A season unlike any other has had NASCAR officials instituting changes few could have expected.
After being sidelined 10 weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR returned in May ahead of the NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL and many other sports. To defray costs to teams, NASCAR eliminated practice and qualifying at nearly all events. Race weekends turned into one-day shows. Race dates were realigned.
Many of NASCAR’s actions are earning praise from drivers.
“I think the bigger picture that we should all be really excited about is the leadership at NASCAR is doing something different nowadays and it’s becoming a trend,” Chase Elliott said Thursday when asked about Auto Club Speedway plans.
“It’s really been a trend all year. I think instead of finding the negatives in some of the things that they’re doing, I think we should all be super excited that they’re actually changing and doing some things different – have some different ideas and they’re putting them to work. That’s something that I don’t think has happened probably ever until right now. So, just excited to see them trying different things.”
Turning the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway into a short track that has elements of Martinsville’s long straightaways, Bristol’s high-banked turns and Richmond’s dogleg frontstretch stunned drivers.
“It is very provocative and I mean that in a good way,” Brad Keselowski said Thursday of the Auto Club news. “I think we are really starting to see (NASCAR Chairman) Jim France and his leadership style, I don’t want to say get comfortable, but kind of find their path and direction. It has been a little bit of a breath of fresh air in some ways. I would say that the move at Auto Club Speedway has a good feel to it in the sense that it feels like this is something coming right from the top. It feels like there has been a fair amount of thought put into it, at least from my perspective.
“I think we have seen a couple different examples of that with things that just kind of feel like they are Jim. He has got his own style, and I don’t think it is bad and I am not sure I would say that where we were before was bad. I thought there was room for improvement, but I feel like I am in the middle of a book and I am just reading chapters and it is almost like there is a different writer now with these chapters and Jim is writing them and they are pretty interesting and compelling.
“It is hard to view them as a whole because naturally none of us know everything that is going on behind the scenes, but in the moment there is more that I agree with than I disagree with and that is probably a good thing.”
Jim France immediately appeared in the garage on race weekends, earning praise from competitors. Many in the garage complained that Brian France had not been at the track as often during his tenure, which began in Sept. 2003.
“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” Phelps recently told reporters. “We want healthy teams.
“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher. Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”
2. Exclusive club
Kevin Harvick’s eight victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century.
Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.
The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.
Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, admits a 10-win season is a “big deal.
“In 2018, we were able to win eight races and the All‑Star Race, and that was a huge deal for us. That’s one of those dream seasons, and of course this one has been also.”
Denny Hamlin, who has six victories, said a team goal for this year is to win 10 races.
“Now you know how important Bristol and Indy were to us,” said Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief. “Those were two we had and got away from us.”
Hamlin lost the lead with 12 laps to go at Bristol when his car got too high in the corner. He then ran into Joey Logano when Logano did the same thing in the next corner.
Hamlin had a tire go down and wrecked while leading with eight laps to go at Indianapolis. Harvick won that race.
Why is 10 wins a goal for Hamlin’s team?
“You look at the names of the guys on that list, not only was it done a long time ago, it was done in kind of a different era where the rule book is concerned,” Gabehart said. “It’s an elite list of guys.”
3. No talkback
Kyle Busch enters Saturday night’s Richmond race seven points above the cutline for the final transfer spot and without crew chief Adam Stevens. But Busch doesn’t foresee any issues with Stevens back at the shop.
Engineer Jacob Canter will serve as Busch’s crew chief Saturday. Canter has been Busch’s crew chief in his five Xfinity races this season, including Friday night’s event.
Even though Canter has much less experience with Busch than Stevens — Busch and Stevens have been together since 2015 — Busch said he won’t change what he says on the radio. That’s because Stevens will be listening.
“Me talking on the radio is basically me talking directly to Adam,” Busch said. “It’s just I can’t hear back from Adam.”
A NASCAR suspension prohibits a person from the garage, pits and other restricted areas. A suspension does not prevent a crew chief from listening to the team’s radio and communicating with the crew at the track.
“I’m not sure with technology today and the war room and all that stuff at Joe Gibbs Racing with the communications and all that stuff that we have going on right now that much is going to be different at all really,” Busch said of not having Stevens at Richmond.
4. In a hole
Ryan Blaney faces a steep challenge to reach the second round of the playoffs. Should he do so, he likely will be one of the favorites to advance to the third round.
Such is life in the NASCAR playoffs.
The first round is viewed as Blaney’s weakest. He’s never had a top 10 at Darlington. His 24th-place finish there last weekend leaves him last among the playoff drivers. Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto are each 17 points from the final transfer spot.
For as much as Blaney has struggled at Darlington, Richmond is worse for him. He’s never finished better than 17th there in eight starts. His average finish at Richmond is 25.5.
Another poor result Saturday could force Blaney into a must-win situation at Bristol.
If he can just get past this round, he’ll be one to watch. The second round features Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Some drivers call this the wildcard round, noting how important it will be to win at Las Vegas so a driver doesn’t have to worry about what can happen at Talladega and the Roval.
Joey Logano won at Las Vegas in February but Blaney led when a caution set up an overtime restart. Blaney pitted from the lead, a move crew chief Todd Gordon lamented. Alex Bowman, running second, also pitted. Logano, who was third at the caution, inherited the lead and won.
Even if Blaney doesn’t win Las Vegas, Talladega is next. Blaney has won the past two races there. He won there in June and in last year’s playoff race.
If not Talladega, there’s the Roval. Blaney won the inaugural race there in 2018 and finished eighth last year.
So if Blaney can advance from the first round, he could be in a good position to go deep into the playoffs.
The team stated that a 5-pound lead bag was accidentally left in the car. The bag was added to simulate fluid weights before the race engine was installed.
Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, said the team is changing its process to ensure such bags are retrieved.
“A pretty unfortunate situation, but you go back and you look at it and you say, ‘Okay, what do we have to do different here?” Geisler said. “How do we prevent this going forward? What do we do?’ We’re moving towards a ballast bag count.
“Normally, guys would just add ballast bags until the car was at weight. Now there needs to be a count. It’s just the same as when doctors go into surgery they know what they have, they know what tools they have so they don’t leave any in or behind. That’s the same thing we need to be doing. That’s a piece of our process that has to get tightened up.”
A five-pound bag of lead used at the shop to simulate fluid weights before the engine is installed was accidentally left in Blaney’s car, the team stated. Gordon said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the issue “was missed by several people.”
NASCAR saw it. The 10-point penalty could be devastating to Blaney.
Blaney’s Southern 500 issues were compounded when a left rear tire went down and he had to pit as the field took the green flag to begin the second stage. That cost him a lap. Blaney finished 24th. He’s last in the playoff standings and now heads to Richmond, a place he’s never finished in the top 15 in a Cup race.
Blaney’s team wasn’t the only one to have problems before the command to fire engines. Somehow, Dillon’s team switched the left front and right front tires on the No. 3 car.
“Somebody just didn’t see the L and didn’t see the R,” Dillon said of the markings that note left side and right side tires. “They’re Sharpied on there. That was how they found it.”
Dillon said crew chief Justin Alexander saw the issue shortly before the race. Had the error not been found, Dillon said “I would have probably knocked the fence down.” Dillon had to start at the rear for changing the tires since it came after pre-race inspection.
Dillon relied on FIDO — Forget It and Drive On — to get him through that challenge.
It’s an approach Dillon picked up from former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a motivational speaker and veterans advocate, who lost his left arm and left eye in combat in Vietnam. Clebe spoke at Richard Childress Racing before the season.
“It was probably one of the best luncheons we’ve had as a group, just an unbelievable speaker,” Dillon said. “I think it really hit home for me because I’m a fiery guy and I can dwell on things too long instead of moving on. That acronym is just an easy reminder, like hey, man, it’s over. There’s no need to play it back or wonder why we’re in the situation we’re in. It’s just get the most out of everything that I can.”
Dillon moved on and prepared to race from the back of the lineup. Challenges persisted. He had to pit under green during the first stage because a right rear tire was going flat. He overcame that obstacle and went on to finish second to winner Kevin Harvick.
Brad Keselowski’s team had their own challenges. Keselowski — whose playoff motto is “Why not us?” — hit the wall and had a flat right front tire on Lap 81 of the 367-lap race. Instead of making partial repairs and sending Keselowski back on track to stay on the lead lap, crew chief Jeremy Bullins calmly told his team they’d lose a lap while making the necessary repairs.
Keselowski eventually got back on the lead lap and went on to finish 11th. It wasn’t a memorable result, but it was better than 31st, his position after the incident.
Hamlin also was steady during a key point in the race. He was in a pack of cars and tried to get to the lower lane so he could pit under green. Hamlin was blocked by a car on the inside on the backstretch. He finally got to the bottom lane in Turn 3.
Hamlin recognized he was going too fast to pit and didn’t compound matters with a daring move that could have damaged his car. He lost positions by going back around the track before pitting, but he didn’t panic. A debris caution about 10 laps late stuck Hamlin outside the top 10 and he wasn’t able to recover. Still, his 13th-place finish was better than it might have been.
It was a better finish than Truex (22nd) and Elliott (20th). As they raced for the lead late, Truex got a run off Turn 4 and made a move under Elliott entering Turn 1 with 14 laps to go. Truex hadn’t cleared Elliott when he moved up but later said: “I thought I had enough momentum and distance on (Elliott) that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear and I was committed.”
The aggressive move is understandable. It’s 14 laps to go in the Southern 500. It’s a playoff race where a win moves the driver to the next round and scores five playoff points. Truex entered the playoffs with only 14 playoff points. But his hope that Elliott would let him up might have been overly optimistic. Could Truex have stayed on the low side and tried to pressure Elliott into a mistake over the remaining laps? Possibly. If he thought that was his one opportunity to take the lead, Truex had the take the chance.
With risk comes reward, but there was no reward this time. Instead, Truex and Elliott each lost about 20 points and the potential for five playoff points because of the incident.
Will they need those points in the playoffs? Will those points be the difference in advancing to another round or the championship race? Or will it be only a footnote to what is to come in these playoffs?
With nine races remaining, there will be many challenges and mistakes made. How drivers and teams respond could play a role in who races for a title.
Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer each will be without their crew chiefs for next weekend’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway. Both crew chiefs will be suspended one race because their cars each had two lug nuts not safe and secure after Sunday night’s Southern 500.
NASCAR inspects lug nuts after each race. If two lug nuts are not safe and secure, the crew chief is suspended one race and fined $20,000.
Busch will be without Adam Stevens. Bowyer will be without Johnny Klausmeier.
Bowyer goes to Richmond outside a transfer spot to the second round. He’s tied with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola for the final transfer spot but Almirola owns the tiebreaker of a better finish in this round. Almirola finished ninth Sunday. Bowyer placed 10th.
Busch is 10th in points. He’s seven points ahead of Almirola and Bowyer.
NASCAR also announced that the cars of William Byron and winner Kevin Harvick each had one lug nut not safe and secure. That is a $10,000 fine only to the crew chief.
Also, NASCAR stated that they would take the cars of Harvick, runner-up Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch and Alex Bowman back to the R&D Center for review. NASCAR takes cars back to the R&D Center to examine trends and what teams are doing. Such inspections are information-gathering only and not to further investigate for any potential penalties.
Harvick’s victory is his eighth of the season but he wouldn’t have gotten it without help from the leaders. The victory also moves Harvick to the second round.
“This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport and obviously everybody in our sport knows the history that Darlington has for our sport, so anytime you can win here is pretty special,” Harvick said.
Martin Truex Jr. passed Chase Elliott for the lead with 14 laps to go but did not clear Elliott and both hit the wall in Turn 1. Truex pitted a few laps later when he had a right rear tire go down after the contact. Elliott fell back in the field, allowing Harvick to take the lead.
“Sorry guys, hell of a car,” Truex said on his team’s radio after finishing 22nd. “Sorry, man, I was going for it. I guess I shouldn’t have.”
Said Elliott, who finished 20th: “He (Truex) had a run on me there off of (Turn) 4 and he just kind of cleared himself into one. He was close, but he wasn’t all the way clear, obviously. I hate it, obviously we had a fast NAPA Camaro – fast enough to contend. We needed a little pace there to extend our lead instead of playing defense, but regardless I thought we were in a good spot. I ran the bottom in (Turn) 3 and 4 to see if there was anything left down there, that’s what kind of gave him the run and then he just slid up into my left front, I felt like and on we went.”
The victory is Harvick’s 57th in his career and moves him past Kyle Busch on the all-time wins list. It is Harvick’s second win at Darlington this year. He won the first Cup race in May when the season resumed after a 10-week break because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almirola holds the final transfer spot to the second round. He is tied with Bowyer but owns the tiebreaker of a better finish in this round.
Dillon scored his best finish since his win at Texas.
“Man, it would have been nice to get that win and lock us into the next round,” he told NBCSN.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr.
STAGE 2 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr.
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Austin Dillon had to start at the rear because of unapproved adjustments before the race and went on to finish second. The team discovered that the left and right front tires were on the wrong side of the car. Dillon also overcame a right rear tire going down, forcing him to make a green-flag pit stop early in the race. … Joey Logano overcame a flat right front tire at one point and then damage when he was hit from behind by Corey LaJoie on a restart and finished third. … Erik Jones, who finished fourth, has placed in the top 10 in all six Cup starts at Darlington.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ryan Blaney had a miserable night. His team was penalized before the race for improperly mounted ballast. NASCAR penalized the team 10 points and suspended Blaney’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, for the race. Blaney had a flat left rear at the start of stage 2 and had to pit, putting him a lap behind the leaders. He finished 24th and is last in the 16-driver playoff field.
NOTABLE: Kevin Harvick has won four of the last seven Cup races.
NEXT: The series races at 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 12 at Richmond Raceway on NBCSN. This is the second race of the opening round of the playoffs.