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May 27, 2024

Three Up, Three Down: Drivers in focus leaving Charlotte


Brad Keselowski on the Cup Series qualifying grid at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Logan Riely
Getty Images

NASCAR’s longest race of the season ended up shorter than expected on a turbulent Sunday night weather-wise, but there was no shortage of comers and goers in the Cup Series standings after the Coca-Cola 600.

The most recent round at Charlotte Motor Speedway elevated Christopher Bell into Victory Lane for the second time this year. There are now four drivers with multiple wins this season, and Bell joins Denny Hamlin, William Byron and Kyle Larson on that list.

RELATED: Race results | At-track photos: Charlotte

With Sunday’s show in the books and the second half of the Cup Series regular season underway, here are three drivers with rising fortunes and three more in need of a turnaround when the schedule heads next week to World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

THREE UP ⬆️

1. Brad Keselowski, No. 6 RFK Racing Ford

Brad Keselowski's No. 6 Ford on track through the turns at Charlotte Motor Speedway
David Jensen | Getty Images

Started: 30th

Finished: 2nd

What happened: Keselowski surged into the stage-point pay window after taking the green flag in the back portion of the field. The 2020 winner of the 600 pressed Bell in what turned out to be the final restart but settled for his fourth top-two finish in the last six Cup Series races — a stretch that’s marked a nine-position gain for Keselowski to ninth in the standings.

What’s next: The RFK co-owner/driver heads to Gateway, where he has an Xfinity Series win (2010) and a steady amount of momentum. Keselowski’s victory two weeks earlier at Darlington Raceway — part of his recent upswing — has taken off plenty of pressure as the team steamrolls toward the Cup Series Playoffs.

2. Tyler Reddick, No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota

Tyler Reddick's No. 45 Toyota rounds Turn 4 at Charlotte Motor Speedway
David Jensen | Getty Images

Started: 8th

Finished: 4th

What happened: Reddick technically earned a starting spot among the top 10 based on his qualifying effort, but an unapproved adjustment after pre-qualifying inspection Saturday forced him to drop to the rear and serve a pass-through penalty at the start. The comeback he made was admirable, and his result could easily have been one spot better without William Byron’s daring frontstretch pass that sidestepped both him and pole-starter Ty Gibbs just six laps before weather slowed the event.

What’s next: Reddick’s result snapped a three-race stretch without a top-10 outcome, registering a positive for the No. 45 group in what’s been a streaky season so far. His Cup Series record at Gateway is just two races, with better starts (fourth, ninth) than finishes (15th, 35th).

3. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota makes its corner entry ahead of a pack at Charlotte Motor Speedway
David Jensen | Getty Images

Started: 11th

Finished: 5th

What happened: Hamlin did not lead a lap in the race for the first time this season but inched up from where he started after just missing the final round of qualifying in Saturday’s time trials. The promise of an even better result, however, was hampered by difficulties on pit road, where his exit was hurt more than once by the No. 17 Ford of Chris Buescher in close proximity in the stall ahead of him.

What’s next: Hamlin will enter June as the new Cup Series points leader, moving up two spots after jumping teammate Martin Truex Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson, who did not earn any points after participating in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Hamlin was last year’s runner-up at the 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway track.

THREE DOWN ⬇️

1. Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Team Penske Ford

Ryan Blaney on the Cup Series qualifying grid at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Logan Riely | Getty Images

Started: 16th

Finished: 39th

What happened: Blaney’s attempt to repeat as the Coca-Cola 600 winner hit a rough patch in the second of four stages when his No. 12 Mustang clouted the outside retaining wall through Turns 3 and 4. “I just came off pit road and put tires on it and I don’t know if I ran over something, but one of them blew,” said Blaney, who limped the car to pit road with heavy right-side damage. He was unable to continue and completed just 143 laps.

What’s next: Blaney had hoped that his car’s handling would come to him when the 600 reached the later evening hours, but never got to find out. Instead, he was relegated to his second consecutive finish outside the top 30 after a crash left him 36th two weeks ago at Darlington. He and the rest of the Cup Series field move forward next weekend to Gateway, where Blaney has finishes of fourth and sixth in his two starts there.

2. Chris Buescher, No. 17 RFK Racing Ford

Chris Buescher makes time through the turns in the No. 17 Ford at Charlotte Motor Speedway
David Jensen | Getty Images

Started: 39th

Finished: 23rd

What happened: Buescher’s weekend started at a deficit even before Sunday’s green flag arrived after his No. 17 Ford crashed during Saturday’s practice session. He was able to make a big rally into the top five after starting deep in the 40-car field, but Buescher lost ground on the final rundown in what turned out to be a late-race pit stop when his car was boxed in by the No. 42 Legacy Motor Club Toyota of John Hunter Nemechek in the neighboring stall.

What’s next: After matching a season-best result as the Kansas runner-up to start the month of May, Buescher has closed the calendar sheet with two straight finishes in the back half of the field. His strength has been evident in recent weeks, but he still seeks a breakthrough win this season that would lock the No. 17 group into the Cup Series Playoffs.

3. Noah Gragson, No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

Noah Gragson's No. 10 Ford hurtles down the straights at Charlotte Motor Speedway
David Jensen | Getty Images

Started: 19th

Finished: 38th

What happened: Contact with the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevy of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pitched the No. 10 SHR Ford sideways and into the inside wall after the running room ran out off Turn 2. Gragson earned just a single point after he was eliminated, completing just 170 of 249 laps with sizable damage.

What’s next: The modest streak of three consecutive top-10 finishes has started to grow smaller in the rear mirror, and Gragson dropped two spots to 21st in the Cup Series standings — leaving him further on the fringes of the postseason bubble as a result. He was 33rd in his only Cup Series start at WWTR.

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