Race for Cup title is ‘wide open’ going into Southern 500


DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kevin Harvick has been a part of NASCAR’s postseason 16 times in 19 years, competing in seasons where he was a favorite, seasons where there were multiple favorites and seasons where Jimmie Johnson dominated.

Harvick enters this year’s playoffs ninth in the standings, but he sees endless possibilities going into Sunday’s Southern 500 playoff opener (6 p.m. ET on USA Network).

“It’s just as wide open as I’ve ever seen it,” the 2014 Cup champion said. 

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Learning a new car this year has made this a topsy-turvy season. Fifteen of the 16 playoff drivers have won at least one race this season. Since the current format in 2017, the playoff field has never been as close entering the 10-race postseason. Only nine points separate William Byron, who is fifth in the standings, and Austin Dillon, who is 16th. 

Last year’s playoff opener at Darlington Raceway shook up the standings. Nine title contenders finished 15th or worse in that race. Four playoff drivers, including Kyle Busch, William Byron and Chase Elliott, failed to finish because of accidents. If such trouble befalls a majority of the playoff contenders, the standings could see significant changes.

Austin Cindric, who is 14th in the standings, goes into Sunday’s race undeterred. 

“We come into the playoffs pretty low on playoff points, but at the same time eight points puts me fifth right now, so it’s pretty tight,” Cindric said. “It’s been a tight season, and I think execution and consistency has been at a premium and I think those that are able to perform in that manner is where I think I have to have my mind.  

“I think we’re gonna have to put three really great races together to move onto the next round and start all over again.”

Daniel Suarez, Cindric, Alex Bowman and Austin Dillon go into Darlington in the four spots below the cutline. Suarez will start last in the 36-car field after his car failed inspection three times before qualifying. He also will have to do a pass-through penalty after the race starts, meaning he’ll be a lap down quickly. 

“We’re in a little bit of a hole starting the race, but I’m not too worried about it,” Suarez said after Saturday’s practice. “The car actually feels pretty good. I feel like we have a couple of adjustments to do. Hopefully, we can make it a little bit better. If we can do that, I think we can have a shot actually to win the race.”

If a playoff driver wins, they advance to the next round. That can make the struggles of the season disappear quickly.

Denny Hamlin, who won last year’s Southern 500, enters the playoffs sixth but has lamented the playoff points lost this season when potential wins at Dover and Nashville went away and when his winning car failed inspection at Pocono and was disqualified. 

It’s been a challenging season for Hamlin, who still seeks his first career Cup crown.

“I just try to control what I can control and not get too emotional with the things that I can’t,” he said. “That doesn’t keep me from getting frustrated when things don’t go my way, or we don’t have the speed that I know we should have. You just try to optimize and quietly sneak our way through this deal.

“I think that’s going to be the way that it works this year. We’re just going to have to quietly, under the radar, find a way to make it to the next round.”

The playoffs represent a second chance for Ryan Blaney, the only driver among the 16 title contenders not to win a points race this season (he did win the All-Star Race in May).

Blaney is seventh in the standings. 

“You just don’t want to make any mistakes as a driver and as a team in general,” he said of the playoffs. “There’s gonna be adversity you’ve got to overcome. That’s just part of it. You’re not gonna have a completely smooth 10 weeks.  

“You’re gonna have things that are gonna go wrong and you have to adapt to them, so I definitely think we can do it, it’s just a matter of improving on some stuff that kind of bit us through the year, but I think this team is ready to do it.”


A look at the playoff standings entering Sunday’s Southern 500. Includes driver’s points total in parenthesis and where they’ll start Sunday’s race.

  1. Chase Elliott (2040) … starts 23rd 
  2. Joey Logano (2025) … starts 1st 
  3. Ross Chastain (2020) … starts 12th
  4. Kyle Larson (2019) … starts 7th
  5. William Byron (2014) … starts 3rd
  6. Denny Hamlin (2013) … starts 11th
  7. Ryan Blaney (2013) … starts 9th
  8. Tyler Reddick (2012) … starts 4th
  9. Kevin Harvick (2012) … starts 18th
  10. Christopher Bell (2011) … starts 2nd
  11. Kyle Busch (2010) … starts 5th
  12. Chase Briscoe (2009) … starts 19th
  13. Daniel Suarez (2007) … starts 36th
  14. Austin Cindric (2006) … starts 6th
  15. Alex Bowman (2006) … starts 16th
  16. Austin Dillon (2005) … starts 13th

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”