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Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

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What’s next?

In a season of change that has zoomed through NASCAR like history did in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” 100 days remain in the year. That’s plenty of time for more upheaval.

Remember the beginning of the season when talk centered on the championship race moving to Phoenix Raceway this year?

That was back when teams practiced and qualified before races, before drivers chose what lane to restart, before midweek races.

The novel coronavirus pandemic forced NASCAR and all sports to change, but when NASCAR returned after a 10-week break in May to Darlington without spectators, that was only the beginning of a season unlike any other.

Michael Jordan’s entry into the sport Monday night capped a day that started with Chip Ganassi hiring Ross Chastain to drive its No. 42 car next year and a report that NASCAR would add another road course to the 2021 schedule and move the All-Star Race.

The 2021 schedule has not been released so that is something to look forward to at some point in the next 100 days. The timeline on when it will be revealed continues to change, so let’s just say it will be out by Christmas, if not sooner. Who knows, there still might be more road course races on next year’s schedule. 

This is what we know of 2021: It won’t feature the Next Gen car, which has been delayed to 2022; the Daytona 500 is scheduled to open the season on Valentine’s Day; and Nashville Superspeedway will host Cup cars for the first time in June, the first in a four-year agreement.

Oh, and we also know where Bubba Wallace will be racing in 2021. He’ll drive for a team co-owned by Jordan and Denny Hamlin. JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty says of the three: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The sport’s quiet rock star, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, is watching his final full-time season — don’t worry he hints that he’ll look to run a few Cup races when his IndyCar schedule allows — end with muted fanfare in front of empty stands or socially distanced crowds.

Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce who it will add to its driver lineup with Johnson’s departure. That’s just among the unknowns with 100 days left in the year and 145 days until next year’s Daytona 500. Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez and Matt Kenseth have yet to announce plans for next year. The status of Kyle Larson’s return looms over all of them.

One of the bigger questions on the track is if Kyle Busch can win a Cup race this season. He’s won at least one series race in each of the past 15 years, a streak that ranks tied for sixth on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Tony Stewart.

“It’s really important,” Busch said of the streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons. Hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here.”

Busch came close last weekend at Bristol, the first time that track hosted a playoff race. It was part of the revamped playoff schedule that has Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville as elimination races, NASCAR’s way of ramping the intensity as the season comes to a close.

There weren’t fireworks on the track but the 30,000 fans at Bristol saw a spellbinding battle between Harvick and Busch for the win over the final laps. Harvick prevailed for his ninth win of the season. Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 or more races.

Fans are slowly returning to the track, although there won’t be any at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway found out Tuesday that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper will permit outdoor arenas with seating capacity of more than 10,000 to be filled to 7% capacity. Charlotte races in May were run without fans and the All-Star Race was moved to Bristol in July because Bristol could have fans and Charlotte could not.

Social initiatives, including the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR races and tracks, were added this summer.

“Ultimately,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in June, “when we get back to full grandstands, everyone who walks through the gates or on to our property or one of our tracks or where our races are being held will understand that they will not see the Confederate flag.”

That was among the key changes that Jordan said drew him to joining Hamlin as an owner of NASCAR’s newest Cup team.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in a statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Jordan’s entrance is significant. But the way this season has gone, a global sports icon joining NASCAR? That’s called Tuesday.

With 100 days left in the year, there’s plenty more change ahead.

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Austin Dillon charges to another top-five finish

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Austin Dillon left Richmond excited about scoring back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his career. But he also left wondering what could have been.

Dillon finished fourth in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race despite a pit road speeding penalty and missing pit road another time.

“I wish I wouldn’t have had that speeding penalty,” Dillon said of his sixth speeding penalty of the season. “But we overcame that. … What a night for our team. I’ve been pretty confident in this team all year and now it’s starting to show more and more.”

MORE: Brad Keselowski wins playoff race at Richmond

Dillon and Joey Logano are the only drivers to score top-five finishes in each of the first two playoff races.

Dillon was strong throughout the 400-lap race. He had never led a lap in 13 previous Cup races at the track. He led 55 Saturday. It is the most laps the No. 3 car has led in a Cup race since Dale Earnhardt led 58 laps at Charlotte in October 2000.

“Richmond used to be my least favorite track,” Dillon said. “I hated it. I couldn’t do good in it in Xfinity. … I literally hated this place. Now, it is my favorite.”

The Richard Childress Racing driver took the lead from Kevin Harvick on Lap 21 and was near the front until his pit road speeding penalty on Lap 84. Both he and Denny Hamlin, a three-time Richmond winner, were penalized for speeding during their pit stops at the end of stage 1.

While Hamlin struggled to move up through the field, Dillon marched from 29th on Lap 89 to 11th on Lap 125.

Dillon returned to the lead on Lap 182 and held it for 36 circuits until Brad Keselowski, who was on fresher tires, went by. Dillon finished second in Stage 2, matching his result in the first stage.

With those 18 stage points, Dillon scored 51 points for the race. Only Keselowski had more points, scoring 57 with his victory.

Dillon’s point total puts him sixth in the standings. He’s 36 points ahead of William Byron, the first driver outside a transfer spot heading into next weekend’s cutoff race at Bristol.

The only other hiccup for Dillon on Saturday was missing pit road on Lap 335, forcing him to make another trip about the three-quarter mile track before pitting.

“The biggest thing is when we came to pit road for our second green-flag stop in Stage 3, we were trying to bring everybody down,” Dillon said. “The No. 1 car (of Kurt Busch) was in my mirror on (fresher) tires. I overdrove that entry just a little bit thinking that I needed to avoid getting rear-ended, and then it was like ‘Oh no, I’m going to hit the red (commitment line) box’ so I had to make another lap around the track. That cost us three seconds.”

He had a good enough car to finish in the top five and put him a good position to transfer to the second round. He has failed to advance out of the first round the last two times he’s been in the playoffs.

But this year looks to be different.

“I felt our team has really turned the corner the last couple of weeks,” Dillon said. “I felt like Richard Childress Racing as a whole has had speed all year. … We’ve got a really good team.”

Inspection failures force Kyle Busch to start at rear

Inspection failures
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Kyle Busch will start at the rear of the field in Saturday night’s playoff race at Richmond after his No. 18 car failed inspection twice.

Busch was to have started sixth.

His car was penalized for two inspection failures before the race. No other cars had two inspection failures before the race.

MORE: Saturday Cup race at Richmond: Start time, TV channel, forecast 

One challenge for Busch could be the change in stage lengths in the opening stage. Last year, the first stage ended on Lap 100. Tonight’s first stage ends at Lap  80. So Busch has fewer laps to climb from the rear and into the top 10 to score stage points.

Richmond is the second race of the first round of the playoffs. Busch is 10th in the standings. He’s seven points ahead of the cutoff for the final transfer spot to the second round.

Busch goes into Saturday night’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) without crew chief Adam Stevens, who is serving a one-race suspension. Stevens was penalized because Busch’s car had two lug nuts not safe and securer after last weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Jacob Canter will be Busch’s crew chief Saturday. Canter has been Busch’s crew chief in his five Xfinity starts.

Busch is winless this season. He’s had at least one Cup victory in each of the past 15 season. That’s tied with Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Tony Stewart for sixth on the all-time list for most consecutive seasons with a Cup win.

Busch has six career wins at Richmond. He swept both Richmond races in 2018.

Kyle Busch seeks to put ‘frustrating’ season behind with playoff run

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The words flowed in such a seamless manner that it was jarring to hear how easily Kyle Busch spoke them.

Certainly we’re not a title frontrunner,” the two-time Cup champion said of his playoff hopes Thursday. “We’re not a favorite.”

This from a driver who sang: “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” after his 200th career NASCAR victory last year.

But he hasn’t won this year in Cup. Busch has never gone so deep into a season without performing his victory bow in NASCAR’s premier series. Only Busch fans would label him a favorite entering the playoffs, which begin with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

MORE: Southern 500 throwback paint schemes 

MORE: Southern 500 weekend schedule 

Yet, as Busch discussed the playoffs, his swagger remained.

“All you have to do is win a race in each of these rounds,” he said with casual conviction. “You do that and you put yourself right into the Championship Four.”

Simple enough. But that’s not how some drivers near Busch at the bottom of the playoff standings spoke to the media this week. They talked of minimizing mistakes and focusing on stage points as a way to advance.

Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch seek to make the title race for a sixth consecutive year. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Busch views things differently. And he’s viewed differently.

Competitors are wary of what Busch could do in the playoffs even though he has as many finishes of 30th or worse (five) as he does top fives in the last 14 races.

Ryan Blaney labeled Busch a dark horse for the title.

Denny Hamlin said “it’s absolutely possible” that Busch gets hot in the playoffs and makes a title run.

“We even saw it last year,” Hamlin said. “He was the least championship favorite going into the final four and he won the race and he’s champion.”

Martin Truex Jr. notes that Busch “probably should have a few wins if it wasn’t for crazy things happening.”

Busch – who has made it to the championship race in each of the past five years – finds himself seeded 14th in the 16-driver field because of a season that has left him muttering.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s aggravating. It’s kind of a let-down. You’re wondering what’s wrong. You’re wondering where to look or what rock to look under to turn things around. It’s just crazy the way this year has gone for us and unforeseen circumstances really.”

Kyle Busch is tied with NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Darrell Waltrip for sixth on the all-time list for most consecutive seasons with a Cup victory. (Photo: Getty Images)

Busch admits his focus is on winning a race to keep his streak of consecutive seasons with a Cup victory alive. He’s scored at least one Cup win in each of the past 16 seasons. That ties him with Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Darrell Waltrip for sixth on the all-time list. Richard Petty owns the record at 18 consecutive years with at least one victory.

“It’s really important,” Busch said of his streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment … hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here. It would be nice if I’m able to keep winning races all the way through my career each and every single year that I’m out there.”

A crash ended Kyle Busch’s race early at New Hampshire in August. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Busch has cited the elimination of practice and qualifying this season as hurting him find that feel in the car. The early laps are often spent diagnosing the car instead of passing competitors. The result is Busch often is passed.

“There’s really not a lot of opportunity at some of these places for pit stops or chances to work on your car in the first stage to get those points,” Busch said.

“That’s probably been our biggest detriment this year is even if we did have an opportunity to start up front, we would fall out of the top-10 to get any of those points to have an opportunity to get points, not even stage wins, but to get points that matter.”

Busch’s 69 points in the first stage pale next to Blaney (135 points), Joey Logano (122) and Kevin Harvick (111). Nine of the other 15 playoff drivers scored more points than Busch in the first stage.

The woes have been many.

“This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through,” Busch said.

He admits this year has made him wonder “what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience?”

But it’s also an opportunity. Busch came back after missing the first 11 races in the 2015 season when he broke his leg and won his first Cup title. Along with last year’s unexpected victory in the title race, maybe favorite is not a role Busch wants, anyway.

“Looking forward to the challenge,” he said of the playoffs. “If we can win it this year then there’s no reason why any year we should ever not have an opportunity to win it.”

Playoff standings 

2057 – Kevin Harvick

2047 – Denny Hamlin

2029 – Brad Keselowski

2022 – Joey Logano

2020 – Chase Elliott

2014 – Martin Truex Jr.

2013 – Ryan Blaney

2009 – Alex Bowman

2007  – William Byron

2005 – Austin Dillon

2005 – Cole Custer

2005 – Aric Almirola

2004 – Clint Bowyer

2003 –  Kurt Busch

2001 – Kyle Busch

2000 – Matt DiBenedetto

Retro Rundown 2020: Southern 500 paint schemes

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It’s officially Southern 500 week.

NASCAR will make its third visit of the year to Darlington Raceway this weekend, capped off by Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and the start of the Cup Series playoffs.

Since 2015, the Southern 500 Throwback Weekend has played host to various retro paint schemes that pay tribute to NASCAR’s past.

More: Up to 8,000 fans approved for Southern 500

Here’s the Retro Rundown for this year as we catalogue the throwback schemes Cup, Xfinity and Truck teams will bring to the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

Cup Series

Quin Houff, No. 00 Chevrolet

Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford

The Team Penske driver will have the Discount Tire scheme he had in the Xfinity Series 10 years ago.

Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet

The Richard Childress Racing driver’s car will be a tribute to NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, who died last year at the age of 88.

Austin Dillon Southern 500

 

Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Ford

Harvick will drive a paint scheme based on the 1997 NASCAR-themed Busch Beer cans.

 

Ryan Newman, No. 6 Ford

The Roush Fenway Racing driver will pilot a scheme based on the 1999 scheme from the USAC Silver Crown Series, where he won the national championship.

Ryan Newman Darlington

 

 

Josh Bilicki, No. 7 Chevrolet

Tommy Baldwin Racing will honor Tommy Baldwin Sr.’s racing career.

 

Tyler Reddick, No. 8 Chevrolet

The Richard Childress rookie will throw back to the paint scheme NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton had in 1994 when Burton won Cup rookie of the year honors.

 

Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet

Elliott will pay tribute to Jimmie Johnson with his 2009 championship scheme.

Chase Elliott Southern 500

 

Aric Almirola, No. 10 Ford

 

Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota

Hamlin’s scheme is a throwback to when FedEx was first founded at Federal Express in 1973. The design of the No. 11 is based based on Cale Yarborough’s number that year when he won at Darlington.

Denny Hamlin Darlington

 

Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Ford

The Team Penske driver will sport the Menards paint scheme that Paul Menard had when he competed in the ARCA Menards Series in 2003.

Ryan Blaney Darlington

 

Ty Dillon, No. 13 Chevrolet

Clint Bowyer, No. 14 Ford

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver will honor NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty. Bowyer’s car will have the Peak Antifreeze scheme Petty drove for SABCO Racing in 1990 and won at Rockingham in.

 

Brennan Poole, No. 15 Chevrolet

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota

Busch will pilot a paint scheme based on the M&M’s car driven by Elliott Sadler in 2004 at Robert Yates Racing.

Kyle Busch Southern 500

 

Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Toyota

 

Matt DiBenedetto, No. 21 Ford

DiBenedetto will arrive in Darlington with a tribute to the Wood Brothers’ 1963 Ford Galaxie. That’s the car Tiny Lund won the 1963 Daytona 500 with. It’s also the car Glen Wood won his final Cup Series race in at Bowman Gray Stadium on July 13, 1963.

Matt DiBenedetto

 

Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford

Logano will drive a scheme inspired by the No. 22 Miller car that Bobby Allison raced in 1985.

Joey Logano

 

William Byron, No. 24 Chevrolet

Byron will honor Jimmie Johnson with his 2013 All-Star Race winning scheme.

William Byron Southern 500

 

J.J. Yeley, No. 27 Ford.

 

John Hunter Nemechek, No. 38 Ford

The rookie driver’s scheme is based on Elliott Sadler’s CITGO scheme from 1999 and 2000.

 

Cole Custer, No. 41 Ford.

 

Bubba Wallace, No. 43 Chevrolet

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet

For his final Southern 500, Johnson will pay tribute to his fellow seven time Cup champions, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Jimmie Johnson Southern 500

 

Joey Gase, No. 51 Chevrolet

Gase will drive a tribute to Bobby Allison’s 1971 win in the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola scheme he had that year. It’s the same Allison tribute Tony Stewart had in the 2016 Southern 500.

Joey Gase

 

James Davison, No. 53 Chevrolet

Timmy Hill, No. 66 Toyota

Ross Chastain, No. 77 Chevrolet

Chastain will drive a paint scheme that honors the scheme Dale Earnhardt drove early in his career.

Alex Bowman, No. 88 Chevrolet

Bowman will honor Jimmie Johnson by racing his 2006 championship scheme, his first of five Cup titles in a row.

Alex Bowman Southern 500

 

Christopher Bell, No. 95 Toyota

Bell will drive the scheme he had when he won the Truck Series title in 2017.

 

Daniel Suarez, No. 96 Toyota

 

Xfinity Series

 

Jeffrey Earnhardt, No. 0 Chevrolet

 

Brett Moffitt, No. 02 Chevrolet

 

Michael Annett, No. 1 Chevrolet

With sponsorship from Oreo, the JR Motorsports driver will honor his team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., with driving the scheme Earnhardt drove to a win in the 2002 Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Michael Annett Darlington
Top: JR Motorsports/Bottom: Getty Images

 

Ryan Vargas, No. 7 Chevrolet

 

Justin Allgaier, No. 7 Chevrolet

 

Daniel Hemric, No. 8 Chevrolet

The JR Motorsports driver will pilot a John Andretti tribute scheme. The scheme is based on the K Mart/Little Caesars car that the late Andretti raced in the 1995 and 1996 Cup seasons. 

Daniel Hemric Darlington

 

Joe Graf Jr., No. 08 Chevrolet

Chad Finchum, No. 13 Toyota

Harrison Burton, No. 20 Toyota

The son of NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton will honor his farther with one of his past schemes.

 

Anthony Alfredo, No. 21 Chevrolet

 

Tommy Joe Martins, No. 44 Chevrolet

 

Kyle Weatherman, No. 47 Chevrolet

Jeremy Clements, No. 51 Chevrolet

Clements, a South Carolina native, will drive a scheme that pays tribute to NASCAR champions from his home state. Drivers who will be honored include:

Cup Series: Buck Baker (Richburg, SC – C 1957-58), David Pearson (Spartanburg, SC – 1966, 1968-69) and Cale Yarborough (Timmonsville, SC –  1976-78)

Xfinity Series: Sam Ard (Pamplico, SC – 1983-84) and Larry Pearson (Spartanburg, SC – 1986-87)

Jeremy Clements Darlington

 

Stephen Leicht, No. 68 Toyota

Brandon Brown, No. 68 Chevrolet

 

Myatt Snider, No. 93 Chevrolet

 

Chase Briscoe, No. 98 Ford

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver will pay tribute to team owner Tony Stewart by driving his 2011 Cup championship scheme.

DGM Racing: Alex Labbe and Josh Williams

Truck Series

 

Derek Kraus, No. 19 Toyota

 

Spencer Boyd, No. 20 Chevrolet

Stewart Friesen, No. 52 Toyota

 

Timmy Hill, No. 56 Chevrolet

 

Clay Greenfield, No. 68 Toyota

 

GMS Racing