the all-time Xfinity wins leader. After making contact multiple time in the last two laps, Briscoe beat Busch to the checkered flag. 

“This is more than a race win, it’s the biggest day of my life after the toughest day of my life,” an overwhelmed Briscoe said afterward.

‘Childish’

Over an 11-day period Chase Elliott was either winning or losing in a controversial manner.

On May 31, the latter occurred at Bristol Motor Speedway. Elliott was racing Joey Logano for the lead with three laps to go when he drove deep into Turn 3. He wasn’t able to complete the pass and slid up into Logano, damaging both their cars. After finishing 21st and 22nd respectively, Logano was upset that Elliott was slow in apologizing on pit road and confronted Elliott himself.

“The part that’s frustrating is that afterwards a simple apology, like be a man and come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, my bad,'” Logano said. “I had to force an apology, which, to me, is childish.”

Logano hadn’t forgotten the Bristol incident when he raced Elliott hard late in Sunday’s race at Miami.

Finally an Oval Winner

After competing in 401 NASCAR races and 46 open-wheel races, one thing was missing from AJ Allmendinger‘s resume: a win on an oval track.

That drought ended in the June 6 Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Driving Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet, the road-course ace started 30th and led the final 37 laps to win over Noah Gragson.

“Oh my God, oh my God, I won on an oval. Do you like that? Whoo!” Allmendinger yelled after winning. A week later he claimed the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus at Miami.

Turn on the Lights

After years of hype and one postponement, the Cup Series finally held a night race at Martinsville Speedway.

The historic race was held June 10 without fans, as the sun set on empty grandstands and gave way to a dark sky.

While Joey Logano was the dominating force, leading 234 laps, and Jimmie Johnson earned a stage win, Martin Truex Jr. claimed the victory.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 132 laps and bounced back from a commitment line violation penalty on Lap 133 to earn his second straight win on NASCAR’s oldest track.

Martinsville Speedway held its first Cup night race. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Messages Against Racism

While Kevin Harvick won the June 7 Cup race at Atlanta, that’s merely a historical footnote compared to what happened before the green flag dropped.

In the wake of two weeks of social unrest and protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd in police custody, NASCAR drivers issued a video condemning racial inequality and racism. Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the Cup Series, wore a Black Lives Matter shirt on pit road. A Black NASCAR official saluted the American flag from his knee during the national anthem.

Bubba Wallace wore a Black Lives Matter shirt before the Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

On the final pace lap, the field was stopped near the start/finish line and NASCAR President Steve Phelps delivered a message, saying “Our sport must do better. Our country must do better” in addressing racism.

Over the next three days, Wallace called for the banning of Confederate flag at NASCAR tracks, NASCAR began permitting peaceful protests during the national anthem and on Wednesday announced its Confederate flag ban hours before the first night race at Martinsville Speedway.

The Martinsville race saw Wallace and his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet sporting a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme, which he drove to a 11th-place finish.

 

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.