He’s back. It’s number four the No. 88. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has won the first of two Budweiser Duel 150 qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.

Holding off a hard charging Joey Logano, Earnhardt was able to win the Duel to start on the inside of the second row for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Pole sitter Jeff Gordon finished second after running in the top five for the majority of the race, and was able to hold off Logano coming off Turn 4 for the final time.

"I'm so glad to be able to get through the Duel in one piece because I know how good this race car is," Earnhardt said.  "We have a couple more practices to go through and try to stay out of trouble during those and put this thing on the grid."

Matt Kenseth, who led a race-high 32 laps, fell to the back of the pack with less than 10 laps to go. During the final caution with five laps remaining in the race, the No. 20 car pitted, but finished 17th.

After being on the edge of making the Daytona 500, Ty Dillon will run his first Daytona 500. Finishing 16th, the grandson of Richard Childress was able to get in based on Gordon not needing a spot in the race since he locked in during qualifying day. 

Along with Dillon, Landon Cassill, Cole Whitt, Michael McDowell, JJ Yeley and Michael Annett were able to race their way into the Daytona 500. With the exception of Dillon, each of those drivers were inside of the top 15, which automatically gives them a starting position in the “Great American Race.”

Missing the Daytona 500 are RAB Racing’s Justin Marks, along with The Motorsports Group’s Ron Hornaday, Jr.

Casey Mears blew an engine on Lap 15 while running inside of the top 10. Mears will have to wait until the second Duel is over to find out if he will make the Daytona 500. He was outside of the top 25 in qualifying, but his spot in owner points could prevail to put him in the race.

AJ Allmendinger was inside of the top five at one point during the first Duel on Thursday evening. The No. 47 car was involved in an incident with BK Racing driver Johnny Sauter, and both of them finished outside of the top 20. Allmendinger will make the field based on owner points. Meanwhile, Sauter’s No. 83 car was 13th in qualifying, which means he will be able to fall back on his time.

2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne was running 18th when he got loose and hit the wall entering Turn 3. However, with the owner points from the No. 99 car, Bayne is locked into the Daytona 500.

Using the new pit road technology, four teams were penalized during the 150-mile race.

 

The level of intensity at Phoenix International Raceway was higher than the clouds. Coming down to the final lap, the four drivers that will be fighting for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway now know that they are safe.

In dominating fashion, Kevin Harvick locked himself into the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory on Sunday afternoon during the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Leading 264 of 312 laps at Phoenix, Harvick separated himself from the field to take his third-straight win at the 1-mile speedway.

“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against,” Harvick said following the race. “That was our goal coming in here and that’s really the goal every time you come to Phoenix.  This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year.”

With the triumph, Stewart-Haas Racing now has a shot to win their second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick now has four victories through the 2014 season and had he not won at Phoenix – likely would not have advanced to the final round of the Chase.

Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman were able to advance to the final round of the Chase. Hamlin had a flat tire during a caution period early in the race. Subsequently, the No. 11 car went a lap down during that green-flag run. However, he rallied back on the lead lap, albeit he proceeded to get lapped once again just after the halfway mark. But with approximately 100 laps remaining in the race, the soon to be 34-year-old received the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Hamlin drove his Toyota into the top-five late in the race and solidified his spot in the championship round.

For Logano, he had a penalty for dragging equipment out of his pit stop after winning the race off of pit road during the second caution of the day. Like Hamlin, the No. 22 Ford was lapped by Harvick, yet he got the lucky dog to get his lap back. He finished sixth on Sunday at Phoenix, which helped ease his way into the final four as he had a nine-point cushion over Jeff Gordon, who narrowly missed the cutoff.

"When the 4 car laps you, you don’t know how the race is gonna play out," said Logano following his comeback on Sunday. "You don’t know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the lucky dog or will you get the lucky dog.  When you go down a lap it’s not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder.  We missed the lucky dog by one that time, and we had a decent car but when you’re trying to work your way through the field and race really hard you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble.  We were able to adjust our car to that and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely.” 

Then, there is Newman. For a moment, he seemed to be like the Newman from Seinfeld. After struggling through the first 100 laps, the No. 31 team entered the top-10. However, he fell outside of the top-15 late in the going and opted to use strategy to get up front. On the final restart of the day, Newman’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in fifth-place. But on old tires – multiple cars roared right past him. On the final lap, he was set to be just one position out of the Chase in a tie with Gordon. Gordon would have won the tie-breaker since he had a better top finish in the Eliminator Round. Yet with a bold move in Turn 3, Newman drove it in hard and got into the side of rookie Kyle Larson – putting him in the wall and giving Childress a shot at winning his first Cup Series championship since 1994.

"That was about as clean as I could race," said Newman. "I wasn't proud of it."

Gordon was notably disappointed after finishing second at Phoenix. Had he not been involved in an on-track incident with Brad Keselowski at Texas, the four-time champion likely would have advanced to Homestead. Matt Kenseth also fell short on Sunday. After finishing third, he was just three points behind Newman for third in points. Keselowski finished fourth, and came up eight points behind Newman with Carl Edwards finishing 15th – 15 points behind the No. 31 team.

“It makes last week that much even tougher to swallow, but that's all right,” said Gordon. “We put in a great effort at Martinsville, great effort here, and it just wasn't enough. Some things are out of our control, and I felt like we did a great job putting all the effort into the things that we could control.”

The race had a record 12 cautions on the day – surpassing the previous track record of 11. With eight lead changes during Sunday’s 312-mile spectacle, it was the fewest amount of passes for the lead at the track since 1998.

Going into Homestead, there will be a first-time Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the first time someone will take home their first title since 2006, when Jimmie Johnson captured his first of six crowns. 

Joseph Wolkin can be found on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.

After winning two races early in the year, Kevin Harvick has been on a winless streak for over six month. On Saturday evening, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet drove back into Victory Lane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500.

Leading a race-high 162 laps, Harvick was able to hold off Jeff Gordon on a restart with just a pair of laps remaining in the race to score his third victory of the season. With the triumph, he has now clinched his way into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Everybody on our team has just continued to build better race cars and we know that we’ve had the cars to run up front and lead laps and do the things that we need to do,” said Harvick on his win. “Things just haven’t gone right and we’ve made some mistakes; things haven’t gone right ore than not. Oh, we came here and tested thinking that this was going to be the hardest round to get through because of Talladega. There’s so much that you can’t control there. We wanted to try to control the things that we could control. We felt like Kansas and here (Charlotte) were playing to our strengths; and just see where it fell after that once we get to the next round.”

Following the race, Brad Keselowski had an on-track altercation with Denny Hamlin on the cool down lap. The No. 2 car finished 16th, and was racing tightly with Hamlin through the final laps. However, Hamlin brake checked Keselowski on the cool down lap. Simultaneously, he spun Hamlin in Turn 3 and then hit Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet as he was waiting in line to go into the garage on pit road.

“Through the whole sequence of events – I think the 20 car got in back of me on one of the restarts, it was just a racing deal and I wasn’t mad at him,” said Keselowski following the incident.  But when the last yellow came out he got the wave around and when he came by he swung at my car and tore the whole right-front off of it.  That gave us a big Chase hurt, which is unfortunate, and then for some reason after the race the 11 stopped in front of me and tried to pick a fight. I don’t know what that was all about and he swung and hit at my car, so I figured if we’re gonna play car wars under yellow and after the race I’ll join too.”

“I rubbed into the 20 and I think he gassed up and ran into Tony, and don’t think Tony knew what was going on so he’s probably upset and he has every right to be,” he continued. “His car got tore up, but there was a whole lot of other stuff going on and I’m sure when he sees the whole situation he’ll understand.” 

Following a confrontation with Hamlin, Keselowski was walking back to his hauler when Matt Kenseth jumped on his back. The No. 20 and No. 2 crews began to have a brawl, but they were separated within a few seconds. However, several drivers are calling for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion to have a fine for what they believe was a dangerous move in the garage area.

Jimmie Johnson was running inside of the top-10 after struggling early on in the 500-mile race. The No. 48 team finished 17th after pitting during the final caution. Leading up to Talladega, he unofficially sits 12th in points; 26 markers behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne for the final position to advance to the Eliminator Round. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished 20th after going a lap down with a shifter knob issue during the race. He was never able to get back on the lead lap and is tied with Johnson in the standings.

Kyle Larson was battling Harvick for the lead prior to the final round of green flag pit stops, but slipped back to the sixth position. The No. 42 Chevrolet led six laps prior to sliding into the wall, which made him drop back a few spots. Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammate Jamie McMurray came home in the third position after taking two tires on a late-race pit stop to gain track position and was able to contend for the win

Both Michael Waltrip Racing vehicles experienced engine issues on Saturday evening. Clint Bowyer’s engine let go on Lap 95 following a top-15 run. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers’ engine blew up with seven laps remaining in the race.

There were eight cautions that lasted 39 laps during the 334-lap event. During the race, there were 32 lead changes.  

Heading into Talladega, Joey Logano and Harvick are automatically locked into the next round of the Chase with victories. However, there are 10 other drivers vying for six remaining spots. Kyle Busch is the highest ranked driver without a victory, but is just 26 points ahead of Kenseth, who is the first driver on the outside looking in. Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. are the four drivers that are currently outside of the top-eight. 

In a wild 500-mile event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kasey Kahne hoisted the trophy for the first time in over a year. Holding off Matt Kenseth during a green-white-checkered restart, the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet took the victory as he sliced himself between the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of the No. 20 team and Denny Hamlin.

With the victory, Kahne has locked a spot inside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after being on the verge of earning a position in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Now, all four Hendrick Motorsports car are locked inside of the Chase. The victory marks the 17th in his career, and his fifth triumph while racing for HMS.

“We were all over the place during the race but the guys stayed with me and worked hard,” Kahne said. “On those restarts - I didn’t know what would happen because I had great restarts all night and I struggle with restarts a lot.  That’s big, because that is one of the things you have to be good at and it worked really well tonight.”

 “Yeah, we are locked in and I hate it comes down to this Atlanta or Richmond just about every year for me.  Sometimes we are in, sometimes we are out.  But thankful that now at HMS I have been in all three years now.  We have the pressure all the way to Richmond, but we made it again, thankful for that.”

Kenseth clinched a spot in the Chase based on points with a runner-up finish. Clint Bowyer is now on the outside looking in after finishing Sunday evening’s race in the 38th position due to a broken shifter. Greg Biffle currently holds the final spot in the Chase, and it would take a victory by a win-less driver inside of the top 30 to take that away from the Roush Fenway Racing driver.

Kevin Harvick was forced into the wall in front of Joey Logano after Paul Menard spun his tires on the final restart. Menard evidently took the middle lane on the outside of Danica Patrick; shoving the No. 4 car into the wall to end his evening after leading a race-high 195 laps. Harvick was the fastest car throughout the evening as his No. 4 car pulled out in front during each restart.

After Kahne led 23 laps while holding off Harvick, the caution came out with just two laps to go. Everyone on the lead lap came onto pit road, with Kenseth and Menard taking two tires. Kahne slipped to the fifth position, but was able to work his way back up after Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch tangled with a pair of laps left in the race.

While leading early in the race, Harvick nearly hit a squirrel – as he was entering Turn 3. He radioed in on the radio to tell his crew what happened as he was in disbelief; thinking a cat ran from the fence down to the apron while Harvick’s car was approaching. Prior to the first caution, just 23 cars were on the lead lap as the No. 4 car was setting a blistering pace – over seven seconds ahead of Jeff Gordon, who was in second.

On Lap 78, while running in the runner-up position, Gordon blew a left-front tire while entering Turn 3. The No. 24 car pancaked the wall, but he was able to come back and finish 17th after being stuck two laps down and having untimely cautions – preventing him from taking the wave around until the two green-white-checkered runs.

Danica Patrick earned a career-best finish as she ended the evening in the sixth position. Patrick received two free passes on Sunday evening after getting lapped. However, she consistently worked on her No. 10 car and earned a spot inside of the top 10. Ty Dillon finished 25th at Atlanta in his Sprint Cup Series debut for Richard Childress Racing in the No. 33 Chevrolet. Although he finished three laps behind the leader, Dillon gained valuable experience and finished one position behind his brother, Austin Dillon.

In the midst of the final green-flag pit cycle, Keselowski was attempting to go around Hamlin, but he missed pit road after Cole Whitt blocked him; leading the No. 2 car to slam into the back of Josh Wise’s No. 98 car.

Tony Stewart received a warm welcome by race fans during driver introductions on Sunday evening. Stewart rapidly worked his way to the sixth position within two laps of the green flag waving after starting 12th. He ran inside of the top 10 for the majority of the race until Kyle Busch and he collided on a restart. Stewart later blew a tire – ending his night in the No. 14 car as he made a return to NASCAR competition due to missing the past three events after the tragedy that occurred on the weekend of the Watkins Glen race. After the incident, he was not available for comment, but his crew chief did.

“The car has had speed all weekend long and we qualified well,” Chad Johnston said. “I went into today with some pretty high hopes of finishing well and possibly coming out of here with a win but it just didn’t work out in our favor.  We got into a little trouble with the 18 and got into the outside wall, knocked the toe out of it, and a lot of heavy right side damage.  We were just trying to fix that and salvage what we could out of the day but then we blew a right front there right before that caution came out.”

 

The leader in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings doesn’t have a win yet. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Well, Matt Kenseth is a man that won the 2003 title with just one victory, and he might just do that again.

However, with the new championship format, going win-less throughout the 36-race schedule could severely hurt a driver’s ability to contend for the title. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won the 2013 crown, but that was the exact opposite of what NASCAR is expecting this year.

Kenseth took over the championship points lead after Dover as Jeff Gordon finished 15th even though he ran inside of the top-five throughout the day. Entering Pocono, he holds a two-point lead over Gordon, and has a good cushion over third-place Carl Edwards.

With the new format, 16 drivers will qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Those drivers will have to earn at least one win to qualify, and if there aren’t 16 different winners, the point’s leader will automatically qualify for the Chase along with the next amount of spots available in the Chase that are winless but are high in the standings. Now, questions have risen about whether or not Kenseth should worry about winning if he stays as the leader in the championship standings as positions in the Chase are filling up left and right.

“It is definitely different. It was a radical change from what we had. We sit here as the points leader, but it’s a little confusing at times. Hopefully, we can get a win,” Kenseth said.

After Dover, Kenseth and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team have earned 10 top-10s along with five top-fives. However, he is going back to the way he used to race with Roush-Fenway Racing – starting out races rather slow, but picking up the pace by the halfway mark. Kenseth stated during a press conference on Friday morning that the team has adjusted better to the new aero package than he thought, but they have just not been able to seal the deal.

“It doesn’t change at all really,” Kenseth said about his approach now that he has the points lead. “Every week, you go out there with the idea of trying to win. You try to do everything you can to win the race. People always ask about changing strategies or trying harder, but if it were that easy – we would be winning every week.”

In 28 starts at Pocono, Kenseth has yet to score a win at the Tricky Triangle. However, he contended for the victory during the 2003 edition of the Pocono 400, and is expected to run well this weekend even though he finished outside of the top-20 in both Pocono races last year.