Atlanta Cup takeaways: Kevin Harvick salvages top 10 after rocky start

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After the entire Stewart-Haas Racing stable struggled two weeks ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick discussed the importance of taking an active role in solving the problems plaguing them.

“You can’t just step back,” he said March 9. “You have to push buttons. This is not an abnormal situation for any race team.”

But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for SHR, whose collective woes continued Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Harvick had to fight for his 10th-place finish after spending nearly half the race (151 of 325 laps) off the lead lap.

He failed to lead at Atlanta for the first time since 2013. Entering Sunday, he had led 49% of the laps at Atlanta in the previous seven races there.

An early flat tire forced him to pit coming to a restart at Lap 30. He soon had to deal with leader Kyle Larson looking to put him a lap down, which eventually happened at Lap 74.

Not long after, Harvick dubbed his car “the biggest pile of crap (he’s) ever driven at Atlanta” over his team radio.

“Can’t get it to do anything,” he added. “The front end – absolutely horrendous. When it gets to traffic, it just gets worse.”

Adjustments got Harvick’s No. 4 Ford to a better state in the second stage. But he still had to wait until Chase Elliott‘s engine failure at Lap 220 enabled him to take a wave-around back to the lead lap under caution.

He spent the rest of the final stage methodically moving forward and passed Matt DiBenedetto for 10th with five laps remaining.

Harvick salvaging a top 10 – his fifth of the season, tied with Larson and Denny Hamlin for most in the series – was the highlight for SHR in Atlanta.

Their three other drivers all finished off the lead lap. Cole Custer and Aric Almirola finished one lap down in 18th and 20th place, respectively. Rookie Chase Briscoe finished two laps down in 23rd.

None of those three drivers have a top-10 finish through the first six races.

Perhaps even more foreboding for SHR as a whole is their 20.9 average finish in the first three races held on 1.5-mile tracks. At those tracks, Harvick has the organization’s sole top-five finish (fifth at Miami) and two top-10 finishes.

The next race on a 1.5-mile track comes in May at Kansas Speedway, which gives SHR time to address those particular issues.

Before then is a four-race stretch – a dirt race (Bristol), two asphalt short tracks (Martinsville, Richmond) and a superspeedway (Talladega) – that is more critical to them.

Almirola’s day also included a scary incident involving his No. 10 pit crew. During the final green flag pit cycle of the race, rookie Anthony Alfredo spun while trying to enter his stall. His car’s rear bumper made light contact with one of Almirola’s crew members as their own stop was underway.

The No. 10 crew still completed its service, while Alfredo had to spin around again in order to enter his stall.

Brad’s bad beat

Like Harvick, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski also was expected to contend at Atlanta. Entering Sunday, he and Harvick combined to win the last four Atlanta Cup races.

But like Harvick, Keselowski never threatened. Starting fourth, he struggled with a free-handling Ford and faded out of the top 10 by the end of the first stage.

Then, after the Lap 119 restart, Martin Truex Jr. slid up the track in Turn 4 and made contact with Keselowski. With front-end damage to his car, Keselowski toughed it out until a scheduled pit stop at Lap 170.

Repairs made on that stop cost him two laps. It was a hole Keselowski couldn’t overcome. He finished a season-worst 28th, four laps down.

Eventful day for Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch’s fifth-place finish at Atlanta wasn’t a season-best for him. But it was arguably his strongest run so far.

The two-time Cup champion showed very good speed throughout the afternoon. He scored 16 stage points with finishes of second in the first stage and fourth in the second stage.

Prior to Sunday, he had only scored 17 stage points all season; seven of those 17 came from his Duel qualifying race for the Daytona 500.

His 48 total points on Sunday were third-highest behind winner Ryan Blaney (57) and runner-up Kyle Larson (55).

It’s certainly a sign of progress for Kyle Busch, who recently voiced frustrations over his team’s simulator set-ups not matching his car at the track. That made for struggles in the opening stage, where he failed to score in the season’s first four races.

His improved performance helped him shake off several mishaps Sunday. As green flag racing began in the second stage at Lap 113, he took the restart on the outside front row but spun his tires.

The ensuing stack-up ended with Denny Hamlin pushing Kurt Busch into the Turn 1 wall to end his day.

Later in the final stage, Kyle Busch had to rally after being penalized for speeding on pit road during the Chase Elliott caution at Lap 220.

Restarting 20th at Lap 225, Kyle Busch climbed back into the top five by Lap 300. But with the final 100 laps going caution-free, he didn’t get a chance to potentially race for a win on a late restart.

“Every time I would claw my way up to the front, we would have a problem,” he said afterwards. “I had a restart issue that sent us back seven spots. Got back up to third, and then we sped on pit road. Got back up to fifth. That’s all it is, all day long is just a claw, and that’s all you can do. There’s not enough separation in speed between cars and fall-off and all that sort of stuff.

“Great job by the guys. We definitely improved our car. It was good in the early stages and even better in the late stages, but everybody else was better, too. That’s all we had.”

Buescher back in top 10

Three weeks ago at Miami, Chris Buescher led a career-high 57 laps and earned a stage win before fading late to finish 19th.

But on Sunday at Atlanta, Buescher held steady. Running inside the top 10 for much of the afternoon, Buescher scored points in the first and second stages before taking the checkered flag in seventh.

It was his first top 10 since a ninth-place run last September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  Sunday’s finish was his best since a fifth-place run last August on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

“It was a good day,” Buescher said. “I’m pretty happy with that from start to finish. We were able to fire off and make some progress and head forward and stay with it all day. We didn’t really have to work on much.

“This car has a lot of similar characteristics to our (Miami) car and definitely feel pretty good about these low grip racetracks. We’ll keep working on it and try to tweak on that a little bit and get it to a top five and ultimately winning a race.”

In the meantime, Buescher is inside the top 16 of the Cup playoff standings. He holds the 16th-place bubble spot by six points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse finished 12th on Sunday, posting his fourth consecutive top 15. However, he didn’t earn any stage points.

Suarez bit in the pits

A late-race speeding penalty dampened a strong day for Daniel Suarez and the new Trackhouse Racing team.

Suarez was poised to score the organization’s first top-10 finishuntil he was caught speeding on pit road during his green-flag stop at Lap 267. The penalty relegated Suarez to a 17th-place finish at day’s end.

Suarez spent 46.8% of his laps (152 of 325) inside the top 15 on Sunday, his highest percentage so far this season in the category.

Compared to the other two races on 1.5-mile tracks, Suarez was in the top 15 for 13.5% of his laps at Miami (finished 15th) and 15.7% of his laps at Las Vegas (finished 26th).

Working with interim crew chief Jose Blasco-Figueroa, Suarez finished 19th in the first stage. But more importantly, he kept leader Kyle Larson from putting him a lap down.

Following the Hamlin-Kurt Busch incident to open the second stage, Suarez made gains off the restart at Lap 119. Restarting from 18th, Suarez pushed into the top 10 and even passed reigning Cup champion Elliott for ninth position at Lap 139.

Suarez would finish the second stage in 10th, earning Trackhouse’s first stage point. His run got better from there and he found himself in sixth place by Lap 250.

Less than 20 laps later, the solid result had gotten away.

“It was a car capable of finishing in the top 10, that’s for sure,” Suarez said. “I made a mistake on my part that kind of got us out of contention. But it’s something very good to build on.”

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great organizations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”