Kyle Busch stole the win at the dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway Sunday night after contact between Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe in the final corner allowed the two-time Cup champion to sneak through for the victory.
Reddick led 99 of the final 100 laps, playing strong defense after multiple late caution periods that included a restart with 24 laps to go. Briscoe and Busch battled for second, but Briscoe quickly got the better of Busch and set his sights on Reddick.
Briscoe didn’t reach Reddick’s No. 8 Chevrolet until the final lap and sent his No. 14 Ford hard into Turn 3. Briscoe went sideways and lost control, sliding right-rear first into Reddick’s left rear. Both cars went for a spin, but Reddick did a quick 360-degree rotation and got back going. Busch stormed by both drivers and beat Reddick to the line by 0.33 seconds.
The victory is the 60th of Busch’s Cup career, ninth-most in history, and snaps a person 25-race winless streak, his last coming at Pocono Raceway on June 27, 2021. This also marks his 18th consecutive season with a win, tying Richard Petty’s record for most consecutive seasons with a win.
“We got one. It doesn’t matter how you get them. It’s all about getting them,” Busch told FOX Sports as he was showered with boos. “Man, I feel like Dale Earnhardt Sr. right now. This is awesome. I didn’t even do anything.”
Busch’s struggles came on the restarts following two rain delays, both of which appeared to threaten whether racing would continue.
“I don’t know why our car would not refire after the rain both times,” Busch said. “I was leading on the first big rain delay coming back and I fell to eighth and I was able to drive back through on the long run and get back into position. Then on that (second) one again, same thing and I fell off and couldn’t hang. It got me about 20 laps to get going, but overall, just great to get back in victory lane.”
Reddick was disappointed but took credit for the loss, noting he was caught because of his own mistakes behind the wheel.
“I don’t think I did everything right, to be honest with you,” Reddick said. “Briscoe was able to run me back down there. Just looking at it, I should have done a little bit better job of just — I don’t know. I shouldn’t have let him get that close. He ran me back down. Worked really hard to do that.
“I mean, you’re racing on dirt; going for the move on the final corner. It’s everything that as a driver you hope to battle for in his situation. Made it really exciting for the fans. It does suck, but we were able to finish second still. I’m being honest. I should have done a better job and pulled away so he wasn’t in range to try to make that move. That’s how I look at it.”
Reddick was leading when the caution was displayed at Lap 212 as his Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon blew an engine, slowing in the middle of the field and resulting in Kurt Busch getting turned into the outside wall.
As officials attempted to get the race resumed, heavy rain fell to halt the action for the second time Sunday night. Reddick would have been declared the winner had the race not resumed.
Briscoe took the green-and-white checkered flag to win Stage 2 at Lap 150 over Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez, and a persistent rain shower grew stronger to cause the first rain delay of the event. The red flag brought with it some confusion — the top four drivers chose to pit before NASCAR paused the race, vaulting Kyle Busch to the lead. But due to the unique format on dirt, scoring is frozen under each stage break. Despite being mired in traffic, Briscoe was still declared the leader because he led the last scored lap.
Busch assumed the lead when racing resumed to begin Stage 3 after a lengthy delay.
The event began with mud impacting cars soon after the green flag — most notably cars from the Stewart-Haas Racing stable. Polesitter Cole Custer had his grille caked in dirt after the opening laps and was forced to pit road, as were his teammates Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick.
NASCAR deployed a caution at Lap 15, calling for mandatory pit stops for all cars to have their grilles and windshields cleaned before racing resumed. Almirola was awarded the free pass, but Custer and Harvick were still trapped a lap down after receiving a wavearound. Harvick was livid and refused to drop to the rear until repeatedly being ordered to do so by officials, eventually allowing the action to resume. Harvick was later involved in a four-car incident at Lap 98 and expressed his frustration in how the track was prepared.
At Lap 50, Briscoe pushed high and contacted the outside wall with his right rear, eventually resulting in a cut tire and leading to a spin that dropped the No. 14 car outside the top 30.
Kyle Larson won Stage 1 at the conclusion of Lap 75. Under the caution period, Suarez, Briscoe and Ross Chastain did not pit and assumed the top three spots at the start of Stage 2.
Who had a good race?: Tyler Reddick will surely be disappointed with his fourth career runner-up finish, but the third-year Cup driver showed again why many expect to see him in victory lane sooner than later. Reddick was in contention for wins at both Auto Club and Phoenix but was unable to break through either time. He’s getting closer to finally cracking through. … In 10th place, Ty Dillon scored his first top-10 finish since Talladega in October 2020. … Michael McDowell notched his first top 10 since Daytona.
Who had a bad race?: Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin all faced engine failures that resulted in DNFs and finishes outside the top 30.
Notable: In fourth, Kyle Larson notched his fourth top-five finish of the year. His other five finishes are 19th or worse. … Alex Bowman scored his fourth top 10 in the last five races.
Next race: The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway on April 24 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The NASCAR on NBC analyst also sees how the dirt racing backgrounds of Reddick and Bell go well with the Next Gen car and could influence car owners to look there for future drivers.
“I think they’re that good, that talented,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell. “The background that they come from, I think, means a lot with the way they can handle these cars and what they can get out of them that others have a more difficult time getting.
“These are the two names, in my opinion, that as long as they stay with their current teams right now, they’re in the best position (to succeed). It’s going to be hard to dominate in a respect, but they’re going to win more often than a lot of others out there.”
Since the start of last year’s playoffs at Darlington Raceway, Bell has two wins, tied with Reddick and William Byron and trailing only reigning champion Joey Logano’s three wins. Bell’s 10 top 10s in that 16-race stretch are more than any driver in the series in that time except Denny Hamlin, who has 11 top 10s.
“I think what we’ve seen from them already,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell, “they’re just getting to the point now that they have the experience to know what to expect in these races at all different types of tracks.”
Both drivers have nearly the same number of starts. Reddick has 116 Cup starts, Bell has 114. Both have four Cup wins. Among current full-time Cup drivers, only Brad Keselowski scored more wins (eight) in his first 116 Cup starts than Reddick and Bell.
The next three races set up well for Bell, starting this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished sixth or better in the last four Richmond races, including a runner-up result there last August.
Then comes the dirt race at Bristol. The 28-year-old will be among the favorites due to his extensive dirt racing background. Following Bristol is Martinsville. While Ross Chastain is remembered for his video game move the last time the series raced there, it was Bell who won the race. It marked the second time in the playoffs that Bell had to win to advance and did.
“The sky is definitely the limit,” crew chief Adam Stevens said of Bell after they won the Charlotte Roval playoff race last October. “He’s young. He’s getting better at a tremendous rate. He’s already extremely good. You can’t hide the talent that he has.”
The 27-year-old Reddick is making an impact with his new team. Toyotas struggled last year on road courses — even with Bell winning at the Charlotte Roval. Reddick had the dominant car at COTA, giving Toyota its first victory of the season.
“It’s why I went after him as early as I did,” said Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, after Reddick’s victory last weekend. “I wanted to get the jump on all the other teams because I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it. It cost me a lot of money to do it, but it pays dividends.
“You have to have that driver that you feel like can carry you to championships and wins for decades. I think we have that guy. It’s not going to stop at road courses. Dirt racing, short tracks, speedways, he’s got what it takes on every racetrack we go to.”
After making his series debut in 2013, Reddick ran a majority of the 2014 Truck schedule for Brad Keselowski’s team. He finished second in points in 2015 and won three races with Keselowski’s team before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2017.
Reddick went to JR Motorsports in 2018 and won the Xfinity championship. He repeated in 2019 but won the crown with Richard Childress Racing. He moved to RCR’s Cup program in 2020, breaking out with victories at Road America, the Indianapolis road course and Texas.
Bell’s path was groomed by Toyota Racing Development, taking him from the dirt tracks all the way to Cup. He claimed the 2017 Truck title and won 15 of 66 Xfinity starts (22.7%) in 2018-19, his two full-time seasons in that series.
Eventually, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota decided to replace Erik Jones with Bell in 2021. Bell had his breakout season last year, winning at New Hampshire, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville.
Jarrett sees that talent in both Reddick and Bell, in part, from their dirt backgrounds.
“I really just believe it’s their car control is what I like the best,” Jarrett said. “You see someone like Reddick and what he did at COTA and what we saw him do a couple of times on road courses last year and the fact that he can make his car go that fast but yet not have to give up. That’s a talent that you’re able to do that.
“Christopher Bell does a lot of the same things. We see this come out on the short tracks and the difficult tracks where tire conservation means a little bit. It’s not that they’re trying to conserve the tire, it’s just their driving experience and driving abilities allow them not to abuse the tires on these cars as much as others are having to to try to match that speed that they have.”
The Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson, as well as the 10-point playoff penalty to each.
“A points penalty is a strong deterrent that is necessary to govern the garage following rule book violations, and we believe that it was an important part of the penalty in this case and moving forward,” NASCAR stated.
The Appeals Panel agreed with NASCAR that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rules by modifying the hood louvers of each of its cars. NASCAR discovered the issue before practice March 10 at Phoenix and took the hood louvers after that practice session.
The Appeals Panel kept the the $100,000 fines and four-race suspension to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs for the infraction.
The Appeals Panel did not explain its reasoning for altering NASCAR’s penalty.
Hendrick Motorsports stated three key elements when it announced that it would appeal the penalties. Those three factors were:
“Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR
“Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers
“Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection.”
NASCAR removed one word — or — so there was no option between a point penalty or fine but that such an infraction would constitute a point penalty and fine.
The question is if NASCAR will make any changes to the Rule Book this time to prevent the Appeals Panel from altering a similar penalty as the Hendrick infraction in such a way again — maybe something that more clearly states that an infraction found before a race is a point penalty.
This was only the second time in the Next Gen era that a team was penalized points for an infraction found before the race. The other case was when Cody Ware’s car failed pre-qualifying inspection four times. At the time, the Cup Rule Book stated that such an infraction was an L1 penalty. Such a penalty could result in a 20-point penalty, which Cody Ware and team owner Rick Ware received.
Another key question is what, if anything, will NASCAR do to improve quality control of parts that teams get from vendors.
“We as a company, we in the garage, every one of these teams here are being held accountable to put their car out there to go through inspection and perform at the level they need to,” he said March 17 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “The teams are being held accountable for doing that.
“Nobody is holding the single-source providers accountable at the level that they need to be to give us the parts we need. That goes through NASCAR’s distribution center and NASCAR’s approval process to get those parts, and we’re not getting the right parts.”
3. Single-file restarts
The overtime restarts last weekend at Circuit of the Americas have led to talk about if NASCAR should consider single-file restarts for all or some of its road courses.
Joey Logano discussed the notion on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week, saying: “There’s a lot of different opinions floating around. Probably the best I’ve heard is single-file restarts on road courses.”
The key issue is that at COTA and the Indianapolis road course both have a long straightaway for drivers to build speed before barreling into a sharp turn — at COTA it’s a hairpin left-hand turn, at Indy it’s a sharp right-hand turn.
Last year at Indy, Ryan Blaney was fourth on the last restart and got spun. While a single-file restart likely would have lessened the chances of such an incident, it also would have lowered Blaney’s chances to win because he would have been further away from the leader.
“The single-file restart is something I’ve been hearing around, and at some tracks I could see it working,” Blaney said, noting COTA and Indy.
He admits, that’s not the only idea.
“Do you move the restart zone?” Blaney said. “Do you give the leader more of an opening window of when to go? At COTA … do you give the leader the choice where he can go anytime between (Turn) 19 and the restart zone? So you kind of have like a short stint, slow down, turn, and then you have your long straightaway to where it kind of gaps everybody.
“You’re still doing double-file, but it kind of gaps (the cars) a little bit to where it’s not everyone nose-to-tail 15 rows deep diving in there. There’s a lot of differing opinions and ideas that are floating around, and we’ll see what we come up with, but, personally, from a driver’s standpoint it just gets messy.”
There’s time for NASCAR to decide if anything needs to be done. The next Xfinity race is June 3 at Portland. The next Cup road course race is June 11 at Sonoma.
“I don’t think you need to do anything for Sonoma,” Blaney said. “The way the restart zone is there it’s slow and you’re going up the hill right away. You don’t get the four-wide kind of thing there, so I don’t think Sonoma is anything we need to be working on.”
After that will be the inaugural Xfinity and Cup races at the Chicago street course on July 1-2. That course has a sharp left-hand turn shortly after the start/finish line that could replicate the chaos seen in restarts at COTA and Indy.
“I think Chicago is gonna be wild no matter what you do,” Blaney said.
4. Another new short track winner?
Sunday presents the opportunity for a ninth consecutive different winner of a short track race on pavement.
Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.
When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.
From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.
Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.
When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.
So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.
Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.
Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.
The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format has changed over the years.
Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.
“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”
Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.
RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.
“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”
Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.
The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.
As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.
“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”
RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.
RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.
Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.
The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.
“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”
The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.
“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”
Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.
RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Before getting too worried by Blaney’s drought, remember that the season is only six races old. Two of those six races were superspeedway events, and a third was a road course where running through other cars has become the norm.
With 30 more races in the season, it’s far from time to hit the panic button.
Basic statistics suggest that Blaney is matching (and sometimes beating) his teammate, defending champion Joey Logano. I’ve included the statistics for sophomore driver Austin Cindric in the table below, as well.
Things would appear to look good for breaking Blaney’s losing streak this year.
But a different pattern emerges upon diving into the loop data. The next table compares more detailed statistics for all three Penske drivers. I’ve highlighted the lowest-scoring driver’s numbers in red for each metric.
Cindric lags his more experienced teammates in number of laps led, number of fastest laps and number of laps run in the top 15. But in the other stats, Blaney is the third out of three at Penske.
Average running position measures driver performance across all laps of a race, instead of just the last one. Blaney’s best average running position of the season was at Phoenix, with a 7.47. His worst was last week at COTA, where his average running position was 29.28. Apart from Phoenix, Blaney didn’t break the top 10 in average running position at any race this year.
The average speed-on-restarts rank compares a driver’s average speed in the first two laps of each green-flag run to other drivers’ speeds. Blaney ranks 32nd out of 35 full-time drivers in average restart speed rank. That places him behind Logano and Cindric.
Speed early in a run and speed late in a run measure a driver’s speed compared to everyone else on track during the first and last 25% of each green-flag run. In both metrics, Blaney again ranks 32 out of 35.
The fact that top-ranking Penske driver Logano only ranks 12th and 16th in early and late speed respectively suggests that the problem is at least partly company wide.
In overall green-flag speed — the average speed over a full green-flag run — Blaney ranks 29th out of 35. Logano ranks 12th and Cindric 19th.
These numbers identify one challenge that must be overcome to break Blaney’s losing streak.
Year over year
I’ll set aside Cindric’s numbers in this section for the sake of clarity. Blaney’s first six races this year show a large drop-off in most metrics relative to the first six races of 2022. Logano, however, either improved or stayed relatively constant in the same metrics.
In the table below:
Green indicates a 10% or better improvement in 2023.
Red indicates the 2023 value is at least 10% worse.
Black indicates a change (either way) less than 10%.
Blaney has led a little more than 10% of the laps he led in 2022 and has less than half the number of fastest laps. His drop-offs on the speed metrics (the last four rows) are much greater than Logano’s changes.
In 2022, Blaney was beating Logano in all four speed metrics. This year, Logano is ahead.
The Promise of Richmond
The encouraging news to pull from this analysis is that Blaney’s numbers for Phoenix are the best of the 2023 season so far. He ranked seventh in green-flag speed, second in restart rank, eight in early-run speed and fourth in late-run speed. All of that bodes well for a good finish at Richmond.
Blaney won the pole in last spring’s Richmond race and finished seventh. He finished 10th in the fall race after qualifying 10th.
And Blaney himself is optimistic.
“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up – slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation,” Blaney said. “So I’m optimistic for it, for sure. I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team, and I’m excited to get there.”
But breaking Blaney’s losing streak is only the start to a successful season. He must improve his speed metrics at other tracks if he is to contend for a championship.