After close to a month in Florida for NASCAR, from the time drivers showed up at Daytona International Speedway to closing it out at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Week 3 ended with a whimper. That is unless you’re a fan of the Xfinity Series. Sunday’s Cup Dixie Vodka 400 was relatively uneventful, with William Byron easily claiming his first win of the season. He became the third straight upset winner this year.
The Contender Boats 250 on Saturday provided race fans with an edge-of-your-seat ending that almost didn’t. There was a sure winner until there wasn’t. It took two overtime sessions to decide that. Then there was a second-place finisher who would end up P40. The race had more storylines than The Sopranos.
So here is a look at the weekend in the Art Deco city of bright colors, made more famous by a TV show, Miami Vice.
So, where was Pitbull?
There was considerable buildup to Grammy award-winning musical artist and Miami native Pitbull returning to his hometown for the first time as a car owner. There was nary a mention of him during the Saturday or Sunday race coverage, however, which was a little strange.
Students from a school he founded were to sing the National Anthem before the Xfinity Series Contender Boats 250, and you would think Fox Sports 1 would have made a bigger deal about it. But on Sunday, it was Pitbull’s day to shine, yet he didn’t.
Late in the race, Daniel Suarez got many props from the broadcast crew because he was having such a solid day. He drives the No. 99 Camaro for Trackhouse Racing, the team that Pitbull is a part-owner of. Each time, Pitbull’s name was absent from the commentary.
He didn’t win but...
The No. 5 of Hendrick Motorsports has not been relevant in a NASCAR race since Kasey Kahne took it to the winner’s circle in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in 2017. Rick Hendrick mothballed it after that season, where it has been since he dusted it off last October when he signed Kyle Larson for the 2021 campaign.
“The ‘5’ is special to me. It’s the original,” Hendrick said at the time. “I view it as Hendrick Motorsports’ flagship team in a lot of ways. To bring the car back to the racetrack is meaningful for my family and for many of our team members and fans. We plan to build on its winning history with Kyle and Cliff (Daniels (crew chief).”
No one ever denied Larson’s talent, and he was a terrific get for HMS, but he didn’t come without some baggage. Had COVID-19 not shut down NASCAR in March, he would likely still be with Chip Ganassi Racing. The layoff gave birth to an iRacing phenomenon where big-name drivers would compete in nationally televised events. In one of them, Larson used an epithet that got him suspended and ultimately fired from CGR.
On Oct. 19, NASCAR conditionally reinstated Larson, and the worst kept secret in the sport came to fruition nine days later. Hendrick gave him a chance to regain some of the magic he once had, with a team capable of providing him with all the tools he needs.
On Sunday, the No. 5 was top 5 down the stretch, even leading the field a few times. He would ultimately finish fourth. Larson fans got a glimpse of what might be coming, with a 10th place finish in the Daytona 500, where he even lead a lap. Despite a dismal showing on the Daytona Road Course a week ago, he made up for it in the Dixie Vodka 400.
“It got pretty intense there at the end,” Larson said after the race. “I would have liked to finish second, but those guys were better than me in the end, and I just couldn’t hold them off. I hate that I gave up those spots.”
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is just three races old, but it appears Larson doesn’t have any rust to shake off. He kept sharp during his suspension, in sprint cars, where he was incredibly successful. If the No. 5 returns to its past glory, Larson will be the one to do it.
He is also a NASCAR driver
Fans who tuned in for the Xfinity Series Contender Boats 250 got a treat for their ears. Fox play-by-play announcer Adam Alexander was joined by two Cup veterans Kurt Busch, who has done this sort of thing before, and Aric Almirola. It was the kind of broadcast on par with Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon, and first-year analyst Clint Bowyer who cover Cup Series races. Make no mistake; Joy, Gordon, and Bowyer are the crème de la crème of motorsports telecasts. It’s just that the Xfinity Series trio put on one heck of a show Saturday.
Alexander is always a steady voice in the booth because he has seen his share of analysts coming out of the Cup Series ranks. He rarely gets to have a regular partner, yet interacts with his co-hosts like they have been doing it for years.
In a way, Busch also finds himself sitting next to someone new each time he gets this gig, and he is as comfortable with whoever it is because they have something in common – they’re drivers. But Saturday sounded different.
Almirola was in perfect synch with Alexander and Busch, and it was a treat. No one tried to hog the air time, and it was rare if you heard two talking at the same time. Almirola was insightful about what was happening, and his banter with Busch sounded like it was rehearsed, but it was not. When Busch walks away from his NASCAR career, it’s a sure bet that some network will hire him. With a single broadcast, Almirola proved he might have a spot in a booth somewhere, too.
If there was one obvious thing to pick out, it was Almirola doing interviews. When he had the microphone, talking to a driver during cautions, he didn’t seem comfortable asking questions. Was it because the network camera was on the booth? It was hard to tell, but overall, he blended into the race commentary as if he had done it all his life.