NASCAR

Hamlin rallies to earn victory in opening round of playoffs

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Hamlin rallies to earn victory in opening round of playoffs

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) -- Denny Hamlin vowed to make it to the championship round of NASCAR's playoffs, and nothing so far is getting in his way.

Not a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered playing basketball just days before the regular-season finale.

Not a horrible day of practice that resulted in an awful starting position for the opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Not a spin Sunday two laps into the race that dropped him to last in the field at Chicagoland Speedway and one lap down from the leaders.

Hamlin stepped up and once again showed his resilience by rallying for a surprise victory in the first race of the 10-race Chase. The win for Joe Gibbs Racing - a heavy favorite to win the championship - earned Hamlin an automatic berth into the second round of the playoffs.

"Go have some fun the next two weeks, that's for sure. Takes some pressure off of us," Hamlin said about his strategy for the next two weeks.

It was a decidedly different mood for reigning champion Kevin Harvick, who vowed four days ago not to be intimidated by JGR's recent muscle and said "we're going to pound them into the ground" during the Chase.

Instead, contact with Jimmie Johnson on a restart caused a tire rub on Harvick's car. He thought the issue had fixed itself, but his left rear tire blew two laps later and he was in the wall.

Harvick drove the car to the garage for repairs, and his anger toward Johnson was evident as headed back on the track - his finger pointed out his window at Johnson's crew - 57 laps off the pace and second-to-last in the field.

Johnson went to Harvick's motorhome after the race to speak to Harvick, but Harvick walked out of the bus and shoved Johnson in the chest with a closed fist.

Harvick was separated from the six-time champion, and Johnson pointed at Harvick as he was restrained from getting at Johnson a second time. Harvick's wife, DeLana, exited a waiting car to walk over to the bickering drivers and Harvick eventually retreated to the backseat of the car as Johnson walked away.

Harvick is last in the 16-driver field, and four drivers will be cut from the Chase in two weeks. Asked what he needs to do to stay in contention, he was blunt: "we've just got to go win one of these next two races."

He felt that Johnson had no regard for his position on the race track during the restart when Harvick was third and Johnson was fourth.

"I just held my ground and he just slammed into my door like I wasn't even there," Harvick said.

Johnson's version was that he got a push from behind from Joey Logano that sent him down to the apron. As he tried to get back on the track, he made contact with Harvick.

"I assumed he would try to find it as my fault. I just simply needed a lane to get back on the racetrack," said Johnson. "He was trying to pin me down and I've got to get back up or else there would be a hell of a mess in Turn 1."

Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers initially said on the team radio he felt Johnson deliberately hit Harvick. After the race, though, the disappointment seemed to be focused on the relationship Stewart-Haas Racing has with Hendrick Motorsports.

The two Chevrolet teams are pseudo teammates, and Johnson and Harvick have a lengthy relationship dating to their early racing days in California.

"As much as we work together and share information, and I feel like we've helped them a lot this year trying to get their cars better, it's just disappointing," Childers said.

The trouble for Harvick was as surprising as the victory for Hamlin.

His rough day Friday in practice meant he had to start 29th in the race when qualifying was rained out. Hamlin said his toughest task was going to be showing patience in the early laps of the race as he tried to move a fast Toyota through traffic, but he spun trying to pick his way toward the front on the second lap.

Now last and a lap down, it seemed he had no shot at the win.

But his JGR team didn't panic, and crew chief Dave Rogers used a gutsy call not to pit during the final caution to give Hamlin a shot at the victory.

Hamlin slid to the bottom of the track to make it three-wide as he jumped from third to first on the restart with five laps remaining. Once past Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, he easily cruised to JGR's ninth win in the last 12 races.

JGR has won three consecutive Sprint Cup races, and celebrated an Xfinity Series victory on Saturday with Kyle Busch.

Carl Edwards rallied from a speeding penalty to finish second and give JGR and Toyota a 1-2 finish.

Kurt Busch, who was headed for the win until the final caution was called with 10 laps remaining, was third and disappointed at the timing of the caution.

"It was the difference maker today," Kurt Busch said. "My Chevy was fast, fast enough to win."

Ryan Newman, who used consistency to race his way into the championship round last year, was fourth and Kenseth was fifth to give JGR three drivers in the top-five.

Johnson finished 11th and Gordon, second on the final restart, faded to 14th over the final five laps.

Headed into New Hampshire, the four drivers needing to make a big move off the elimination bubble are Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer and Harvick.

Tales of the Turtles 400 coming to Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 17

Tales of the Turtles 400 coming to Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 17

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, titled Tales of the Turtles 400, is coming to Joliet on Sept. 17, Chicagoland Speedway and Nickelodeon announced last week.

It will mark the seventh straight year Chicagoland Speedway will kick off NASCAR's playoffs.

Nickelodeon Sr. Vice President of Sports Marketing Anthony DiCosmo and President of Chicagoland Speedway Scott Paddock joined SportsTalk Live to discuss it all, and even had a few special guests join them as well.

Check it out in the video above.

Kurt Busch steals a monster of a win in Daytona 500

Kurt Busch steals a monster of a win in Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Kurt Busch had a monster start to the season with a last-lap pass to win the crash-filled Daytona 500.

Busch is sponsored by Monster Energy, which kicked off its first season as the title sponsor for NASCAR's top series Sunday with the season-opener. It wasn't NASCAR finest moment, though, as multiple accidents pared down the field and had a mismatched group of drivers racing for the win at the end.

"The more that becomes unpredictable about Daytona, the more it becomes predictable to predict unpredictability," Busch said. "This car's completely thrashed. There's not a straight panel on it. The strategy today, who knew what to pit when, what segments were what. Everybody's wrecking as soon as we're done with the second segment.

"The more that I've run this race, the more that I just throw caution to the wind, let it rip and just elbows out. That's what we did."

It appeared to be pole-sitter Chase Elliott's race to lose, then he ran out of gas. So did Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard. As they all slipped off the pace, Busch sailed through for his first career Daytona 500 victory.

It also was the first Daytona 500 win for Stewart-Haas Racing, which is co-owned by Tony Stewart. The three-time champion retired at the end of last season and watched his four cars race from the pits.

"I ran this damn race (17) years and couldn't win it, so finally won it as an owner," Stewart said.

Ryan Blaney finished second in a Ford. AJ Allmendinger was third in a Chevrolet, and Aric Almirola was fourth for Richard Petty Motorsports.

The win was a huge boost for Ford, which lured Stewart-Haas Racing away from Chevrolet this season and celebrated the coup with its second Daytona 500 victory in three years. Joey Logano won in a Ford in 2015.

The first points race of the Monster era was run under a new format that split the 500 miles into three stages. Kyle Busch won the first stage, Kevin Harvick won the second stage and neither was a contender for the win. NASCAR also this year passed a rule that gave teams just five minutes to repair any damage on their cars or they were forced to retire.

But the race was slowed by wreck after wreck after wreck, including a 17-car accident at the start of the final stage that ended the race for seven-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick. It was a particularly rough incident for Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing team, which had all four of its cars collected in the accident.

"Just seems like that could have been avoided and was uncalled for," Johnson said of the aggressive racing behind him that triggered the accident.