Friday 5: Five laps that have impacted the Cup season


With Cup heading into its final weekend off, here’s a chance to look at five laps that have impacted this season.

After this weekend, the Cup Series races 14 consecutive weekends, beginning Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). The season ends Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.

There are sure to be additional impactful laps on the year this year, but here are the ones that have meant the most in the first 22 races of the season.

1. Lap 200: Daytona 500 (Feb. 15)

As the field started the last lap of the season-opening race, Joey Logano led. Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski ran second. Michael McDowell was third. Austin Dillon was fourth. Chase Elliott was fifth.

Kevin Harvick had been second but a train of cars went by, leaving him seventh when he crossed the line to begin the final lap. Harvick got help when Bubba Wallace came up to him with Cole Custer behind Wallace. That gave Harvick a huge run through Turns 1 and 2.

Austin Dillon, running fourth, saw Harvick’s charge and moved down to get in front of Harvick to ride that momentum to the front.

As the field went down the backstretch, Keselowski, in second, moved down to get in front of Dillon and Harvick. Logano, who was leading, did the same. That left McDowell leading the top line.

Keselowski then moved up to block McDowell. Logano, still leading, mirrored the move.

After a push from McDowell, Keselowski started to make a move low to get by Logano but they made contact, wrecking both.

The lane parted — Logano spun low and Keselowski turned into the wall. McDowell made it through and blocked Elliott. That forced Elliott to cut to the bottom lane, but he did not get ahead of McDowell before the caution came out, ending the race and making McDowell the winner.

Although spectacular, this lap proved pivotal for multiple reasons. Not only did it give Front Row Motorsports its first Daytona 500 victory — and first win since 2016 — it also has the potential to shake up the playoff picture.

McDowell is 19th in points with four races left in the regular season. Without that win he’s outside a playoff spot. If he doesn’t win that race, that would mean another driver without a victory could make the playoffs. At this point, that would put Austin Dillon in the final playoff spot.

With McDowell winning, Dillon is five points behind Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick for the last playoff spot at this time.

The last lap also led to discussions about how teammates should race each other for a win.

“I’ve always said in the past, ‘Let’s go for it in the last 10 laps, but let’s take care of ourselves until we get there,’ car owner Roger Penske said in March. “Now, I might have to change my tune based on what I saw at Daytona.”

Penske met with his drivers in April before the Talladega race.

2. Lap 63 Daytona road course (Feb. 21)

Kyle Larson passed Kurt Busch for second place with eight laps left, but Larson’s car wheel hopped and slid into the tire barrier in Turn 6. That ended Larson’s chances to win the second race of the season (and win in his second start with Hendrick Motorsports).

Larson was on a pit strategy that gave him fresher tires then Joey Logano, who was leading at the time. When Larson moved into second briefly, the next driver on the same pit strategy was Christopher Bell, who was fifth. Bell would go on to chase Logano down with those fresher tires and win.

Had Larson made the move into Turn 6 on Busch and avoided trouble that could have been Larson celebrating a victory.

Just as important is what the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team did afterward. Crew chief Cliff Daniels has talked about improving communication with Larson from the beginning of the year and providing the info Larson needs to make the best decisions on the track.

“There’s been races where we led laps, we haven’t gotten the job done,” Daniels said after Larson won at Nashville in June. “We took that very personal, right? We took it on the chin, went back to work at the shop. Really looked at the way the whole race played out from changes or communication that we had earlier in the race to what did we need to improve to really execute at the end.”

This proved to a key learning point and helped carry the team to wins later in the season at the Coca-Cola 600, Sonoma, the All-Star Race and Nashville. 

3. Lap 74: Atlanta Motor Speedway (March 21)

Kevin Harvick opened the season with four top-10 finishes in the first five races but there were troubling signs that the team’s dominance of 2020 was gone.

He had not led any laps since the season-opening Daytona 500. At Las Vegas, Harvick started on the pole and failed to score any points in the first stage. He went on to finish 20th in that race.

Crew chief Rodney Childers cited a rule change that led to a loss of downforce for the team and hurt the No. 4 car’s performance in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio a few days before the Atlanta race.

Still, many figured Harvick could rebound at Atlanta. He had won two of the previous three Atlanta races and finished no worse than ninth in the previous six races there.

History, though, couldn’t help him.

Kyle Larson lapped Harvick on Lap 74 of the 325-lap race. A couple of laps later, Harvick got on his radio and told Childers:

“This thing is the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever driven at Atlanta.  … The front end is absolutely horrendous. When you get to traffic, it just gets worse.”

Harvick got his lap back and finished 10th, but this was a sign of things to come for a driver who won a series-high nine races in 2020.

While he is tied with Hamlin and Larson with a series-high 15 top-10 finishes, Harvick remains winless this season.

4. Lap 191 Talladega (April 25)

Matt DiBenedetto was in position to win his first Cup race and secure a spot win the playoffs when everything went wrong.

Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution when his tire carcass rolled on to the track. DiBenedetto led. That caution sent the race to overtime.

DiBenedetto maintained the lead, but as the field was coming to the start/finish line to begin the final lap, DiBenedetto changed lanes. He moved to the high line to block Ryan Blaney, leaving Brad Keselowski to lead the bottom line.

As the field went through Turn 2, Tyler Reddick gained momentum and closed the gap to Blaney, who was behind DiBenedetto.

Instead of pushing Blaney, Reddick tried to go to Blaney’s outside. That stalled the top lane, leaving DiBenedetto without any help.

“It would have been nice to see where we all wound up, but the top on green-white-checkers I never think is any good because the bottom always wins out on that because the bottom lane they can’t go anywhere,” Blaney said after the race.

“They can’t move up, and then guys that are in the second lane they just bail to the top because guys in the back are trying to get all the spots you can, so that just kind of makes the top fall apart. It just kind of fell apart on us and then couldn’t get any help from behind.”

The bottom lane, which had Keselowski, Michael McDowell and Kevin Harvick stacked nose to tail, motored by DiBenedetto, ending his chances for the win and earning a playoff spot that day.

DiBenedetto finished fifth.

“I’ll drive myself crazy if I just look back at it, replay exactly what happened and will never let myself live it down,” DiBenedetto said afterward.

With four races left, DiBenedetto remains outside a playoff spot and is so far back he needs to win to get in. Had he stayed on the bottom, maybe he would have won and left only two playoff spots for winless drivers at this point in the season.

5. Lap 6 New Hampshire (July 18)

Rain falls but the race continues … until leader Kyle Busch loses control and slides into the SAFER barrier, causing enough damage to end his race. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. also hits the wall and teammate Denny Hamlin spins.

So early into a race that was eventually shortened to 293 laps (from 301) because of darkness it’s hard to say how the event might have changed with the cars of Busch and Truex not damaged.

But it’s not hard to figure Busch and/or Truex would have been at the front.

Joe Gibbs Racing cars had finished first or second in 14 of the 15 New Hampshire races leading to this event. Toyota drivers had led 77% of all the laps led in the last seven New Hampshire races, winning five of the last 10 races there before this season.

Maybe Aric Almirola would have won anyway. 

Still, Almirola’s win proved shocking since he entered the race 27th in the points.

Nobody should have thought that we were going to win,” Almirola said after the race. “Only our race team is the people that should have thought that or believed that. I mean, based on our performance especially this year on the majority of the racetracks, we haven’t been a contender to win.”

His victory took another playoff spot away from a winless driver, leaving three of the 16 playoff positions for winless drivers with four races left in the season.

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NASCAR weekend schedule for Circuit of the Americas


NASCAR’s three major series return to the road this weekend with races scheduled Saturday and Sunday at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series races are Saturday, and the Cup Series is scheduled to race Sunday afternoon.

MORE: Drivers expect North Wilkesboro surface to be challenging

Joey Logano, winner of last Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, has led laps in both COTA races and will be among the favorites Sunday.

As the first road course of the year, COTA will begin a new approach by NASCAR to stage racing on road circuits. There will no longer be a caution to end stages, but points will be awarded for the finish order. In another change, the “choose” rule will be in effect on road courses.

A look at the weekend schedule:

Circuit of the Americas (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Thunderstorms in the morning, sun later in the day. High of 86. 80% chance of rain.

Saturday: Sunny. High of 83.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. Temperature of 81 degrees with a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

Friday, March 24

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 11:30 a.m. .- 6:30 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 1:30 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Cup practice (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 8 p.m. on FS1)
  • 4:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck practice (No live broadcast)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Truck qualifying (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 9 p.m. on FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 7 – 8 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, March 25

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 2 – 10:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (42 laps, 143 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 5 p.m. — Xfinity race (46 laps, 156 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 26

Garage open

  • 12:30 – 10 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (68 laps, 231.88 miles; Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)




North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.