Denny Hamlin not only won Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono, he also knocked Ryan Blaney off the top spot for this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.
Hamlin was a unanimous selection of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers for No. 1 in this week’s rankings.
Kevin Harvick, who finished 1st-2nd in the two Pocono races (while Hamlin finished 2nd-1ast), was the biggest gainer, going from unranked last week to a unanimous pick for No. 2 this week. The biggest drop was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who went from third last week to unranked this week.
Here’s how this week’s rankings look:
1. Denny Hamlin (30 points): Keeps getting stronger. First four-time winner of the season. Could this be the year he finally wins his first Cup championship? Last week: second.
2. Kevin Harvick (27 points): Came so close to making it a weekend sweep. Has 3 wins, eight top five and 12 top-10 finishes in first 15 races. Has finished outside the top 15 only once this season. Last week: unranked.
3. Aric Almirola (23 points): Four consecutive top fives – his only top fives this season and the best streak of his career – has Almirola back on track after earlier struggles. Last week: fourth (tied).
4. Chase Elliott (15 points): Has four top 10s in the last six races. Last week: seventh.
5. Brad Keselowski (14 points): Since NASCAR returned from the COVID-19 hiatus, Keselowski has two wins and just three finishes outside the top 10 in 11 races. Last week: eighth (tied).
6. Ryan Blaney (13 points): Had an off weekend (best finish was 12th on Saturday) after his win at Talladega. His Pocono finishes snapped a streak of six top-five finishes in his previous seven starts. Last week: first.
7. Martin Truex Jr. (12 points): Has four top 10s, including a win, in the last six races. Last week: unranked.
8. Chase Briscoe (9 points): Has been strong in the Xfinity Series this season, leading the way with four wins – including Sunday at Pocono. Last week: unranked.
9. Erik Jones (8 points): Sunday’s season-best third-place finish – his second top five in the last three races – was a big turnaround from wrecking out Saturday. Last week: 10th (tied).
(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (6 points): Earned pair of top-10 finishes at Pocono, first back-to-back top 10s this season. Can he keep the momentum going at Indianapolis, where he’s had back-to-back fifth-place finishes the last two years? Last week: unranked.
(tie) 10. Alex Bowman (6 points): Earned third top 10 in last five races. Last week: 4th (tied).
There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.
These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.
Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.
“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.
“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.
“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.
“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”
While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.
“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.
“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”
Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.
“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”
Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.
“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.
“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.
“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”
Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.
“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.
“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.
“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.
“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”
Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.
Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.
He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.
He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.
But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.
“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”
He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.
“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.
“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”
Kevin Harvick returned from NASCAR’s COVID-19 hiatus to not only win last weekend at Darlington but also take the No. 1 spot in the NBC Sports Power Rankings.
The rankings are significantly different than when the Cup series was last on track in March. Joey Logano won at Phoenix before racing and all other sports were interrupted by the pandemic.
There are a number of changes in this week’s rankings:
1. Kevin Harvick (30 points of 30): A unanimous pick. Dominated Darlington on Sunday and is bringing the same car back for Wednesday night’s race. The field has been warned. Ranking after Phoenix: 2nd.
2. Alex Bowman (24 points): In the first five races, Bowman has one win and came close two other times. Another win is likely on the horizon. Ranking after Phoenix: 9th.
3. Kurt Busch (23 points): Like Harvick, the elder Busch brother didn’t look worse for the wear from the hiatus. Watch out for him in tonight’s return to Darlington. Ranking after Phoenix: tied for 5th.
4. Matt Kenseth (21 points): If he was that good after not having raced for 1 ½ years, imagine how much better he’ll be when he hits full stride in the coming races. Ranking after Phoenix: inactive.
5. Chase Elliott (20 points): Overcame pit road speeding penalty to finish fourth at Darlington for his third consecutive finish of seventh or better. Ranking after Phoenix: 4th.
6. Denny Hamlin (16 points): With three top-10 finishes in the first five races of 2020, including winning the Daytona 500, is it too early to start saying this may finally be Hamlin’s long-awaited championship-winning season? Ranking after Phoenix: unranked.
7. Tyler Reddick (11 points): First time in a Cup car at one of the most challenging tracks in NASCAR and he comes away with a seventh-place finish. Ranking after Phoenix: unranked.
8. John Hunter Nemechek (8 points): Helped guide Front Row Motorsports to its first top-10 finish ever on an intermediate-sized track with a ninth-place finish in his first Cup start at Darlington. Ranking after Phoenix: unranked.
9. Martin Truex Jr. (6 points): Struggled in first two stages but rallied to earn his first top-10 finish of the season. Will he be able to pick up where he left off tonight? Ranking after Phoenix: unranked.
(tie) 10. Kyle Busch (2 points): His 26th-place finish was not indicative of how well he ran for the most part, only to be forced to pit late under green. Ranking after Phoenix: 3rd.
(tie) 10. Erik Jones (2 points): What is it about Darlington that Jones does so well there? Four starts = one win, another top five and two other top-10 finishes. Will he be able to add to that string tonight? Ranking after Phoenix: unranked.
(tie) 10. Ryan Newman (2 points): That he raced again, let alone finished 15th, just three months after his horrific crash at Daytona is nothing short of a miracle. Ranking after Phoenix: was recovering from injuries suffered at Daytona.
Others receiving votes: None
NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge debuts at 7 pm ET on NBCSN
From Monday-Wednesday, six different drivers will compete in two timed races in Cup Series cars at an iconic track at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The top two finishers from each night will advance to the championship race Thursday at the virtual Martinsville Speedway on NBCSN.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be among the guests on “Lunch Talk Live,” the new sports talk show that airs at noon ET today on NBCSN.
Mike Tirico will host the hour-long daily show that will feature discussions among current and former athletes, prominent sports figures, NBC Sports commentators and other prominent voices in sports and media.
“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.
“In these challenging times, we are all missing sports and the people who make sports memories,” Tirico said. “Hopefully, we can bring a midday connection with some of them to help fill the void.”
Sam Flood, NBC Sports Executive Producer & President of Production, said: “We’re excited to bring viewers fresh programming every day with unique, topical conversations from prominent individuals in all corners of sports. This will be a daily lunch date to share sports and stories we miss during these unique times.”
The hour-long show will air weekdays at Noon ET on NBCSN and stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports. You can watch the stream here. Select content and interviews will additionally be hosted on NBC Sports’ YouTube channel and social media platforms.
Here is Monday’s guest list:
Noon: NBC PGA golfer analyst Justin Leonard and NBC Sports’ Peter King
12:15 p.m.: NBC Sports broadcasters Cris Collinsworth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12:30 p.m.: Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski
12:40 p.m.: Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson
12:50 p.m.: NBC Sports broadcasters Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte