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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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NASCAR Cup Series

Daniel Suarez Looks to Carry Momentum from Texas into Phoenix

AVONDALE, Arizona — Daniel Suarez is in the midst of a contract-year at Stewart-Haas Racing, as his agreement expires at the conclusion of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. After matching a season-high best finish of third last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the driver from Monterrey, Mexico is looking to build off some momentum as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets set to do battle at ISM Raceway.

Suarez, who considers the 1.5-mile oval a sort of home track, was in good spirits when talking about his chances this Sunday.

“Texas was a lot of fun and we’re looking to carry that here to Phoenix,” Suarez told POPULAR SPEED. “This is kind of like a home track for me. There are a lot of good people here, lots of fans and it’s always fun to come back.”

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity driver has had a rollercoaster ride of a career when coming to the Valley of the Sun. He notched his career-best finish at Zoomtown U.S.A. in his rookie season in the Spring of 2017 with a seventh. His best effort since then came the in the following Spring, where he finished eighth. Since then, the 27-year old has not fared better than 23rd.

“I think we have a good car – I don’t think we have the best car, but I think I think we have a car that can get a top-five or a top-10,” said Suarez. “Hopefully we can make the right calls and get a top-five.”

When asked about the pressures of performing without a contract for the 2020 season set in stone, the driver of the No. 41 offered up a humorous reply.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen? I go back to Mexico and work on old cars?,” Suarez joked. “We have some work to do. I feel like the team is doing their part, I’m doing my part, we just have to put all the pieces together – that’s the way it works. Sometimes it takes one week, sometimes it takes three months – we’ll keep working. I feel like life is tough, learn your lessons. I just have to find different ways to make things happen off the racetrack. I’m learning a lot so hopefully we can get a win.”

Team-owner Tony Stewart revealed that they are in the process of getting a deal done to extend Suarez’s tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing. The three-time Cup Series champion also assured the media that he is big fan of the driver from Mexico and would like to keep him around for an extended period of time.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Denny Hamlin Comes to Terms with 2019 Season Regardless of Outcome

AVONDALE, Arizona — Denny Hamlin began the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season in the best way possible – with an emotional win in the Daytona 500 after the passing of friend and teammate J.D. Gibbs. Fast forward 34 races, now the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry has found victory lane five times and could be the favorite to win the Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But now the 15-year series veteran finds himself in an all too familiar position. After what could be deemed one of Hamlin’s most dominant performances since competing at the Cup level, he sits fifth in the Playoff standings, facing a 20-point deficit he must overcome to advance his way to Miami.

“No matter what I will not consider this year any sort of failure,” Hamlin told POPULAR SPEED. “We had a great year, we won races, we competed, we led more laps than we have in a long time, we have more top-fives than anybody in the series – it’s been a really good year.”

In conjunction to the 38-year old driver leading NASCAR’s premier series in top-five finishes, he also leads his fellow competitors with an impressive 9.7 average finishing position on the season – the only driver to average a finish above 10th.

While Hamlin knows he is not in a must-win scenario this weekend at ISM Raceway, he acknowledges the fact that with the Playoff format, he must have a solid points day and ultimately capitalize on – at the bare minimum – a top-five finish.

“We all play by the rules, we know what the format is, but it doesn’t always work out for you,” said the Virginia-native. “It’s extremely difficult to win one of these [championships] and we’re content either way.”

In a shocking turn of events, a very humble and poised Hamlin accepted the fact that he could very well never win a championship during his Cup Series tenure, but he has found solace in this possibility. He recounts a exchange with NASCAR legend, Mark Martin, who similarly had a very storied career in the sport but never hoisted a championship trophy.

Martin – who totaled 40 wins in his illustrious Cup Series career – told Hamlin that looking back, winning a championship wouldn’t make any difference in his life right now. He still managed to have a very storied and respect career.

“I’m at that point right now,” the driver of the No. 11 admitted. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what I’m capable of, my competitors know what I’m capable of. I really appreciate all the love the media has been giving me over the last three weeks – it’s been incredible – but I think we have to give some love to the other competitors as well.”

Hamlin adamantly relayed that every driver in the Playoffs  should receive equal attention and exposure. He believes anyone in the post-season has a shot at advancing to the series finale at Homestead and should be treated with the utmost respect.

As the 38-year old nears the conclusion of his 15th season, it’s evident that series veteran has matured and Hamlin says this has been a major benefactor to his on-track success.

“I’ve definitely grown, no doubt about it,” said the Toyota Racing driver. “I’ve have major life changes this year, so I’ve had to grow and change and that’s really helped on-track things as well. If it ends up that our year is over after this weekend, then I can’t wait to get back to the racetrack in 2020. It was so much fun racing this year and having a shot to win every single weekend – it was a pleasure.”

Hamlin drove his way to victory lane at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway in the Spring of 2012. In 28 races at the 1.5-mile speedway, he has 12 top-fives and 16 top-10’s with an average finish of 11.3. The 312 Lap event in the desert will not be an easy one for the driver of the No. 11, but with the new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, it’s essentially anyone’s race to win.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Busch corrals first Busch Pole of the season at Phoenix

Kyle Busch sped to the Busch Pole Award in Saturday’s qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Busch tripped the clock with a best lap of 140.116 mph in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota on the 1-mile Arizona oval. His first pole of the season was his fourth at Phoenix and the 32nd of his Monster Energy Series career. He’ll be vying for his third straight Phoenix win in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM).

Joey Logano is set to start second in the Team Penske No. 22 Ford after just missing the pole at 139.752 mph. Denny Hamlin qualified third in the JGR No. 11 Toyota with teammate Martin Truex Jr. winding up fourth. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick completing a top-seven sweep by playoff-eligible drivers. Ryan Blaney, the final title hopeful in the field, was 10th-fastest.

Both Truex and Harvick have already clinched spots in the Championship 4 field for the title Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Elliott is Feeling Comfortable at ISM Raceway

AVONDALE, Arizona — When the green flag waves atop the LED-lit cactus flag stand for the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway, Chase Elliott will begin the race in an insurmountable 78-point hole. The product of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott is indeed in a win-only scenario as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series makes its stop at the 1.5-mile speedway.

Elliott has been able to overcome adversity with ease in both the Round of 16 and the Round of 12. Now the racing prodigy is faced with one last ditch effort in which he will be forced to ascend to champion-caliber heights in order to make a statement and advance to Homestead.

The 23-year old driver elaborated on his team’s ability to execute – specifically at Kansas Speedway in the final race in the Round of 12.

“We had some good fortune at Kansas,” Elliott told POPULAR SPEED. “I feel like we were in a position where we had to win that race and we were in a position to battle for a win – obviously we didn’t win – but things went our way enough to get through the round. I think for me that was a good opportunity for us to have our backs up against the wall and having to go out there and perform.”

The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevy Camaro went on to discuss how he and his team was able to capitalize on pivotal moments late in the race.

“We made the most of an afternoon that really wasn’t going all that well,” said the Hendrick Motorsports driver. “We were struggling on the long run and lost a lot of ground, but we made a lot of great pit stops towards the end and had good restarts which put us in a position to win and that’s what you have to do.”

While being put in these difficult situations is obviously not the preferred race weekend for Elliott, he firmly believes that being dealt with these trials is essential for breeding a champion in NASCAR. After all, these scenarios are bound to come to fruition should a driver advance to the series finale.

“I just think that being put in that position was a good experience and whether you’re in a position where you have to win now or two weeks ago, you’re going to have to be in that position at Homestead (-Miami Speedway),” said the Georgia-native. “I think being comfortable with that is a necessity with the way this format is. When your back’s up against the wall, you have to perform and I think the better you feel about that situation and the more you embrace it, the better off you’ll be. As a team we’ve embraced it and I’m really looking forward to the weekend.”

This is the third-consecutive season where Elliott finds himself in Round of 8. In his fourth season of full-time racing, has he proven himself to be capable of competing with the best of the best in the championship race in Miami? The calm and collected driver seems more poised than ever to get it done at ISM Raceway.

“We’re going to go out there, do our thing and have fun,” Elliott concluded.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Darrell Wallace Jr. Penalized for Intentional Spin at Texas Motor Speedway

Sometimes it is best to just keep your mouth shut or it can get you into trouble.

Following Darrell Wallace Jr.‘s comments to NBC Sports reporter Dustin Long on Friday at ISM Raceway, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver was penalized 50 points and $50,000. The intentional spin from the AAA Texas 500 was in violation of Section 12.1.a General Procedures, Section 12.8 NASCAR Member Conduct, Section 12.8.1 Member Conduct Guidelines and Section 10.8 In-Race Violations. 

Per the NASCAR rule book, Section 10.8 states that the sanctioning body can impose a penalty for “intentionally causing or attempt to cause a caution period.”

Meanwhile, section 12.1.a of the Rule Book states, “NASCAR membership is a privilege. With that privilege comes certain benefits, responsibilities and obligations. Correct and proper conduct, both on and off the race track, is part of a Member’s responsibilities. A Member’s actions can reflect upon the sport as a whole and on other NASCAR Members. Ideally, NASCAR Members are role models for the many fans who follow this sport, regardless of the type of license a Member may hold, or the specific Series in which a Member may participate. Therefore, NASCAR views a Member’s conduct, both on and off the race track, which might constitute a behavioral Rules violation under this Rule Book with great importance.”

Following contact, Wallace had a tire going flat on his No. 43 entry. Rather than making his way down pit road under green flag conditions, which would have put him multiple laps down, Wallace spun to bring out the caution flag.

Following the spin, NASCAR chose to not penalize Wallace initially, with NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell stating it was a judgment call and they would take a look at it, addressing it with the drivers and teams if they felt necessary. 

However, a penalty was then handed out following Wallace’s comments to Long on Friday.

“If we feel like it’s on purpose and we have enough information to determine that 100% it’s on purpose, we will react,” NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller said. “The reaction today was after a complete admission of guilt, so that’s really what led to the penalty happening today.

“… That was a full admission of something that has been abuzz in the garage and the media. (A warning instead of a penalty) wasn’t an option.”

Long had approached Wallace about the spin due to comments from Kyle Larson to the press on Friday. After saying that “Helen Keller could see Bubba’s spin was on purpose” following the event, he said his team checked the data and could see the spin was on purpose.

“You could definitely see, because we have SMT (SportsMEDIA Technology) where you have the digital car,” he commented. “You could see him like swerving, he turns right and at the same time he turns left and stabs the throttle and spins out. It’s whatever at this point.”

Richard Petty Motorsports released a statement shortly thereafter, stating they will not appeal the penalty.

“We fully understand NASCAR’s position and expectations of its competitors,” said Philippe Lopez, Richard Petty Motorsports’ director of competition. “NASCAR has a difficult job officiating race events and we do not need to make the task more challenging. Wallace will not appeal the penalty, and will direct his immediate focus to this weekend’s event at the ISM Raceway.”

NASCAR is hoping this penalty will deter drivers from purposeful spins in the future.

“We haven’t spoken to the drivers, but this obviously is going to start some dialogue. … We have the ability to react monetarily and points-wise, what we feel is appropriate. I’d say this is pretty substantial and hopefully sends the right message,” Miller expanded. “All we can do is wait and watch and see how we need to react next.

“Hopefully we don’t. Hopefully it cleans itself up.”

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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

Playoff Drivers are Feeling the Pressure at ISM Raceway with New Traction Compound

AVONDALE, Arizona — The Arizona sun beams down on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage area. Blue skies collide with the outside wall that stretches across the dormant 1.5 mile ISM Raceway. But this is far from a laid back weekend in the Valley of the Sun.

Cup Series crew members are frantically fine tuning their machines and lining up to go through inspection before hitting the track for what will positively be an intense pressure cooker of a race in Avondale, Arizona. While the premier series will only be partaking in a pair of practice sessions this Friday, there is more on the line now than ever to perform well this weekend.

ISM Raceway has been the sight of the semi-final event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit since 2002. But it was announced that in 2020, the track that underwent a $178 million renovation would be the sight of the Championship race weekend.

Why is this race in specific one that every driver had circled on their calendar for the 2019 season?

The 2020 Championship race will be held on November 8th, exactly one year from today. Not only will track conditions be almost identical to this weekend, but the rules package being applied to the Bluegreen Vacation 500 will be the same next year. On top of that, there is a new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, which has the entire garage area in a frenzy – and for good reason.

There was a traction compound applied to the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway and drivers like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, found out quickly that slipping up in those grooves could get treacherous.

Playoff drivers expressed a plethora of concerns about how the race will play out on November 10th and expect it to be a challenge for all 312 Laps. Even previous Cup Series Champions Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who are currently in the Championship 4 by upwards of 20 points, are on edge about the competition around them this Sunday.

“We’ll be watching those Trucks and Xfinity races pretty closely,” Logano said. “I think it’s going to take a little bit for it to come in but it looks to me like it will probably come into play in Turns 1 and 2 – it’s pretty high up there in Turns 3 and 4.”

Logano was one of a handful of Playoff drivers who performed well in the AAA Texas 500 with the new traction compound, notching a fourth-place finish. He sits fourth in the standings 20 points to the good and will need a clean race to advance to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a chance to win back-to-back championships.

Busch has the worst average finish in the Playoffs – next to the driver of the No. 22 – with a 13.38 average through eight races . All eyes will be on the No. 18 M&Ms Camry as Busch is currently riding a two-race win streak at the 1.5-mile track with an impressive 2.8 average finish over the last five events at ISM Raceway.

“Here at Phoenix it’s already very challenging and difficult to pass,” Busch said when asked about the PJ1 compound. “We saw that here in the Spring, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s going to be a hard fought finish this year and next year at the end.”

Martins Truex Jr. locked himself into the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway after capturing his third short track win of the season in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago. Normally, Truex could play it safe and focus on the weekend ahead, but the driver of the No. 19 will be far from complacent with a lackluster performance at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“I think it’s on everyone’s mind that this will be the final four race that decides the championship next year, so this race and the Spring race will be very important – especially with the rules package staying the same,” said the 2017 Cup Series Champion. “Everyone’s going to want to get a good head start on next Spring here for sure this weekend.”

The driver from Mayetta, New Jersey was also one of the benefactors of a rewarding finish last weekend at Texas. It should come as no surprise that the championship-caliber driver is one of the few drivers not overly concerned with the traction compound this weekend.

“At some point Sunday we’ll use that traction compound in [Turns] three and four because we typically run a higher line on long green flag runs,” Truex said. “It just depends on if enough guys are running up there and working it in – if that happens it’ll probably get pretty good.”

Playoff drivers below the cutoff line such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Hamlin could be pitted with an advantage over drivers like Busch and Logano due to their inherent need to perform well or win for a chance to compete for the 2019 Championship.

Larson was one of the lone drivers in the Cup Series in favor of the PJ1 compound application last weekend and he is feeling confident heading into the Bluegreen Vacations 500 this Sunday.

“I feel like there’s nobody better in our series in terms of searching for lanes and grooves to make your car better,” the driver of the No. 42 said. “If it burns in quick, I think I’ll really benefit from it.”

Talladega Superspeedway winner and racing prodigy, Blaney, revealed that he believes restarts could get even more hectic than normal this Sunday due to the track compound application.

“In the Spring you saw those wild four-five wide racing on restarts, but it’s going to be even more interesting this year especially with the stuff they put down on [Turns] one and two up top,” the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford said. “I think people are going to be using that top lane later in the day and it’s really going to affect restarts.”

The 25-year old started from the pole at ISM Raceway earlier this year and finished third with a legitimate shot to win. Blaney also reiterated that he had been pushed around quite a bit in that race and that he intends to return the favor and be one of the aggressors on those climatic restarts.

Hamlin, who finds himself 20 points below the cutoff line, was deemed one of the 2019 favorites for the Championship after an impeccable season. The 38-year old found trouble at both Martinsville and Texas Motor Speedway, but his chances really took a hit when he accidentally got caught up in the traction compound in the AAA Texas 500.

The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry had some strong words about the PJ1 application and even tried taking matters into his own hands following the race at Texas.

“I discussed with NASCAR that you’d have a better show from beginning to end if they didn’t add anything after the Xfinity race,” Hamlin shared. “Those cars did a really good job burning it in and it was actually really good at that time – it would’ve been great to start the Cup race with.”

Hamlin went on to further explain that the traction compound took hundreds of laps to properly develop last week and it was really slick – hence why when he got loose in re-application and crashed. With 312 Laps at a 1.5-mile track, the Cup Series may not have have the luxury of waiting hundreds of laps for the compound to burn in.

The Virginia-native boasts a series-leading average finishing position of 9.2 through 34 of 36 races this season and will need to replicate more of that magic this Sunday to continue his dominant stretch into Miami.

If the prior Playoff Round finales at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway are any indication of what to expect at ISM Raceway, then fans are in for a dramatically intense race at Zoomtown U.S.A. With two only spots available before Championship weekend at Homestead and teams already stressing about the PJ1 traction application, you won’t want to miss the Bluegreen Vacations 500 from ISM Raceway at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

With every point and position mattering that much more, some drivers will be regretting their decisions on Sunday.

Ultimately, it proved to be tough to pass throughout the AAA Texas 500. Some drivers were able to make passes, but being able to balance running the bottom and the edge of the groove that the PJ1 had been applied certainly did not make it easy. That was showcased through the final run to the checkered which saw the field spread out with no big battles for position.

As a result, strategy to gain track position became critical throughout the event – which worked to the advantage of some in being able to get a strong finish.

Costly Mistakes

While several of the playoff contenders were able to have strong finishes, including Kevin Harvick who punched his ticket to the Championship 4, there are others who have made the hole bigger for them moving forward.

Chase Elliott entered Sunday’s race in a hole following a broken axle at Martinsville Speedway. Now he has put himself in a “win or bust, no matter what” situation being over 60 points behind the cut-off following an incident on Lap 9. The Hendrick Motorsports driver tried to run the high line, getting loose and backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the wall.

Although he started off the playoffs with tons of momentum from a dominating performance at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, it has been rough since then with a blown motor at Dover International Speedway, a crash at Talladega Superspeedway, and the issues the past two weeks. By contending for the win at Kansas Speedway, he was able to squeak his way into the Round of 8 by a mere three points. Now it will take an even more commending performance if he wants to be part of the title battle.

Denny Hamlin also made a similar mistake to Elliott, getting sideways in turn four and spinning through the infield grass on Lap 80. As a result, he scored a 28th-place finish, giving up any cushion that he had over the cut-off line to now sit 20 behind Joey Logano for the last position.

Hamlin could point his way into the next round by simply beating Logano, but needs to be wary in doing so in case someone like Elliott or Kyle Larson pick up the checkered flag to move up the cut-off line. Therefore, competing for the win would be his best bet and that seems likely as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has ran well at ISM Raceway previously. He has scored a pair of top-five’s in past three trips to the desert.

Cream Rising to the Top

No matter the format to decide the champion, the best drivers are always going to rise to the top. Over the past couple seasons, Martin Truex Jr. and Harvick have been part of the Championship 4 and will be once again this year. Considering both competitors have been on their game all through the playoffs, it will more than likely take winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to secure the title. 

Over the past couple years, Kyle Busch has joined them, along with a fourth face that seems to change each season. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver appears to have a good chance at doing so once again being 22 points above the cut-off, however these playoffs have proven to expect the unexpected. If he is off on his game at all next weekend, the No. 18 could be left on the outside looking in.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kevin Harvick punches Championship 4 ticket with Texas-sized victory

FORT WORTH, Tex. – For Kevin Harvick, Texas is the new Phoenix.

Overcoming a pit road penalty for a tire placed in his pit box too early, Harvick took control of the AAA Texas 500 as the sun set on Texas Motor Speedway and won his third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at the 1.5-mile track in Cowtown.

Locked into the Championship 4 race two weeks hence at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick can now breathe easy heading into the final Round of 8 race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, a track where Harvick has nine wins and a current streak of 12 top-10 finishes—but where Harvick struggled uncharacteristically in the spring while running ninth under the new 2019 rules package.

After leading a race-high 119 laps and finishing 1.594 seconds ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola, Harvick, the pole winner, won’t have to worry about the one-mile flat track in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

“Texas has always been so great to us, and what a race track the last few years,” said Harvick, who won for the fourth time this season and the 49th time in his career, tying him with SHR co-owner Tony Stewart for 14th all-time. “It’s just been a lot of work put into this race. We knew this was a good race track for us. Felt like it fit the styles of our cars, and, man, did it.”

Harvick led an impressive contingent of SHR drivers, all of whom took turns at the front of the field before Harvick took control. Runner-up Almirola led 62 laps, Clint Bowyer led 36 and Daniel Suarez 25.

“That was a very solid night, and I’m very happy with the performance and speed that we brought from the shop,” said Suarez, who matched the third-place finish he posted at Texas in the spring. “Everyone back at the shop did a great job. We knew we would be fast here.

“We had a solid performance here last time. We did a good job. We had good execution and a good clean day. I’m very happy for Stewart-Haas Racing and the 41 Ford Mustang was pretty sporty. I am very happy for Kevin getting his ticket for Homestead.”

Harvick’s path wasn’t easy. On a Lap 186 pit stop under caution, a tire dropped from the top of the pit wall into Harvick’s stall before the No. 4 Ford arrived, forcing Harvick to restart from the rear. But Harvick charged forward and on Lap 255, he passed Almirola for the lead.

Suarez completed the 1-2-3 podium sweep for SHR, followed by Joey Logano, who held the fourth position in the standings and extended his margin above the current Championship cut line to 20 points. Alex Bowman ran fifth, and Martin Truex Jr., already locked into the season finale by virtue of last week’s Martinsville win, finished sixth.

Playoff drivers Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney were seventh and eighth, with Busch standing 22 points above the cut line and Blaney 23 points below, tied with 12th-place finisher Kyle Larson.

Chase Elliott’s dire Playoff situation crystallized on Lap 9 when he tried to run the high lane and slid into the outside wall in Turn 2. Elliott barely beat the repair clock on pit road and returned to the race, albeit it seven laps down.

The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leaves the Lone Star State with a 32nd-place finish and one path to the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway—he must win next Sunday’s race at Phoenix to advance.

Like Elliott, Denny Hamlin failed to score points in either of the first two stages. On Lap 80, five short of the completion of Stage 1, Hamlin got sideways in Turn 44 and spun through the infield grass. He lost two laps under repairs and two more on the track and came home 28th.

As a consequence, the five-time Cup winner this season fell 20 points below the cut line for the Championship 4.

Jimmie Johnson’s prospects of ending a 92-race drought looked promising early on but came to a disappointing finish early in the final stage. Johnson passed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the lead on Lap 99 and held the top spot for 40 laps—the most laps the seven-time champion has led in a single race since his 60 at Texas in the spring.

But Johnson spun in Turns 1 and 2 while battling for third on Lap 185 and slapped the Turn 2 wall. Johnson couldn’t make minimum speed after repairs and retired to the garage after completing 199 laps.

Note: John Hunter Nemechek finished 21st, one lap down in his Cup debut—substituting for Front Row Motorsports driver Matt Tifft, who suffered a seizure last Saturday at Martinsville.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kevin Harvick speeds to pole for Texas Playoff race

FORT WORTH, Tex. – Kevin Harvick took the first step toward getting back on the right side of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff cut line, winning the pole for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Harvick, who trails fourth-place Joey Logano by 14 points entering the second race of the Round of 8, toured the 1.5-mile track in 28.465 seconds (189.707 mph) to win his second Busch Pole Award at Texas, his series-best sixth of the season and the 31st of his career.

Erik Jones, already eliminated from the Playoffs, was second fastest at 188.890 mph, .123 seconds behind Harvick. Denny Hamlin, second in the Playoff standings, qualified third at 188.12 mph, followed by Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and Aric Almirola.

“The best part is our car drove really well in race trim yesterday and still had a lot of speed when we put it in qualifying trim today,” said Harvick, winner of the last two Playoff races at Texas. “So, hopefully, we can keep our track position.

“As you saw the last race (at Texas), you want to be up front and you want to be on the right cycle of rotation of pit strategy. Having that first pit stall is definitely an advantage here. It will be a track position game, and hopefully we can play it right and keep ourselves up front.”

Logano will start 11th in his attempt to protect his position in the standings. Other Playoff drivers earned the following positions on the grid: Kyle Busch 12th, Kyle Larson 13th, Chase Elliott 14th, Ryan Blaney 15th and Martin Truex Jr. 17th.

Truex has already qualified for the Nov. 17 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway by virtue of last Sunday’s victory at Martinsville.

After a broken axle and a 36th-place finish at Martinsville, Elliott trails Logano by 44 points and likely must win one of the next two races to advance to the Championship 4.

In a substitute role for Front Row Motorsports driver Matt Tifft, who suffered a seizure last Saturday at Martinsville,. John Hunter Nemechek qualified 29th.

“That was the first qualifying run I have ever done in a Cup car,” Nemechek said. “It was pretty interesting. We went faster today than we did yesterday. That is a positive. We’re getting faster every time on the race track. It’s a whole new deal for myself, being over here in the Cup garage. Different scenarios, a whole new team. Different communications. A lot of variables that play into this weekend.

“I’m really thankful for the opportunity from (owner) Bob (Jenkins) and everyone at Front Row Motorsports. I hate that the circumstances are like this. I really wish Matt Tifft a speedy recovery and hope he is back at the race track very soon.”