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NASCAR focused on playoffs at Talladega; Haley wins Xfinity Series race

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — NASCAR’s last visit to Talladega Superspeedway, when a noose was found in driver Bubba Wallace’s garage stall, marked a pivotal moment in its evolving approach to social justice issues.

The series found itself at the forefront of the national civil rights push when Wallace began using his platform to implore change in a series with a complicated history with race relations. NASCAR banned displaying the Confederate flag at its events, Wallace competed in a car with a Black Lives Matter message, and many Cup drivers participated in a video addressing racism that aired before a race.

Pushback was most evident in June when NASCAR — one of the few leagues in competition during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic — arrived at Talladega. Protesters paraded past the main entrance of the track waving Confederate flags and a plane circled above the speedway pulling a banner of the longtime symbol to many of racism and slavery.

Wallace was assigned security because of threats NASCAR had received and tensions were already heightened when a member of his race team noted the garage door pull rope had been fashioned into a noose. NASCAR alerted authorities and FBI agents descended on the speedway, and the entire field of 40 drivers in a show of unity pushed Wallace’s car to the front of the starting grid.

The FBI found the noose had been in the garage stall since it was last used for the October 2019 race and Wallace was not a victim of a hate crime. Still, that united moment encapsulated the changed attitudes of present day NASCAR and steadied leadership’s commitment toward action-based efforts on improved diversity and inclusion.

Now Talladega hosts an important playoff race today and the track has permitted 20% attendance. The approximate 15,000 tickets available sold out and limited infield camping is permitted. The garage area remains under strict COVID-19 protocol with access limited to essential personnel.

NASCAR said Saturday it was conducting routine security sweeps this weekend of pit road and the garage areas used by the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series.

THIS WEEK

The mystifying June visit seems so long ago in this season of 2020 abnormalities. The focus has shifted to free agency, the slow return of fans to racetracks, the efforts toward financially surviving the pandemic and, of course, the championship campaign.

Kurt Busch last week picked up his first win of the season at home track Las Vegas Motor Speedway and is the only driver already advanced to the round of eight. Talladega marks the second of three races of the second round with four of the remaining 12 drivers set to be eliminated next week.

Talladega, the 2.66-mile, high-banked oval, is noted for pack racing at high speed and multi-car crashes. It’s an unpredictable 500-mile test of awareness and strategic split-second decisions and a crapshoot for the title contenders.

Kyle Busch, the reigning Cup champion, has yet to win a race this year and is in danger of missing the championship race for the first time since 2014. He’s the first driver below the cutline for elimination, ahead of Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon.

All four are aggressive superspeedway racers — Dillon is a Daytona 500 winner — and Talladega racing gives anyone a chance to win. It’s been a Team Penske run of seven wins in the last 12 races, including two straight wins by Ryan Blaney, who was eliminated in the first round.

But the theory is that racing Sunday will be a trademark Talladega, a frenetic rush to grab a victory and slide into the third round of the playoffs. Denny Hamlin, the Daytona 500 winner, starts from the pole following a a third-place finish at Las Vegas for his first good run of the playoffs.

Kurt Busch, the only driver with nothing to lose today, starts second.

“We don’t have to worry about Talladega, which is a wild-card race,” he said. “We have two weeks of what you could call a celebration. But at the same time … let’s finish this and let’s get to work. Let’s keep the gas on. Let’s go for stage points and stage wins and bank as many points as we can when we don’t have to worry about it.”

FINAL RIDE

Today marks the final planned race for superspeedway thriller fan Brendan Gaughan.

The journeyman has raced the four superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega but has said this will be his final year. He owes the career extension to the Beard family, which has let Gaughan drive the No. 62 Chevrolet since he retired from full-time racing in the Xfinity Series at the end of 2017.

“I absolutely love racing at both tracks,” Gaughan said. “I actually hung up my helmet in 2017 and never expected this. The Beard Family has kept me racing at the two tracks that I love the best — and at a competitive level with a chance to win.”

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and

 

Haley earns 3rd superspeedway victory with Talladega win

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Justin Haley stormed into the second round of the Xfinity Series playoffs with a win Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway, his third superspeedway victory of the season.

Haley, who in 2019 won the Cup race in July at Daytona, has three career Xfinity Series victories, all this season, all on superspeedways. He won at Talladega in June, Daytona in August and then again Saturday at Talladega.

Haley joined Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the only drivers in NASCAR to win three consecutive superspeedway races. The Earnhardt’s did it in the Cup Series.

“You look up to those guys your whole career and you aspire to be like them,” the 21-year-old said. “To be in that class is special.”

Haley, in a Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing, joined Chase Briscoe as the only two drivers locked into the second round of the playoffs. Four drivers will be eliminated after next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The four drivers below the cutline with one race remaining in the opening round of the Xfinity Series are Michael Annett, Harrison Burton, Brandon Brown and Riley Herbst. The Xfinity Series will crown a new champion for the first time in three years because back-to-back title winner Tyler Reddick moved to the Cup Series this season.

Briscoe, winner of two consecutive races before Talladega and a series-best eight this season, led a race-high 73 laps and was cruising from the final restart with 18 laps remaining. Then he had to block to preserve his spot out front in the closing laps and contact with Noah Gragson nearly caused Briscoe to spin.

He recovered and took control of the bottom lane of traffic, then darted back up to the top in front of Gragson to lead that lane. As Haley surged alongside him on the bottom. Gragson and Briscoe had contact that sent Briscoe into the wall.

“You are doing everything you can to protect the run,” said Briscoe, who noted both he and Gragson had asked Earnhardt for Talladega advice.

“It was weird because I knew what he was going to do.”

A crash on the final lap allowed Haley to win under caution. The Talladega race had been decided with a last-lap pass in nine of the last 12 races.

Annett finished second and was followed by Ryan Sieg, Noah Gragson and Brandon Jones. Daniel Hemric, Ross Chastain, Josh Williams, Garrett Smithley and Brown rounded out the top-10.

Briscoe’s goal Saturday had been to help fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric win the race and the two rivals for the championship worked together up until Cindric crashed in the final stage. Cindric was in the middle of a pack of cars when he was caught in some dicey action.

“It looked like the whole pack was going to try to stop there and I felt like that was chaos, especially with how far back in the pack we were. I just got smoked from behind,” Cindric said. “It is part of this type of racing. We were hoping to get ourselves locked into the next round but we will have to go fight for it next week.”

The Talladega race was realigned after the pandemic disrupted NASCAR’s schedule. With next week’s race at Charlotte, the series is at last back on schedule with its original 2020 calendar.

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