Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Chastain lands big opportunity with Ganassi

After a busy 2019 saw him compete in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions, Ross Chastain will start of the 2020 campaign with another double-duty effort.

It was announced Thursday that Chastain will drive the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports for the Daytona 500 in a car that will be prepared by Chip Ganassi Racing with AdventHealth serving as the primary sponsor.

The deal bears a resemblance to the deal between Spire and CGR last season when Jamie McMurray ran the Daytona 500; however, Chastain’s opportunity will span two races as they will come together again for the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

“To have the opportunity to run the DAYTONA 500 is awesome, and it’s great to do it this year with AdventHealth on board my car,” Chastain said in a press release. “I’ve only had one start in the DAYTONA 500, and can’t wait to run that race again in what I know will be a competitive car. I’m also looking forward to racing the Coca-Cola 600. That’s another iconic race that all of us want to win.”

The move also serves as a reunion of sorts of Chastain and CGR who came together during the 2018 season for three races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where Chastain captures his first win and earned himself a contract with the team.

Unfortunately, that did not include any races last season though due to lack of sponsorship with DC Solar filing for bankruptsy.

It’s no secret that Chastain made the most of a bad break though, as he captured wins in Xfinity and the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, and even brought his Niece Motorsports’ truck all the way through to the Championship 4.

Now this opportunity is Chastain’s biggest yet, though.

Some people may be thrown off by the Spire Motorsports label associated with the ride, but this is without a doubt his best opportunity yet in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Rewind back to the Xfinity races at Daytona International Speedway last season, where Chastain ran strong in both races with Kaulig Racing, winning the summer race. While it may be NASCAR’s second-tier series, Chastain proved to be a quality superspeedway driver.

Now, he’ll be in even better equipment in the sport’s biggest race of the season with CGR.

Chastain himself he knows that this will be a competitive car that will give him a chance to steal a win, which could lead to bigger and better things as after all, Chip Ganassi likes winners.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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

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.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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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?

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: https://twitter.com/Cole_Cusumano_

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

GOOD & BAD: 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Season

Another year of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition is in the books, with a familiar sight as Kyle Busch was crowned the series champion. Along the way, though, there were some highlights and low lights to consider from the action on-track all year.

Although I was unable to watch all of the races, let’s take a look back at the good and the bad.

GOOD: While the final event is the pressure cooker of the season, you should just treat it like any other weekend. Just ask Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens. As the rest of the contenders faltered under the pressure, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did what he does best en route to his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.

On any given week through the season, the No. 18 M&M’s Camry and that was on display with the top speed in Saturday’s practice. Despite not winning in the 21 races prior to the Ford EcoBoost 400, he also consistently ran up front, as highlighted by 27 top-10 finishes in the 36 events in 2019. However, many had placed him beneath his rivals due to only five top-10’s in the first nine playoff races. 

They all failed to recognize that Busch continuing to put himself in the right position, plus the poise of being in the position previously certainly helped. While you could see his title contenders were using a “win or bust” mentality, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens ran the event just like any other weekend. When he was unable to keep up with Martin Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick, it was just about giving feedback to continuing making adjustments to find more speed. Combined with a ultra fast pit crew that just did their job as normal and you had a recipe for success. 

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

BAD: The championship seemed to just come together on a less than stellar level for Busch, though, as the last event of the season did not have that late race drama to get you up on your seat. The contenders showed speed, but made uncharacteristic mistakes. 

Truex dominated the opening stage, though fell back in the second stage due to the pit crew putting on the tires on the wrong side of the car under a green flag stop. While he was able to make-up the ground in quick fashion to be in position to contend during the third stage, he was never able to make up the lost track position to Busch.

Denny Hamlin appeared to be in a closer position to challenge Busch than Truex was in the final stage despite an okay start. However, Chris Gabehart would elect to put on a big piece of tape, hoping to pick up downforce and speed so they could run down their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. It would back fire, with the No. 11 Camry overheating, resulting in an unscheduled pit stop, and a finish of 10th.

GOOD: No matter the format to decide the champion, the best drivers are always going to rise to the top. Over the past couple seasons, Busch, Truex Jr. and Harvick have been part of the Championship 4.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

BAD: Although Chase Elliott started off the playoffs on a high with a bunch of momentum following a great comeback victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, he hopefully has forgotten about the weeks that followed.

He suffered a blown tire at ISM Raceway, backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the outside wall, and ultimately failed to finish better than 32nd in the Round of 8. He broke an axle at Martinsville Speedway, and then tried to run the high line early in the event at Texas Motor Speedway, getting loose and backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the wall. Though even before that rough round, he suffered a blown motor at Dover International Speedway, and a crash at Talladega Superspeedway in the Round of 12. 

GOOD: The legitimacy of the champion produced by the playoff system in NASCAR has been, and will be debated for years to come with fans are either side of the fence. However, the post-season is producing what the sanctioning body wanted – drama. Let’s take a look back at Kansas Speedway, shall we? 

Eyes were focused in on the final laps of the Hollywood Casino 400 with everyone wondering who the eight drivers transferring to the Round of 8 would be. Certainly the late race caution helped up the stakes, but there were plenty of things to watch at the end, Elliott‘s late-race charge to challenge for the victory, to Brad Keselowski trying to salvage a decent day and losing ground at the end.

Ultimately, Keselowski saw his championships hope end courtesy of a mere three points. Although you could blame the sub-par performance on Sunday, there was also a crash at Talladega Superspeedway and an 11th-place finish at Dover International Speedway. If only he would have finished three spots further up the board any of those times.

BAD: Jimmie Johnson ultimately watched his chances of making the playoffs end in a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Battling three-wide, William Byron crowded Johnson, resulting in Johnson getting into the grass and sideways. In total, nine drivers were caught up in the incident. Johnson’s rear-end damage was significant enough that he could not continue.

Although NBC put on the focus on Johnson not making the post-season solely focused on Sunday, there were 25 races that drivers also scored wins and points to ensure their championship chances. Quite frankly, this year has been a struggle for seven-time with consistency being a struggle to find, including a crew chief change mid-season.

RUSTY LABOUNTY | NKP

GOOD: There were some good finishes this season, including Hamlin and Harvick at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Lap cars can be thanked for bringing the pair closer together, but that’s all part of the long-run racing in how you handle the traffic. Harvick, using some of his short track skills, kept the advantage by slowing down a touch sooner than expected and taking the preferred line that Hamlin would have wanted.

On the same coin, Hamlin does earn respect in how he handled the situation. He gave Harvick a bump in turn one, but just enough to get scoot him out of the groove a little and not wreck him. Notice the difference in crowd reaction compared to how he handled Martinsville Speedway a couple years ago with Elliott.

BAD: Anybody remember the fan attendance for the Food City 500? You can preach all you want that short tracks should be on the schedule, but you also need to show that you’re willing to support them and that’s by putting butts in the seats. Certainly there’s other factors contributing to the attendance – hotel costs, food costs, weather, though no matter how you approach it, it’s not a good look.

GOOD: Ryan Preece proved that he could drive this season, starting right off at the Daytona 500. He drove directly through all three wrecks that happened, crossing the line with an eighth-place finish in his Cup Series debut. Just check this out for evidence.

BAD: The racing may be a struggle to watch sometimes, but it’s made even worse when the officials can’t do their job. There was at least three of the first six races of the season that they had issues putting cars inline for the restart. How hard can it be to put a field of cars two-wide evenly when timing and scoring electronically prints you a perfect order? 

There was also that time at Atlanta Motor Speedway where Truex was assessed a penalty, but then it was taken back as NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said post-race the pit stop was reviewed in the tower and there was no penalty as they could not confirm foot was down early per video. It’s a little concerning when you hear straight from the sanctioning body that they don’t have enough views of a pit stop to confirm something, especially when they made us to believe their new pro trailer system with less officials on pit road and using video instead would work. 

Russell Labounty | NKP

BAD: We also need to get the coverage of these races improved. Between the endless commercials, and lacking smarts in the booth, it’s going downhill really fast. I mean, do you really the viewers at home care if the commentators are eating ice cream?

It seemed they would show a small piece of the race, before going straight to another commercial break. Essentially, giving you bits of the racing action in-between allowing you to memorize each ad since you’d seen it too many times to count. It almost felt like a third to a quarter of the race was shown in commercial – maybe more.

On top of that, the actual coverage of the event was lacking. Supposedly, observations from Texas Motor Speedway indicated it was a “slug fest” with groups of cars running together closely, battling for position. However, NASCAR on Fox didn’t bother to show that. They just showed the pack racing for the first 10 laps after a restart, and then focused on the single-file train at the front or went to commercial. 

P.S.: It’d also be nice if they showed the running order during their “Crank it Up” segment.

BAD: The Cup Series package certainly needs improvement, as the consensus from the majority of the races is that the rules package is doing nothing to produce “exciting racing” with the main show falling behind the two junior series. Hence why there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the new car in 2021. This was showcased through the whole season, with a bunch of lackluster races.

Take the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If you put aside the championship drama, the actual race was just – meh. There was no real battles or challenges for positions as everybody seemed to move up or down simply based on the strategy that they were running. You would get exciting battles on the restart, but they’d string out after five laps and then it was just a follow the leader train.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

You could also look back at the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway where Hamlin gapped the field by over 10 seconds at one point. The racing was so spread out with the unlikelihood of drama near the end that NASCAR put out a caution for John Hunter Nemechek‘s contact with the outside wall that normally would have been no cause for concern. After all, the Front Row Motorsports driver made it back to pit road without laying down any debris.

Other events that you could add to the list include the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway, Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.

“The cars don’t have any speed,” Busch said following the Pennzoil 400. “You’re wide open just trying to suck off of any car that you can that’s in front of you to get a draft. I was running 31-flats when I was chasing those leaders down and then once I got there, I stalled out to 31.40s because the wind was just so bad behind those guys that you couldn’t corner anymore, you couldn’t maneuver. I couldn’t run low if they ran low and I couldn’t run high if they ran high so you’re always trying to figure out which way to go.”

While it’s nice to look forward to 2021, that just means that we’re getting ready another boring season – unless they can make some minor tweaks to improve the status quo. Let’s beg and hope that happens. Alas, let’s remember what Jeff Gordon said earlier this year – “Tires don’t wear out, speed don’t slow down, you can’t get away from each other, and track position is key.” 

GOOD: Let’s back it up a little, though, as the package did not fail everywhere. 

The Hollywood Casino 400 was a great race to watch from the fan’s perspective. Between the aged surface and a new tire compound, drivers were using multiple grooves across the surface to try and gain time on their competitors. This allowed for side-by-side racing throughout the entire duration of the event, including a couple battles for the lead. The aged-surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway also allowed us to get a good race there, too. 

There was also New Hampshire, as although the field was spread out at times throughout the afternoon, there was always at least one battle for position within the top-10 to keep an eye on. By laying down the PJ1 traction compound in the separate lanes, it allowed drivers to get their cars working high or low to challenge each other. There was also varying strategy played with earning stage points versus trying to set yourself up for a good finish and tire wear, which kept things interesting with a variety of drivers finding their way to the front at times.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Bristol Motor Speedway also reminded us as to why we love short tracks with the Food City 500.

The reconfiguration caused the high line to become the only place for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but that wasn’t quite the case on Sunday. Track officials finally got the right traction compound as throughout the event, competitors were able to run high and low, with different drivers favoring each groove.

The result was constant side-by-side racing from the drop of the green flag, to the checkered flag, for positions throughout the field. It was also beneficial that NASCAR on FOX listened to the fan’s critiques from the past couple of weeks, not spending their time focused on the leader but rather showing each of these battles. 

There was also excitement with the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but we know restrictor plates are always entertaining when drivers want to race for it. 

If every race could be like what we saw here, then perhaps other gimmicks would not be necessary for fan excitement.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Jimmie Johnson To Retire Following the 2020 Season

Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson announced on Wednesday that he will be retiring from competition following the 2020 race season.

The driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet revealed the news on twitter with a video.

Since his rookie season in 2002, Johnson has raced for Hendrick Motorsports and experienced success along the way with 83 victories, including two Daytona 500 victories and four trips to victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There has been speculation all year long about his future in the sport, following a season which saw him not visit victory lane with three top-five’s and 12 top-10’s in 36 races. Notably, he has failed to score a win over his last 95 races.

Johnson and Rick Hendrick will discuss the news on Thursday in a press conference, ahead of the 2020 season which will begin with the Daytona 500 in February.

Ally has signed on-board with Hendrick Motorsports through 2021, with the team stating their future plans will be announced at a later date.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
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.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: https://twitter.com/Cole_Cusumano_

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

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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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

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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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

OBSERVATIONS: Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway

There was a lot of discussion to be had about the race at ISM Raceway on Sunday, but you could say the action on-track did not live up to that hype. Despite the speedway’s officials attempts to widen the groove with the PJ1 traction compound, the racing turned into a boring affair.

The restarts brought plenty of drama with drivers all over the track trying to gain ground, but that did not last as they embarked on the long run. The field would get widely spread out, even race leader Denny Hamlin gapping the field by over 10 seconds at one point. The challenges for position seemed to only happen when you had cars falling off the pace, except for a solid battle for 30 laps between Hamlin and Chase Elliott for second near the end of stage two.

The racing was so spread out with the unlikelihood of drama near the end that NASCAR put out a caution for John Hunter Nemechek‘s contact with the outside wall that normally would have been no cause for concern. After all, the Front Row Motorsports driver made it back to pit road without laying down any debris.

Ultimately, Hamlin did what he had to in getting the track position, and having a good handling No. 11 FedEx Camry to utilize the clean air and drive away from the field. Despite restart concerns mid-race with some issues, he also prevailed on the final run to the checkered with three laps to go, securing his position in the Championship 4.

Kyle Busch did try to mount a challenge in the final laps, with some questioning whether he fully drove hard or held back some after being reminded of his Joe Gibbs Racing’s teammate’s position coming to the green. However, if you know Rowdy, he is not a driver to settle for second and he has not won in 21 races.

On the flip side, the worst round of Elliott’s NASCAR career came to an end as he suffered a blown tire, backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the outside wall. After having a bunch of momentum following a great comeback victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, the most popular driver failed to finish better than 32nd in the last three races. 

Joey Logano will also be asking himself several questions as he started out fast and led early, but an ill-handling car caused him to fall a lap down mid-way through the event. His Team Penske team says that was simply caused by a half-pound air pressure adjustment, but the complete 180 in the car’s behavior has many other questions being asked.

Though overall, the drivers who deserved to be in the Championship 4 are there. The Big three in Hamlin, Truex, and Busch have made the cut, joined by Kevin Harvick. They currently boost the four best average finishes across all 35 races to date this season and have proven capable of winning. It’s just a matter of who will do it when it counts at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Denny Hamlin seals title bid with clinching Phoenix victory

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Out, demon!

Denny Hamlin’s exorcism is complete. At ISM Raceway, the site of one of his biggest disappointments, Hamlin barged back into the Championship 4 with a dominating victory in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500.

Hamlin joins Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, Sunday’s runner-up, in the Nov. 17 race for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The three JGR drivers will battle Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing for the trophy.

After losing control of his car and sliding off Turn 4 last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Hamlin fell 20 points below the cut line for the Championship 4 entering the Phoenix race. But with his victory, Hamlin knocked defending champion Joey Logano out of title contention.

“I can’t believe it,” exulted Hamlin, who picked up his sixth victory of the season, his second at ISM Raceway and the 27th of his career. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve to be there.  I put them in a bad hole last week. 

“I told them today in the meeting, I said, ‘I’m going to give everything I’ve got to make up for the mistake I made last week.’ That’s all I got.’

Logano finished ninth on Sunday and ended the Round of 8 fifth in the standings and seven points behind Busch, who grabbed the last berth in the title race.

Hamlin led a race-high 143 laps, including 142 of the last 146, and built a lead of more than 12 seconds before surrendering the top spot for four laps during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. Hamlin’s advantage was more than nine seconds when John Hunter Nemechek’s Ford slapped the Turn 1 to cause the fifth and final caution.

“One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that,” said Hamlin, who came to Phoenix as the championship favorite in 2010, only to lose 18 points of his 33-point lead on a misguided pit call. “Fast car. But, yeah, I pushed for all I had. 

“I mean, that’s all I got. Once we got the big lead there, a little over 10 seconds, I just kind of sat there. I got to thinking about if the caution does come out, I want to lap as many (cars) as I can.”

A week after his 2010 misfortune at Phoenix, a shell-shocked Hamlin spun early and lost the title to Jimmie Johnson. In contrast, it was a focused and determined Hamlin who showed up at Phoenix on Sunday.

Busch led the first 69 laps of the race but lost the first stage to Hamlin after Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s collision with the Turn 4 wall caused the first caution of the afternoon. When the race came down to a restart with three laps left, Busch couldn’t keep up with his teammate and finished .377 seconds behind the No. 11 Toyota Camry.

“Just didn’t quite have enough,” Busch said. “I knew the 11 was the best car in practice. I knew we were going to be about third to fifth. We were second. Guys did a great job, this M&M Toyota Camry was good.

“It’s cool to have a chance to go race for a championship. Just keep coming up short.”

Logano led 93 laps, won the second stage and was out front until Hamlin passed him for the lead on Lap 177. From that point, Logano dropped like a rock to 11th and fell a lap down to Hamlin before third-place finisher Ryan Blaney started a cycle of green-flag stops on Lap 243 of 312.

Kyle Larson ran fourth and failed to advance to the Championship 4, as did Blaney and Chase Elliott, who rocketed into the Turn 1 wall with a flat left rear tire on Lap 166 and finished 39th.