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.

 

Xfinity playoff grid after Indianapolis

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Chase Briscoe‘s continued dominance of the Xfinity Series over the weekend on the Indianapolis road course ensured no additional drivers locked themselves into the 12-driver playoff field.

Through 13 races, Briscoe and four other drivers have qualified for the playoffs via race wins. Briscoe, who has five race wins, leads the field with 28 playoff points.

The last two drivers currently in the top 12 are Riley Herbst (+19 points above cutline) and Brandon Brown (+6 points).

The first four drivers outside the top 12 are Myatt Snider (-6), Alex Labbe (-32), Jeremy Clements (-49) and Josh Williams (-57).

Cup Series playoff grid after Brickyard 400

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With Kevin Harvick‘s victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400, no additional drivers locked themselves into the Cup Series playoff field.

But there was some movement at the bottom of the playoff grid as drivers jockey to make the 16-car field.

After he missed the race due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, Jimmie Johnson fell from 12th to 15th on the grid. He’s now 36 points above the cutline.

Matt DiBenedetto earned stage points in each stage before finishing 19th. He moved from 14th to 12th in the standings.

After earning stage points in both stages Sunday, Austin Dillon has cracked the top 16, moving up one spot. He has a six-point advantage over Erik Jones, who crashed out of Sunday’s race and had a 14-point advantage over Dillon entering the weekend.

With his ninth-place finish Sunday, Bubba Wallace is now within reach of the top 16. He sits at 19th, 42 points back from 16th.

Here’s the full playoff grid.

Oval or road course? Cup drivers address future of Brickyard 400

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For 27 years, the Cup Series has competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with its annual Brickyard 400. All 27 of those races have been run exclusively on the track’s traditional 2.5-mile oval.

But following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the track’s 2.4-mile, 14-turn road course, an obvious question has been raised:

Should the Brickyard 400 remain on the oval, where passing is made difficult due to a combination of the rules package and the design of the track, or should moving it to the road course be considered?

“I would never vote for that,” Kevin Harvick declared last week before he won his third Brickyard 400 on Sunday. “I love everything about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For me it is all about the oval … racing on the traditional track because for me I am kind of old school and I think that the Cup cars belong and really started the Brickyard 400.

“That was kind of what it was always meant to be, that iconic one-off, just the Cup cars event. I think with the Xfinity cars and the trucks and (ARCA Menards) cars and all the things that used to race at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park), it was a great event. Hopefully the road course can kind of take that role that IRP used to have and be able to bring the Indy cars and NASCAR together to add to that event at the Speedway. For me personally, I would never vote for the Cup cars to not run on the oval.”

Harvick is joined in that camp by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Aric Almirola, who finished third in Sunday’s race for his first top five and top-10 finish at Indy.

“I hope that we never stop running the oval,” Almirola said. “I just think it’s one of these places that regardless if it puts on the greatest race or not, it’s historic. It’s just a special place. It’s hard to explain when you don’t grow up a racer and you don’t aspire to come to race at Indy.

“But for me, I grew up watching stock car racing and dirt sprint car racing. I grew up watching Thursday Night Thunder, seeing so many guys go from USAC racing and sprint car racing to racing at Indy. It’s something I’ve always kept up with, always dreamed about getting the opportunity to race here. I get that opportunity now.”

Matt Kenseth, who finished second Sunday in his 20th Brickyard 400, said the Cup Series “should be” on the oval. But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is open to the idea of Cup using the road course in some manner.

 “I think it’s one of those racetracks that we need to race at as long as we can,” Kenseth said of the oval. “It’s arguably the most famous speedway in the world, or one of them.

“To be able to race on the ovals with the Cup cars, which is the highest form of stock car racing here, we should be on the big track as well. I don’t think it would be bad to maybe test the road course and look into it, maybe do a second race on a road course, kind of like the IndyCars did this week.

“I really do think the Brickyard 400 has a lot of prestige. It’s not a southern race, but similar to the Southern 500, races like that. I think there’s a few of those races you sure would hate to see disappear.”

Crew chief describes ‘frightening’ scene on pit road at Indy

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Crew chief Todd Gordon said it was “frightening” to see rear tire changer Zach Price hit on pit road and then try to scoot away from cars during Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Price, who changes tires for Ryan Blaney’s team, was injured when he was struck by Brennan Poole’s car during a melee near the entrance of pit road early in the race.

Gordon, speaking Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, said indications are that Price’s injury was a “fracture someplace in the knee area.”

Price was treated and released from an Indianapolis hospital on Sunday night and traveled home with the team. Gordon said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Price was scheduled to see a doctor Monday.

“Just hope to get him back and get him back going again and healthy,” Gordon said.

Gordon described what he saw as cars made contact.

“A really frightening moment for me,” he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I was really terrorized when I saw (Price) drag himself back across the pit box arms only for a while there. As the situation kind of progressed and the medical staff was working with him, I could see in his face he was better off than I thought he was to start with.

“Fortunate that the guys got up and got at least in the air. The jackman (Graham Stoddard) got on top of the car. Just one of those terrible situations. I felt like those accidents happened mid-pit road. That’s why I picked way back there to be behind it.”

Said Justin Allgaier, who was involved in the accident on pit road that led to six cars eventually being eliminated:  “The No. 15 (Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got the gentleman on (Blaney’s pit crew) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into.”

Indianapolis’ pit road is the most narrow of all the tracks the Cup Series races. The two travel lanes are 24 feet wide. The pit stall for each team is 15 feet wide.