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NASCAR Cup Series

Bowman Confident Heading Into Vegas

LAS VEGAS — For the second straight year, Alex Bowman is a NASCAR playoff driver. Though not everything is the same,  as Bowman enters the final 10-race stretch with something he did not have a season ago.

A race win.

That, along with four top-five’s and seven top-10’s during the regular season have the driver of the No. 88 is feeling good heading into the playoffs.

“I think I definitely feel more confident,” Bowman told POPULAR SPEED. “I think a lot of it just comes from the speed that we’ve shown throughout the year and even lately we’ve had great speed, we just haven’t really had much to show for it. So, I think we have as good of a shot at anybody or as anybody going and winning a couple of races here and making a big statement in the playoffs.”

He will look to improve upon his first playoff appearance, where he was eliminated in the Round of 12, and a 29th at Homestead-Miami Speedway resulted in him finishing 16th in the final standings.

In order to improve, Bowman will need to find his early-season momentum back, as since the Arizona-native’s win at Chicagoland Speedway, he has only had one top-10 in the nine races that have followed.

However, this weekend may provide a good chance for a breakthrough, as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will compete at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a race that is expected to transition from day to night.

These are the types of races that Bowman has excelled at, with a second-place finish at Kansas Speedway, seventh at the Coca-Cola 600, and his previously mentioned win at Chicagoland.

With his recent history, it’s more than understandable why he is excited about this weekend’s race.

“This is a race we’ve had circled regardless of the playoff situation and I think we can be really strong,” Bowman said. “We were strong here in the spring and knocked the right rear off of it, kind of had to fight back from that. So, I think our mile and a half program’s really good and that same car we were in Chicago with. I’m really confident.”

A strong finish this weekend for the 88 team would be huge, as he only starts the playoffs as the ninth seed with only a four-point cushion over 13th.

With all the being said, it will be interesting to see if Bowman can take a season that has already been his best, and make it even better.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Newman Looks To Continue Overcoming Odds in Championship Quest

LAS VEGAS — A driver that missed the playoffs and would lose his ride, and land with a team that even with two drivers, finished 29th in the owner standings a year ago, is back in the playoffs in 2019.

This is the story of Ryan Newman and the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing team.

A collective unit that many may have counted out before the season have proven themselves as legit contenders after they outraced Stewart-Haas’ Daniel Suarez and seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson to make the 16-car playoff field.

So, what does this all mean to the “Rocket Man”?

“Well, the ultimate goal for this year, no matter what anybody else thought was just to win a championship. So this is a big step for us to have an opportunity and to get back, for me personally, into the playoffs,” Newman told POPULAR SPEED. “To have that opportunity, because my ultimate, personal goal is to be a champion. You know, I feel satisfied because of that, but I don’t feel overwhelmingly satisfied because we haven’t won, we haven’t proved to be a dominant car, and we haven’t led a bunch of laps, so we have to do a better job and I accept that task and look forward to it.”

While it is a huge opportunity ahead of him and his team, Newman said it himself that he needs to better, knowing very well that a stat line of one top-five and nine top-10’s will likely not be enough for a championship.

So, that being said, what will Newman need to do in order to become more of a contender?

“Just be the best person that I can be on and off the racetrack. I mean, that’s all I can do,” Newman said. “It’s just a matter of our team, our organization, everybody doing as much as they can to help. And you know, that’s what we’ve been doing, but we’ve got to do a better job and we can just collectively work together better. All of us at Roush Fenway.”

Newman has proven to excel at the underdog role though, just look at 2014. 

There were five drivers with four or more wins, and only two of them made the Championship 4. Newman, who had no wins, was able to sneak his way in and nearly came away with one of the biggest surprises in NASCAR’s history, coming up just one spot short of the title.

In fact, at 41 years of age and having driven 18 full seasons, it is no secret that Newman is one of the most seasoned drivers in the playoff field but is this an advantage?

“No, because Jimmie Johnson was before the last race, and he’s no longer here,” Newman said. “So, I don’t think that experience necessarily parlays into becoming a champion. It should help, but it proved to not.”

Newman will start the playoffs in the 16th with no playoff points at his disposal.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Although not known for the most dramatic racing, there was enough drama to wet the appetite of every fan watching on Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The field spread out once there were some green laps in the books – as usual no matter the package, but the restarts saw close competition with some of those battles producing their own twists and turns for the race.

Of course, everything started off with the first trip down pit road when a stack-up resulted in Chase Elliott getting turned sideways.

“I haven’t seen a replay of the pit road incident, but one thing about Indy is pit road is so narrow,” Elliott said. “You have to start braking before you turn into your box which is typically not the case. I think that was a contributor. I apologize if I didn’t stop quick enough. Once they all started stopping, they stopped so fast, I didn’t get stopped quick enough and about the time I got stopped, somebody piled into me. It was one of those chain reaction things.”

Despite receiving damage and going a lap down making repairs, the Hendrick Motorsports driver fought back for a ninth-place finish.

His teammate Jimmie Johnson was not so lucky with his damage later in the event, though. Battling three-wide, William Byron crowded Johnson, resulting in Johnson getting into the grass and sideways. In total, nine drivers were caught up in the incident. Johnson’s rear-end damage was significant enough that he could not continue, ending his chances of making the playoffs.

Although NBC put on the focus on Johnson not making the post-season solely focused on Sunday, there were 25 races that drivers also scored wins and points to ensure their championship chances. Quite frankly, this year has been a struggle for seven-time with consistency being a struggle to find, including a crew chief change mid-season.

Despite some suggesting Johnson may be past his prime, he has stated that the No. 48 team plans to make the most of these final 10 races with some trips to victory lane.

The playoff battle was the main story of the day, and reasonably so with the Big Machine Vodka 400 being the cut-off. Ryan Newman put together the right drive en route to an eighth-place finish, snagging the last playoff spot Daniel Suarez

” We just weren’t good enough this weekend,” Suarez said. “Qualifying was wide open and we qualified 20th. We just didn’t have the straightaway speed this weekend for whatever reason. We have to keep working on it and try to keep getting better.”

While Suarez was critical of his Stewart-Haas Racing team, keep in his mind teammate Kevin Harvick won the pole and dominated the race, while both Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch will join him in the playoffs.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kevin Harvick dominates Indianapolis as Jimmie Johnson misses Playoffs

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – It was a dominating victory for Kevin Harvick and a statement of superiority for his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads toward its 10-race Playoff.

It was an ignominious end to Jimmie Johnson’s unique and unprecedented streak of qualifying for every Cup Series postseason.

And it was heartbreak for Daniel Suarez, as he chased Ryan Newman over the final nine laps of the Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the final Playoff berth in the balance.

Newman came home eighth, as he and fifth-place finisher Clint Bowyer locked up the final two Playoff spots. Suarez ran 11th after getting trapped in traffic on the final restart on Lap 152 of 160 and finished four points behind Newman in the final regular-season standings.

But the story of the race was Harvick, who was in a class by himself. The 2014 series champion won the second stage and during the final nine laps of the race sped to a 6.118-second advantage over runner-up Joey Logano.

Harvick started from the pole, led five times for 119 laps and controlled the event, except for one 19-lap stretch when eventual seventh-place finisher Ryan Blaney grabbed the top spot after a restart on Lap 112.

“I can’t tell you how much coming to Indianapolis means to me,” Harvick said. “As a kid, I watched Rick Mears win the Indy 500 and got to be around him as a kid. He was my hero.

“My team built a great race car. I can’t say enough about everyone on (this team). They built a heck of a race car. It’s the same stuff that we took to Michigan and had a real good weekend there, obviously, and went to Victory Lane.

“I know how much this means to (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) and all the guys who work on this car. We’ve been so close at winning here before.”

True, this was Harvick’s first Brickyard victory with his current SHR contingent, but it was his second overall, the first coming with Richard Childress Racing 16 years ago. Harvick won for the third time this season and the 48th time in his career, tying Herb Thomas for 15th on the all-time list and moving to one win behind his car owner, Tony Stewart.

“I don’t know if we had the best car, but we had the fastest car,” Harvick said. “We gave up the lead there (to Blaney) on one of those restarts, and then we came and pitted, and the caution came out (for Kyle Larson’s crash on Lap 129), and it worked our way.

“We’ve given so many away just because of circumstances here, and the way that the caution flag fell today actually worked in our favor. It gave us control of the race, and we were able to keep control of the race and not make any mistakes, and here we are in Victory Lane at one of the greatest places on earth to race.”

A four-time winner at the Brickyard, Johnson hoped to find magic at the 2.5-mile track. Instead, he found misery. Moments after a restart on Lap 105, his No. 48 Chevrolet broke loose underneath the Camaro of Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, slid sideways and collided with the No. 1 Chevrolet of Kurt Busch.

An eight-car wreck ensued, and Johnson’s car was too heavily damaged to continue. The seven-time champion finished 35th his streak of 15 straight NASCAR postseasons came to an end

“Yeah, it’s really disappointing,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we had a bad 25 races that led to the position we’re in here today (18 points out of the Playoffs) and we needed a stellar day. I think we were having a strong day. I’m really proud of my team with what’s been going on.

“The No. 1 car (Kurt Busch) had a little trouble on the restart. I’m on the inside going into the corner and it was just super tight. It’s unfortunate that happened. Certainly, it’s not what we needed on that restart. I couldn’t go below the white line and kind of got snipped there and turned around—and around and round we go.”

Similarly, bad luck caught up with Suarez, who pitted because of a vibration on Lap 126 and got caught a lap down when Larson’s wreck caused the seventh caution three circuits later. Suarez got the lap back under the yellow, but he had to restart from the rear and never recovered.

Bubba Wallace ran third in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, posting the second top-three result of his career, the first having come in a runner-up run in the 2018 Daytona 500. Byron was fourth, followed by Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Blaney, Newman, Chase Elliott and Paul Menard.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

ASHLEY ASKS……. Michael Waltrip

There are certain moments in motorsports where fans remember they were in the exact time that they occurred. One of those being the 2001 Daytona 500, the sight of Michael Waltrip’s first career victory and the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Now fans will have the chance to get a closer glimpse into the day, through a new documentary titled Blink of an Eye, which tells the tale of triumph and tragedy. In the same day that Waltrip broke his 462-race winless streak by winning the Daytona 500, his best friend and car owner lost his life in the Super Bowl of motorsports.

Waltrip, along with others connected to the events, take the time to recall not only that day, but the events leading up to and afterwards. You can view a trailer for the movie by clicking here.

Recently, Waltrip took the time to speak with POPULAR SPEED about the upcoming movie.

POPULAR SPEED: So everything came together initially with the book you wrote, so how did you come up with the idea to write that?

MICHAEL WALTRIP: It was 10 years after that tragic day that Dale passed and I was going to run the Daytona 500 that year and I was talking to a buddy of mine, who said I should write a book about the 2001 Daytona 500. I guess I’m one of those people who haven’t talked much about their problems. I was one of those kids that mom and dad would be like, ‘you’ll live, fall down and skin your knee, you’ll be alright’. I just never thought about talking about that day so much in so much detail, but my buddy said it might be therapeutic and something that I might enjoy. So we agreed to do the book and the process was really fun for me.

I met a gentleman named Ellis Henican. Ellis wrote the book with me and when it was all done, I handed it to the publisher and said, ‘Well, if anybody buys the book, I can’t help that, but I know every word in that book is said how I wanted to say it’. Ellis really let me tell the story, probably more so than most times when you have a ghost writer. It was more him showing me how to put the content into place, but it was my words. But when the book was all done, I was happy about it.

So about two or three years ago, Mitch Covington from Monster Energy, he read the book and said, ‘You have to tell this story to our sales board. This story is about overcoming adversity, and fighting through tragedy, and winning, and keeping your head up and keeping going.’ So we put together about a 40 minute speech, gave it at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas with video screens; Bon Jovi had played on the stage before so it was set-up to do a nice job for this presentation. When I was finished with the speech, there were these big hairy tattooed guys that came up to me and said, ‘Man, you made me cry. That was quite the speech’.

The owners of Monster were there and they loved it, and said that they needed to make it into a documentary. That’s sort of the process that it’s gone through, and how we got to where we are today. Just like the book, the documentary is done really well and told perfectly. I’m really proud of everybody that put it together, and everybody that had anything to do with my career that day in Daytona – they’re all in the movie. There’s not a piece missing that we can say that we couldn’t do it. I mean, Richard Petty is in it, my brother Darrell (Waltrip), Richard Childress, Mike Helton, my ex-wife Buffy. I’m proud of it and can’t wait for the world to see it.

POPULAR SPEED: So what was it like going through the process in putting the documentary together, and working with everybody to put together as you wished?

WALTRIP: Well, the content is sad and is something that makes me cry, whether I’m being interviewed for the documentary or just living my life. There’s no way that I can talk about that day and not get emotional. For me, it was nothing new or different. It was just a camera that I was telling it to, instead of a buddy or a friend. The thing that I was most proud of was listening to Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., and hearing Richard Petty, and some of my heroes that helped me even understand more about that time in my life.

About a month ago, I was on Dale Jr.’s podcast and we talked more about the 2001 Daytona 500 and the emotions and everything that happened that day than we have in 18 years. So it was certainly worth being able to have that moment with him, and that was a result of the documentary. I’m really thankful for him, who he is, and how much he was honest and you could just tell that he was living the same thing that I am living.

POPULAR SPEED: What do you hope fans take away from the movie when they get a chance to see it?

WALTRIP: I think there’s two reasons from the beginning that I wrote the book, and the goal is the same here. I wanted people to have more appreciation and more respect and admiration and honor Dale. I wanted people to understand more about Dale and how special the Intimidator was when he wasn’t at the race track. I wanted to honor Dale and then I wanted to inspire people. No matter what happens, you can overcome it.

You’re not a loser until you quit, and what is amazing to me is I had lost 462 straight NASCAR races, and when I woke up on February 18, 2001, I told my friends and family around me that they aren’t beating me today. There’s no way they’re beating me today, and that’s because that’s where Dale had me. He had me believing that I would win that race, and that’s what I went and did. To have that person believe in you, it can make a whole difference in your world, and when I took the checkered flag that afternoon, I thought it was the best day ever. Then an hour later, I learned that it might be the worst day ever in NASCAR. That range of emotion is pretty tough to handle, and that’s what life put on my plate, and that’s what I had to deal with it.

I hope that anyone that watches the movie and they haven’t won, or are trying to win, or they have tragedy in their life that they’re dealing with, I can help them. They can say, ‘Well, he did it, I can do it’.

POPULAR SPEED: You’ve spoken about your friendship with Dale Earnhardt. If there’s just one story that you can share from that time together, what would it be?

WALTRIP: There’s many just about friendship and some of the fun things that we did, whether snorkeling in the Bahamas or fishing. A funny story is that he had a big farm with a big fence around it, and I had a little farm with a big fence around it. He told me to come over and he’d give me a deer, and I could put the deer in my field. So I said that was exactly what I wanted to do, in getting a couple deer for my pasture.

So I go over to his house and this deer was in its mom’s belly and this mom got hit by a car. This farmer got out and saw this Mamma deer was dying and pregnant, and he delivered the baby. They bottle fed it, so the baby thought it was a pet. So Dale gave me that deer so it would be protected as it hadn’t been raised to be out in the wild yet. So he loads it up in the back of my truck in a little cage carrier, and I’m getting ready to drive off. He grabs me by the collar and he says, ‘If the police pull you over, you do not know where you got that deer.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He goes, ‘You can’t be driving deer around town. It’s illegal.’ I said, ‘Okay, let me get this straight. I can shoot this deer between the eyes, but I can’t give it a ride?’

We got a big laugh out of that. The deer wound up at my house and we raised it for a long time, and I eventually let it out into the wild and I’m sure the deer is wandering around the hills of North Carolina today.

POPULAR SPEED: Now going back to 2001, what was it like for you putting the deal together to drive for Dale, knowing that he had that faith in you?

WALTRIP: Whether we were on the back of a boat or hanging out at his farm, he would always say to me – I drove for him in the 80s in his Busch car, and again in the 90s I drove a couple of races for him. He always told me that I would win in Cup if I drove for him. I would always say, ‘Well damn, let’s do it. What’s the hold up?’ But circumstances never worked out. There was no ride, no sponsors – the timing wasn’t right, I guess. But he had said that for years – that if I drove for him, I would win.

Late September of 2000, I was on the farm and Buffy, my wife at the time, yelled at me and told me to call Dale as he couldn’t find something. So I called him up and he told me, ‘Get over here. I have to tell you something’. So I went to his shop and he said, ‘We’re going have a third team, NAPA is going sponsor it, and I want you to be the driver.’ I was just amazed. I’m 38-years-old, and these days a 38-year-old with a record like I had could not get a top-ride. I don’t know if I could’ve gotten a top-ride if it wasn’t for Dale.

From early September to the last corner of the last lap in the Daytona 500, it was the best time of my life. My family was doing well, I was confident, and just going to the shop and listening to Dale about how we were going to do things, and seeing all the parts and tools that I was going to have to race with.

I couldn’t wait for the Monday morning debriefs, whether I won or lost. I think Dale had the attitude that I was really good driver, but I hadn’t done a really good job at managing my career, and he was going to take that over. The Monday morning after I won was going to be great, but I was looking forward to the Monday mornings when we didn’t win just to hear his guidance.

Unfortunately, I never got to have a Monday morning meeting.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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News

Erik Jones claims Southern 500 win, but Playoff spots are still up for grabs

DARLINGTON, S.C. – As the clock ticked toward 2 a.m. on Monday, in a race delayed by rain for nearly four hours, Erik Jones claimed the most important victory of his career in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

With his contract status at Joe Gibbs Racing a source of speculation throughout much of the current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Jones made an emphatic statement, holding off teammate Kyle Busch and charging Kyle Larson after taking the lead from Larson on Lap 283.

“It was a lot of pressure,” said Jones, who claimed his first victory of the season and the second of his career. “Kyle (Busch) is a great race car driver. I’ve raced him a lot, and obviously you want to beat him to win, right? I was just locked in, man. I stayed focused. I really thought it was our night when we got out front.

“It’s amazing for me to be able to hold off Kyle. It’s really cool, just for the history we have with Kyle giving me my first opportunity in the Truck Series (at Kyle Busch Motorsports). To race him for the win in such a big race, that’s pretty cool and something I’m never going to forget.”

Busch, in fact, got within a car-length of Jones in the closing laps but a late brush with the outside wall ended his chances.

“I killed it,” Busch radioed to his team. Having cut a tire with the contact, Busch hugged the outside wall for the final lap and a half and still managed to finish third after Larson charged past into the runner-up spot.

“When he started to inch out a little bit,” Busch said after the race, “I was trying to save my right front, because I knew my right front wasn’t going to make it the whole rest of the way without me knocking the wall down, and I was right.

“I hit the wall with about four to go and then I hit it again with three to go, and it killed it that time. Luckily, we were able to salvage a third, just dragging the fence for the last two laps.”

Larson had the lead for a restart on Lap 282, after a massive pileup in Turn 4 on lap 275 ruined strong runs by Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin. But Jones grabbed the lead one circuit after the restart and held the top spot after a cycle of green-flag pit stops with 40 laps left.

“Erik did a good job on that last restart to get by me, and I was better than him all throughout that run,” Larson said. “It’s just I couldn’t ever do anything with him, just because the dirty air was really bad. Wore out surface and the groove is already narrow, and it was just extra difficult. I felt like both 18 (Kyle Busch) and I were a little bit better than he was at the end, but couldn’t do nothing with him.”

Kurt Busch was the dominant driver in Stage 1, leading at the competition caution after Lap 35 and posting a convincing win in the first 100-lap stage, but Jimmie Johnson was arguably just as big a winner–temporarily.

Desperate to make the Playoffs, the seven-time series champion finished second to Busch in the stage and scored nine points, doubly significant because none of the three drivers Johnson was chasing for a berth in the postseason—Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez–finished in the top 10.

Excellent work in the pits, however, vastly improved Bowyer’s track position in Stage 2, and though he lost spots in traffic late in the run, he held sixth in the stage and edged Johnson by one spot. Suarez and Newman, on the other hand, tangled on Lap 140, with Suarez turning Newman off Turn 2 to cause the fourth caution of the night.

Neither Suarez nor Newman scored points in the stage, won by Kyle Busch, who was first off pit road after caution for Corey LaJoie’s spin on Lap 157. Brother Kurt was second in the stage after chasing Bowyer for 30 laps and finally grabbing the second position on lap 187.

But both Kurt Busch and Johnson were innocent victims of the multicar crash on Lap 275, and Johnson surrendered most of the margin he had gained over the other “bubble drivers” in the first two stages. Johnson ended the night 18 points out of the final Playoff-eligible position, with Newman (23rd in the Southern 500) and Suarez (11th) tied for the last berth.

Bowyer finished sixth and moved up to 15th in the standings, eight points to the good over Newman and Suarez. With one race left to decide the Playoff grid, Ryan Blaney, Larson, William Byron and Aric Almirola are now locked into the postseason, as is Jones with the victory.

“What a car—just bad luck,” Johnson radioed to his team on the cool-down lap. “Let’s go to Indy (next Sunday’s race) and kick some butt.”

Johnson likely will need a victory to advance to the postseason for the 16th straight season.

Jones, on the other hand, already has the win he needed.

“Is there anything more to say?” Jones asked rhetorically. “There’s been a lot of doubt and speculation. I’ve put my heart and soul into this race team. This is my living and how I want to make a career and what I want to do.

“It doesn’t get any better than this. On my list, this race is really high, and it’s going to look damn good to see my face on that trophy.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Can Team Penske Recapture Late Season Magic At Darlington?

It is no question that Team Penske is a powerhouse in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. However, as of late, the organization seems to step behind some of the other top teams in the sport.

Brad Keselowski has not been to victory lane since his win at Kansas Speedway in May and has only had one top-five in the last seven races. His teammate Joey Logano had a win at Michigan International Speedway in June, but has had just three top-10’s and one top-five since including a current run of four straight events with a finish of 13th or worse. Then there is Ryan Blaney, who has yet to see victory lane this year and has only led 12 laps since Talladega Superspeedway in April.

It is not all bad news though, as the team is heading into a stretch of races that could be argued propelled them to their championship last season.

While many will remember the impressive run by Keselowski, who went on a three-race win streak starting with Darlington Raceway, but his two teammates were solid as well.

Logano finished runner-up in the Southern 500 and led laps in the playoff opener at Las Vegas before finishing fourth. Blaney was able to start a five-race streak of top-10 starts, and also scored a top-five in Vegas.

While stats are all fine and good, it is also worth remembering where this team was at a year ago which may bring feeling a sense of déjà vu. Why is this all sounding familiar? It is because of this a very similar position to where they were a year ago.

Team Penske was not the best team in the sport last year; they were again just behind a dominant team like Joe Gibbs Racing. However, after this upcoming three-race stretch, there was no questioning the ability of this team. They were the ones with the championship at the end of the season.

These are three drivers who get good when the pressure of the season begins to heat up.

Team Penske has had a driver in the Championship 4 in four of the last five season, despite not being the most dominant on a weekly basis. This is not anything new, which is important that we keep an eye on this team that is seemingly under the radar.

If they continue to follow the trends from a year ago, expect success from Penske in the upcoming weeks.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Top 5 Throwback Paint Schemes Heading Into Darlington

Following Denny Hamlin‘s bittersweet triumph over Matt DiBenedetto in the exhilarating Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series action comes to a screeching halt and at the perfect time.

For drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer who sit just below the points cutoff for the playoffs, this is the final week without racing for the remainder of the season. With only two races remaining before the Playoffs, these athletes will need every bit of rest and strength as they are thrust into a twelve-week marathon.

According to NBC Sports, the 2019 Bristol night race saw a seven-percent increase from last season in viewership on NBCSN, making it the most successfully televised Saturday Cup Series race on cable in over two years. While the off-week may seem like a cooler for the sport, it can be seen as quite the opposite. When the action resumes for the Cup Series, NASCAR and race fans will be thrown right back into a weekend of intensity and tradition.

After a weekend of excitement and a week of anticipation, the Cup Series ratings should continue to improve as the premier series heads to South Carolina for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Considered one of the sports crowned jewels, the 1.366 mile speedway has always been a highly anticipated weekend. However, since 2015 this has become more than another race weekend; it’s become a celebration and tribute to NASCAR and the legends who paved the way for the sport’s future.

Throwback weekend at ‘The Lady in Black’ is an event where drivers and teams pay homage to drivers from NASCAR’s past. The most popular display of appreciation has come in the form of paint scheme replication. However, we’ve seen everything from hairstyles, fire suits and facial hair being  imitated to near-perfection during the three year span of this tradition.

Here are our Top-5 throwback paint schemes being driven for the Bojangles’ Southern 500:

Photo Courtesy of Darlington Raceway

Brad Keselowski

Ever since the throwback theme began in 2015, Brad Keselowski has consistently had one of the best dressed cars in the garage area for the Southern 500 and this year is no exception. The reigning champion of Darlington is set to run the No. 2 Miller Ford Mustang, a paint scheme made famous by Rusty Wallace who drove the car during his 1996 season.

The No. 2 Mustang features a black base with burnt-yellow numbers and the same color outlining the trim on the car. A subtle red and blue flame design drifts down the side of the car, giving it a very bold look. The design stays true to Wallace’s 1996 Thunderbird, while also staying current with the today’s times.

If the 2012 Cup Series Champion wants to best Wallace’s run with this paint scheme at Darlington, he won’t have to do too much. Wallace started 28th in the Mountain Dew Southern 500 and after getting involved in a wreck on Lap 47, he lost an engine on Lap 102, earning him a 38th place finish.

Keselowski has a great shot at replicating the magic made from last year’s Southern 500. The Michigan-native ranks sixth among active drivers with an average finish of eighth over the last two seasons.

Photo Courtesy of Roush Fenway Racing

Ryan Newman

When you hear mention of the No.6 car, it’s hard not to think of Mark Martin and all the great looking cars he’s driven in his 31-year long career. Ryan Newman will be piloting the same design as Martin’s 1993 Valvoline car. You may remember this paint scheme hitting the track back in 2015 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran it during the inaugural throwback event at Darlington.

Newman and his No. 6 team did a great job in resurrecting this paint scheme with a twist. Martin’s iconic Valvoline Ford Thunderbird featured vibrant reds, blues and whites which corresponded to the sponsor logo. Similarly, Newman’s Oscar Mayer Ford Mustang will feature the same design as Martin, but with Oscar Mayer’s colors of yellow, orange and red. This is a very simple, yet vibrant and clean looking paint scheme.

Martin started fourth in the 1993 Southern 500 and would eventually go on to lead 178 Laps en route to Jack Roush’s first Southern 500 win. With only 14 points keeping Newman safe from Playoff elimination, he is looking forward to a strong run at the 1.366 mile track.

“Darlington is my favorite track on the circuit and the Southern 500 is one of the best events on our schedule,” Newman said in an interview with NASCAR.com. “I can’t wait to come back here and see if we can put this No. 6 back in Victory Lane.”

Photo Courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing

Clint Bowyer

What year is it again? No, you’re not going crazy and that is not Tony Stewart‘s car pictured above. Three of Stewart-Haas Racing’s drivers will dawn the paint schemes of their boss throughout his illustrious career. The car that specifically caught our eye was Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford Mustang, which pays tribute to Stewart’s 2011 Championship winning Office Depot Paint scheme.

This infamous red and black paint scheme will be remembered for the time it was driven in 2011 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Stewart won the race and the Cup Series Championship against Carl Edwards in one of the greatest battles of all time. When Stewart ran the Office Depot car in the Showtime Southern 500 in 2011, he led six laps and ended up finishing seventh.

The driver of the No. 14 will need some his boss’ magic when running his paint scheme on Labor Day weekend. Darlington is statistically Bowyer’s worst track and he has only finished inside the Top-10 one time (back in 2007). The driver from Emporia, Kansas is only two points out of a Playoff spot with two races remaining, but he’ll need to muster up a better finish than the 22.77-place average he’s accumulated in the last 13 races at Darlington.

William Byron

William Byron and the No. 24 team are throwing it back to 1990 when Tom Cruise’s hit-racing movie Days of Thunder premiered. Cruise plays the character of Cole Trickle, a young hot-shot NASCAR driver who quickly makes a name for himself with aggressive racing styles and ease. Although it may not be the most accurate portrayal of NASCAR, the film has become a classic amongst the NASCAR community.

Cruise’s racing hit received love in the first running of the throwback weekend at Darlington when Kyle Larson drove the Mello Yellow sponsored car from the film. Kurt Busch actually ran the same car that Byron is running, but this was back in 2013 in the formerly known NASCAR Nationwide Series.

This vibrant neon yellow and lime green car is nearly impossible to miss on the track. The No. 24 will even stay true to the City Chevrolet sponsor featured on Trickle’s car in the film, as Rick Hendrick owns a dealership of the same name. This is one of the Top-5 throwback paint schemes obviously for the look, but also the irony of it all. Not to mention, the announcement video was pretty spot on.

Byron is a young hot-shot driver who is quickly making a name for himself. He may not have flash the heated tempers like Trickle did, but in his sophomore season, the 21-year old driver is poised to be one of NASCAR’s brightest stars. Byron is 73 points in the good for the Playoff, so unless he wrecks out of both upcoming races and drivers of the bubble do well, a Playoff berth seems likely for the young Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Photo Courtesy of Go FAS Racing

Corey LaJoie

Rounding out our Top-5 throwback paint schemes is Corey LaJoie and his tribute to 1999 Cup Series Champion, Dale Jarrett. This is a bit of an odd one because the paint scheme being honored is Jarrett’s Nestle Crunch car, which was run in the then-called Busch Grand National Series.

This is such a special paint scheme and you know that because it gained so much love and attention even being driven in one of NASCAR’s lower divisions. LaJoie’s car stays true, perfectly to the 1999 Champion’s paint scheme as if you did a quick glance you would think the sponsor on the car is Crunch and not Keen Parts!

Jarrett not only drove this car to victory lane once, but twice! He is also hailed as one of the sport’s best drivers at Darlington Raceway, being ranked 10th overall with three wins, 11 Top-5’s, 13 Top-10’s, three poles in 36 races.

“The car looks great and I’ve always been a fan of Dale, so to carry this scheme around Darlington is awesome,” LaJoie said to NASCAR.com. “I think we did a great job keeping the scheme as close to the original as possible while incorporating the KeenParts.com logos into it. I can’t thank Tom and TJ Keen enough for allowing us to run this design – it’s one of my favorite schemes. I might even have to shave myself a mustache, so I don’t do the car a disservice.”

Tune into the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 1 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time to see the sport’s best athletes paying homage to legends who’ve come before them.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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Hamlin spoils DiBenedetto’s run with late pass to win Bristol Night Race

BRISTOL, Tenn. – The first thing Denny Hamlin did after winning Saturday’s Bristol Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway was apologize to the man he beat to the finish line in the 24th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season.

With 11 laps left in the grueling 500-lap event, Hamlin drove to the inside of Matt DiBenedetto and cleared him from the lead. Roughly three minutes later, Hamlin crossed the stripe .502 seconds ahead of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota and handed DiBendetto his second major heartache of a difficult week.

“I just want to say sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (his crew chief) Mike Wheeler,” said Hamlin, who won for the fourth time this season, the second time at Bristol and the 35th time in his career. “I hate it. I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I’ve got to give 110% to my whole team. Just, sorry.”

The regret was heartfelt. On Tuesday, DiBenedetto learned he would not be returning to the LFR Camry next year, possibly to make room for the unquestioned talent of Christopher Bell. But on Saturday night, he put the distraction behind him and drove with the purpose and tenacity of a driver with something to prove.

Eight laps after a restart on Lap 388, DiBenedetto passed Erik Jones for the lead and held it for 93 laps. But with 28 laps left, after Hamlin passed Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott to move into second place, DiBenedetto lost half his lead battling to put Ryan Newman a lap down. Contact between their cars tightened the handling of DiBenedetto’s Toyota.

“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, for this team, for them giving me this opportunity,” DiBenedetto said on pit road, his voice choking with emotion. “I’m just thankful that they gave me this opportunity. But, man, I’m sad. We got tight after the deal with Newman, when he came up into us. All of a sudden it got really tight after that.

“Congrats to Denny. He raced hard. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. To be racing door to door with him at Bristol, in front of a great group of fans. … I’ll try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week. I just want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come. I love it. I love the opportunity. I’m not done yet.

“Something will come open. It’s going to happen. I’m here to win. Something’s going to come open. I’m proud of these guys. Thankful for my wife and fans for sticking with me. It’s been a tough journey, a hard week. Cool for this team.”

DiBenedetto ran consistently in the top 10 and his 93 laps led were a race high. Hamlin, on the other hand, had a roller-coaster race in which he started from the pole, damaged his No. 11 Toyota after contact with Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet, lost a lap for an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 189 for a loose wheel, regained the lead lap as the beneficiary under caution on Lap 248 and charged forward from 13th place after a Lap 260 restart to win the race.

After DiBenedetto’s difficulty in passing Newman, Hamlin tracked him down relentlessly, running the top of the track before moving the bottom to make the winning pass.

“Between my spotter (Chris Lambert) and crew chief (Chris Gabehart), they just stayed on me to not get anxious, just kind of take my time,” Hamlin said. “I had plenty of time. I just worked him over, worked him over. I knew I didn’t want to show him the bottom until I knew I could make the pass. I ran the top, ran the top, ran the top, got the position on the bottom and finished it.

“We had a great car that could move around. Came back from a couple laps down, and here we are.”

Brad Keselowski ran third, followed by Kyle Busch, who started 31st and benefited from an opportune caution, shortly before he would have had to make a green-flag pit stop. Chase Elliott came home fifth, with Kyle Larson sixth.

In the battle for the final playoff spots, Daniel Suarez scored nine points in the first stage and moved past Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer for the final playoff-eligible position. Suarez leads Bowyer by two points with two races left.

Bowyer and Suarez finished seventh and eighth, respectively, but the stage points made the difference.

Johnson’s troubles continued on Saturday night. The seven-time champion started 30th and fell two laps down after contact with Austin Dillon and Hamlin. Johnson fought hard to finish 19th, four laps down, but he fell 26 points behind Suarez for the last playoff spot.

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Denny Hamlin knocks Kyle Larson off pole for Bristol Night Race

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson played a late game of King of the Mountain in Friday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series time trials at Bristol Motor Speedway.

After 38 drivers made qualifying runs, it was Hamlin who was left at the top of the peak.

Larson was the 34th driver to take to the track, and his impressive lap at 129.004 mph (14.874 seconds) put him on the provisional pole for Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Larson’s stay on the pinnacle, however, lasted less than a minute, as Hamlin followed with a lap at 129.330 mph (14.848 seconds) to secure his first Busch Pole Award of the season, his fourth at the .533-mile high-banked concrete short track and the 31st of his career.

Strapped in his car as he readied for his run, Hamlin was unaware that Larson had jumped to the top of the speed chart. Even when he came to the media center for his post-qualifying interview, Hamlin thought he had beaten Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. to earn the first pole position of the season for Toyota.

“It was Larson?” Hamlin asked. “I was wondering why he was giving me the finger when he went by. I thought it was Martin—even better.”

Based on practice, though, Hamlin was confident he could make a run at the top starting position.

“I was confident, as long as the crew chief (Chris Gabehart) did his job, and I did my job, we definitely had a chance,” Hamlin said. “I’m proud of this whole team for giving me such a great car. The guys are on it right now—it’s just unbelievable with what they’re doing with these race cars.

“I’m just trying to learn every week, doing everything I can to get better, and the results are showing it.”

Hamlin has three victories this season, his most since an equal number in 2016, and he comes to Bristol riding a wave of five straight top fives and four straight top-three finishes, including a win at Pocono.

Larson, on the other hand, hopes to break a winless streak of 69 races, dating to Sept. 9, 2017 at Richmond.

“I was just a little bit too tight to kind of roll through the center like I needed to and get to the gas just a little bit sooner,” Larson said of his qualifying run. “But, overall, I’m happy with how we qualified and the grip I had in my car. In practice, I was really loose. So hopefully we’ll have a good race tomorrow and try and get my first Bristol Cup win.”

Bristol is one of Larson’s favorite tracks, and he believes that the top groove will open up during the course of Saturday’s race, whereas the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Trucks on Thursday night seemed dedicated to the lower lanes.

“We got up there enough in practice, and honestly, it felt so far the same (as in previous races),” Larson said. “But you never know how it’s going to lay rubber down up there and things like that.”

Truex (128.995 mph) will start third, followed by Kurt Busch (128.813 mph). Aric Almirola claimed the fifth spot on the grid in the fastest Ford at 128.770 mph.

Among the four drivers fighting most closely for the final two spots in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Ryan Newman will start 14th, Daniel Suarez 18th, Clint Bowyer 20th and Jimmie Johnson 30th. Newman and Bowyer currently occupy the last two provisional Playoff berths, with Suarez six points behind Bowyer in 16th and Johnson 12 points in arrears.