Amid the chaos, Keselowski wins again

LAS VEGAS – It took ‘em three and a half hours to get this one in the books but when the smoke cleared Brad Keselowski was back in victory lane.

For a third consecutive time in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series.

A big deal? Yeah, it was that.

Big in an “it’s extremely difficult to win a single race” way.

OK, others have done as much – Kevin Harvick won three nearly before the season began; Kyle Busch won three in a row before April turned to May.

Their accomplishments were no less impressive.

Sunday’s South Point 400 here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the opening race in the 10-race Playoffs and the first time the track had hosted the event. It was 100 degrees outside the cars and hotter inside them and that ought to be enough to make folks consider running this race under the lights in the future.

But it’s the South Point 400 and South Point is a casino and casino folks don’t want race fans at a race track at night. They want them racing to the craps tables and roulette wheels and other assorted games of chance.

If you sat in the grandstands for this one you were a true fan.

Meanwhile, before Sunday’s victory, Keselowski had won in what was a rain-postponed event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Before that, it was the Southern 500 at unforgiving ol’ Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

Keselowski, the 2012 series champ, was winless this year until his recent turn of good fortune. Now the Team Penske driver has won three straight and 27 overall, and his No. 2 Ford has gone from a playoff entry to a lock for the second round.

“We probably weren’t the best today with respect to being the fastest car,” Keselowski, 34, said. “But my team was the best today with respect to executing on the pit stops, putting us in a position to control the race and then getting through the chaos … over the last 20 or 30 laps.”

It’s something the team hadn’t been able to do, he said, before the streak began. Even as it unfolded, “we weren’t good enough to just dominate a race.

“It took a total team effort and that’s what our guys delivered here today.”

Martin Truex Jr., the defending series champion and a guy who until now had not lost a playoff opener since 2015, led the most laps and figures he had the best car. His No. 78 Toyota paced the field for 96 laps in what turned out to be a 272-lap race instead of 267.

“Three races in a row he’s won and he has not had the best car,” Truex Jr. said of Sunday’s winner. Truex wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t happy but he wasn’t bitter.

“Obviously he hasn’t led the most laps in any of those races and he showed up at the end with good pit stops and good short run speed,” he said. “I think it’s pretty obvious how it worked out. He’s hot right now. He’s on a streak. That’s the way it goes.

“We finished third with the best car.”

But the best car doesn’t always win in NASCAR. Maybe it rarely does, heck, who knows?

Sometimes it takes the best car and the best pit crew and the best driver and the best strategy … and sometimes you have all that and you still don’t win.

But sometimes you have part of it or most of it or just enough of it and at the time that’s all that matters.

Keselowski’s was the best when it counted and when there were four caution periods, including one red flag, in the final 20 laps you had to figure that best car or not, whoever won this thing certainly deserved it.

Keselowski, as much as anyone, did.

It was a harsh day for Playoff participants – exactly one half finished a lap or more down. Trouble swept up Harvick and pole winner Erik Jones and Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin and Fords and Chevrolets and Toyotas alike.

It was Las Vegas and it was hot and Brad Keselowski won again.

That’s the simple explanation. Over in the garage where they were loading up what was left of cars and over by the care center where drivers were being evaluated and eventually released, simple didn’t quite cover it.

Kahne hopeful but Cup return uncertain

Kasey Kahne said his return to competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will depend on the results of a battery of tests taken by the 38-year-old earlier this week.

Those results, he said, should be known as early as next week; until then he will leave the driving to someone else.

Official with Leavine Family Racing announced Thursday that Kahne would not compete in this weekend’s Cup event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway after he suffered extreme heat exhaustion following last weekend’s Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

The organization has named Regan Smith as driver of its No. 95 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400.

During a teleconference Friday, Kahne described his health status, and said his hydration issue is something that has steadily gotten worse during the past year.

Kahne said under certain race conditions, he has been unable to sufficiently replace body fluids and has also had to deal with an accelerated heart rate. Those conditions came to a head at Darlington and resulted in a post-race trip to the care center where he was administered fluids.

“I was very hydrated the four days leading up to the race, ate very clean, very good foods for hydration,” Kahne said. “I knew it was going to be a really hard race on me because I just understand between the heat and the dew point degrees, if either one of them is high, I really struggle any more. So, I was super hydrated. I was in really good condition going into the race.”

But about halfway through the nearly four-hour race, Kahne said was unable to drink any more fluids and any attempt to do so would result in him throwing it back up.

“At Darlington, about a hundred (laps) to go, it was really hard to keep my eyes open and see,” he said. “I was struggling to do that. I was trying to control my heart rate because it was so high. I basically just kind of laid in the car and drove around the corners. I had to just control the car just to try to do as little as possible so my heart rate would go down because it was so high. At that point all I’m doing is focusing on my body and my health, not on what I should be actually focusing on, and that’s racing.”

Kahne finished 24th at Darlington. He has been competing in Cup since 2004 but said he had not had any health issues until the last season or so. Always physically fit, he said his weight has remained pretty much the same throughout his career. The only difference, he noted, is his age.

“I’ve been basically the same size, the same person for 15, 16 years in NASCAR,” he said. “I didn’t start having problems until the last year, two years. I don’t really know why that is. We’re trying to figure that out.”

Kahne is the defending race winner at Indy and has 18 career victories. Last month, he announced that he would not return to Cup competition after 2018.

The health scare, he said, is “definitely part of that reason, for sure.”

A sad but wise move by Visser

The decision by any team owner to shut down a race team is always disappointing.

It’s tremendously so in this case, Furniture Row Racing having bucked the odds and built a championship-winning team more than 1,500 miles from the nearest competition.

It was the little team that could, David felling Goliath, you get the idea.

It may have started as a hobby and a dream for team owner Barney Visser, but it quickly became a business. An expensive business and one that required not millions of dollars to operate but tens of millions.

Think about that. Tens of millions.

And there were years when those millions weren’t coming from outside corporations, they were coming from Visser himself.

Before Bass Pro Shops came on board in 2016 and 5-Hour Energy in 2017, there was Furniture Row and Denver Mattress and that was just a fancy way of saying Visser was funding his own race team through his companies.

It got expensive and it got there fast.

Which made the loss of 5-hour Energy, which will depart from NASCAR at season’s end, all the more painful.

The alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and the switch to Toyota in 2016 took Furniture Row to another level, competitively speaking. A team that had won only twice in 16 years won four times almost before the ink was dry on the contracts.

Then last year, twice that many wins, capped off when Truex and his No. 78 team captured the championship with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But wins don’t come cheap. The alliance with JGR means Furniture Row pays a pretty penny for each and every chassis that come from Gibbs and the cost to obtain technical information is staggering according to most teams that choose to go that route.

And according to Visser, those costs were continuing to escalate.

“We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour Energy and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing but haven’t had any success,” Visser said in a statement issued Tuesday.

On top of the tremendous costs, there was also Visser’s health to consider. Sidelined by heart trouble last fall, he was unable to attend races during the playoffs, including the championship-winning finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He has since returned to the track. How that medical event impacted his outlook is something only he knows, though.

And if he was to step aside, his children don’t appear to have an interest in running the organization, although similar to his health, that’s another personal matter that Visser has kept private.

Furniture Row isn’t the first to fold and it won’t be the last. But the demise of the organization is a very real concern. If a championship-winning team can’t secure the necessary funding to compete, what does that say about the long-range outlook for the sport?

“To be successful in any business you need to assemble the right people and make a strong commitment to succeed,” Visser said. “We achieved what we set out to do and feel like we climbed Mount Everest.

“To continue with anything less than a competitive team would not be acceptable.”

He could continue on, spending his own money while the search for sponsorship continues.

But Visser has already been down that path. And seen countless others before him.

He knows where it ends.

So close but so far for Larson

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Brad Keselowski wasn’t a factor.

Joey Logano wasn’t a factor

Take nothing away from the two Team Penske teammates.

No one was a factor, regardless of affiliation.

Kyle Larson had this one in the bag.

Lock, stock and four-barrel.

OK, they did away with carburetors on Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars years ago, but we’re trying to make a point here.

Kyle Larson absolutely dominated Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Until in a stunning late-race shake-up, he didn’t.

Larson was attempting to win not only his first Southern 500, one of the most coveted titles in NASCAR, but his was trying to win his first Cup race of the season as well.

He had finished second at Auto Club and second at Bristol and second at Pocono and second at Chicago and when the series returned to Bristol the other week, well wouldn’t you know it Larson finished second there again, too.

This time he didn’t. He finished third. Second, third, what’s the difference?

Larson led 284 of the race’s 376 laps. They’re still checking to see if anyone ever led more and didn’t get the trophy here at the series’ oldest speedway.

“It’s always important to come out the leader on pit road or be the control car on the restart,” Larson said afterward and that’s where his night went south.

“I felt like if I could have been in clean air, I would have been all right. All day when I would get in traffic I’d get loose.”

Following a caution for a spin by Jeffrey Earnhardt, Larson and those chasing his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet hit pit road for fresh tires.

Larson was first in, but second out.

Keselowski was second in and first out.

There wasn’t a slip or a fall or a loose lug nut that slowed anyone. Just head-to-head and then race off pit road to see who was quicker.

Even then, it was close, but Keselowski won that one by a nose.

The tide hadn’t turned at that point, not until the green flag dropped and Keselowski blasted his way into Turn 1.

Then Logano got by Larson and Kevin Harvick was trying his best to get by and Keselowski’s black and gold Ford, a throwback tribute to former Penske driver Rusty Wallace, kept getting smaller and smaller out front.

“I knew the only real weakness we would have throughout the race was a short run and that’s what it kind of came down to,” said Larson.

The final restart came with barely 20 laps remaining around the 1.366-mile track.

Time enough to see a day’s worth of hard work go down the drain. Not enough time to run down and pass a suddenly fresh race leader.

There was a positive, Larson said, in that his car “was extremely fast.

“We had the dominant car and we proved it. We just came up a little bit short.”

Short, for now, isn’t fatal.

With the Playoffs just around the corner, though, short won’t cut it.

“It stings for sure,” he said, “to not win at a prestigious race like this. I want to win every race, but I want to win a Southern 500 really bad.

“But at the same tie, to bring a car to the … track like we did this weekend is something to be proud of and a big confidence booster heading into the next 11 weeks.”

Throwing it back to past Southern 500s

I don’t know where to start so let’s just start from the beginning. Well, sometime after it was determined that Harold Brasington hadn’t been out in the South Carolina sun too long.

Brasington was the gentleman who traveled to Indianapolis Motor Speedway once upon a time and decided that stock cars needed something similar in the heart of the south so he returned home, climbed aboard his bulldozer and changed the sport of stock-car racing forever.

Darlington Raceway is stock-car racing in all its glory.

• Sept. 4, 1950 – There were 19 races on the Grand National schedule in NASCAR’s sophomore season, but only one was run entirely on pavement. The inaugural Southern 500 debuted at No. 13 on the schedule, nestled in between stops at Hamburg (N.Y.) Speedway and Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway.

Johnny Mantz, a former open-wheel racer, outlasted a field of 74 others to become the race’s first winner … they started the race three-abreast and continued to do so for several years afterward … for the first three years, the race distance was 400 laps … Yes, there really was a child’s doll in the back seat of Mantz’ winning Plymouth during the race.

• Sept. 1, 1952 – The third annual running of the Labor Day race clocked in at 6 hr., 42 min., 37 sec. It’s the longest Southern 500 and the longest time of race for any NASCAR premier series event. Not even the World 600 has lasted longer. … Fonty Flock won the race. His driving “uniform” consisted of, among other things, Bermuda shorts and argyle socks.

• Sept. 2, 1957 – The aptly named Speedy Thompson became a Southern 500 champion in a race that also saw Bobby Myers lose his life. Myers was involved in a three-car crash on the 28th lap and was the first fatality in the eight-year history of the event. As a result, officials limited the starting field to 50 cars the following year in an effort to reduce congestion on the 1.366-mile track.

• Sept. 3, 1962 – Driver Larry Frank knew he had won the ’62 Southern 500. But there was Junior Johnson over in the winner’s circle, accepting the trophy and being kissed by Miss Sun Fun and Miss Southern 500. After seven hours and a recheck of the scorecards, Frank was declared the race winner. He was presented the trophy in a makeshift celebration the following day.

• Sept. 6, 1965 – Ned Jarrett wins by a whopping 14 laps, the largest margin in series history. Jarrett took over the top spot after frontrunners Darel Dieringer and Fred Lorenzen fell by the wayside with less than 50 laps remaining.

• Sept. 5, 1966 – Darel Dieringer won the race driving for car owner Bud Moore, but that’s not what many media members likely recalled. According to the Associated Press, an incident between Richard Petty and Earl Balmer left writers in the press box, located just above the track, scurrying for cover.

“Balmer’s Dodge got up on the three-foot guard rail and rode it through most of the first turn and well into the second before coming to rest. The car knocked down 22 guard rail posts and sent a piece of metal whizzing past the press box, located in the first turn. The press box was evacuated.”

• Sept. 1, 1969 – LeeRoy Yarbrough becomes the first driver to win a rain-shortened Southern 500. Yarborough passed David Pearson with one lap remaining as officials pulled the plug due to darkness after 230 laps. A 4-hour rain delay had pushed the completion of the race beyond 7 p.m. ET.

• Sept. 4, 1978 – The legendary track had been repaved following the spring race but remained a handful. Buddy Baker called the upgrade similar to “putting a coat and tie on a rattlesnake.

“They may go into Turn 4 three abreast now,” Baker said, “but only one is going to come out of it.”

Benny Parsons, who tested at the track shortly after the repave, went as far as to send a letter to his fellow drivers warning them of its dangers.

• Sept. 2, 1984 – The first Southern 500 to be run on a Sunday. It was won by Harry Gant with Tim Richmond (second) and Buddy Baker (third) the only other cars on the lead lap. Temperatures of nearly 105 degrees took a toll on drivers, teams and fans.

• Sept. 1, 1985 – Bill Elliott captured the Southern 500 and the $1 million bonus provided by series sponsor R.J. Reynolds in its first year. Elliott won three of the four races required – the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (Talladega, Ala.) and Southern 500.

• Sept. 5, 1993 – Mark Martin won his fourth consecutive race and his first Southern 500 in a race that was shortened 16 laps due to darkness. The start of the race was delayed by almost three hours due to rain.

• Aug. 31, 1997 – Jeff Gordon wins his third Southern 500 in a row and becomes just the second driver to collect the Winston Million $1 million bonus. The race was also the first to be run after the start/finish line had been moved to what was previously the backstretch as officials began a large-scale renovation project.

• Nov. 14, 2004 – Jimmie Johnson captured the first Southern 500 to be run on a date other than the Labor Day Holiday weekend. The move was the result of NASCAR awarding the Labor Day date to Auto Club Speedway at the request of track owner International Speedway Corp.

• From 2005 through 2008, Darlington held just one Cup race; it was held in May and was not called the Southern 500.

• Between 2009-13, the race was renamed the Southern 500 but retained its May date. It was run in April in 2014.

• Sept. 9, 2015 – The Southern 500 at Darlington returned to its rightful place on the schedule. The race was won by Carl Edwards, who rallied from two laps down. The track also debuted its “Throwback” program highlighting paint schemes and other items from the past.

Chastain run is highlight of Xfinity race

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Ross Chastain will make his Southern 500 debut Sunday at Darlington Raceway but folks may still be talking about his run in Saturday’s Xfinity Series event when the green flag drops.

Brad Keselowski won the race, the Sport Clips VFW 200. But Chastain got the lion’s share of attention.

Chastain finished 25th and was brought into the media center. The last time someone finished that far back and got that much attention he was a she.

That’s what happens when you get a ride in a top-flight car, the No. 42 Chevrolet, with a top-flight team, Chip Ganassi Racing.

Kyle Larson has four wins in the same seat this year but, hey, he’s Kyle Larson so …

Let’s not bash team owner Johnny Davis – he’s had Chastain in his cars up until this weekend, before Ganassi and DC Solar came calling and asking if the driver might consider running a trio of races in the No. 42. Las Vegas and Richmond are next on his schedule with Ganassi.

With Davis this year he’s had a half-dozen top-10 finishes, including a fourth at Iowa and was 12th in points. Folks said drivers like Chastain just need a chance. Ganassi gave him that much.

All Chastain did Saturday was start on the pole for the first time in the series and win the first two stages of his career.

Outside of pure speed, he said, there didn’t seem to be a lot of difference in the No. 42 and the No. 4, his regular ride.

“After practice I walked by my guys on the No. 4 car … left them a note … that the 4 car drives just like the 42 car,” he said. “There’s just a speed difference.”

In the race, “I just had to take what the car would let me have,” he said. “Just trying to manage it and not pound the fence down until it was time to go.

“The clean air was king; whoever got out front was better. I got behind Kevin on that restart there, he beat me early and I couldn’t do anything with him. I just rode behind him. A caution came out, Brad pushed me on the restart, I was able to get back by (Harvick) and I was able to pull away from him.

“I was like ‘Wow! That is so cool! I’m going head-to-head with these guys; if I have the right situation, we’re racing with them.”

A lot of what was accomplished will be lost in the messiness of how it all ended – contact between Chastain and 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick coming out of Turn 2 left Chastain in the wall and Harvick bouncing off. Then more contact on the backstraight, both have a handful of steering wheel and then Harvick’s No. 98 is hooked and spun around and into the wall.

The day was over for Harvick, although not before he brought his car to pit road and parked it, briefly, in the No. 42 pit stall.

Harvick said he tried to stay as low as he could, “and he stayed on my door.

“That’s really an inexperienced racer and a really bad move,” Harvick told NBC.

“Probably the reason that he’ll never get to drive many of them again.”

Chastain hadn’t had time to digest the day, much less the incident, before he was surrounded by media afterward.

“I don’t think I did enough to get THIS opportunity,” he said. “I’ve said it time and time again, nobody deserves this. … More people win the lottery than get this opportunity.”

Of the contact, he said, “Once we hit the wall I was out of control.”

Next week the series heads to Indianapolis and he’ll be back with JD Motorsports and he’s perfectly fine with that.

“Obviously you don’t forget stuff you learn,” he said. “If I can remember it all – there was a lot to take in this weekend.”

Mahone catches up by looking back

Meet Anthony Mahone, one of several people who provide support to writers and other creators such as myself through Patreon.

During a brief online exchange, I discovered Anthony had recently watched every race of the 1991 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.

I immediately thought of several questions I wanted to ask.

Luckily, he agreed to allow me to share the conversation, which occurred via email, with others. So, a big thanks to him for that.

I sincerely hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together. I believe you will. – kb

Background

Anthony is a truck driver from New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who now resides in Galax, Va. (Yes, he’s been to the Wood Brothers Racing Museum, located approximately an hour’s drive from Galax.)

Like most race fans, Anthony’s work schedule impacts the races he has been able to attend through the years.

“Darlington and Watkins Glen next year are on my to-do list, as well as Road America,” he said. “The last NASCAR race I actually went to was the 2000 July Daytona race. Before that it was the ’97 July Daytona race for my first NASCAR race.

“Other than that, I go to various drifting events and last year’s Petit Le Mans over at Road Atlanta.”

While he may not make it to a ton of races in person, he certainly keeps up with what is going on in the world of auto racing.

“Podcast-wise,” he said, “I listen to just about everything; Dale Jr Download, Door-Bumper-Clear, Glass Case of Emotion, Mast Cast, Jeff Gluck’s podcast, Mark Martin’s, Marshall Pruett (he covers IMSA and IndyCar), Five to Go, Kelly Crandall’s Racing Writer’s Podcast, Dinner with Racers (I highly recommend that one), Nate Ryan’s NASCAR on NBC, and Maximum Driftcast. I also listen to SiriusXM’s The Morning Drive and SXM Speedway.”

• • •

Q: Is this the first time you’ve done something like this, gone back and watched an entire racing season?

A: It’s the third time actually. The first one I did was the 1993 IndyCar season, and the second one was the 1996 Truck series season.

Q: Why IndyCar first?

A: I co-founded an eSports racing team with a couple of teammates that are huge IndyCar fans, so I show them things/videos/pictures of how things used to be. That was also the first year I watched that series live as well.

Q: Why were the Trucks next?

A: I’m partial to the early days of the Truck series before the technology and the spending started getting out of control. And because I’m a huge Mopar fan, so seeing the Keselowskis be competitive from time to time was great.

Q: Are you watching the races online or tv/video/other?

A: Online, I’ve moved around a lot so any tapes I’ve had have been lost.

Q: How difficult is it to find all the races?

A: Typically, somebody will have made a playlist on YouTube with the races in order.

Q: What made you choose the 1991 season?

A: It’s partly nostalgia. The earliest race that I can remember watching was from the ’93 season, the fall Charlotte race I think. I’m 33 now, and I was 8-9 (years old) at the time. I never got the chance to see Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison race live on TV. I’ve recently finished the ’91 season and have started on the ’94 season.

The other part of the reason is because I like seeing how things have developed and the things that have changed since that time period. What really triggered watching that specific (’91) season was the episode of Mark Martin’s podcast when he had Tommy Kendall on and they reminisced about the 1991 Sears Point/Sonoma race.

Q: What sort of things have you noticed when watching the races?

A: I’ve discovered that quite often we have used revisionist history when we think about past races. Often the top five would be the only ones left on the lead lap by the end. Things like that wouldn’t fly in today’s socially-charged marketing and the constant over-reaction that happens today by fans, teams, drivers and members of the sanctioning body. A lot of the difference is because we’re better educated about the sport than before.

Q: What have you noticed that’s changed from a competition standpoint?

A: 1991 seemed to be the last season that the bias-ply tires were run for a decent number of races on the Cup level, so the cars looked like they would handle differently from week to week. Also, with the pit road speed limit rules beginning that year and the pit road procedural rules changing during the first 6-7 races you can see how some teams adapted better than others. From Daytona to (I think) Darlington they wouldn’t let teams change tires under caution, except for getting fuel. Then the following two races they would let teams pit according to where they qualified in even or odd positions.

At Bristol this was magnified by the order in which row they had the teams restart in, which let some teams jump ahead of others. Quite confusing when it happened, and likely led to Rusty (Wallace) winning that race because of it.

By either Talladega or Martinsville, the procedure became what we knew today. There are some similarities when it comes to the views on tires; sometimes the tire compounds picked for the faster races would be too hard, and other times they would get them perfect so you would see “comers and goers” as the tires would be used up over a run. Aero didn’t affect things as much as it does today because as Chocolate Myers likes to say “It didn’t matter until it mattered.” (Pit selection also applies to that statement.)

The races had more flow to them with the lack of stage breaks like we have today. But the preparation of the cars back then varied a lot more than now; gaps that were over a second would be a quarter of a second now.

Q: What have you noticed that’s different from broadcast standpoint?

A: There was a LOT less commercialization of the things in the broadcast and around the various things in the race. There wasn’t the “Credit One Bank One to Go,” “Service Master Clean Caution,” “Florida Hospital Infield Medical Center,” “Goodyear Racing Eagle Tires” … well, the tires were simplified, but things like that.

Many of the videos that I got to watch were actually the satellite feed, so when they cut to commercial you got to hear the audio from the booth and pit road as they would plan the next segments of commercials that they had to read.

One other thing I did notice was ESPN had their commentators at the turn positions at Sonoma and Watkins Glen like NBC did the last couple years (for) their road course race coverage. The overall coverage by the partners back then seemed to have more flow, because they didn’t seem to break to commercial as often as now.

• • •

You can follow Anthony via Twitter @MT2_Levin. For some really interesting paint schemes, check out his iRacing efforts @MahoneDesign (some nice throwbacks are in there, too).

And his IRacing team’s Twitter account is @formula_mt2.

Youngster Elliott drove like a vet in Glen win

For the record, Chase Elliott was a soon-to-be eight-year-old when his father won for the last time in NASCAR’s top series.

About a half dozen drivers in Bill Elliott’s 44th and final victory competed alongside Chase on Sunday when the youngster, now 22, finally made his way to victory lane in the Cup series.

Maybe that makes them feel old or maybe they were kids back then and it’s just the changing of the guard here in NASCAR.

The younger Elliott was making his 99th career start in the series Sunday, but drove as if he’d been racing for much longer. He battled with pole winner Denny Hamlin and went toe-to-toe with the hard-charging Kyle Busch and in the end held off Martin Truex Jr., the guy who had won the series’ last two road course races.

Truex, the defending series champion, might have had something for Elliott at the end but his gas tank did not. The No. 78 Toyota sputtered on the final lap and that was that.

Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race will be talked about for a good bit and with good reason. Compelling race, exciting finish, first-time winner, link to a former era in the sport, take your pick. NASCAR officials have been waiting for one of these races all season. WGI delivered.

Elliott has had his share of success in NASCAR, just not at the top. He won a K&N Pro Series East race at Iowa when he was just 12 … no, make that he won a race IN 2012. He was all of 16 at the time.

He’s won in Cup, twice capturing his Can-Am Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway in February of ’17 and ’18. But those aren’t “real” races even though they now award points to the top 10 …

Elliott’s rise up through the ranks included stops in the Camping World Truck Series (two wins in 12 starts) and Xfinity Series (five wins and one championship in 77 starts).

All along he’s had the support of team owner Rick Hendrick who once vowed he was done with funding a feeder program for younger drivers because it was expensive and time consuming and, well again, expensive.

But then a talent such as Elliott lands on your doorstep and well, Hendrick is a great businessman but also something of a soft touch but a great judge of talent too so … he’s always said he believed the younger Elliott could win in Cup with the right team around him and the right equipment underneath him.

Elliott is the 17th Cup driver to win for Hendrick Motorsports and four of those are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and several others will be soon enough.

The win was No. 250 for Hendrick Motorsports and that is No. 2 behind either Petty Enterprises (268) or Richard Petty Motorsports (273 if counting the PE wins).

Either way, No. 250 was a milestone for the entire HMS organization, a group that had not won since June of ’17.

It’s also worth noting that Elliott became the fourth different driver to win with crew chief Alan Gustafson, and the stout list he joins also includes Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.

It appears the Elliotts are the seventh father-son duo to win at least one race at the Cup level.

My unofficial list contains Lee and Richard Petty; Richard and Kyle Petty; Bobby and Davey Allison; Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Ned and Dale Jarrett; Buck and Buddy Baker and now the Elliotts.

There are several brother combinations as well as at least one uncle/nephew.

Elliott said he “learned a lot about myself the past couple of years,” and part of that probably involves how to handle those near misses. He finished second eight times before Sunday’s breakthrough.

“I think kind of one thing I tried to beat in my head was that you don’t run second eight times by luck and take it for what it is,” he said.

“That’s the truth; you just don’t. You have to realize that you were in those positions for a reason … and if you were in them at one point in time you can get back to them and learn from whatever it was that prevented you from ultimately getting a win.”

Elliott learned, and it appears those lessons are beginning to pay off.

Farewell old friend

I always enjoyed reading Tom Higgins’ stories about NASCAR.

Particularly when it involved a race that I had also covered for another paper; I made sure I read what Tom had written afterward.

A lot of times his story would include something colorful, something interesting, maybe something overlooked by others.

More often though, it would just be a better overall story. It would be told better.

I knew that would be the case before I ever turned the page.

Part of that was because Tom had been around. He didn’t just cover Richard Petty (and eventually Kyle Petty), he covered Lee Petty, founder and patriarch of the Petty racing clan.

He covered Dale Earnhardt but that came after he covered Earnhardt’s father, Ralph, who dominated short tracks around the Carolinas.

He covered Buck Baker long before he wrote about Baker’s talented son Buddy.

The Jarretts, the Pearsons, the Wood brothers, Tom knew ‘em all and covered ‘em all and he told their stories like no one else ever did or likely ever will.

His longevity was only a small, small part of the reason he was so good at his craft. Tom was a natural storyteller. He simply had that gift.

His stories were not just about the stars. Tom could hold your attention talking about the sport’s legends, the near legends and just as easily the folks you probably had never heard of or read about.

Higgins was the first full-time NASCAR beat writer. In 1980, he attended every NASCAR Cup race for the Charlotte Observer, his paper of record for 33 years where he covered not only NASCAR but handled the outdoor beat as well.

On many occasions, he combined the two – NASCAR competitors were often avid outdoorsmen – and those stories were just as entertaining and enjoyable as the ones that made up his race coverage.

There were 31 races in 1980, by the way, and the season began in early January at Riverside, Calif., and ended 10 months later, again on the west coast, at Ontario, Calif.

That came nearly two and a half decades AFTER he covered his first NASCAR race, in 1956.

In 2015 Tom received the Squier-Hall Award of Excellence, an honor presented to members of the media for contributions to NASCAR. In my opinion, no one has been more deserving.

Tom passed away earlier today and a huge part of NASCAR is gone. He was 80 and a proud father and grandfather and great-grandfather.

To many of us who worked alongside him in the NASCAR garage, he was a tremendous friend.

And one hell of a storyteller.

For Busch, the numbers keep adding up

Career win No. 49 for Kyle Busch came Sunday and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is now tied with former teammate Tony Stewart for 13th on the Cup series’ all-time win list.

Stewart, retired from Cup competition since the end of 2016, won three series championships; Busch has one but is only 33 and likely plans to stick around awhile.

Busch has 20 wins in the series since 2015, the year he missed 11 races due to injury but returned to win five times and capture the title.

He also tied Ron Hornaday Jr. for the most career wins in the Camping World Truck Series Saturday with his 51st victory at Pocono.

And if you’re keeping track of JGR Cup victories, Busch has 45 of the organization’s 155 wins.

Overall, it was a solid day for the JGR group at Pocono with Busch (No. 18 Toyota) winning, teammate Daniel Suarez finishing second, Erik Jones taking fifth and Denny Hamlin 10th.

By the way, Busch now has multiple Cup wins on 14 of the 23 tracks on the schedule, with singles wins on the remaining nine. Perhaps that’s his next feat – multiple wins at all facilities?

A week after reports of sponsor 5-hour Energy’s impending departure from Furniture Row Racing, JGR officials announced a multi-race deal with Craftsman across two series with drivers Jones and Ryan Preece.

A division of Stanley Black & Decker, Craftsman will be featured on Jones No. 19 Toyota in four of this year’s remaining 15 races (Richmond, Dover, Talladega and Kansas). The sponsorship will ride with Preece in Xfinity Series races at Watkins Glen, Richmond, Dover and Kansas.

Team owner Joe Gibbs also said Sunday night that the plans are for Stanley to be a sole primary sponsor in 2019, likely on the No. 19 of Jones.

5-Hour Energy has been a primary on the No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota featuring 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr. this season. The company was paired with Jones when he was at Furniture Row in 2017. From 2012-16, 5-Hour was aligned with driver Clint Bowyer.

This weekend’s Cup schedule for Watkins Glen is similar to that at Pocono with two Saturday practices scheduled to be followed by qualifying. That may or may not mean more post-qualifying inspection issues.

Thirteen teams saw their qualifying times tossed out at Pocono due to problems clearing tech after qualifying had been completed.

Credit innovations in vehicle and track safety for allowing Bubba Wallace to walk away from Sunday’s hard Turn 1 crash at Pocono. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver suffered a brake failure on his No. 43 Chevrolet nearing the end of the front straightaway late in the race, shot across the grass inside the Turn 1 entry and then came back across the track to strike the outside wall.

Fortunately, the wall is covered with SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier.

Pocono has installed additional barriers on at least two occasions, most recently in 2017 when more than 5,000 feet was put in place.

Initial studies found the SAFER barrier could reduce lateral g-forces by as much as 75 percent during impact.