Friday 5: Five laps that have impacted the Cup season

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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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