New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

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4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.

 

 

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Ty Gibbs vs. Noah Gragson: The Cup chapter is next

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Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson ended the 2022 season as something less than best pals.

Across much of last year’s Xfinity Series season, they wrestled and wrecked in search of the championship, and all of the issues bubbled over in the final weekend as they approached the title race at Phoenix Raceway. It was almost as close as two combatants could make it — Gibbs won the race (and the title) by .397 of a second over second-place Gragson, who was charging for the front but ran out of laps.

Their rivalry took a rest for the offseason, but soon they’ll be on the same playing field — although a larger, more important one — again, seeking wins and the Rookie of the Year title in the Cup Series. Gibbs will be driving for his family-owned team, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Gragson moves to Cup with Legacy Motor Club, formerly Petty GMS.

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Both drivers were aggressive — sometimes overly so, said some of their competitors — last season, and there is little reason to think their methods of operation will change at the next level. Lack of experience might be their speed limit, but expect them to poke their noses in tight spaces and, perhaps, into each other.

“I don’t like him,” Gragson said of Gibbs approaching last year’s final Xfinity race. “I want to beat him straight up. It pisses him off a lot more.”

In addition to racing at the top level of the Xfinity Series last year, Gragson and Gibbs got some unexpected Cup experience in similar circumstances. Gibbs filled in for Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing after Busch was injured at Pocono Raceway, and Gragson substituted for the injured Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports late in the year. Gragson also drove some Cup races for Kaulig Racing and Beard Motorsports.

Illustrating how tight their competition could be in their first full season in Cup, Gragson and Gibbs recorded very similar statistics in both Cup and Xfinity last year. Gibbs won seven Xfinity races, Gragson eight. Gragson had 26 top 10s, Gibbs 23. In Cup, Gragson had one top five and one top 10, with an average finish of 23.1. Gibbs had one top 10 and an average finish of 22.9.

Although neither pushed their top-flight cars to wins in Cup, that experience is likely to pay big dividends as the 2023 season starts.

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“Getting that extra experience, kind of having a preconceived thought of what I should expect for this year — it’s nice having that experience going into this year, not just getting thrown in cold turkey and saying, ‘Go race.’ ” Gragson told NBC Sports.

“The shifting is a lot different now. We have five-speed sequential. At Atlanta, I ran around there for four laps and the whole dash was lit up red. I couldn’t figure out why. I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, there’s five gears in this thing.’ I’d run around there in fourth gear the whole time and shifted to fifth. So, little things like that that you start to learn about the car and the differences of being so familiar with the Xfinity car and now getting thrown into a different situation — it’s nice to have a little bit of experience.”

Gibbs had a top finish of 10th (at Michigan Speedway) in the 23XI Racing Toyotas.

“I think it was very beneficial to have those Cup races,” he told NBC Sports. “A lot of work, but I learned a lot during those times.”

 

 

Matt Kenseth through the years: From young champ to Hall of Famer

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Former Cup champion Matt Kenseth will be among those inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday (8 p.m. ET on Peacock).

Kenseth joins Hershel McGriff and Kirk Shelmerdine in the Hall of Fame’s 13th class. The Hall will have 61 members after Friday’s ceremony.

Kenseth, 50, will be among the younger inductees to the Hall. His Cup career began in 1998 and ended in 2020. He scored 39 victories in 697 Cup starts and a championship.

Here is a look at Kenseth’s career through the years …

Beginnings

UAW GM 500 X Kenseth
Matt Kenseth with Bill Elliott before the fall 2001 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Craig Jones/ALLSPORT)

Kenseth’s first Cup start came as a fill-in for Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. Kenseth’s debut took place Sept. 20, 1998, at what was then called Dover Downs International Speedway. He drove Elliott’s No. 94 McDonald’s car to a sixth-place finish. Elliott missed the race to attend his father’s funeral.

“It’s a sad deal for Bill and his family, but I’m real flattered they picked me to drive this car because there are a lot of good drivers here,” Kenseth said after qualifying Elliott’s car 16th.

 

Friendship 

Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr
Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona in July 2003. (Photo By Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

The first time Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced against each other in NASCAR was April 19, 1997, at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Kenseth finished 11th. Earnhardt was 39th.

They both ran full-time in what was then the Busch Series in 1998. Earnhardt won the series title that year. Kenseth was second. Earnhardt repeated as champion in 1999. Kenseth placed third that year.

They both moved to Cup in 2000. Earnhardt drove for his father’s team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Kenseth drove for Roush Racing. Kenseth won Rookie of the Year honors.

 

Champion

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Matt Kenseth celebrates the Winston Cup series title at North Carolina Speedway on Nov. 9, 2003. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Kenseth’s smooth driving style and consistency, a trait many compared to Hall of Famer David Pearson, led to the 2003 Cup title. Although Kenseth won only once, he had 25 top-10 finishes in 36 races and was so far ahead of the field that he clinched the title with one race to go.

This was the last year the champion was determined by a season-long points total. The Chase would debut in 2004 and morph into the playoff system used today.

 

Teammates 

January Testing Day 9
Teammates Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle during NASCAR Nextel Cup Series testing Jan. 31, 2006, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Kenseth drove five Cup races for car owner Jack Roush in 1999 before moving to Cup full-time for the team owner in 2000. Kenseth drove for Roush from 2000-12.

His teammates at Roush included Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch, among others. Kenseth scored 24 wins with the organization.

 

Daytona 500 champion 

2012 Daytona 500
Matt Kenseth celebrates his second Daytona 500 win in 2012. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Kenseth’s career includes two Daytona 500 victories. He won the 2009 rain-shortened race and won the 2012 race, leading the final 38 laps in that event.

Kenseth won the 2009 Daytona 500 after starting 39th. It marked the first time Ford had won the event since 2000.

Kenseth’s 2012 victory came in a race that was postponed a day and run under the lights at Daytona International Speedway. The race was delayed after a parts failure caused Juan Pablo Montoya to lose control of his car and hit a jet dryer under caution, sparking a fire on the track. The race didn’t end until after midnight, finishing early Tuesday.

 

New teammates 

2013 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour
Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing, speak to the media during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour on Jan. 24, 2013. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Kenseth moved to Joe Gibbs Racing before the 2013 season. His debut season proved memorable. He won a career-high seven races, including the night race at Bristol.

Kenseth finished second in the season standings. Jimmie Johnson beat Kenseth by 19 points for the championship. Kenseth would go on to win 15 Cup races at JGR.

 

One last Cup victory

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am 500
Matt Kenseth celebrates his win at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 12, 2017 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Kenseth earned his 39th and final Cup win in the 2017 playoff race at Phoenix Raceway, taking the lead with 10 laps to go.

“I don’t know what to say but thank the Lord,” Kenseth told NBC’s Rutledge Wood after climbing out of his car on the frontstretch. “Just got one race left. Everyone dreams about going out a winner. So, we won today, no one is going to take that away from us.

Kenseth returned to Cup in 2018, running 15 races in the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing to help the team diagnose the struggles with that car. Kenseth sat out the 2019 season but was called back to duty in 2020, replacing Kyle Larson after he was fired at Chip Ganassi Racing. Kenseth ran the final 32 races of that season.