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Alex Bowman ready for end of most grueling week of his career

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By the time Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway ends, Alex Bowman will be ready to run another race: from his car to his bed.

When the checkered flag drops at Miami, Bowman and the rest of his Cup counterparts will have competed in three full-length races in just eight days.

The streak started last Sunday with a 500-mile race at Atlanta, followed by a 500-lap race Wednesday at Martinsville, and will conclude with the 400-mile race at Miami.

“I think this week has been probably been the most grueling of my career,” Bowman said Friday in a media teleconference. “The recovery process has definitely changed, the workout process during the week has changed quite a bit.

“But this week, with 500 miles at Atlanta, two days to turn around and go to Martinsville for 500 laps where it’s super-hot – we have right side windows in short track cars now, so there’s no air flow – it was the hottest I’ve ever been in my entire life in a race car on Wednesday night.

“That was really tough, lost a ton of weight on Wednesday night. Trying to put that back on for Sunday is difficult, trying to get rehydrated for Sunday is difficult. The previous couple of weeks, I would have told you no, everything is good and it’s no problem. But this week has been a tough one.”

A tired Alex Bowman rests outside of his car following Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet won at Fontana shortly before the COVID-19 hiatus. When NASCAR returned to racing, he finished second in the first race back (Darlington).

He struggled in the next four races: 18th in the second Darlington race, 19th and 31st at Charlotte and 37th at Bristol.

But Bowman seems back on track with a 12th-place finish at Atlanta and sixth at Martinsville.

“As far as how things are going for our team and how things have gone this year, I don’t necessarily think things are coming easier,” Bowman said. “We’re working harder than ever, I’m working harder than ever on and off the race track and doing everything I can to be prepared each and every week.

“But I think our on-track product has been better for our race team. We’ve led more laps this year than in previous years. We’ve thrown some races away, for sure. I think the second Charlotte was a race that I threw away single-handedly and I’ve been pretty frustrated with that ever since then.”

Bowman believes his finish at Martinsville could be a significant turning point.

“When we have fast race cars each and every week, there’s always next week and I feel like that’s been a thing that’s really giving us a lot of confidence,” Bowman said. “We went to a race track that we were absolutely horrendous at last year (finished 14th and 30th in 2019) on Wednesday night – going to Martinsville – and we ran sixth.

“We had a really great race car, so I think we’re improving in every area. I just need to do a little better job putting complete races together. But I think things are definitely coming together.”

Sunday’s race marks the first time since 2002 that NASCAR has not raced at Miami on the season-ending and championship-deciding weekend.

“I think the on-track stuff will be really similar, it’s just kind of that off-track, last day of school-type feel that it probably won’t have and will be a little different,” Bowman said.

Following Sunday’s race, Bowman and the rest of the Cup Series has a nearly seven-day reprieve to rest and recover from this week before action resumes June 21 at the largest and one of the most difficult tracks in the sport, Talladega Superspeedway next Sunday.

Although there was one Cup practice session scheduled for next Saturday afternoon, NASCAR decided Saturday to eliminate the June 20 session at Talladega after consulting teams.

“I’m a big fan of this no-practice thing, I’m really enjoying it,” Bowman said a day before NASCAR’s decision was announced. “I feel like we run about the same and gives me less time to dial us out for the race.

“I’m all for no practice. Obviously, the rule changes, I think we’ll all be able to adapt to that really quickly and the teams will do a really good job of having the cars prepared how they need to be for that event and I’m all good for it.”

But first, Bowman has to stay alert and awake in Miami: “I’m ready to go, should be a good one for us.”

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Friday 5: Work remains for NASCAR after extraordinary week

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When NASCAR President Steve Phelps spoke about racial injustice last weekend, as cars sat silent at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and pledged that “our sport must do better,” he set NASCAR on a path toward seismic changes.

Giving competitors the ability to peacefully protest during the national anthem and banning the Confederate flag shattered iron-clad beliefs of some fans but proved a welcome sign to many others that NASCAR was ready to listen to them.

Drivers delivered that message in a video they posted last weekend, condemning racial inequality and racism.

“The process begins with us listening and learning because understanding the problem is the first step in fixing it,” drivers said in the video. “We are committed to listening with empathy and with an open heart to better educate ourselves. We will use this education to advocate for change in our nation, our communities and most importantly in our own homes. Even after the headlines go away.”

It’s a promise drivers must keep.

Bubba Wallace has taken the leadership role thrust upon him as the lone full-time Black driver in NASCAR’s national ranks.

“I’m really proud of what he’s doing, the effort he’s putting in, in wanting to kind of lead the charge,” Ryan Blaney said of his close friend. “I stand behind him. A lot of guys stand behind him in NASCAR, not only the drivers, but a lot of teams, as well, crew members.”

While NASCAR officials were discussing various changes to make, it was Wallace who went on CNN, saying of the Confederate flag: “Get them out of here.” Two days later, NASCAR did so.

It was really cool to see what Bubba was able to do,” Joey Logano said. “He should be proud of the movement he’s made for the African-American community in our sport. He always has just by being here, but when you look at the comments he made on CNN the other day and then NASCAR completely answered it. Kudos to NASCAR. Kudos to Bubba for bringing it up and using his platform for something good.”

The youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. was among many who applauded NASCAR on social media for prohibiting the display of the Confederate flag at all its events and properties.

“We want change, it starts with us,” Wallace said Thursday on the “Today” show. “We have to start basically from the roots and go from (the) ground up and really implement what we’re trying to say in our message.”

While now is a time to listen, there will be a time where more action is needed.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can go about this,” said Tyler Reddick, who was among the first Cup drivers to publicly support Black Lives Matter. “Just trying to make NASCAR a more friendly environment for all fans. The step that we made this week with the Confederate flag is one of those steps. I’m sure there are many others that they’re working on.

“Some of the drivers have talked about ideas and other things, and I don’t want to spoil their ideas, but just continuing to not lose sight of it. As they say, when the headlines finally clear and it goes back to a sense of normalcy, if you will, it’s just important to remain adamant that we need to go out there in our communities or we need to go vote and get the right people that we feel that are going to make those changes that we’ve been crying out for the last couple of weeks. … Stay diligent, and not lose sight of what’s important here.”

2. Enforcing Confederate flag ban

Shortly after NASCAR announced that the display of the Confederate flag would be prohibited at all its events and facilities, questions began to be raised about how that could be enforced.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, discussed that matter Thursday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“That will certainly be a challenge,” O’Donnell said of enforcing the ban. “We’ll try to do that the right way. We’ll get ahead of it as we are today in letting people know that, ‘Hey, we’re all about pride, we’re all about America, fly your U.S. flag high, fly your driver’s flags high and come on into the track.’ But if we see something displayed at the track we’re going to have react and we will. More details to come but I’m confident we’ll do that and we’ll do that in a smart way.”

Chuck Rosenberg, an NBC legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, notes that those who think they are protected by First Amendment rights at a NASCAR track or event would be wrong.

“NASCAR facilities are private property and so First Amendment protections do not apply,” he said. “NASCAR has the right to make the rules regarding how people must behave inside their facilities. It will be important for NASCAR to issue clear and thoughtful guidance so fans can comply.”

The first race with fans in the stands is Sunday’s Cup race at Miami. That will have up to 1,000 military guest and family members. The June 21 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway will have to up 5,000 fans. There will be no fans for Cup races at Pocono Raceway (June 27-28), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 5), Kentucky Speedway (July 12).

3. Grueling week

Sunday’s Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway marks the third Cup race in a week. While this isn’t the first time this season that the Cup series has had as many races within seven days, Brad Keselowski says of this stretch: “I don’t know if there’s ever been a more grueling stretch in Cup racing.”

Consider:

Last Sunday, Cup ran 500 miles at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The high was 84 degrees. Drivers spent much of the day fighting their cars as tires wore on the old pavement.

“Atlanta was a grueling race, very humid, 500 miles,” Keselowski said.

Wednesday night, Cup ran 500 laps at Martinsville Speedway. The high was 87 degrees during the day. While it cooled some at night, drivers noted how hot it was.

“I think a lot of guys, including myself a little bit, thought a night race at Martinsville wasn’t going to be hot,” Tyler Reddick said. “It was one of the hottest races that I’ve done in a very long time.”

Sunday, Cup drivers are set to run 400 miles at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The forecast calls for a high of 86 degrees.

“Honestly, Miami will probably be the hottest one we go to, most humid,” Blaney said.

While there is something to not having practice or qualifying for drivers and teams, that lack of track time can impact drivers during such a stretch.

“One thing about the practices – yes, it’s time on track, but it gives your body a little hint and a look into what you’re going to be experiencing for 500 miles or 500 laps, whatever it may be at the track that we go to,” Reddick said. “So, if you’re having any issues with the car, issues with your back, arms hurting after a 40- or 50-lap run or something in particular that’s bothering you from the week before, you have no insight to that going into the race and you’re going to have to fight it all race long.”

As for the challenge of this week, Keselowski said: “It’s the same for everybody. We all got to toughen up. I think it’s a great test of will, a great test of the drivers. I think it’s what makes these few weeks so compelling not just as a participant but as a fan myself.”

4. Streakin’

A few streaks to keep in mind this weekend for the Cup Series.

Kevin Harvick has had 12 consecutive top-10 finishes in Miami.

Jimmie Johnson enters this weekend having finished in the top 10 in each of the last three races. Since he won his seventh Cup title in 2016, this is only the second time he’s had three consecutive top-10 finishes.

In Martin Truex Jr.‘s last three Miami starts, he has one win and two runner-up finishes, leading a total of 201 laps.

No rookie has finished in the top 10 at Miami since David Ragan placed 10th in the 2007 race. Rookie Tyler Reddick won his last two Xfinity starts there and finished runner-up in a Truck race there.

5. Coming Tuesday

NASCAR Hall of Fame voters selected the 2021 Class on Tuesday. The votes have been tabulated and will be announced at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday (June 16) on NASCAR America. Among those eligible for the Class of 2021 are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Ricky Rudd, Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant in the Modern Era category.

Atlanta finish could make Martinsville race tougher on Jimmie Johnson

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A late charge by Clint Bowyer on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway could make Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville more difficult for Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson, who is in the midst of a 105-race winless streak, is the most prolific active Cup driver at Martinsville with nine wins

But his seventh-place finish Sunday at Atlanta – his fifth top-10 finish of the season – could come back to bite him Wednesday on the half-mile track.

That’s because Johnson is 13th in the owner points standings after Sunday’s race. That will impact where he starts at Martinsville.

This is how the starting lineup for Wednesday’s race (7 p.m. ET on FS1) will be determined.

  • Positions 1-12: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 13-24: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 25-36: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 37-40: Open teams in order of owners points

Since Johnson is 13th in the owner points, he’ll be in the group that has a random draw for 13th-24th in the starting lineup at Martinsville. If Johnson starts deeper in the field, he could be more susceptible to being caught in an early incident.

Bowyer, who is 12th in the owner points, will be in the random draw for first to 12th in the starting order at Martinsville.

Here is how Bowyer’s late charge at Atlanta impacted Johnson and kept the seven-time champion from having a chance to possibly start on the pole at Martinsville.

There was a five-point swing in Bowyer’s favor in the final 11 laps Sunday. Bowyer ended the race three points ahead of Johnson in the owner points for that 12th spot.

Things began to change on Lap 312 when Bowyer had to pit for tires and fell to 26th. From Lap 314 – Lap 323, Bowyer went from 26th to 20th. With each position worth a point, every position Bowyer gained in those laps was another point in his favor.

Johnson, meanwhile, was passed by Kurt Busch for sixth on Lap 323. That cost Johnson a point.

The result was that Bowyer remained ahead of Johnson for 12th in the owner points based on those final laps.

Also, pit selection for Wednesday’s race at Martinsville will be based on the finishing order of Sunday’s race. That means race winner Kevin Harvick will have the best pit stall Wednesday night, the stall before the exit of pit road.

“The biggest thing at Martinsville is just having that clean (pit) out and having options, being able to not be blocked in and that kind of thing,” said Rodney Childers, Kevin Harvick’s crew chief. “So to be able to have that stall will be good for us.  Martinsville is the place that has kind of been up and down for us. We haven’t been able to get a victory there in the 4 car, and it seems like we try really hard but we’ve been getting a little bit better each time I would say, and hopefully we’ll have a good car on Wednesday night.”

Joe Gibbs Racing shows improvement with three drivers in top 5 at Atlanta

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Joe Gibbs Racing dominated the Cup Series in 2019 with 19 victories, but the early portion of the 2020 season hasn’t been as kind to the four-car team, as it’s only won twice with one driver through 10 races.

But the organization showed improvement Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, putting three of its drivers in the top five for the second time this year. Kyle Busch placed second, Martin Truex Jr. finished third and Denny Hamlin finished fifth as Kevin Harvick won the race.

For Busch, the defending series champion who has yet to win in 2020, it was his third runner-up finish of the season.

After Atlanta, does JGR feel better with where its program is through 10 races?

“I wouldn’t say entirely,” Busch said. “Atlanta is kind of its own beast. Well, Atlanta and Homestead are pretty significant high downforce tracks, and we tend to run well here. Truex definitely tends to run well here. He did last year, and I think Denny has won here (once in Cup), so it’s a place that we should have good results at, and it’s nice to come out of here with a good solid run, run up front all day long and have a good outing. Hopefully we can keep that momentum rolling.”

For Truex, it was his first top-five finish of the year and came after he led 65 laps. He also swept the first two stages. In his first season with crew chief James Small, Truex entered Atlanta without any stage wins this year.

“It’s definitely encouraging,” Truex said. “We’ve had a really strong season as far as being competitive and getting tons of stage points, and we’ve been kind of lacking on our finishes a little bit. So it felt good to get that top five out of the way. I wish we could have won. I felt like through the first two stages we had a dominant car, and then the track changed and we didn’t keep up with it. That’s just part of this racing, so we need to do a better job of that.”

Truex attributed part of JGR’s early season struggles to there being no practice since NASCAR returned to racing on May 17.

“I think it’s been a little bit tough not having practice and things like that to hit it right,” Truex said. “I think our cars are close. I don’t think we’re dominant. I think there’s some really fast cars out there that we’re trying to catch up to. We really have to do all the little things right to be able to put ourselves in position to win races, and we’ve done that. We’ve been in position a few times this season, and things didn’t go the way we needed them to, and when you’re not a dominant car, you’re not just going to blow by through the field when you have issues. We definitely know we need to get better.”

When it comes to preparing for a race, Truex said there’s only so much that can be done with simulation.

“There’s so many assumptions in there,” Truex said. “We dominated the Coke 600, went back three days later and we could barely run 25th at the start of the race.

“That’s just where the practice thing comes in. You go back to the racetrack with your best guess of what you think is going to work, and it’s not always what you think it’s going to be. You give a great driver and crew chief and engineer and team an hour to work on a race car, they’re going to get it better.”

Hamlin, who owns the team’s two wins this year, earned his fifth top five of the year after experiencing his “worst run” of the day to end the race.

“Pretty encouraged by that and it looked like all of our cars were running a little bit better,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully this is a good sign for us.”

NASCAR drivers taking active role in fight against social injustice

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Ryan Blaney said he took part in peaceful protests this week in Charlotte “just seeing and talking and learning.”

That’s just something that you want to get involved with and support your fellow human being. We all have to treat each other equally. It kind of disgusts me when the race thing comes up and people hate a person for being a different pigment and not judging them by their character.

“That’s just something that I can never understand, but it’s nice that I think a lot of people are really supporting it and it has a lot of traction behind it, and I thought today what they did on the frontstretch was a really good gesture to show how much we support them.”

Series officials stopped the field on the frontstretch before Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and NASCAR President Steve Phelps read a message that included: “The time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice. We ask our drivers, our competitors and all our fans to join us in this mission.”

A video of NASCAR drivers condemning racial inequality and racism was then played. Blaney was among those featured in the video.

Many communities have had protests since George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day while in custody of Minneapolis police. One officer, Derek Chauvin, kept his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and has since been charged with second-degree murder.

The three other officers who did not stop Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd’s neck were charged with aiding and abetting murder. All four officers were fired.

Rookie Cup driver Tyler Reddick, whose girlfriend Alexa De Leon is a person of color, shared his thoughts on Phelps’ address Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track.”

“It’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to say,” Reddick said. “We have a platform in front of us where we’re able to push out and let everyone know where we stand, where NASCAR stands, where we stand as a sport. So it was a great opportunity … as we were sitting there on the frontstretch, there’s been very few moments where I’ve felt so excited, fulfilled and anxious … very fulfilling to be in that position.”

Kevin Harvick, who won Sunday’s race and is featured in the video by drivers condemning racism, said: “Something just has to change, and I think when you look at what happened in Minnesota, it’s just disgraceful to everyone. 

“To be able to have conversations about things, I’m definitely a person that wants to hear a plan that has actions included in it, and just try to support each other and do the things that we can do to try to help our communities and help the conversations because there’s so much that everyone doesn’t understand of what we need to do and how we need to do it. But I can tell you that we need change.”

Brad Keselowski, who also appeared in the driver video, stressed the importance of listening.

“I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I have all kinds of answers, but I think I can agree to listen and try to appreciate other perspectives and, more than anything else, just have empathy,” he said.

“I’ve been guilty and probably still am guilty a lot of times of not doing the best job of having empathy, but in these situations I think it’s really important. I can tell you that there ain’t no fun in seeing everything that’s been going on and I wish we could fix it. 

“We’ve spent the last 300 years as a country trying to fix it and we still ain’t got it right, so I guess that means we’ve got to keep working. Will I have the answer? No, but I think it starts with kind of owning your own box, your own 10 square feet so to speak. If you can’t make a problem better, certainly don’t make it worse. Sometimes I think we make it worse and don’t know we’re making it worse and that’s why it’s important to listen.”

Kyle Busch, who appears in the driver video, said he will have an interview with former Carolina Panthers Jonathan Stewart shortly.

“We wanted to put out a powerful statement and a message, and so I feel like we all did that together with NASCAR, and went well from all of our standpoints, so we’re happy to be able to do that and show our support to the black community,” Busch said of the driver video. “I also sat down this week with Jonathan Stewart, who was a former running back for the Carolina Panthers, and he and I were friends, so we had a good conversation this past week, so we recorded that, and we’re going to do some edits on that and be able to put that out, as well, from my side. Bubba Wallace did it with Ty Dillon, as well, so stuff like that has been happening, and it’s a time for us to take initiative but also to listen and learn and go from there.”