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.

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).