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


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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Dr. Diandra: Is 2023 the season for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. redemption?


Coming into 2022, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had two career Cup Series wins in 364 starts. But both wins — and his career-high 13th-place season finish — happened back in 2017.

Stenhouse was unceremoniously dropped by Roush Fenway Racing in 2020 and landed with JTG Daugherty Racing. He made the news every now and then at a superspeedway but could be counted upon to head up season-ending lists of drivers involved in the most accidents. In the years Stenhouse hasn’t been at the top of the list, he’s been near the top.

DNFs and accidents have plagued Stenhouse throughout his NASCAR career. Jack Roush went so far as to park the Mississippi native in his early days in the Xfinity Series because he tore up so much equipment.

Stenhouse redeemed himself, going on to win two Xfinity championships.

From the way his 2023 season has started, it looks as though Stenhouse might be on a similar mission of redemption this year in the Cup Series.

Finishing races

Stenhouse started the 2023 season in the best possible way – winning the Daytona 500. But drivers from less-funded teams who win early superspeedway races usually settle to the bottom of the rankings by now.

Stenhouse hasn’t. He ranks 13th heading into Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Standings aren’t as good a ruler this year as they usually are because of drivers missing races and teams incurring penalties. But Stenhouse’s statistics back up his ranking.

Stenhouse has finished every race this year on track, as opposed to in the garage or on the hook. Only Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie have achieved the same distinction.

In 11 of those 14 races, Stenhouse finished on the lead lap. That’s the same number of lead-lap finishes as William Byron. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for most races finished on the lead lap with 13 each.

This time last year, Stenhouse had already racked up seven of the series-leading 18 caution-causing incidents he would be involved in for the season. Runner-up Chase Elliott had 15 incidents.

Going into Gateway this year, Stenhouse has been involved in only two accidents (Talladega and Charlotte) and had a tire go out at Darlington.

Approaching his career best

I compare three years in Stenhouse’s career in the table below: the 2017 season — his best to date — along with last year and the 14 races run so far this year.

A table comparing loop data stats for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showing his path to redemption

Stenhouse’s current average finishing position of 13.5 ties with Christopher Bell for sixth best in the Cup Series. That’s 9.3 positions better than Stenhouse’s 2022 average. He’s even beating his 2017 average by 3.6 positions.

Qualifying results are down a bit from 2017 — but remember that those numbers are from the days when NASCAR allowed multiple practice sessions. Stenhouse is only two positions worse relative to 2017, but 7.6 positions better than last year when it comes to establishing his spot on the starting grid.

Stenhouse’s average running position is comparable to 2017 and 2.8 positions better than 2022. He ranks 20th among full-time Cup Series drivers in average running position. Although it’s an improvement, it’s still more than double William Byron’s series-leading 9.1 average running position this year.

More interesting is the difference between Stenhouse’s average running position his average finishing position. Some drivers run better than they finish. Stenhouse is doing the opposite.

In 2017, Stenhouse finished about 1.4 positions better than he ran. This year, he’s gaining an average of about five positions from where he runs.

One might argue this gain results from the plethora of late-race incidents this year that have removed drivers in the front of the field from contention. But Stenhouse deserves credit for putting himself in a position to benefit from those events.

Stenhouse’s green-flag speed rank is 11th among full-time Cup Series drivers. His 15.3 average, however, is 1.7 positions worse than 10th-place Kyle Busch. Still, it’s impressive that JTG Daugherty is right there in the mix with much better-funded teams. William Byron again has the best average green-flag speed rank at 7.9.

Consistently strong finishes

It’s not uncommon for a mid-pack driver to win a superspeedway race. But Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win appears to be something more. The table below summarizes his wins and finishes for the same three years.

A table comparing finishes for 2017, 2022 and 2023 showing Ricky Stenhouse Jr's redemption attemptsThe difference between last year and this year is striking.

In 2022, Stenhouse finished in the top 20 in 12 of 36 races. He’s already matched that mark this year. He earns top-20 finishes 85.7% of the time in 2023 compared to 33.3% last year. Top-20 finishes aren’t the same as contending for a championship. But they’re a first step.

Stenhouse finished 2017 with nine top-10 races. With about 60% of the season remaining, he’s already earned five top-10 finishes this year.

What’s changed? The Next Gen car is one factor, but it didn’t make much difference for Stenhouse last year. I would point instead to Stenhouse’s reunion with Mike Kelley as his crew chief.

Kelley co-piloted both of Stenhouse’s Xfinity championships in 2011 and ’12. Although Kelley worked with Stenhouse and previous crew chief Brian Pattie since 2020, this is the first year Kelley is back up on the pit box.

Together, they’re basically halfway to matching Stenhouse’s best year.

And another step closer to redemption.

Portland Xfinity race results, driver points

Portland Xfinity results
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime


Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Truck race results at WWT Raceway: Grant Enfinger wins


Grant Enfinger took the lead when the leaders wrecked in the final laps and held off the field in overtime to win Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

It is Enfinger’s second win in the last five races. He also collected a $50,000 bonus for winning the Triple Truck Challenge.

MORE: Truck race results

MORE: Driver points after WWT Raceway

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Stewart Friesen, Carson Hocevar and Chase Purdy.

Ty Majeski and Zane Smith wrecked while racing for the lead with six laps to go. Majeski, running on the inside of Smith, slid up the track and clipped Smith’s truck. Both hit the wall. That put Enfinger in the lead.

Smith finished 20th. Majeski placed 30th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Stewart Friesen

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Grant Enfinger’s victory is his fourth top 10 in the last five races. … Carson Hocevar’s fourth-place finish is his fourth consecutive top-five result. … Stewart Friesen’s third-place finish moved him into a playoff spot with four races left in the regular season. … Matt DiBenedetto‘s sixth-place finish is his third consecutive top 10. … Jesse Love finished ninth in his series debut.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ty Majeski had a chance to take the points lead with series leader Corey Heim out because of illness, but Majeski’s 30th-place finish after running at the front most of the day, leaves him behind Heim. … Hailie Deegan finished 32nd after contact sent her truck into the wall hard. … After finishing a career-high third last week at Charlotte, Dean Thompson placed 34th Saturday due to an engine issue.

NEXT: The series races June 23 at Nashville Superspeedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1)