The Can-Am Duels at Daytona did not disappoint this year. Throughout the majority of both races, there was action packed racing, two and even three-wide at some points. Like always, there were some cars that stood out and others that finished better than what they ran. That’s restrictor plate racing.

Duel One:

In the opening Duel race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. proved that he will have one of the cars to beat on Sunday in the 58th Annual Daytona 500.

It didn’t take long for the restrictor plate veteran to prove that he had the best car in the first Can-Am Duel. It took him just two laps to take the top spot away from Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott. He held the lead until his pit stop until Lap 40.

The No. 88 car dominated the first Duel as he led 43 of the races 60 laps, but had to overcome adversity in the late stages. With just a handful of laps to go, Earnhardt was shuffled back to sixth while Denny Hamlin as on point.

With just over one lap to go, Earnhardt had to hold off a charging Joey Logano will help from Ryan Blaney from the Wood Brothers, an affiliate of Team Penske. Even with the two drivers pairing up they were unable to pass the No. 88 team.

In his post-race press conference Earnhardt eluded to his car as special and knowing that he has one of the cars to beat.

“That was crazy,” Earnhardt said on the race. “I was so nervous today about tearing the car up because I know how good it is versus what we have. What we have is a capable car in the trailer, but this thing is special. So I’m really excited.”

The defending Daytona 500 winner, Logano, finished second after getting shuffled back after his green flag pit stop. The No. 22 car was aggressive and made dicey moves in-and-out of traffic, much like his teammate Brad Keselowski who finished in a disappointing 13th.

Blaney is headlining into his second career Daytona 500, and as a rookie he stated his case as to why teams should work with him in the actual race. Last season the No. 21 car had one top-five finish coming at Talladega, the other plate track.

“We had a really fast racecar,” Blaney said. “We had a couple of problems early in the race which got us a lap down. Luckily we got a caution at the right point that got us on the lead lap so we could go racing for it.”

One lap prior to the halfway point, Blaney had a loose left-rear tire that the team accidently left loose prior to the 150-mile event. Evidently, the team overcame the bad luck and got a top-five finish.

Kevin Harvick finished fourth after starting in the rear and had a real shot the win while running second with four laps to go. The Sprint Unlimited winner Hamlin rounded out the top five and led 13 laps in the process.

With Blaney finishing in third and a 13th-place finish Michael McDowell came out on top in the race within the race, the race just to make the Daytona 500. On Lap 42, Cole Whitt had a big run on the No. 95 car that when he went to make a move to pass McDowell he overcorrected and spun out, ending his chance at competing in the Great American Race.

The other driver that McDowell had to beat was Josh Wise and he finished in 17th.

“It’s definitely a big thing for our team, Circle Sport-Levin Family Racing, we’re going to have two cars in the Daytona 500 especially for a small team” McDowell said on making the Daytona 500. “To really start out the year well, it’s very important. This is such a huge race.”

Duel Two:

The latter of the two 150-mile races was very tame until the last couple of laps. As Kyle Busch went on to dominate the event, a multi-car pileup on the last lap cost many of top drivers’ valuable starting positions for the Daytona 500.

It all started to go downhill with two laps to go when Casey Mears was running the second position and ran out of gas. The No. 13 car had just been placed into the second position and then ran out of gas, while trying to make a move on Busch.

As the lead pack of 11 cars darted in to Turn 1 on the last lap, Jamie McMurray made a move to try and win the race when he looked to the inside of the No. 18 car. While coming back up the track he clipped the front end of Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet, causing a five car crash, including Matt Kenseth who was scheduled to start on the outside of Row 1 on Sunday.

Also getting in the crash were A.J. Allmendinger, Danica Patrick and Martin Truex Jr.

With Kenseth likely going to a backup car, it will move Busch to the outside of the front row, alongside 20-year-old rookie Chase Elliott.

“I think I get to start on the front row,” Busch said. “I didn’t win this race to qualify myself for the fourth starting position, but with our teammate having trouble there at the end of the race, they’ll have to go a backup car, it looks. Well get the chance to start on the front row. That’s pretty cool.”

The accident looked to be the cause of all drivers going for it and getting the best starting position that they could. However, the end result was that three of the 500 favorites will now start in the rear.

“I was behind it to see it so I couldn’t really tell why the No. 48 went up the racetrack,” Kenseth said. “I was actually just in the process to get out of there and go to the back. I thought we had the best car and we led a lot of laps.”

Kenseth mentioned that this will be the No. 20 team’s third car of Speedweeks as he also crashed in the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday.

In this Duel it was Robert Richardson, Jr. who was able to fall back on his qualifying speed from last Sunday as his teammate Matt DiBenedetto finished the highest out of the cars that needed to race their way in. David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson will miss the 500-mile spectacle.

 “Two weeks ago when I got the call to run this race, I was mowing the hay pastures,” Richardson said. “I’m just very blessed to be here.”

There are three practice sessions for teams to tune up their primary or backup cars to try and win the biggest race in motorsports. The team that is able to adapt to the conditions of the race and keep up with the pace being set will find themselves the winner of the Daytona 500.

2015 was the year of Joe Gibbs Racing. The team was able to take the checkered flag 14 times over the span of the 36-race season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, evidently winning the championship with Kyle Busch. The Gibbs organization will look to keep up its dominance in 2016.

At the end of 2015, JGR announced that there would be crew chief changes beginning at the Daytona 500. Mike Wheeler was announced as the new crew chief for Denny Hamlin, replacing Dave Rogers. Rogers, formerly the crew chief for Denny Hamlin, is moving over to lead the No. 19 team with Carl Edwards, replacing Darian Grubb, who was left without a job before returning to Hendrick Motorsports.

Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens would remain intact after a championship-winning season. Matt Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff are coming off an impressive five-win season and will continue to work together for the fourth consecutive season.

Team owner Joe Gibbs believed that it was in everyone’s best interest to make changes even after having one of the best seasons in team history. The organization is coming off of a season where it tallied 45 top-five finishes and racked up 71 top 10s. Gibbs thinks that the current driver lineup is one of the best that the team has ever had. However, he was hesitant to say that his team is the best in the garage.

“I know in pro sports that one thing doesn’t guarantee anything for the next year,” Gibbs said on Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I do feel good about our guys and our crew chiefs. Professional sports are hard. In 2013, we had one of our best years, but in 2014 we had our worst year. In professional sports, it can go south in a hurry.”

Busch will have the same exact team as he did last year, and will be one of the favorites for the championship heading into the new season. After recording five victories in just 25 races in 2015, Busch is looking to build on his success in 2016.

The reigning Cup champion will continue to bounce ideas off of his teammates in order for the team to be successful.

“I feel like we are one of the top teams, if not the top team in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition,” Busch said. “With the drivers and crew chiefs we have, I feel like everything could go down the path that it did last year with strong runs, race wins and competing for championships. We almost put two of our cars in the championship race if Carl [Edwards] had a few more points at Phoenix to be able to move on through. We have a lot of good things coming up.”

Like Busch, the No. 20 team will also have the same crew as they did in 2015. Kenseth won five times last season after going winless in 2014. The 43-year-old driver believes that his team will be just as good, if not better than they were in 2015.

He led 927 laps in 2015, the most out of all four drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing. He had a stretch of races in August and September where he won four out of eight races, but during the second round of the Chase, his championship hopes ended. Coming off of the season where he was suspended for two races for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville, Kenseth is looking to lean off his teammates and taking the next step as an organization.

“I feel like obviously I’ve got great teammates,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s what you don’t see that makes is so successful. They all put in the time, work and the effort and give good feedback. Those guys are good and they work really hard at it.”

Edwards on the other hand experienced an adjustment period for the first half of 2015 with his new team. In the first half of the season, the No. 19 team only found the top-10 three times. It was in the second half of the season that Grubb and he began to find consistency and made a run that had them fall just short of making it to the championship race at Homestead.

Statistically speaking, the move to JGR was very similar as 2014 when Edwards drove for Roush Fenway Racing. He finished the season with seven top-five finishes and rallied to have 15 top 10’s. There were many challenges that the team faced in the first season, but it is about the people for the Missouri native. The people are the reason that he jumped over to drive a Toyota and attempt to win his first career Cup championship.

“I’ve never worked with a better group of drivers,” Edwards said of his teammates. “This group right here is just spectacular. I would put these guys up against anyone in the garage. Every week, I’m motivated and pushed by these guys. I would say that we’re going to have a pretty good year if we can just do the things that we’ve been doing. It’s going to be great.”

If it wasn’t for a roof-flap that came loose at Talladega, there is a good chance that Hamlin would have been competing for his first Cup title. Unfortunately for the No. 11 team, bad luck has haunted them at the most inopportune time throughout Hamlin’s stint as the driver. Back in 2011, he had a 15-point lead heading into the season finale, but ultimately lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson.

2016 will look to be a different story for the Virginia native. Coming off of a season where he finished with 14 top fives, more than he had total in 2013 and 2014, he believes that this season could be the season that JGR elevates to the top race season in NASCAR.

“I think we can repeat what we did last year,” Hamlin said. “There is no reason why we can’t win half of the races and win the championship, especially with the group of drivers and crew chiefs that we have to work with. There is no reason why we can’t have success, especially knowing that we were successful with this low-downforce package last year.”

All four of the JGR drivers will be among the favorites for the championship. If the drivers can continue to work closely together there is no telling where JGR can go, and possibly establish the organization as the best team in NASCAR. 

 

NASCAR suspended Sprint Cup driver Matt Kenseth on Tuesday for two races in his part of taking out race leader Joey Logano on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

The incident took place with 47 laps to go when Kenseth pile drove his car into Turn One and put the No. 22 into the outside wall. Lost in the fact is that two weeks prior Logano spun out Kenseth with five laps to go at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. That race was a must win for Kenseth in order to move onto the Eliminator Round and after leading the most laps, Kenseth had a 14th- place finish to show for it.

Leading up to the incident on Lap 453, the No. 20 got into another incident while racing for the lead on a restart just behind Logano when he and the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski made contact and ruining both of their days as well as Kurt Busch.

“Based upon our extensive review, we have concluded that the No. 20 car driver, who is no longer in the Chase, intentionally wrecked the No. 22 car driver, a Chase-eligible competitor who was leading the race at the time,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. The No. 20 car was nine laps down, and eliminated the No. 22 car’s opportunity to continue to compete in the race.

“Additionally, we factored aspects of safety into our decision, and also the fact that the new Chase elimination format puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR.” 

NASCAR deemed that Kenseth’s part in the incident was extreme and not in the racing code, thus the reason for the two week suspension.

However, following the Kansas race, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France credited the ending to that race as "quintessential racing." The drivers were questioning the driver code in which they race under. 

A Joe Gibbs Racing spokesman stated in a press release that JGR will appeal the suspension, but there was not a given date. If the appeal process has not happened before this weekend, then Kenseth is eligible to race this weekend in Texas. Otherwise, Joe Gibbs Racing development driver and current Camping World Truck Series points leader, Erik Jones will take the helm behind the No. 20.

At Bristol in April, Jones replaced Denny Hamlin after a lengthy red flag due to discomfort finishing 26th. Back in May, Jones filled in for the injured Kyle Busch at the Kansas Speedway and finished in the 42nd position after a late crash. Prior to the incident he hovered around the top 10.

The way that Kenseth denied on live television that he didn’t wreck Logano on purpose more than likely didn’t help his case. Of course he doesn’t want to come out and say that he wrecked the No. 22 on purpose, but maybe a better explanation would have been in his best interest.

“Some days you’re the bat, some days you’re the ball, it’s never any fun when you’re the ball,” Kenseth said about the incident. “The splitter was dragging things down and we got into the corner and unfortunately ruined his day. He’s got the best car, he has a couple of races left to till have a shot at it (championship). Certainly disappointed that it came down to that.”

Many of Kenseth’s peers weighed in on Twitter including teammate Hamlin and another current Toyota driver Clint Bowyer deeming that the penalty was too harsh and that NASCAR should “Free Matt.”

Kenseth is the 2003 Cup champion and has acquired 12 wins since coming over to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, ironically replacing Logano from the No. 20. Since moving to NASCAR’s top series Kenseth has an active streak of 571 consecutive races in which he has started, but that is in jeopardy has the second race in the Eliminator Round at Texas approaches. 

 

There was a big question going into the Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, whether or not Matt Kenseth would send payback to one Joey Logano.

The driver of the No. 20 promised payback following the Oct. 18 race at Kansas Speedway. At Talladega on Oct. 25, Logano made a bold move cutting off Kenseth during a cycle of green flag pit stops. This week it was Kenseth who returned the favor.

On Lap 453, the tide turned for the No. 22 team. After leading 207 of the first 453 laps, Kenseth found himself behind Logano heading into Turn 1 with the optimal decision on whether or not to pay Logano back. He deliberately pulled over to let Logano go and drove his damaged Toyota into Turn 1 and wrecked Logano.

“It was just a complete coward move, especially by a championship driver and race team” Logano after being taken out by Kenseth. “Just a complete coward. It’s a chicken you know what move to completely take out the leader when your race is over.”

NASCAR red-flagged the race and pulled the No. 20 car from the remainder of the race if they were able to return.

The prior caution came out when Kenseth was spun when making contact with the other driver from Team Penske, Brad Keselowski and also tagging Chase driver Kurt Busch into the wall. Thus leading to the beginning of the end for both Logano and Kenseth in Martinsville.

“Some days you’re the bat, some days you’re the ball, it’s never any fun when you’re the ball,” Kenseth said about the incident. “The splitter was dragging things down and we got into the corner and unfortunately ruined his day. He’s got the best car, he has a couple of races left to till have a shot at it (championship). Certainly disappointed that it came down to that.”

After parking the Joe Gibbs Racing team for the remaining 47 laps in Martinsville, NASCAR had a meeting with Kenseth, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and car-owner Joe Gibbs.

“I think in general you saw a terrific race today,” said the Executive Vice President of NASCAR Steve O’Donnell. When you talk about the incident between that took place with Matt, in our estimation that was a driver who was a number of laps down and we still have some things to look at it, but we were disappointed with what took place. When you look at Kansas, that was two drivers going for a win and really competing. In this instance, it’s a driver multiple laps down who looked like may have waited and came up on the leader and we all saw what happened. I would say it’s a little different with two drivers going for a win.

It’s too early to speculate on what if there will be any repercussions for Kenseth in the coming weeks. If he is facing any penalty it will be announced on Tuesday, the day in which NASCAR announces all of its weekly penalties. 

Matt Kenseth added himself to the list of 2015 winners with a victory in the Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes. After taking the lead prior to the race’s final caution, Kenseth maintained the top spot in a green-white-checkered finish.

Kenseth’s win at the 0.533-mile track comes 51 races since his last triumph in September 2013 at Loudon. The win also adds him into the championship hunt with a spot in the Chase Grid.

In Victory Lane, Kenseth spoke about how the win meant a lot to him after going winless in 2014.

“Last year was tough and not winning again this year had been tough,” said Kenseth. “I’ve been trying to put myself in a position to finally get one.”

Jimmie Johnson worked his way up through the field to finish second after a couple of incidents earlier in the night. Jeff Gordon, who at one point had been two laps down, finished in third. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Ryan Newman closed out the top five. The top five was the first one for Stenhouse since the Food City 500 a year ago.

Rain played a factor throughout the day at Bristol. The race began an hour and a half late due to a rain delay. Once the race went green, the Sprint Cup Series field raced for 22 laps until a collision between Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, which brought out the day’s first caution.

The caution soon turned into a lengthy red flag as rain made its presence at the track. Four hours later, the race resumed as a Bristol night race.

Before the race resumed, a driver change was made on the No. 11 team as Erik Jones substituted Denny Hamlin. Hamlin sat out the remainder of the race due to neck spasms.

“I just pulled something in my neck and upper back on Lap 12, the pain was bothering me quite a bit,” said Hamlin.

Jones, who made his first Cup Series appearance, would not have his debut count as his official Cup debut since he did not start the race. Hamlin will still receive points since he started the race.

Kurt Busch’s crew chief Tony Gibson also left the race during the rain delay due to kidney stones.

The race at Bristol turned into a rough one for some of the 2015 race winners.

Kevin Harvick, who went into Bristol as the championship leader, was involved in an incident on Lap 311 that sent him behind the wall. Harvick had led 184 laps.

Harvick, along with Logano and Martin Truex, Jr., went into Bristol with top 10 finishes from the seven races prior to Bristol.  Their top 10-finish streak came to an end after each driver had been involved in wrecks.

Heading out of Bristol, the Cup Series now moves onto Richmond for a second straight week of short track racing.  Short track racing and tempers will continue once more under the lights on Saturday night.