NASCAR America: Winning Coca-Cola 600 is a memorable feat

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The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of NASCAR’s toughest events. Starting under the sun and finishing under the lights, every stock car driver wants to win it at least once – and 33 of NASCAR’s best can say they have.

It’s even more special when it marks the first time a driver has won at the top level.

“Everybody remembers the first time they do most things and obviously the first Cup win is something I’ll never forget,” Matt Kenseth said about his 2000 victory. “I caught Bobby Labonte and passed him with like 15 to go, or something like that, so it was obviously a very exciting day. You couldn’t pick a better one to win for your first one.”

Kenseth is one of seven drivers who won their first NASCAR race in the sport’s most grueling event. Notably, the driver he passed for the win that day won his first NASCAR race exactly five years earlier. Labonte won the 1995 edition of the Coke 600.

Last year, Austin Dillon added his name to the list.

“For me, it starts as a challenge from day one of the entire Speedweeks,” Landon Cassill said. “Because the industry is at home in Charlotte, when the fans come to town we get pulled in many directions.”

“For me, it was just kind of forgetting how long the race was and just focus on every lap,” Jeff Burton said. “If you make good lap times and you focus on getting a 100 percent out of the car every single lap, time goes by pretty quickly.”

Burton won two Coke 600s – in 1999 and 2001.

For more, watch the above video.

Matt Kenseth discusses early progress for Roush cars on Dale Jr. Download

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Matt Kenseth shares parenting tips for Dale Earnhardt Jr., discusses their early days racing together and talks about his return to the car for Roush Fenway Racing in this week’s Dale Jr. Download.

Kenseth returned to the Cup Series earlier this month, driving the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing at Kansas. He finished 36th after he was eliminated by a crash. He won the pole for last weekend’s All-Star Race and finished 14th in the 21-car field.

Kenseth will be back in the car for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 and the next two races (Pocono and Michigan) before Trevor Bayne drives the No. 6 at Sonoma.

Kenseth and Bayne will split time in the car the rest of the season.

Kenseth, without a ride after Joe Gibbs Racing did not renew his contract last year, was brought to Roush Fenway Racing to help that organization improve its cars.

“It’s been really different for me because it’s a different role than I’ve ever felt like I’ve had through my racing career,’’ Kenseth said on the podcast.

After two races, Kenseth is learning what needs to be done to help the team. 

“I kind of now know where I feel like that they’re at and how much we need to do to get back to an extremely competitive environment,’’ Kenseth said, “so it’s just a lot different role and different feeling than I’ve ever had before, it’s more of a project.’’

In terms of that project, where do things stand after two races?

“Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement,’’ Kenseth said. “I think, the potential is there but certainly it’s going to take some work and probably a little more patience and a little more time than maybe I originally thought.’’

Listen to the show here and all that Kenseth had to say.

Ryan: The All-Star Race was good but hold your horsepower on using those restrictor plates again

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CONCORD, N.C. – It took 2 minutes for Kyle Busch to climb from his battered No. 18 Toyota and walk roughly a hundred feet to the side door of his team hauler.

The entirety of the trip (with some prompting) was spent pondering what he just witnessed in Saturday night’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’ll have to see it, I guess, to look at it to see if it’s a good show, but (I’m) not a fan,” Busch told NBCSports.com.

Why not?

“When the fastest guy gets out front, he’s supposed to be able to have an opportunity to be fast,” Busch said. “Now when you get the fastest guy out front, he backs up to the rest of the field. So everybody’s always on top of one another, and when you get back in the pack, you can’t pass anybody.

“It’s a restrictor-plate race.”

But with one important caveat: Unlike a plate race, passing the leader (aside from on restarts) seemed extremely difficult Saturday night.

“I was out front, and yeah, those guys couldn’t get by me,” said Busch, who was one of three drivers to lead at least 15 consecutive laps during the 93-lap event. “And I couldn’t pass whoever was in front of me when I finished third in the first stage. So I don’t know that it’s greater.”

Was it greater?

That has been the crux of the fever-pitched debates occurring within the NASCAR industry since the checkered flag fell on one of the more memorable All-Star Races in recent history and (not coincidentally) the Charlotte debut of restrictor plates and aero ducts.

At a 1.5-mile superspeedway whose ultra grippy pavement (despite 12 years of age) produces high speeds without much tire wear, the brand of racing was eye-popping and distinctive. Breakaways by the leader were nonexistent. Dicing for positions within the pack was incessant.

But were things much different at the front?

Harvick took the lead from Kyle Larson on the second-to-last restart and led the final 11 laps. Aside from the last restart, Harvick’s No. 4 Ford hardly was challenged despite virtually the entire top 10 running within just over a second of first.

It was the 10th time in the past 15 All-Star Races that there hasn’t been a lead change in the final 10 laps.

And this was applicable beyond Harvick’s untouchable car, which has been in victory lane for three consecutive race weekends and is the odds-on favorite again Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. Busch led for 19 consecutive laps (nearly the entire second stage), and Martin Truex Jr. paced 15 straight circuits in the middle of the third stage.

Virtually all of the passing occurred within a few laps of a restart. When the leader got out front, he wasn’t going to be caught unless there was a mistake – which doesn’t happen often with drivers the caliber of Harvick, Larson and Truex.

That’s why the 0.7-second lead Harvick built toward the end of the first 30-lap segment felt as if it were 7 seconds. The artifice of this rules package is that it can keep the cars more clumped together, but passing the leader remains as challenging as before (perhaps even more so).

Though Larson admitted (reluctantly) to liking the rules package, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver also tempered his praise.

“I don’t love it,” Kyle Larson told NBCSports.com. “I don’t love it. I thought the racing was definitely more exciting than it typically is here at Charlotte. I’d hate for them to get carried away with it and make us run it at every intermediate (track). I still don’t think the runs were quite as big as what we were all hoping for, the pocket of air or the slingshot or whatever you want to call it. We all could stay fairly close together and run off the back bumpers a little bit easier. I feel that made the racing a little bit better.

“Still, once a fast car gets out to the lead, it’s pretty hard to pass if they do a good job maintaining lanes. So, yeah, I don’t know if we can take this package and give it more horsepower, but I think they could tweak on it and make it even better for (Charlotte).”

There were some track executives who were ready to sign up for running the aero package everywhere starting this weekend. That’s understandable given that there’s been a decade-long push within NASCAR to enhance side-by-side action, which definitely was delivered by this combination in its first race.

But some perspective would be wise.

When a low-downforce rules package made its July 11, 2015 debut at Kentucky Speedway, it was a smashing success – and in conditions similar to Saturday night. In both cases, teams had no real-world testing and little chance to prepare beyond simulations and wind tunnels. The efficacy of the lower downforce package in producing nonstop lead changes and passes faded as teams grew acclimated.

Was Saturday something to build on? Of course.

Something to implement immediately at every 1.5-mile oval? Of course not.

The All-Star Race provided the kernel of a concept that could work at other superspeedways in the future, provided there is some tweaking (specifically, at the front of the pack) and probably some major buy-in from teams.

But it isn’t some magic elixir that can be applied like a fresh coat of traction compound to any track seeking a jolt.


There is danger in listening too much to what drivers want, but this package has an element of socialized racing that could have stars rethinking their careers if it becomes widespread.

Though there is some skill in plate racing, and Saturday night didn’t remove all ability from the equation, mastering the modulation of 800 horsepower with limited downforce is what separates the wheat from the chaff in NASCAR’s premier series.

As Kyle Busch said in April and reiterated this past weekend at Charlotte, racing with underpowered cars in deliberately orchestrated clusters isn’t what attracted him to the Cup Series.

“It’s not necessarily what I signed up for to be a race car driver to bring the whole field closer together and have it dictated by some type of a plate race,” Busch said Friday a day before the All-Star Race. “But if that’s what we’re going to have going forward, then I guess I either need to think about how to get really good at it or getting out of it so we’ll see what happens.”

That isn’t some idle threat. Busch’s lack of affection for plate racing is widely known (and also doesn’t make him unique among his peers). NASCAR offers him the best way to make a living racing on a national stage, but “passion” is a primary motivator for being willing to make a daring pass in a corner at 200-plus mph.

If that passion is diminished by what he perceives as a de-emphasis on his all-world skillset, it would be natural for him to look elsewhere.


Now that teams’ armies of engineers have on-track data to crunch, how would the new package look the next time on track?

Maybe a lot like seven years ago at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway if Team Penske’s hunch is correct. Before realizing it wouldn’t be possible because of handling and speed, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano planned to tandem-draft Saturday night. Keselowski hinted it still could be possible in the future.

If it were to happen, that would present another dilemma for NASCAR, which legislated tandem drafting out of existence because fans were so vehemently opposed to the strategy.


What tracks should be considered next for the package?

The July 14 race at Kentucky Speedway seems the most obvious choice. It’s owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., whose president and CEO, Marcus Smith, spearheaded the All-Star Race package. Smith told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long that Kentucky has worked as an R&D-style race weekend in the past (e.g., the low-downforce package in ’15, the Tire Dragon machine in ’16, various traction compound usages).

Other tracks that might be good candidates: Kansas Speedway, Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Texas Motor Speedway might be trickier since its reconfiguration and repave last year. Kyle Larson said Saturday that the package should be avoided at Chicagoland Speedway. The best way to judge probably would be a detailed debrief between NASCAR, drivers and teams about what was learned Saturday night.

But one absolute non-starter?

Homestead-Miami Speedway. Based on the past four championship finales, there hopefully is a consensus there is nothing “wrong” with that 1.5-mile track.


As of late Monday morning, there apparently weren’t any major overtures by NASCAR or Smith to key members of the Team Owners Council or Race Team Alliance about using the package again.

The charter agreement stipulates that team owners have some say in competition overhauls during the season because they bear the costs that can stretch well into the seven-figure range for the development and retrofitting of their race cars.

The wave of fan enthusiasm from Saturday night likely will make it extremely difficult for owners to parry the momentum of using the rules package again this season, even if it’s a budget-buster for some.

If there is room for compromising, here’s one potential bargain to strike: Tracks that want the rules package this season should agree to direct some of their event revenue to the teams to help defray the costs of the package.


Who is on Alex Bowman’s bad side? Apparently, those who haven’t shown him much respect in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.

The No. 88 Chevrolet driver made that clear after crashing Saturday night because he refused to lift off the accelerator when challenged by another driver (whom he didn’t name).

“I probably should have lifted because it hurt me more than the guy that ran us like that,” he said. “I’m just frustrated. I feel like these guys have taken advantage of me quite a bit this year, and I’m over lifting for guys. I’m not going to go out of my way to slow myself down to help somebody else out. They would race me the same way I’m just kind of over it.”

Striking the balance between showing deference and being assertive always is difficult for a young driver in a top-tier ride. It might be harder for Bowman because he also is trying to shed the impressions (many likely unfair) that might have been formed by veterans when the 24-year-old drove for a backmarker team in Cup from 2014-15.


Though his pole position was the weekend’s feel-good story, Matt Kenseth didn’t lead a lap Saturday and was a nonfactor after his No. 6 Ford dropped from the top 10 on the eighth lap.

Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (11th) didn’t fare much better after starting second. “The car drove about the same with this package as it did with the other package and everybody else was just a lot faster,” Stenhouse said. “It was a bummer we couldn’t take that front row start and do something with it. We were kind of a moving roadblock out there.”

While Roush likely didn’t spend as much money and time developing its cars for Saturday’s package as Joe Gibbs Racing or Stewart-Haas Racing probably did, the results are indicative of how much work the team still has to become competitive.

Kevin Harvick wins All-Star Race in overtime finish

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CONCORD, North Carolina — Kevin Harvick prevailed in an overtime finish to claim his second win in the Monster Energy All-Star Race.

Harvick was able to pull away in the two-lap shootout to beat Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott.

He won all but one of the race’s four stages.

Harvick’s first All-Star win came 11 years ago to the day in 2007.

The victory in the exhibition race joins the five points wins the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has already accumulated this season.

“A special thanks to the Roush Yates Engine department, they put in a lot of effort, they love restrictor-plate racing and we won!” Harvick told Fox Sports 1. “Our car was super fast, I could accelerate well. If I could just get to Turn 2 even I felt like we were going to accelerate passed them on the backstretch. I was not very good on the bottom. I would push and slide, but in a straight line this thing was a rocket.”

The overtime finish was setup by an incident involving Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Coming to two laps to go in the scheduled distance, Logano ran out of room exiting Turn 4, bounced off the wall and into Larson. The contact sent Larson spinning through the infield grass. Without any major damage, Larson finished seventh.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kevin Harvick

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 3 WINNER: Kevin Harvick

STAGE 4 WINNER: Kevin Harvick

MORE: Race results

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Kasey Kahne managed to finish 10th on the lead lap after getting into the front stretch wall on Lap 6 of the third stage and ultimately going three laps down … Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez each finished in the top 10 after advancing from the Monster Open. Suarez won Stage 2 and Elliott won the fan vote. AJ Allmendinger, who won the final Open stage, placed eighth after making contact with the wall in Stage 2.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were eliminated by an eight-car crash in the first overtime restart attempt in Stage 3. Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr were able to continue … Alex Bowman finished last after spinning on his own and hitting the wall out of Turn 2 with two laps left in the third stage … Stenhouse and Kenseth started on the front row but quickly fell back. They never contended after the opening laps and finished 11th and 14th respectively.

NOTABLE: Kevin Harvick is the seventh driver to win the All-Star Race more than once … Harvick joins Jimmie Johnson as only the second driver to win the All-Star Race more than once in the last 20 All-Star races.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “He fenced me, then I bounced off the wall, then there he was. After he fenced me, I bounced off. He happened to be there. Probably shouldn’t have fenced me.” – Joey Logano on his accident with Kyle Larson.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Coca-Cola 600 at 6 p.m. ET on May 27 on Fox.

Matt Kenseth’s wit returns after pole-winning effort

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CONCORD, N.C. — The wit returned and the frustration departed for Matt Kenseth on Friday.

After winning the pole for Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth was asked to recount his run.

“The whole thing?’’ he asked.

Yes, he was told.

“Well, I got on pit road and started the engine,’’ he said, displaying the dry humor that the sport has missed since he ended last season without a Cup ride.

Kenseth returned last weekend at Kansas Speedway, making his season debut in the No. 6 Ford that Trevor Bayne had driven for Roush Fenway Racing.

“Kansas was just a mess from start to finish, honestly,’’ Kenseth said.

Rain altered the schedule and Kenseth struggled with the car’s handling. He didn’t make a qualifying attempt because his car failed to pass inspection in time. He struggled in the race before he was collected in a late crash and finished 36th.

“We try to learn what we can do better and there is a lot of it that is going to be a work in progress,’’ Kenseth said Friday. “Some things are going to take some time and patience. Kansas was just a mess from start to finish, honestly. There just wasn’t really much that came out of that weekend for a positive. With that being said, it is nice to come here and have everyone on their game today and get that pit stop and work together to get both cars on the front row. That is a huge positive for all the guys, myself included. Tomorrow is a new day. We just have to keep working at it.”

Kenseth will be joined on the front row for the All-Star race by Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

“I think it is neat to have both cars on the front row,” he said. “We only have two cars coming out of that shop right now and the goal on qualifying day is to put the cars on the front row, and on race day you want to keep getting better and eventually be up there winning races.”

Still, teams are using restrictor plates and aero package this weekend that won’t be used the rest of the season. This event is a test for NASCAR to see if the package could work at other tracks next year.

So what kind of value is there to Kenseth — who has been brought to Roush to help the team improve its cars —to be in this race?

Kenseth, who will do five consecutive races before Bayne returns to the No. 6 car in at Sonoma in June, said there are still some benefits to racing this weekend.

“There are some things with ride quality and those types of things,’’ Kenseth said. “The rest of it, it is a team sport like anything else. It is another week to work together, work on our communication, try to work out some things that maybe we struggle with at Kansas or so far here. A chance to do more pit stops, get more familiar with the guys. Get on and off pit road. Call a race. It is still a race and you are racing with your team against the same guys.

“It will probably be a different type of race, but I think we need to get some momentum and continuity and get rolling so I think these first five weeks are all really important. They are all different race tracks and different types of races but they are all important for that.”

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