Charlotte Update: Harvick leads, Dale Jr. battling shifter problem

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Fast as usual, Kevin Harvick leads at the halfway point of the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At Lap 167 of 334, Harvick was leading two non-Chase drivers in Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray. Another early leader, Jeff Gordon, was situated in fourth and Brad Keselowski had made his way up to fifth.

Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, and Brian Vickers comprised the remainder of the Top 10.

Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is mired in mid-pack due to a shifter problem that developed shortly after Lap 130. After leading some laps early on, Junior is running 22nd on a night where he must perform well in order to recover from his crash last weekend at Kansas in the Contender Round opener.

Pole sitter Kyle Busch led the first 13 laps of the race before Gordon went to the outside and took the point at Lap 14. Gordon would pace the field up to the Lap 25 competition caution (occurring due to an earlier shower at the track this afternoon).

A two-tire stop under that yellow enabled birthday boy Earnhardt to jump Kyle (four tires) for the lead going into the restart at Lap 31. But Kyle quickly dispatched Earnhardt for the lead moments after the green flag, and Earnhardt subsequently faded back to fifth by Lap 40.

Gordon re-asserted himself and again grabbed the lead at Lap 38, and one lap later, Harvick moved by Busch himself for second position. Meanwhile, Keselowski and Larson started to make their presence felt by moving into the Top 10 after having sub-par qualifying sessions on Thursday.

Green flag stops began at Lap 70 with Joey Logano, who had a poor opening stint and was 23rd at the time but can afford a bad night thanks to his win last week at Kansas.

Gordon and Harvick followed by pitting together from first and second at Lap 75, triggering a rush to the pits among the rest of the leaders.

Keselowski’s stop at Lap 79 ended the cycle with Gordon, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, and Earnhardt as the Top 5; Keselowski wound up ninth but was up to seventh at Lap 90.

On Lap 95, the second caution of the night flew for Clint Bowyer slowing on the track with what appeared to be an engine failure on his Toyota. Another wave of yellow-flag stops ensued and once again, Earnhardt jumped to the lead with a two-tire call.

But also taking two was McMurray, and following the restart at Lap 100, Big Mac drove by on the outside in the tri-oval to take the point. His stint in P1 was short-lived, however, as Harvick passed McMurray in the tri-oval himself to become the new leader at Lap 105.

Also pushing hard off the restart was Keselowski, who made his first appearance of the night in the Top 5 as Earnhardt dropped out of the same bracket with the two fresh tires. Johnson was also doing well at this point, having moved up from 21st on the grid to eighth at Lap 118.

While those charges were taking place, Harvick had stretched out his lead over Gordon to more than six seconds before Paul Menard’s engine blew up down the backstretch at Lap 136 to bring out the caution.

Before that yellow came out, Earnhardt reported to the pits that his gear shifter had broken in his hand and he was forced to go to the pits. He pitted again while the leaders had normal yellow-flag service (which ended with Harvick keeping his lead), but was then hit with a speeding penalty.

Eventually, crew chief Steve Letarte opted to have Junior stay out instead of going back in for another stop so he could stay on the lead lap.

He took the restart at Lap 143 in 23rd, last among those on the lead lap.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.