Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Phoenix Raceway Reverts Back to Roots

This year is shaping up to be massive for the raceway that resides in the Valley of the Sun. In addition to being the new host of NASCAR’s Championship Weekend, president Julie Giese announced the track formerly known as ISM Raceway will be returning to it’s roots and be re-named Phoenix Raceway.

This news should come as a surprise, because when the Arizona-based track underwent it’s $178 million renovations, a multi-year deal was made with ISM Connect for the naming rights beginning in 2018. While specifics on the change back have not been revealed, Giese assured race fans this would in no way effect the vast amenities that are offered throughout the infield and around the track.

Overall, this is a great decision by Giese to re-brand the iconic West Coast track. ISM Raceway was the one of two tracks (the other being Auto Club Speedway) on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit that had a title sponsor for the track instead of it’s geographical location.

While this isn’t a huge deal to not have a title sponsor for the track, it will certainly help viewers at home (specifically, the ones watching the season finale at home with little or no NASCAR knowledge) realize that the action taking place on television is in Arizona. There’s no mistaking the unique LED cactus flag stand and the gorgeous desert backdrop surrounding the track, but in sports branding, identity is everything. This is a great marketing strategy that should expose Arizona-natives and those out of state to Phoenix Raceway.

Since the 1-mile speedway hosted it’s first NASCAR event in 1978 as Phoenix International Raceway, the track has undergone three different track titles (Jeff Gordon Raceway, ISM Raceway) – let’s hope Phoenix Raceway is here to stay.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Team Penske Implements Cup Crew Chief Swap

Beginning with the newly titled NASCAR Cup Series and a complete schedule remodeling, the upcoming 2020 season is shaping up to be one of the most competitive and divisive yet. Adding to the plethora of changes coming to NASCAR’s premier series, Team Penske just announced it will be implementing a full crew chief swap amongst it’s three drivers – just one month away from the Daytona 500.

This shakeup in the Penske stable does come as a surprise for series veterans, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, as both drivers have been with their crew chiefs since joining the famed team run by Roger Penske. The two drivers have produced much success over their tenure with their respected pairings of Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon (including championships), but looking more in-depth, the bombshell decision makes sense.

The swap doesn’t particularly target needed results in the No. 2 and No. 22 camps, but in the growth and development of Ryan Blaney. Since entering full-time competition in the Cup Series in 2016, the highly touted racing prodigy has yet to progress into the great potential he brings to the table.

Blaney – who had been paired with Jeremy Bullins in 2012 when he joined Team Penske in the NASCAR Xfinity Series  – has only found victory lane three times in the last three season. It’s not to say the driver of the No. 12 has not had moderate success; he just hasn’t produced as well as some of the other young talents in the Cup Series.

With all of this in mind, the swap should be a win for all drivers involved. Blaney will be inheriting an experienced, championship winning crew chief, as Keselowski and Logano will be gifted with a fresh change in scenery to build off of the successes they’ve had in their time at Team Penske.

Matthew T. Thacker

Brad Keselowski & Jeremy Bullins

Let’s begin with the pairing that makes the most sense – Keselowski and Bullins. Bullins makes the jump from the No. 12 team and will now sit atop the pit box of the 2012 Cup Series Champion. The new duo has a history together (and a successful one). From 2012-14, Bullins was at the helm for the Michigan-native for 47 races in the Xfinity Series and the two found victory 14 times.

Keselowski and Wolfe were one of the most dominant forces in the garage area in terms of wins, but one championship and only one additional title-bid over the last eight seasons is not the most desirable. While it couldn’t have hurt to keep the long-standing duo in-tact, the undeniable talents of the 35 year-old driver blended with the past experience of Bullins should add a little more competitive edge to the No. 2 team.

One driving factor for this new pairing is Keselowski’s inability to put together a full season, as of late. The driver of the No. 2 has yet to advance past the Round of 8 since the sport implemented it’s most recent Playoff format. Out of Bullins’ three wins with Blaney, two of them came during the post season.

While Bullins only has three Cup wins to his resume, since joining the Penske organization in 2012, he’s been the crew chief for 10 different drivers and produced 21 additional wins in that span.

Nigel Kinrade

Joey Logano & Paul Wolfe

This is the swap that should have every team on edge in the Cup Series. The 2018 Series Champion will now team up with 2012 Championship winning crew chief, Paul Wolfe. At age 29, Logano is about to enter his prime as an athlete and he already has 23 wins. Wolfe is the winningest crew chief amongst the three being moved around the  organization with 29 victories in the last nine years.

While the new tandem doesn’t have any experience working together, a champion entering his prime mixed with one of the greatest minds in the sport should bode well for the No. 22 team. Over the last three years, the Connecticut-native drove his way to six wins, one title and 64 top-10s (the most out of the three Penske drivers). In that same span, Wolfe guided Keselowski to nine wins and 40 top-fives (the most out of trio of athletes).

The most compelling argument for this pairing can be found in second half successes for both parties. Historically, Keselowski and Wolfe produced most of their success in the early stages of the season and once making it to the Playoffs, found difficulty in advancing past the Round of 8. Logano on the other hand, typically hits his stride mid-way through the season and is often a contender to make it to the Final 4.

It should also be noted that when Wolfe won the championship in 2012, his driver was 28 years old – just one year younger than the driver he is inheriting. This could be a deadly match in 2020 and beyond, all eyes will be on the No. 22 team to be a contender year-round.

Rusty Jarrett

Ryan Blaney & Todd Gordon

When dealing with the growth and development of any athlete, experience is key. With Gordon making the transition from the No.22 team to the No. 12 team, the 26 year-old will indeed be presented with tons of experience. Gordon has been a presence in NASCAR since 2005 when he began his stint as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series. He made the jump to Team Penske in 2011 when he worked alongside series veterans Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr.

Gordon was able to guide his drivers to 28 NASCAR sanctioned wins and one series title, all with Team Penske. When him and Logano first teamed up in 2013, they found success immediately. In fact, the pair did not have a winless season in their seven year history and in that time compiled the most top-fives and top-10s for Team Penske, in addition to the organization’s most recent championship.

Gordon now finds himself in an all too familiar position while leading the No. 12 team. Much like Logano in 2013, Blaney is a hot, young talent with all eyes on him every week. While he couldn’t do much in the No. 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing, once Logano signed with Roger Penske and worked alongside Gordon, things started clicking for the driver of the No. 22; now he is consistently one of the best drivers in the field. Mr. Penske and Gordon could be seeking that same magic that came to fruition with Logano.

This crew chief swap should spell success for all teams involved at Team Penske. Whether it be fine-tuning production that has been in the organization, or cracking untapped potential for a young driver, this could be the team to watch for in 2020. Every year, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske are the strongest teams once the season begins at Daytona International Speedway. However, the Ford-led group typically trails off about halfway through the season. Could this be the shakeup that Team Penske needs to compete year-round with Joe Gibbs Racing?

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Categories
Home Tracks

Ford Performance Claims Hailie Deegan in 2020 DGR-Crosley Deal

On December 11, DGR-Crosley announced it would be making the jump from fielding Toyotas to Fords in 2020 and that in just six days, they would be introducing a new development driver. This manufacturer swap spelled early speculations for Hailie Deegan, who was a free agent following the 2019 season and who already had ties to the newly branded Ford team in the past.

Fast forward six days and DGR-Crosley revealed that the 18-year old driver will indeed be racing for their organization full-time in the newly modeled ARCA Menards Series as Ford Performance’s development driver. This is a massive win for both Deegan and DGR-Crosley as the female racing prodigy has cemented herself as arguably the sport’s most enticing up-and-coming talent.

This new deal comes just one month following Deegan’s breakout season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West in which she captured 11 top-10s, eight top-five’s and her first multi-win season (2) – all while finishing third in the series’ standings.

MVPindex also revealed that last year, the female development driver ranked third amongst all NASCAR drivers in social media engagements and impressions, only bested by 2019 Monster Energy Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. In an all important digital age where social media is prevalent in growing the sport’s popularity, it’s highly encouraging that Deegan is the only driver inside of the top-10 who doesn’t compete in the Cup Series.

Being a highly touted talent skyrocketing through NASCAR’s lower divisions and someone who is essential for the sport’s growth, the Ford Performance development driver deal makes sense for both sides. By getting Ford’s support, Deegan is getting assurance from the manufacturer that she will receive all the tools and backing to ensure a long-standing career in NASCAR.

The deal with DGR-Crosley also opens new potential avenues for the 18-year old driver and her racing career. The David Gilliland run race team fields drivers in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. It would not be out of the ordinary to see Deegan potentially run some truck races in the later stages of 2020, given on-track success in the ARCA Series.

The California-product will race the No. 4 Monster Energy Ford Fusion in all 20 races run in the ARCA Menards Series, but she won’t be going in blindly to the developmental driver series. In 2019, Deegan amassed four top-10’s and one top-five finish in the mere six races she ran for Venturini Motorsports.

It should also be noted that the latest success story of Ford Performance’s developmental driver program was Cole Custer. Custer masterfully raced his way to a ride in the newly named NASCAR Cup Series in 2020 after a stellar NASCAR Xfinity Series season. The California-native will take over driving duties for the No. 41 at Stewart-Haas Racing and with stars like Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola nearing the back-end of their careers, Deegan could make a potential great fit down the road.

The deal between the Ford Motor Company, DGR-Crosley and Deegan should spell a future of longevity and success for all parties involved. This is a much-needed statement from both Ford and NASCAR that Deegan will be one of the core-center pieces in shaping the growth of sport’s future. One thing is certain, all eyes will remain to be on the 18-year old talent as she continues her meteoric rise through NASCAR’s lower ranks.

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Categories
News

2020 Silly Season Updates and Expectations

With the NASCAR Cup Series off-season in full effect and the 2019 Awards Banquet in Nashville wrapping up a week ago, we’re already under 60 days away from the Daytona 500. As the 2020 season draws closer, the sport has now seen many of it’s stars swap rides as well as inherit well-established teams to begin their new careers.

Here’s everything you need to know about the most up to date team changes to this point and the newest faces entering NASCAR’s premier series:

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto

Quite possibly the best storyline to come out of 2019 was the breakout of Matt DiBenedetto. The former driver of the No. 95 for Levine Family Racing made headlines in the first race of the season  when he had a legitimate shot to win the Daytona 500. As the year progressed, fans soon came to realize that the 27-year old was no fluke.

The California-native would go on to complete the season with 152 laps led, seven top-10s and three top-fives – which included a second-place finish  to Denny Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway.

While DiBenedetto did not notch the first win of his career in 2019, he certainly turned heads and cemented himself as a fan favorite. In fact, he finished third overall in the Most Popular Driver ballot.

Fast forward to 2020, Paul Menard revealed he would be stepping away from full-time racing, leaving his seat in the famed Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 wide open. When Menard announced he would be giving up his ride, he fully endorsed DiBenedetto as his replacement and sure enough – the California-native will now be driving the No. 21 Ford Mustang for the Penske-affiliated team.

Not only was DiBenedetto the feel good story of 2019, but the signing and how it came about for the 27-year old was also a feel good story.

Team Penske amassed six wins last season and it would not be a surprise to see DiBenedetto capture his first career win in better equipment. One thing is certain, we should see the fan favorite contending for top-10 finishes and maybe even top-fives. However, he is making the jump from Toyota to Ford. Even while fielding a significantly less cars than Ford and Chevrolet in 2019, Toyotas were the class of the field. It will be interesting to see if DiBenedetto can make the transition with ease.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

After seven years of full-time racing for Roush-Fenway Racing, Jack Roush decided to part ways with two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The now former driver of the No. 17 Ford Mustang posted yet another lackluster season driving for ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ When teammate Ryan Newman is 10 years older, racing in the same equipment and making the Playoffs, it’s not a good look.

The Mississippi-native now finds himself racing for JTG Daugherty Racing in the No. 37 car, which was driven by Chris Buescher in 2019. The two drivers posted similar stats last season and in all honestly, this is a true-blue car swap. The only major difference is that the two-time Xfinity Series Champion is making the jump from Ford to Chevrolet, which could put him at a disadvantage.

In 2019, Stenhouse totaled one top-five, three top-10s and led 109 laps, which placed him 23rd in the overall standings. Expect more or less the same from the Mississippi-native in 2020.

Gavin Baker | NKP

Chris Buescher

As documented above, Stenhouse would be taking over driving duties for the No. 37 Chevy Camaro which Buescher piloted in 2019. The 2015 Xfinity Series Champion will now join Newman at Roush-Fenway Racing as he will now take over for the No. 17 Ford Mustang.

The 26-year old driver didn’t have an awful season given his equipment and manufacturer disadvantage last year. While he only led 13 laps en route to four top-10s, this was good enough to place him 20th in the overall Cup Series standings – three spots ahead of his counterpart, Stenhouse.

The Texas-native is inheriting a quality ride and he’ll have a well-established veteran in Newman to lean on for advice. He even showed glimmers of hope in the 2019 season, contending for top-10 finishes regularly towards the end of the year. It would not be out of the question to see Buescher add some more top-fives to his resume and even have a shot at making the Playoffs in 2020.

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Tyler Reddick

Historically, Xfinity Series drivers making the jump to the Cup Series doesn’t pan out until a few years down the road. However, Tyler Reddick is indeed Cup ready.

The 23-year old driver just recorded his second-consecutive title in the Xfinity Series and he already has experience at the sport’s premier level. While the California-native has only run two race at the Cup level, in one of those starts he finished ninth and at Kansas Speedway nonetheless. Not to mention, in the same equipment that he will be racing with in 2020.

In one of the more shocking headlines from 2019, it was announced that Richard Childress Racing would be parting ways with the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet, rookie Daniel Hemric. By no means at all did Hemric have a disappointing debut season, but with such highly touted talent on the rise in NASCAR’s lower divisions there is a strong emphasis on performing now.

Reddick will now take over driving for the No. 8 Camaro at Richard Childress Racing, but rest assured for him, he should have much more lee-way than the driver who came before.

Given the 23-year old’s experience and showcased talent in two of NASCAR’s series, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see Reddick compete for top-10s and maybe even top-fives with a shot at making the Playoffs in 2020. I personally could see him delivering Richard Childress Racing their first win in two years.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Cole Custer

Fans have been treated to many unlikely and divisive moves in the offseason, but this could be the most shocking. It was well documented that Daniel Suarez was seeking a contract extension during the 2019 season. Team-owner Tony Stewart even reiterated that they were “close” to a deal in mid-October.

Just days before the events at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing released a statement citing that Cole Custer would be promoted to the Cup Series and they would be parting ways with Suarez. This now leaves the Mexico-native with no ride currently for 2020 and places Custer in the No. 41 Ford Mustang.

While he was one of the Xfinity Series ‘Big Three’ last year, don’t expect the 21-year old to make immediate waves like Reddick possibly can. The California-native does have limited experience running three race at NASCAR’s premier level, but in 2018 and for Rick Ware Racing.

Custer does have many advantages over Reddick and Christopher Bell as he prepares for his debut season in the Cup Series. Not only will he have teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola to turn to for help, but he’ll also have Stewart to assist as well. Not to mention, Stewart-Haas Racing has been one of the most dominant forces in the sport since it was established in 2011.

It typically takes rookie drivers around two years to settle into NASCAR’s highest division, but it would not be shocking to see Custer start his career off strong. He should be in contention for top-10 finishes and may even snag a top-five here and there. Playoffs could be a possibility, but right now consider it a stretch.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Christopher Bell

The final piece to the Xfinity Series ‘Big Three’ will be inheriting the former ride of DiBenedetto. As revealed, the 27-year old will be taking over driving duties for the No. 21 at Wood Brothers Racing, which now places Bell in the No. 95 at Levine Family Racing.

Bell will without a doubt be faced with the biggest disadvantage of his two counterparts from last season, but this doesn’t mean he can’t have a successful season. Levine Family Racing went from Kasey Kahne (who had a less than stellar season due to health issues) to DiBenedetto who seriously turned heads and made waves in 2019.

The talent is definitely there for the 24-year old, who had a series leading eight wins, 20 top-fives and 21 top-10s in the Xfinity Series last year, but this is the Cup Series. Unlike Custer and Reddick, Bell has no experience at NASCAR’s highest level and it would be incorrect to say that he’ll tear it up like he did in NASCAR’s lower division, especially in the No. 95 car.

It’s again not out of the question to see him have a successful year – look at what DiBenedetto did last season. And should the Oklahoma-native remain at Levine Family Racing through 2021, maybe we could see this small team follow the trend that Furniture Row Racing did with Martin Truex Jr. at the helm.

But for 2020, we should expect to see Bell mostly in contention for top-15 finishes with an occasional top-10 mixed in as the season progresses.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Jimmie Johnson – The Greatest of All Time?

The White Flag waves for Jimmie Johnson as the seven-time Cup Series Champion is set to make one last turn around the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit as a full-time driver. Even in amassing 83 race wins and matching legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most titles in the sport’s history, the case can be made that the driver of the No. 48 does not garner the credit he deserves amongst race fans.

It’s time to admit that Johnson could very well not only be the greatest driver in NASCAR history, but one of the best athletes across all professional sports. Everyone knows the basic statistical facts about the California-native. It’s now time to put the Team Hendrick driver’s 19-year career successes into context.

Johnson’s stretch of seven included five in a row between 2006 and 2010. No driver – let alone professional franchise in any sport – will ever do that again. All of these titles were won during some of the most unique, transitional eras in NASCAR history.

Each season, Johnson and the No. 48 team were forced to adapt to new car body styles, points systems, playoff formats and schedule configurations. Through all of this, Johnson was still able to win seven championships in an 11-year span.

The now 43-year old driver won titles with three generations of stock cars,  four different body styles and over five unique rules packages. Imagine if the NFL changed the size of its standard football, the air pressure of the ball or the size of the field, four times in the span of one decade. You likely wouldn’t see current dynasties such as Tom Brady and the Patriots matching the likes of Johnson in such an era.

The Team Chevy driver’s first championship season in 2006 was won when NASCAR exclusively ran the small-bodied Generation 4 stock cars, which it began using in 1992.

Johnson’s second title in 2007 was run with a mix of (primarily) these same bodies, along with several races that introduced a new, radically different Generation 5 car. The safety-focused Generation-5 Car of Tomorrow bodies were known for their wide splitters and large wings on the back of the cars. This car model brought upon the most dominant stretch of Johnson’s career and one of the most dominant eras that any driver has had in NASCAR history.

The sport switched to the Car of Tomorrow full-time in 2008, marking Johnson’s third straight championship and his third consecutive year having won it in differing stock car accommodations, spanning two different body styles.

Johnson’s dominance in the Car of Tomorrow led to such a competitive gap in NASCAR’s top series that the sanctioning body was inclined to tweak the Gen-5 stock car, the rules system, the playoff format and the race schedule following the conclusion of the 2010 season that culminated in the driver’s fifth-straight championship.

This body style lasted only three years (2008-10) in the sport’s premier series, in which the No. 48 team won all three Cup Series title. In the three years (108 points races) where NASCAR ran the Car of Tomorrow, Johnson won 20 races and led 5,512 laps, which was five more wins and 1,411 more laps led than any other driver.

Between 2011 and 2012, NASCAR ran a modified version of the Generation 5 stock car that did not include the same splitter and rear-wing cosmetics. While Johnson didn’t add to his title totals in that two-year span, he was able to add an additional seven wins to his resume.

In 2013, NASCAR made the switch to its Generation-6 stock car which had manufacturer-unique body panels and designs that more closely resembled the cars found in local showrooms. On cue, Johnson rang in the new era winning his sixth NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Entering the 2016 season, NASCAR made slight modifications to the car, shortening the rear spoiler by 2.5 inches, adding a 0.25-inch front leading splitter edge and a 33-inch-wide radiator pan. These changes were enforced to lower the downforce of the cars, adding more grip, which would encourage more passing and closer competition.

Sure enough, these changes resulted in the No. 48 driver’s seventh Cup Series championship and his fourth with a different stock car body style.

In addition to conforming to new stock car body styles and aerodynamic packages on an almost yearly basis, NASCAR has also adjusted its playoff format four times throughout Johnson’s reign.

His first title came with the sport’s original “Chase for the Cup” format, which reset the top-10 drivers in the point standings after 26 regular season races for a 10-race playoff-like shootout, that the series has used since 2004.

Beginning in 2007, NASCAR modified this format to include the top 10 drivers in the regular season standings and granted 10 bonus points for each win accumulated during the regular season once the points reset for the final 10 races. This Chase format remained from 2007 through 2010, spanning Johnson’s second, third, fourth and fifth Championships. He was the only driver to win a title under this format.

Between 2011 and 2013, the sport’s sanctioning body changed this format to include the top 10 drivers in the regular season standings, with two wild cards for a total of 12 Chase drivers. Eligible drivers would begin this Chase format with three bonus points for every regular season win accumulated. Johnson won his sixth Championship in 2013, marking the final year of this format.

Beginning in 2014, NASCAR moved to an elimination-style format for its Chase for the Cup, that it still uses to this day. This expanded the playoff field to 16 drivers and rounds were implemented. Every three races during the 10-race playoff, the bottom four drivers in the standings were cut until the field is composed of only four drivers entering the final Championship race. Johnson won his final Cup Series championship in 2016, marking the fourth different playoff format for the No. 48 team to have won a title in.

NASCAR introduced a “Stage Racing” format in 2017 to the 16-driver postseason format, which was renamed from the “Chase for the Cup,” to the “NASCAR Playoffs.” Johnson has yet to win a championship under the stage racing format.

In addition to winning championships under four different postseason formats, the Hendrick Motorsports driver spread his seven championships across four different postseason schedules.

After Johnson won his first three consecutive championships under the same playoff schedule between 2006-08, NASCAR subtracted Atlanta Motor Speedway from the Chase and added Auto Club Speedway from 2009-10. Between September 2007 and February 2010, Johnson won four out of six races at the Fontana, California-based track, prompting NASCAR to remove it from the postseason schedule following the No. 48 team’s fifth-consecutive Cup championship in 2010.

In place of the two-mile track, the playoff schedule was adjusted by leading off the postseason with Chicagoland Speedway – one of only three active tracks that Johnson has not won at.

Nonetheless, the No. 48 team still managed to persevere in 2013.

The following year, the 10-race circuit was changed again when the “Round of 12” slate included Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, along with Talladega Superspeedway – which remained the same. Johnson went on to conquer this playoff schedule en route to his seventh Cup Series championship in 2016, marking the fourth different playoff reconfiguration he had to adapt to.

Finally, Johnson spread his seven titles across four different points scoring systems.

The first five from 2006-10 were won under the longstanding “Equal Points Per Race” system that the league had used since 1975. His first championship was won when the first place finisher in a given race was awarded a minimum of 180 points.

The following year, NASCAR used this same points system, but elevated the minimum amount of points for a first place finisher to 185. After Johnson won his fifth straight championship in 2010, the sanctioning body did away with the long-standing points format, separating each position on track by exactly one point and awarding the race winner with a minimum of 47 points – capping that total at 48 when the race-winner leads the most laps.

Johnson won his sixth Cup Series championship in 2013 under this format.

Lastly, in 2016 the number of cars permitted in each race was reduced to 40, so the points system was modified to reflect this change, allowing for a maximum point total of 45 for the race winner. Under this format that NASCAR still uses, the Playoff Championship 4 do not earn bonus points in the championship-deciding season finale.

The No. 48 team won its seventh championship under this format, making for the fourth title victory under another different scoring format.

In addition to having to conform to so many different rules packages, the 43-year old has also had to go up against some of the sports all-time greatest stars, adapting to various different generations of Cup Series drivers. From fending off the likes of his mentor, four-time champion, Jeff Gordon, to Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano – Johnson made his reign in one of the most competitive eras in NASCAR history.

Each one of these championship runs had its own unique buzz. Between dueling it out with one of the all-time greats in 2006, to capping off dominant seasons in 2007-10, to having to overcome adversity and assume the underdog role in 2013 and 2016, Johnson has had an incredible run in the Cup series.

The bottom line is that NASCAR literally had to adjust the entire sport multiple times to aid in giving a competitive edge to drivers aside from Johnson and the No. 48 crew. That is simply unheard of across other professional sporting leagues.

No driver in NASCAR history – let alone any other professional sports athlete – has displayed this profound ability to adapt to so many radical, sport-wide changes, while continuing to thrive on an almost yearly basis; all while managing to win a record amount of championships at the sport’s highest level.

It is highly unlikely the sport will ever see another seven-time champion, as well as another driver to win five-consecutive titles.

In addition to his uncontested conformability to any and all circumstances – perhaps above all else – Johnson has always operated himself with the highest of class at all times. Through victory and defeat, the Team Chevy driver has always maintained his signature, humble and accountable demeanor, serving as one of the most graceful ambassadors in NASCAR history.

Johnson’s unparalleled list of achievements, can perhaps partially be attributed to the core values that link him with his long-time primary sponsor, Lowe’s. “Never stop improving,” is the motto coined by the home improvement company that sponsored the No. 48 team for each of Johnson’s first 17 full-time season competing in the Cup Series.

Whether it be in the context of a last place finish, or a fifth consecutive championship, Johnson and the No. 48 team have always been synonymous with this saying “never stop improving.” This mentality is part of what fueled the driver and the team; one of the most powerful dynasties in pro sports history.

The 43-year old driver is set to cap off his full-time racing career after two decades in the sport’s premier level. It’s time to start embracing Jimmie Johnson—his character, his place in the history books, his achievements and acknowledging his title as quite possibly the greatest driver in NASCAR history.

The driver of the No. 48 will have one more shot at becoming the only driver in NASCAR’s history with eight championships – and what a way that would be to go out after 20 seasons, in the year 2020.

While he is still in search of his first win in two seasons and missed the Playoffs for the first time in his full-time career in 2019, you can never really count someone like Jimmie Johnson out.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
XFINITY

Dale Jr. Confident in Allgaier for Xfinity Series Finale

AVONDALE, Arizona — JR Motorsports driver, Justin Allgaier, captured his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win of the season in the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 to secure a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 33-year old led a race-high 85 laps and regained much needed momentum after besting “The Big Three” heavy-weights of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and reigning series champion, Tyler Reddick, for his second career victory at ISM Raceway.

The Illinois-native may not have as glamorous statistics as his fellow-competitors battling for the 2019 title, but team owner and 15-time Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has the utmost faith in his four-year driver of the No. 7 Chevy Camaro. The 10-year series veteran has successfully raced his way into the playoffs in every full-time season he’s raced in NASCAR’s lower division and Earnhardt feels this experience has aptly prepared him to bring JR Motorsports their third-consecutive championship.

“Obviously, his age and experience is very helpful,” Earnhardt exclusively told POPULAR SPEED following the event at ISM Raceway. “He’s been in a lot of situations that I think he can lean on to maintain his composure and poise in some pretty tough situations.”

In conjunction with experience in the Xfinity Series, the 44-year old team owner believes his driver has been able to capitalize and adapt throughout his career in certain mid-race situations. Earnhardt has had the luxury of watching Allgaier intently over the last two years after stepping down from full-time racing in the Cup Series and turning to broadcasting on NBC.

“Anything sets him apart (from Bell, Custer and Reddick) I think if you watch a lot of the races,” the team owner relayed. “The success that he has is based off of restarts – he’s really aggressive on restarts. He just takes advantage of the guys around him and he did that again today. When he won at Chicago (Speedway) a few year ago, he had a great restart there at the end to take the win away from the other guys. He technically rarely has the best car in the race, but makes up for it on restarts when he gets that opportunity.”

Earnhardt also broke his silence on the possibility of making history by becoming only the second owner in the Xfinity Series to capture three-consecutive titles.

“Anytime you can put your name in the record books for anything, it’s awesome,” the 15-time Most Popular Driver exclaimed. “We feel pretty lucky and blessed to already have a couple of titles and those didn’t come easy, this one won’t either. This is going to be a real, real hard battle down there. I think we’re lacking a little bit of speed compared to that guys, but it’s close. We’re going to need everything we can get and little luck too. That’s how it’s been the last couple of times. I don’t know that we showed up with the best car throughout the day at Homestead, but we were there at the end when it mattered and that’s what you got to do. I’d put Justin up against any of those guy to position us to be in that position at the end.”

Even more impressively – should Allgaier notch JR Motorsports a third championship – the trio of titles would come from three different driver, which has never been done before in the series.

Earnhardt’s driver will without a doubt be the underdog heading to Homestead, but Allgaier is carrying a hefty set of momentum into the Sunshine State after quite possibly the most important win of his career to date. Witness if Earnhardt and Allgaier can eclipse this monumental achievement in the Ford EcoBoost 300 series finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBCSN.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

PREVIEW: The Championship 4 – Busch, Truex, Harvick and Hamlin

AVONDALE, Arizona — Heading into ISM Raceway, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick had already locked themselves into a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with their Round of 8 wins at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

After 312 laps in the Bluegreen Vacations 500, Denny Hamlin ensured that his storybook season would live to see another chapter after delivering a championship-caliber performance in the Arizona desert, en route to an emotional victory. Kyle Busch will occupy the final spot in Miami after out-pointing reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Joey Logano.

With the field now set, race fans will be treated to two David and Goliath-esque battles in the Sunshine State. In the first, Harvick is the lone-Ford driver set to take on three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. The next comes in the form of Hamlin going up again all prior series champions in Busch, Truex and Harvick.

Following the duel in the desert, the past series champions participated in a press conference in the media center at ISM Raceway. It was evident these three drivers had been in this position before. While they were somewhat complaint with the media’s questions, they all went about it in a very tight-lipped-manner with their best pokerface.

Take Kyle Busch, who has not had the strongest playoff run in series history. Some would wonder if horrid post-season results thus far have affected his confidence.

“I never questioned our ability or our opportunity to be able to go out there and continue to get ourselves to the Final 4,” the 2015 title-holder said. “We just had a rough road, others teams had rough roads, but we’re here and that’s the good part.”

Rough is a bit of an understatement. Out of the four competitors that advanced to Homestead, Busch is the only driver without a win in the Playoffs. In fact, you’ll have to look all the way back to June at Pocono Raceway to find the driver  of the No. 18’s last victory this season. Although winless, the past series champion has not been awful. He finished runner-up twice in the last nine races, including this past weekend in Arizona, but certainly that’s far from the dominance shown previously.

Looking ahead to the series finale, Truex and Busch shared the same sentiments in a sense that all three Joe Gibbs Racing teams would be working together the week of the championship.

“I feel like we’re all here because we work together,” the driver of the No. 19 said. “Our teams work together really well, we’ve got a great group at Joe Gibbs Racing and I would assume all the way up to Sunday morning we’ll all be working together.”

Busch went on to elaborate that he worked with Carl Edwards back in 2016 and even with Truex last year as future-teammates for the 2019 season.

Harvick chose not to reveal much about his intentions for his 2019 championship plans (and for good reason, sitting wedged between two Gibbs teammates), but he had mentioned that he went into this race weekend at ISM Raceway to prepare for the series finale in 2020.

“I think we’re pretty confident that we’re like a fifth-place car, the winningest driver in ISM Raceway history said. “That’s about what we thought coming in here and that’s about where we were in the first race.”

The trio of drivers were asked about the lack of ability to pass at the 1.5-mile speedway this weekend and all appeared visibly agitated. Truex chimed in muttering “it’s always been that way,” while Busch offered up a classic-Kyle comment saying, “whoever gets the lead… bye-bye!”

The stone-faced past champions didn’t reveal much else. As they vacated the media center, Hamlin entered and was much more generous with his insight and outlook moving forward.

“This is very similar to 2010, in the sense of the cars and the speed that we’ve had this season,” the driver of the No. 11 said. “There’s similarities for sure, but it’s very different. This is a tighter-knit group of guys. I think Chris [Gabehart] takes a lot of pride in assembling these guys from top to bottom. He worked hard to make sure he had the best people possible working on that car.”

Hamlin had nothing but praise to give for his new crew chief for 2019, Chris Gabehart. From weekend one at Daytona International Speedway, Gabehart called a team meeting with a plan in place for the season. After an emotional Daytona 500 win and one of the most dominant seasons in Hamlin’s 15-year career, it seems the driver/crew chief pairing were able to execute these plans with ease.

While the past-series champions are all working with crew chiefs they’ve been coupled together with for many years, Hamlin feels that “having a fresh set of eyes” puts him and Gabehart at an advantage as he makes a bid of his first series title.

The driver of the FedEx Camry is making his first attempt at a championship since the inaugural season of the new Playoff format in 2014. Hamlin recounts his mindset from 2010 when he essentially thought he had the championship locked up against Jimmie Johnson heading into Phoenix and Homestead. The Virginia-native will be going about this a lot different this time around.

“I didn’t prepare for the ‘what if it doesn’t work out,’ I was only going there thinking ‘I’m going to come here, handle business and go to Homestead and get the trophy,'” Hamlin said. “I think over the years – we’re almost 10 years later – I’m just more content with what I’ve accomplished in the series and I don’t need validation of a championship. There’s many more opportunities ahead of me, this is not my last opportunity to win a championship – especially with the relationship that I built with Chris. I see this going a long way. I’m going to enjoy the moment, because all you can ask for when you started the year was an opportunity for a chance to complete for a championship and we have a chance to compete. It’s goal accomplished, now we just got to go out there and do it.”

Hamlin is the only championship contender without and title to his name. Truex, Harvick and Busch enter Homestead with a chance to be the only active driver aside from Johnson with multiple championships at the Cup level.

With the endless amount of storylines heading into the Ford EcoBoost 400, you won’t want to miss the series finale in the final championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

William Byron and Chad Knaus Speak About Second-Half Success

AVONDALE, Arizona — The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is winding down, but William Byron continued to catch fire in the Valley of the Sun at ISM Raceway.  While the 21-year old would go on to finish 17th due to a late-race restart, he ran inside the top-10 for a large portion of the day, even as high as second at one point.

The Liberty University-product has been crafting a silently impressive season in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. Largely due in part to seven-time Cup Series Championship winning crew chief, Chad Knaus, making the transition to the No. 24 team after 17 season working for the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson.

“It think it comes down to a lot of experience for William,” Knaus told POPULAR SPEED. “He’s getting more familiar with the racetracks because he’s going there for the third, fourth time and that definitely helps. Obviously, William and I are getting closer together with our communication and how he describes things with the race car – that helps tremendously.”

The pair have been able to build chemistry throughout the year, but things didn’t really begin clicking until about Week 14 at Pocono Raceway. By this time, Byron was able to replicate two-consecutive weeks of finishing ninth and qualifying on the pole – in addition to a pole at the Daytona 500 and notching two more top-10’s.

It was at this point the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion solidified that he belonged in the sport’s premier series.

“It’s been really good,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED about his relationship with his new crew chief. “We’ve had our ups and down and such, but we just want to perform well – when we don’t perform well, we aren’t very happy and this was one of those weekends.”

With one race remaining in the season, Byron leads his teammates in highest average finishing position with 14.2 in 35 races. Expanded over the last 10 races, he ranks among the top-10 in average results as well, posting a 12.8. While teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman were able to find victory lane a combined four times in 2019, Byron drove his way to five top-five finishes (two runner-ups), 13 top-10s and led 233 laps.

“I think it’s us being a solid team,” Byron explained. “We definitely surpassed where we thought we were going to be. I think average finish and all of that helps – it’s just going out and doing a solid job every week.”

In the one of the more shocking stats of the year, Byron ranks second in the series in poles with five. The only driver to out qualify him is 2014 Cup Series title holder Kevin Harvick, with six. While all eyes will be on the Championship  4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this shouldn’t take away from the fact that Byron has the chance to tie the driver of the No. 4 for most pole awards on the season.

With the offseason looming, the driver of the Axalta Chevy Camaro had some thoughts on how to improve as a team during the near-three month break.

“Things change so much,” Byron said. “I think if we can have a good offseason – specifically, making our cars better on the flat-short tracks, I think we can put ourselves in a great position to be here (ISM Raceway) next year.”

Can the driver of the No. 24 put an exclamation point on his breakout season with a successful weekend in the series finale at Miami? Find out next weekend, starting November 16 at 2:05 p.m. ET with Cup Series qualifying on NBCSN and then finally in the Ford EcoBoost 400 the following day at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Keselowski and Logano Speak Out on Comments Made by Bubba Wallace

AVONDALE, Arizona — Throughout the weekend of the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway, Bubba Wallace was hounded by the media after accusations of an apparent intentional spin that occurred in the AAA Texas 500 from Texas Motor Speedway.

In a video taken by NASCAR NBC Sports writer, Dustin Long, the driver of the No. 43 – visibly agitated – admitted to intentionally committing the act, but credited his actions to things he learned from Team Penske drivers, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

The drivers of the No.2 and No. 22 Ford Mustangs witnessed the the footage of Wallace’s comments, but we’re puzzled to what incidents he was referring to.

The only incident that came to mind for Logano occurred in the first race in the Round of 8 at Martinsville Speedway, just two weeks prior.

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion was driven up the track by Denny Hamlin and sandwiched between the right side of the No. 11 and the outside wall down the front stretch. This led to a flat tire and an untimely spin from Logano, which ultimately resulted in the infamous altercation between the driver of the FedEx Camry and the driver of the Shell/Pennzoil Ford at the conclusion of the First Data 500.

“At Martinsville, I got a flat tire,” Logano told POPULAR SPEED. “I’m trying not to crash, trying not to hit anything or get the quarter panels torn up – trying to live to race another day, basically. That’s kind of the thought at that moment, ‘How do I continue my race?'”

The Connecticut-native didn’t have much to say about the comments made by Wallace, although he seemed to have inferred that he may have aided with the on-track spin to prevent further damage.

While Logano opted a more tight-lipped approach to the situation, Keselowski did not shy away from speaking his mind on the accusations and the state of NASCAR, in certain regards.

” I wish he [Wallace] had given more context, because I’m not exactly sure what he’s talking about.,” Keselowski shared with POPULAR SPEED. “I’m guessing he’s talking about Michigan (International Speedway) when I had a flat tire and somehow kept it off the wall – but, that one was savable, it wasn’t by me. I don’t really have a lot of thoughts on it without understanding what he meant.”

The driver of the Miller Lite Ford seemed to defend Wallace and went on to reference NASCAR’s early lineage in a sense that the sport was literally founded off of criminals – bootleggers running moonshine through the Appalachian foothills during the prohibition-era. Keselowski finds it ironic that the sport has transitioned from hard-nosed competitiveness to a  “squeaky-clean perfect” approach.

“It makes you wonder about the days of Dale [Earnhardt] and all the other guys and what they were able to get away with,” the Michigan-native pondered. “Everyone obviously misses Dale, but then I wonder sometimes – if a guy like Dale was around would he even be accepted today?”

Keselowski admitted that this is not all due in part to NASCAR wanting clean and fair racing. He is fully aware that a vast majority of the sport’s revenue is acquired through sponsorships and naturally, partners prefer more ethical and cleaner methods upon representation.

After Long’s video of Wallace went viral on Twitter, the sport’s sanctioning body swiftly took action and slapped the 25-year old driver with a $50,000 fine and a deduction of 50 points from the No. 43 team.

Although NASCAR’s intent was to send a message, don’t expect these penalties to prevent further incidents like this from occurring in the future. Teams are always fighting tooth and nail to get best finish they can attain and that all begins with preserving the car.

While attempts to save the car won’t be as blatant as Wallace’s actions at Texas (See the video below) – we can almost guarantee that drivers will think twice about admitting to guilt. Sometimes the truth does not set you free.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

David Ragan Opens Up About His Final Two Races

AVONDALE, Arizona — When the checkered flag waves at the conclusion of the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway, there will only be one event remaining in the 2019 season. In conjunction with that, the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will also signify the final race for 14-year series veteran, David Ragan, as a full-time driver.

Although the driver of the No. 38 machine may not have had the most storied career, he’s had a sustainable one. With only two races remaining, the Georgia-native is not overly upset to see his profession as a full-time driver come to an end. His intentions upon walking away are putting an emphasis on spending more time with his wife and children.

“I don’t really have a lot of thoughts or emotions going into my last final races,” Ragan told POPULAR SPEED. “It’s business as usual and obviously we want to finish the year on a good note. We’re going to race hard and race for a good finish.”

The 33-year old is not racing for anything of utter importance in terms of Playoff implications, but he would like to close the year out on a strong note to help Front Row Motorsports learn more about their equipment for the 2020 season.

As Ragan gears up for what will be his final race as a full-time driver at the 1.5-mile oval, he offered kind words about the track and reminisced about a few memories throughout his career at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“This is such a unique racetrack – I really enjoyed coming here when they first had that new layout,” said the Front Row Motorsports driver. “Turns one and two are so different from turns three and four and there’s a lot of great race fans out here. I haven’t really had cars that could’ve won a race here, but I’ve got some top-fives and top-10s in the other divisions. I just remember coming out here and it being a really unique racetrack and having fun.”

While this is the end of the road for Ragan as a full-time driver, he revealed in a press conference at the track that he is not done racing completely. The series veteran expressed interest in running a few races part-time and even alluded to the possibility of filling in for teammate Matt Tifft in the 2020 season if asked.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.