Friday 5: Can history repeat for No. 3 car at Talladega 20 years later?

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Twenty years after Dale Earnhardt’s magical victory at Talladega Superspeedway, Austin Dillon hopes the No. 3 car can repeat history Sunday.

Earnhardt scored his final Cup victory on Oct. 15, 2000, charging from 18th to first in the final five laps.

Austin Dillon seeks to lead the No. 3 car back to victory lane at that track Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) to advance to the next round of the playoffs. He enters the race last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers after he finished 32nd last weekend at Las Vegas. Dillon trails Alex Bowman by 32 points for the final transfer spot to the next round.

Dillon, 10 years old when Earnhardt won that 2000 Talladega race, recalls the event. He’s well familiar with Earnhardt’s 76th and final Cup win.

“It was a spectacular race,” Dillon said. “Seeing him come from the back to the front and make the moves he had … I think that was amazing.”

Running 15th with four laps left, Earnhardt passed six cars on the backstretch on the way to his win.

Dillon will seek to be closer to the front when the final lap begins Sunday, but he knows a victory could be his only chance to keep his title hopes alive.

“I’m not really worried about points,” Dillon said. “I think we need to go win the race to transfer to the next round and try to create our own destiny that way. For me, it’s throwing caution to the wind. Obviously, you’ve got to get to the end of those things to win, but a lot of these guys that have been successful at speedway racing have also led a bunch of laps and put themselves in situations to do that.

“For me, from lap one, I’m racing and doing what I can to be aggressive and keep track position to show everybody around us that we’re there, we have a fast car to work with us, and just kind of prove a point from the beginning of the race on that we’re going to be a contender at Talladega.”

Dillon’s lone Cup win on a superspeedway came in the 2018 Daytona 500. That win came 20 years after Earnhardt’s lone Daytona 500 victory.

Could Dillon again win 20 years after a momentous win by Earnhardt?

“That would be fitting for us to go win at Talladega and lock ourselves into the next round of the playoffs,” Dillon said, noting the anniversary of Earnhardt’s win.

2. After nearly 40 versions, the 2021 Cup schedule emerged   

The 2021 Cup schedule was finalized after about the 40th version and more than 50 people had played a part in shaping it, Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations, told NBC Sports this week.

While NASCAR executives Steve O’Donnell, Scott Miller, Brian Herbst, Ben Baker and Kennedy comprised the core group, many others within the sanctioning body, drivers, teams and broadcast partners were involved in a schedule unlike any other in NASCAR.

The Cup Series will visit three new venues (Nashville, Circuit of the Americas and Road America) and have two new races (Bristol dirt race and Indianapolis road course) next season. 

“It used to be every year we announced a new schedule and it was like we moved a race by one week, but all the races were the same,” Brad Keselowski said. “Well, that’s not really much to announce. This is the first schedule announcement we’ve had since I’ve been a Cup driver that has had significant changes. I think that’s refreshing. I think the schedule needs to be bold, it needs to be changed, it needs to be dynamic every year.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in November that there would be three key components to the 2021 schedule.

“We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service,” he said.

Getting to Thursday’s announcement was not easy. Unless one compares it to what the sanctioning body did to resume this season after the pandemic paused it 10 weeks. NASCAR went through more than 80 different schedules before completing its revamped version this season.

Kennedy told NBC Sports that a 2021 scheduling team of about 15 people formed shortly after last year’s Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. Phelps stated April 2020 as a goal to announce the 2021 schedule. Kennedy said the group had made “a lot of headway” on the ’21 schedule when the sport stopped in March because of the coronavirus.

The focus turned to resuming the sport and creating a schedule as NASCAR consulted with governors, state officials and health officials.

One-day shows, rearranging races and moving the All-Star Race to Bristol in the updated schedule this season set in motion ideas for an inventive ’21 schedule.

“I think that mentality and mindset was also brought back to the 2021 schedule as we started to think about, hey, let’s continue to really shake it up,” Kennedy said.

The changes, Kennedy notes, align with what fans told NASCAR. That led to the addition of three road course events, the notion of a dirt track at Bristol and an additional race in Darlington, among other changes.

“We think the work that Ben Kennedy has done by leading this really continues us on that journey not only for this year,” O’Donnell said, “but we’re going to continue to be bold in ’22 as well.”

Now, Kennedy focuses on the 2021 Xfinity and Truck schedules and the Next Gen car’s debut in 2022.

“There’s never a lack of something to do here,” he said.

3. One-day shows returning in 2021   

Most of next year’s Cup races will be one-day shows, said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer.

O’Donnell said the plan is for Cup to practice and qualify for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and championship finale at Phoenix Raceway. Practice and qualifying also will take place at the five new events on the schedule — Nashville, the Bristol dirt race and road course events at Circuit of the Americas, Road America and the Indy road course.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot this year, most good in terms of some efficiencies we can see,” O’Donnell said. “We want race fans back at the track, right? We want race fans to see qualifying and practice. We also know that as we look forward to 2021, there’s still an unknown.

“The race teams have asked us, and we’ve worked closely with them, it’s worked for us and our television partners, to be as efficient as we can in 2021 on our journey to the Next Gen car.”

4. Another dirt race?

Chase Briscoe, who came from the dirt car ranks, is thrilled about Bristol hosting a NASCAR dirt race in March. 

Anytime you can have a dirt race, I feel like that’s just going to help me,” Briscoe said. “Eldora was always one that I had circled that I felt like I could go and win (in the Truck Series), so, for me, anytime you can add any type of dirt race to any schedule in a pavement series, I feel like I’m going to have a little bit of an advantage, so I’m super excited.”

Briscoe has a suggestion for where NASCAR might want to race on dirt next if Bristol succeeds.

“I’m not sure how it’s going to race with our cars with that much banking, but I think another good possibility maybe down the road to look into this, I think Loudon (New Hampshire) would be a perfect racetrack to go dirt racing,” he said. “It’s got a little bit of bank. It would be just like the mile (-long tracks) that the ARCA cars run. I just think it would be a really cool event. 

“You could have the big block modifieds come and run a big race or whatever, so I think down the road if Bristol is a good success, that Loudon would be a really good one to add that to, but I’m excited to add dirt racing. I think the fans are going to be excited. I’m excited to see how it turns out.”

 

Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley (11) and JR Motorsports’ Michael Annett duel during the June Talladdega race won by Haley. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

5. Race within the race

One of the fascinating subplots in Saturday’s Xfinity playoff race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) could be the duel between JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing.

The teams have combined to win five of the last six races at Daytona and Talladega. A Kaulig car passed a JRM car for the win at Talladega in June.

Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley has won the past two speedway races. He took the checkered flag in August at Daytona when teammates Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger wrecked on the last lap battling for the lead. Haley won in June at Talladega when his teammates pushed him past JR Motorsports’ Jeb Burton for the win.

The Kaulig cars of Allmendinger, Chastain and Haley ran 1-2-3 for most of the final third of the Daytona race before the incident between Allmendinger and Chastain. That incident also collected JR Motorsports driver Michael Annett.

“I heard a lot of people questioning if we were going to work as well as we have at Talladega after what happened at Daytona,” Haley told NBC Sports. “Certainly yes.”

If Kaulig Racing can control the front of the field, that could make it harder for others.

“They’re really strong at blocking,” Annett told NBC Sports about the Kaulig Racing cars. “It’s almost like they’re willing to sacrifice themselves to throw a block in those races.”

Haley admits his group defends its positions vigorously.

“I think we’ve all seen how aggressive Ross Chastain can be blocking at a superspeedway,” Haley said. “He takes the icing on the cake for that now. You’ve got to be aggressive if you want to control the race and if you want to not get dropped. You’ve got to be aggressive and that’s how it is.”

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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).