NASCAR Cup Series News (17900)
The racing on intermediate tracks has never been better; ratings are up, bucking a trend among other major sports; and collaboration between stakeholders is at an all-time high.
That was the assessment of Steve Phelps, who took questions from the media on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway before the Ford EcoBoost 400, the race that would decide the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.
“If you look at the results—I start with the competition always—our competition right now on the intermediate tracks and the superspeedways, I believe, is the best racing we've ever seen. I'll start with myself as a fan. I love watching and am super excited when we get to the intermediate tracks and superspeedways, the type of racing we are going to see.
Phelps also shared that the quality of competition has had a positive effect on the viewership.
“The results from the competition side are working from a consumption standpoint,” he said. “If you look at the fans, what the fans are doing, how they're responding to it, if you look apples to apples, our ratings are up 4% this year. All of sports is down 9%, we're plus 4%.
“Importantly our share is plus 9, so there are fewer people watching television in all sports, obviously, but fewer people watching television overall. So when they were watching, not only did they watch more NASCAR, from a ratings standpoint, but when they were tuned in, they were watching more NASCAR. We were taking share from someone else, which is important. That's television.”
Phelps also extolled the unprecedented level of communication and cooperation across the stock car racing industry.
“I've been teased a little bit about using the word 'collaboration' too much,” Phelps said. “I don't think you can use that word too much, frankly. It's building. The collaboration of this industry is better than it's ever been. Really excited about where that is.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t room for improvement in the product. Phelps acknowledged that NASCAR will work during the offseason to enhance the quality of racing on tracks of one mile and shorter.
That’s particularly important, given that ISM Raceway in Phoenix is set to host next year’s Championship 4 race.
“Do I think we need to work with our industry, Goodyear, our race teams, our OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners to improve what we're seeing on the short tracks?” Phelps asked. “I do. We're going to do that in the off season, for sure.”
As his first full season at NASCAR’s helm concludes, Phelps indicated there has been strong interest from other car makers in joining Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota as competing brands in the sport.
“We had some folks out in Phoenix (last week) that were interested in coming into the sport,” Phelps said. “It's important for us. We are working hard to try to determine kind of the timing of that, what that looks like, and what that partnership would look like moving forward bringing someone in.
“The world is a lot different than it was. We're trying to make it as easy as possible to have an OEM come in, plug in, and start to compete on the racetrack.”
Phelps also said that some form of electrification would be part of NASCAR’s engine architecture in the future and that the ability to attract new OEMs to the sport would be dependent on running engines that maintained relevance to those in production cars.
“This engine is going to sound significantly the same as whatever the current engine is,” Phelps said. “We're not going to have a bunch of electric cars going around. That's not what this is about. It's about having a relevant engine to our OE partners, both the existing Ford, Chevy and Toyota, as well as whoever the new OEs that we're looking at.”
With Monster Energy currently in its final year as sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series, Phelps said NASCAR anticipates announcements with respect to its new sponsorship model when the industry celebrates the new Cup champion in Nashville in early December.
In his final practice session as a full-time Cup driver, Paul Menard wheeled the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang around Homestead-Miami Speedway with a best lap at 166.446 miles per hour.
That put him 12th on the speed chart for an abbreviated practice session, but he’ll start Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 from 19th place after qualifying was cancelled because of rain on Friday and the starting line-up set by car owner points.
Eddie Wood said he feels good about the speed of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang heading into Sunday’s season finale.
“Paul and [crew chief] Greg [Erwin] seemed happy with the car,” Wood said. “We’re all hoping for a good run for Paul’s last race as a full-time Cup driver.
“No matter how things work out in the race, it’ll be a bittersweet day for us all. Having a driver retire while driving our car is a rare thing for us.”
Sunday’s race will be Menard’s 471st in NASCAR’s elite division. Only nine drivers in Sunday’s line-up have more starts than Menard.
Menard has a chance to finish the season with the most laps completed and most miles run this season. His 9,951 laps are second only to Joey Logano’s 9,954, and his miles run, 13,315.79, also are second to Logano, who has 13,339.23.
Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 is set to start just after 3 p.m. on Sunday with TV coverage on NBC.
Business as usual. That’s the attitude and spirit all four of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion contenders professed after their final 50-minute practice session to prepare for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin were the first, second and third quickest in the practice. The fourth member of the championship quartet – Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick was ninth fastest.
All of the drivers seemed satisfied with their time on track and after spending days in South Florida meeting media and sponsorship obligations, they are all ready to race for the big trophy.
“It’s just business as usual," Harvick confirmed with a smile.
“You can’t really stay on the same path for all the things they force you to do. You can’t really bin your normal routine and you have to know that coming into the week with all things that are just way out of normal from what you would do a weekend where you have the choices of things you could do and how you would schedule them.
“You have to know that coming into the week and just deal with all the extra things and the extra people that come with the week."
Bad weather on Friday forced an alteration to the weekend schedule. It forced the cancellation of the Cup Series practice scheduled for Friday afternoon, so NASCAR instead decided to replace Saturday’s scheduled qualifying session with a 50-minute practice session and set the starting grid according to owner championship points.
So Hamlin will start his No. 11 JGR Toyota on pole alongside Harvick’s No. 4 SHR Ford. Truex and Busch will start from the second row. The 2018 champion Joey Logano will start fifth.
Three of the four – Harvick (2014), Busch (2015) and Truex (2018) – are former Cup champion, all winning the Homestead race en route to their titles. Hamlin is the only multiple Homestead race winner among the championship eligible group, winning the race in 2009 and 2013. But he is still seeking his first Cup title.
The practice session was relatively smooth for the Championship 4. Truex and Harvick ran the most laps (47), Busch, the fewest (44). Busch led practice with a speed of 168.966 mph, just ahead of Truex (168.460 mph) and Hamlin (168.277).
“I felt pretty close," Truex said. “We were able to make three long runs. Typically for me, personally, if the car is pretty close, I’ll run a bunch of laps right away. That’s definitely a good sign. The guys did a good job being prepared, making a lot of good assumptions.
“I feel pretty good. I definitely feel like we can get better. Just like every other weekend, how do you get better, can you do the right things, make the right changes tonight for tomorrow, then you go race and see how it plays out.
“Feeling pretty good about things. Hopefully we can get a little bit better. … Like I said, we talked about it during the week, you got to keep doing what got you here, right?"
CHEVROLET LOOKS TO ENHANCE PERFORMANCE WITH NEW CAR, YOUNG DRIVERS
The Chevrolet camp boasts the only active driver who has won more than one championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
In fact, Jimmie Johnson owns a record-tying seven Cup titles, and in the process accomplished the record feat of winning five in a row from 2006 through 2010.
Both Johnson and Chevrolet, however, have fallen on hard times of late. Johnson has been stuck on 83 victories at NASCAR’s highest level since the spring Dover race of 2017. His winless streak has reached 94 races.
For the third straight season, no Chevy driver has qualified for the Championship 4 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but that’s an issue the manufacturer already has begun to address. Rather than wait for the next generation of Cup car in 2021, Chevrolet will race a new model—the Camaro ZL1 1LE in 2020.
“In the production side of our world, that's our highest performing production car,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “Similar to the ZL1 (the current Chevrolet race car), but it has kind of higher performance elements to it from aero to chassis, and so we've incorporated those into the 2020 car…
“Listen, we're a performance sport, so there's no excuses here. We've got to do better. We expect to do better. If you look at the history of Chevrolet, 39 manufacturer's championships, 31 drivers, but that's all history. We're interested in the next chapter, and that's what we're focused on.”
Campbell also pointed out that drivers in the next generation of Chevrolet stars are still learning the ropes in NASCAR’s premier series.
“If you look at the drivers, we've had some amazing young drivers that turned into winning drivers that turned into championship drivers that then retired, and so we have a younger crew,” Campbell said. “If you take Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch out of the average age, our average age is like 26 years old.
“So what's exciting is at one point Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the young guys. We've got the young guys now. It's an amazing thing to watch how they're progressing. Some of the drivers have been to these tracks one, two, three times, four times. So every time they go, they're learning a lot more.”
SUCCESS HAS BEEN THE HALLMARK OF TOYOTA’S BANNER 2019 SEASON
With 43 victories in NASCAR’s three major series—including a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series-best 18—Toyota Motorsports has certainly had a season for the ages. Toyota drivers qualified for all three championship races this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway including three – Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin – in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale.
“Obviously this has been a fantastic season for us across all three series," said Ed Laukes, Group Vice President of Marketing for Toyota Motor North America. “We’re really excited about, first of all, Christopher (Bell) running today, but this whole thing started in Daytona, as you all know.
“In the spirit of what happened at the Joe Gibbs organization, having J.D. [Gibbs] pass and then having the three Gibbs drivers win in Daytona really started off what we would say, was a magical season for us. And hopefully we’ll be able to finish it off next year."
With Ford and Chevrolet motorsports executives sitting alongside him for their annual meeting with motorsports media on the eve of the Homestead-Miami season finale, Laukes praised his teams and talked about the group’s motivation going forward. There are only seven Toyota cars in Sunday’s race field – compared to 16 for Ford and 17 for Chevrolet. But the numbers are clearly in Toyota’s favor from the sheer number of race victories in 2019 to having three members of the Championship 4.
After snapping a 12-year Chevrolet win streak in 2016, Toyota wrapped up its third manufacturer title in the last four years with Hamlin’s victory at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway last week.
“In reflection, I started in this job in 2007 and we were looking through some of the statistics and in 2007, Chevy won 26 races and Rick Hendrick’s team won 18, so for us to even get to that point from 2007 to 2019, where we not only can match [the Cup win total] but potentially pass the pinnacle of Hall of Fame Rick Hendrick and the legacy that he has within NASCAR is really special.
“The manufacturer’s championship is obviously a piece of personal pride for us that we push all the time, so whether it’s in any one of the three series, it’s a big deal for us, so we’re pretty excited.
COLE CUSTER IS EMBLEMATIC OF FORD’S DRIVER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM
Cole Custer’s performance on the race track—specifically, seven victories this year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series—helped earn the 21-year-old from Ladera Ranch, Calif., a full-time ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
But Custer also has been learning a great deal in an environment fans can’t see, as part of the driver development program conducted by Ford Performance.
“We have started putting a lot of focus on our driver development over the last several years,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford performance Motorsports. “A lot of the things that we can bring to the party is simulator time, which gives them extra time not just to practice driving the car and getting familiar with different tracks but to also practice and be more effective at their communication or evaluation skills, what do they feel in the car, how do they communicate that back to the crew chief and then make changes.
“So you can go through all of that in the simulator to try to advance and prepare them.”
That sort of training already has added to Custer’s body of knowledge.
“Some of the other things that we're doing over the last two years have been using our IMSA program with the Mustang GT4 cars to put our truck drivers and our Xfinity drivers into getting them more seat time, first of all, getting them more road course time and more data analysis, again, more feedback, more training, more communication, and specifically for Cole Custer, he's been doing that for the last two years, as well. So that helps develop him as an individual.
“We've seen Cole… for a lot of reasons beyond those, Cole has matured and grown a lot over these last two years, and we're excited to see him taking that step up to Cup next year.”
The Quebec, Canada-based athlete development and promotional organization will showcase partners Total Quartz Engine Oil, Rousseau Metal, Inc., and Silver Wax in its foray in NASCAR competition with veteran Reed Sorenson behind the wheel.
Festidrag Development also produces and directs content for Festidrag.TV, a motorsports-focused streaming platform featuring all things high performance throughout Canada.
“Festidrag is thrilled to be able to showcase both our platform and our partners through this exciting partnership with Spire Motorsports,” said Festidrag Development consultant Robert Desrosiers. “As we continue to look for new growth, we seek out unique opportunities to promote our partners that align with our brand. We think this partnership accomplishes exactly that.”
Spire Motorsports earned its first MENCS victory during its inaugural season in July when 20-year-old Justin Haley claimed an upset for the ages by earning the win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in just his third start in NASCAR’s premiere series.
“This has been a year to remember for everyone at Spire Motorsports and we’re excited to close out our first season with the team from Festidrag on board,” said Spire Motorsports co-owner T.J. Puchyr. “It’s always fun to host new partners and showcase our sport, especially in an area as vibrant as South Florida. We’re looking forward to a great weekend.”
For more information about Festidrag Development, log on to Festidrag.com or visit them on Facebook at @festidrag.
The Ford EcoBoost 400 from Homestead Miami Speedway will be televised live on NBC Sunday, November 17 beginning at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The 36th and final race on the 2019 MENCS schedule will be broadcast live on the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Spire Motorsports PR
The connection and fondness was immediately evident as Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs took their seats Friday morning to talk about their respective teams’ chances in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race the Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Gibbs was dressed in a suit and Stewart was dressed more casually in a team button-up shirt and baseball cap – the juxtaposition causing them both to laugh.
“Well this is how you dress when you have one car in the championship and that’s how you dress when you have three," Stewart joked immediately.
The truth is, although the two are competing against one another for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title, the former teammates concede they are much more alike than dissimilar. And this is a big weekend for both.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin will compete against Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick for the series championship Sunday afternoon. And although the competition will undoubtedly be intense for NASCAR’s biggest prize, the two 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees leading the organizations bring a similar mind-set into the big race.
Stewart, a three-time Cup champion driver, has won two titles as an owner – his third series trophy in 2011 and Harvick’s in 2014. Gibbs is a four-time Cup champion owner – earning two titles with Stewart (2002 and 2005) and one each with Bobby Labonte (2000) and Kyle Busch (2015).
Stewart competed in 22 NASCAR Xfinity Series races for Gibbs in 1998 before moving to the JGR team full-time from his 1999 rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series through the 2008 season. He joined forces with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.
“Every driver is different, and Joe [Gibbs] can tell you better than anybody, because he’s dealt with more, quote-unquote, professional athletes than anybody, and how you get people to respond is different from person to person," Stewart said of his ownership style. “Sometimes you’ve got to be a little stern with them. But there’s that one button in each of us that gets us to respond."
“I think that’s kind of what makes good leaders and good owners and good crew chiefs and good competition directors. You have to know your people. You have got know what that button is. You need to know what you have to do to get the best out of them.”
Stewart looked over at Gibbs and smiled, “I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there," Stewart said. “And I’ve said it a million times, if I didn’t work for him, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m doing now.
“I also wouldn’t be in debt like I am now, and I blame all of it on Joe."
COLE CUSTER ASCENDS TO CUP SERIES AS DANIEL SUAREZ SEEKS NEXT CAREER STEP
A stern, non-nonsense conversation at the start of the season apparently did the trick, where Cole Custer was concerned.
And now Custer is ready to take the next—and largest—step in his NASCAR career.
The driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, who will race for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), will drive the No. 41 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Ford for SHR next year.
Custer will succeed Mexican driver Daniel Suarez, who ran out of time while trying to put together a deal for a second year in the No. 41. Suarez is the only foreign-born driver to win a championship in any of NASCAR’s top three touring series, having claimed the Xfinity title in 2016.
While Suarez is seeking his next opportunity in the stock car ranks, Custer will be the third driver of the No. 41 Ford in three years, following Kurt Busch and Suarez in the ride co-owned by Gene Haas and Tony Stewart.
“This is obviously a dream come true,” Custer said on Friday before opening Xfinity Series practice. “I’ve been around the garage for a long time, and when I was a kid, I never thought I would be good enough to be a Cup driver. It’s pretty unreal to have that happen.
“We obviously have a big race tomorrow, and that’s where our main focus is. It’s the biggest race of the season, and it all comes down to this race, so that’s what we’re focused on.”
At the start of the season, Custer was told by the ownership in no uncertain terms what was expected of him. The 21-year-old from Ladera Ranch, Calif., responded with seven victories in 2019, bringing his career total to nine.
“You always put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Custer said. “I know we have fast cars and stuff like that, so you try to find ways and look at yourself to see what you can do better. I know there are still things that I can do better. It’s constantly looking back on it and trying to make yourself a better driver.”
For Suarez, the ouster from the No. 41 car came as a surprise.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Suarez acknowledged on Friday. “A lot of people have worked very hard on this team to try to put everything together, and unfortunately it wasn’t enough. We needed a few months. We had to find a big amount of money to keep the ride for next year. My group of people, friends and a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing went to work, and we actually did a pretty good job.
“We pretty much got the goal, but, unfortunately, part of the money wasn’t on the table at this point. It was going to come a few months later, and it wasn’t enough. It was a little unfortunate. It was a surprise. I was as shocked as you guys are probably right now, just a couple of nights ago. It is what it is. One door closes, another door opens.”
Where that other door will open remains to be seen. Stewart said on Friday that he would like to help Suarez remain in the series, but it’s Haas who has the final say about personnel for the No. 41.
“Tony is a great guy,” Suarez said. “In the last six months, I have learned that he is a very good friend. In the last week I have been talking to him a lot. He was talking to a lot of people and he was pushing very hard for me.
“Unfortunately, the 41 team, and especially the 41, he doesn't have a lot that he can do with that car because the 41 is not his car. He pushed. I am sure that he pushed as hard as he could, like a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing did. It just didn’t work out.”
DENNY HAMLIN AND JOE GIBBS HAVE SHARED HIGHS AND LOWS TOGETHER
Speedweeks at Daytona this year were an apt microcosm of Denny Hamlin’s career.
During practice for the Daytona 500, Hamlin decided to draft with a pack of cars—despite strict team orders not to do so.
The inevitable happened.
“Basically, we had a practice plan, and I felt like I needed to get in the pack and draft,” Hamlin said. “As soon as I made my way to the back of the pack, someone wrecked and I got in it. They were furious, to say the least, absolutely furious.
Team owner Joe Gibbs read Hamlin the riot act.
“He's like, ‘You're going to pay for that car,’” Hamlin said.
Hamlin found an antidote for his team owner’s wrath.
“Luckily I won the Daytona 500,” said Hamlin, who described Gibbs’ response as: ‘Don't worry about that. Sorry I got so mad at you. It's fine.’”
Reminded of the incident on Friday morning, Gibbs laughed.
“I was upset with what happened,” Gibbs said. “And then he turned around and won that next race, and I said, ‘OK, you can forget that. I don't think I've ever penalized anybody for anything, but I threaten them every now and then.”
That Daytona 500 win, Hamlin’s second in the Great American Race, signaled the start of a remarkable turnaround for the 38-year-old Virginia driver.
Winless in 2018, Hamlin has visited Victory Lane six times this year. Last week at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, his win in the Bluegreen Vacations 500 wiped out a mistake of his own making at Texas—a solo spin off Turn 4—that looked to have ended Hamlin’s Playoff run.
Like the mistake and recovery at Daytona, the last two races in the Round of 8 are emblematic of the volatility of Hamlin’s career. Teaming with crew chief Chris Gabehart for the first time this season has helped smooth out some of the extremes.
“If you go through a whole year like he did last year and not win a race and you get everybody kind of… the rumors start: ‘Is this guy over the hill?’” Gibbs said. “I think Denny was fighting through that, saying that's not the case. But I think the fact that Chris came on board, and I think Chris really helped, because Chris has a different outlook on things.
“And then I think Denny getting off to the start the way he did winning that Daytona 500, I think that we all know that people mature and grow up. Different things happen in their life. So I think Denny is… I think he's in a part in his life where he says I get a second chance really in a lot of ways, and he's making the most of it. And I think certainly Gabehart has really, really helped him with that.”
Gibbs has three drivers in the Championship 4—Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. along with Hamlin—but Hamlin is the only one without a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
That could change on Sunday, and that’s a pinnacle the driver of the No. 11 Toyota would be happy to ascend.
Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) will promote Cole Custer from its NASCAR Xfinity Series team to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020, whereupon the nine-time Xfinity Series race winner will drive the team’s No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang.
Custer has a chance to add the 2019 Xfinity Series championship to his resume, as the 21-year-old driver from Ladera Ranch, California, is set to compete for the series title on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway as part of the Championship 4 with fellow Xfinity Series drivers Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier.
“I was asked last year about this time what Cole needed to do to earn his place in the NASCAR Cup Series, and I said he needed to win,” said Gene Haas, co-owner of SHR with three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. “Well, Cole has done that – a lot. He showed that he’s ready to compete at the next level and we’re giving him that opportunity.”
Custer finished second in last year’s Xfinity Series championship to Reddick, and 2019 has proven to be a breakout campaign for Custer. He came into the season with two wins – one in 2017 and another in 2018. This year alone, he has claimed seven victories, six poles, 16 top-fives, 23 top-10s and led 907 laps. Custer’s seven wins are the second-most this year, behind only Bell with eight wins. Custer’s six poles ties him with Bell for the most poles this season.
Custer, Bell and Reddick will resume their rivalry in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020, with each earning a promotion from their respective teams to NASCAR’s premier racing series.
“Cole has certainly earned his spot in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020,” Stewart added. “He’s consistently running up front, leading laps and winning races. The level of competition increases dramatically in the NASCAR Cup Series, but it’s where Cole belongs after having proven himself in the Xfinity Series.”
Custer has steadily advanced through NASCAR’s stepping-stone divisions, finding success in the NASCAR K&N Series, followed by the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and the Xfinity Series. Being promoted to the NASCAR Cup Series is a natural evolution of his racing career, especially after such a strong 2019 season.
“This is the moment I’ve worked for ever since I first started racing,” said Custer, who began racing quarter midgets at age five. “I’ve learned a lot in these last three years in the Xfinity Series, and to be able to stay within Stewart-Haas Racing will make a steep learning curve a little less steep. I know the people, the culture and what’s expected of me. I’m ready for this challenge.”
Ty Dillon and the GEICO Racing Team Look to Finish the 2019 Season Strong at Homestead-Miami Speedway14 Nov 2019 Written by Speedway Digest Staff
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After 35 races, including nine high-action, high-drama Playoff events the field of four is set with three former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions – Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – competing against a highly motivated six-race winner Denny Hamlin who is looking for his first title in 14 fulltime seasons.
There is no shortage of storylines in the build-up to Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Reigning series champion Joey Logano just missed earning a championship berth last week at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway meaning that there will not be a back-to-back series champ. The last time that happened was when Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title in 2010. In fact, should the 2014 champ Harvick, 2015 champ Busch or 2017 champ Truex win Sunday it would be only the second multi-time champion besides Johnson currently competing in the series.
A win for Hamlin would mark the eighth different champion in the last nine years. And he shows up at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami track as the only one among the four with multiple wins - 2009 and 2013. His best ever finish in the championship came in 2010 when he finished runner-up to Johnson.
All four of these drivers bring incredible credentials to the title table.
Truex, Busch and Hamlin are Joe Gibbs Racing teammates marking the first time in Playoff competition three drivers from one team advanced to the championship race. Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, will be contending for the big trophy for the fifth time in the six-year history of the Playoff format.
Truex, driver of the No. 19 JGR Toyota, won a series best seven races this season including three in the Playoffs which was also most among the Playoff field. He won at Homestead to claim his 2017 championship for the small Furniture Row Racing team and finished runner-up there last year. This will be his debut for Joe Gibbs in the big race. He has earned 14 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes on the season and scored two (Charlotte and Las Vegas) of his seven wins on 1.5-mile tracks similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Truex’s JGR teammate Kyle Busch won the regular season championship and was the first in the series to accumulate at least four victories. And he started the year with a record-tying streak of 11 consecutive top-10 finishes. The driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota ultimately earned his title shot, however, based on points. He hasn’t won a race since June 2 at Pocono, Pa. Although he’s led the second most laps (343) among the four title contenders at Homestead, his only win came in his 2015 championship year. His 17.4 average finish at the track is lowest among his four fellow championship competitors.
Of all the drivers – championship eligible or not – Harvick must feel most optimistic. Not only has he led the most laps (373) among the title foursome he boasts the best average finish (5.643) in the field. He earned his championship shot with his third consecutive Playoff victory at Texas two weeks ago. He has four wins on the season and has finished in the top-10 at Homestead for the last 11 consecutive years. He’s finished top-five at Homestead in the last five years.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota, shows up at Miami the most recent winner taking the trophy at Phoenix last week. He has six victories on the year, including the season-opening Daytona 500, which was a very quick confirmation that he and his first-year crew chief Chris Gabehart were a successful combination. Hamlin won at Texas and Kansas 1.5-milers similar to Homestead and already has more Homestead trophies at home than any of the other championship contenders.
Since the current Championship 4 Playoff format began in 2014, a championship-eligible driver has won every year at Homestead.
XFINITY IS SET TO NAME A CHAMPION
Familiar names and the season’s most frequent Victory Lane visitors have earned the marquee billing for Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p. m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Regular season champion and eight-race winner Christopher Bell is attempting to win his first Xfinity Series championship before moving into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ranks next year. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has turned in a season for the ages. Now he wants to cap it with a championship Saturday afternoon.
For much of the year, the Xfinity Series buzz has centered on the outstanding output of its three championship leading drivers, Bell, Cole Custer and reigning series champion Tyler Reddick. The three have won 20 of the 32 races to date led by Bell’s eight wins, Custer’s seven and Reddick’s five. The fourth member of this Championship 4 is veteran Justin Allgaier, who earned his championship shot with his first victory of the season, last Saturday at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway.
Should Bell win on Saturday he would become only the fourth driver in history to win both NASCAR’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series and Xfinity Series championships. He’s certainly shown the way topping the series in victories for the second consecutive year. The 24-year old Oklahoman must find a way to turn his Homestead fortune around. He finished 11th last year, last of the four championship eligible drivers. His help on the pit box, crew chief Jason Ratliff, is certainly a leader to help culminate the year with a trophy. He led Kyle Busch to the 2009 Xfinity Series title. Should Bell win, it would be Joe Gibbs Racing’s record sixth owner’s championship.
Cole Custer, driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, shows up at Homestead feeling there is some business to finish. Custer won his first Xfinity Series race at the South Florida track in 2017 leading a dominating 182 of the 200 laps. And he came so close last year in his first title shot, ultimately finishing runner-up to Reddick after winning the pole position and leading a race best 95 laps.
The regular season champion and 2018 champ Reddick certainly has established himself a statistical favorite for the championship hardware. The driver of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet led the series in top-fives (23) and top-10s (26). Should he answer his win last year, Reddick would become only the seventh drivers in Xfinity Series history to win back-to-back titles. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the last to do so in 2011-12. He would also be the first to do so with two different teams. Last year he won the championship for JR Motorsports. Although Reddick has not won a race in this year’s Playoffs, he was runner-up at Kansas and his 6.5 average finish on the season is best in the series.
The seasoned and well-liked veteran Allgaier returns to the championship mix after missing out on the Championship 4 last year. The previous two years he finished third in the title run. A championship for Allgaier would give his JR Motorsports team its third consecutive title – matching William Byron (2017) and Reddick (2018). The driver of the No. 7 JRM Chevrolet has a pair of top-10 finishes in the last three Homestead races with a career-best showing of sixth in 2016,
GANDER TRUCKS READY FOR CHAMPIONSHIP
Brett Moffitt has the opportunity become only the second driver in history to win back-to-back NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championships. The first, Matt Crafton, is among the foursome looking for a title as well in Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Canadian Stewart Friesen and crowd-favorite Ross Chastain join Moffitt and Crafton in the race for the championship – the four drivers representing four different race teams. The Friday night truck finale is a highly anticipated and a very dependable source of excitement to kick off NASCAR’s Ford Championship Weekend.
In the case of these four title seekers, it’s opportunity to make history – both personally and for the popular racing series.
Just winning the race Friday would be a historical feat for Moffitt as no driver has ever won back-to-back truck races at the Homestead-Miami Speedway 1.50-miler. He would join Crafton as the only other driver to win consecutive titles and even that would be unique as Moffitt currently drives the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet and last year drove a Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota. It would mark the first time a driver has won two titles for different teams and makes.
Certainly his perfect – one race-one win – previous output at Homestead gives the 27-year old Iowa native Moffitt reason to be optimistic. He also leads the series in victories (four) this year and is tied with Friesen for most top-five finishes (12). Among the four championship-eligible drivers he’s the only one with multiple wins (two) in the Playoffs. His GMS team won the 2016 title with Johnny Sauter as driver and is the only team to put a driver in the Playoffs all four years of the format. And Moffitt’s crew chief Jerry Baxter has earned two previous wins in the Homestead finale with Cale Gale (2012) and Bubba Wallace (2014).
Although Crafton, 43, has a pair of shiny championship trophies at home, he hasn’t won a race since the Eldora, Ohio dirt track in July, 2017 – the longest winless streak of his highly-decorated career. He and his ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter join Moffitt as the only fulltime truck series drivers with a previous Homestead win. Not only does Crafton have that 2015 victory – from pole position - at the track, the California native has an impressive overall resume there. His 18 starts is most among the title contenders and he has earned top-10 finishes in the last five consecutive Homestead races. Nine of his career 14 series wins and 10 of his 16 career pole positions have come on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead.
For Ross Chastain, who is making his first NASCAR championship appearance in the series, this is essentially a “home” race. The 26-year old is from Alva, Florida – a couple hours west of Homestead toward Florida’s Gulf Coast. The driver of the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet has an amazing story of qualifying for this opportunity. He originally declared his championship intentions in the Xfinity Series but after a race victory and a well-timed confidence boost, he switched his title eligibility to the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
It was certainly a career-boosting move as Chastain won three races and scored a series best 18 Top-10s since and will be competing for his first championship trophy this weekend. He has a best showing of eighth place (in 2013) in five previous Homestead starts driving every make of truck in that random span of entries. This will be his crew chief Phil Gould’s first truck race at the track, but he guided cars in six Xfinity Series races there previously.
For the series most recent race winner, last weekend’s Phoenix winner Stewart Friesen, this championship opportunity comes in the midst of a career year for the 36-year old Canadian. He earned his first career series victory on the Eldora dirt track this summer than answered with the all-important Playoff win last week. His 12 top-five finishes in the No. 52 Halmar-Friesen Chevrolet ties him with reigning champion Moffitt for most on the year.
In three Homestead-Miami Speedway starts, Friesen’s best finish is fourth – last year. He’s yet to lead a lap at the track but his 7.0 average finish – and Phoenix victory - this postseason bids well for his title potential. As does the fact his crew chief Tripp Bruce has a pair of Homestead wins, leading Kasey Kahne (2004) and Johnny Benson Jr. (2007) to victory previously.