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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.

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.

 

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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.

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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Drivers Expecting “Really Fast,” Tough Race at Dover

Entering the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, NASCAR introduced a new higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition package. While that would lead many to believe speeds and lap times would decrease as a result, that is not the driver’s expectation ahead of Dover International Speedway this weekend.

“Dover is one of the places I think that we will really, really notice the minimum speed being much faster than what we had with last years rule package,” Aric Almirola said. “The straightaway speed I don’t think will be much different but because of all the downforce on the cars that we have now with this rules package, I think the minimum speed and the mid-corner speed will be so high. It is going to be incredibly fast.”

The reason behind the theory is the corner speeds at Dover are higher than other tracks, due to the 24 degrees of banking allowing drivers to remain in the gas longer than speedways of a longer length overall. Bristol Motor Speedway, which is dubbed a smaller version of the Monster Mile, saw the same theory at play with a new track record set during the second round of qualifying.

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

“Next week is going to be a tough race I think,” Martin Truex Jr. commented. “The speeds are going to be really high. I’m sure it will be the fastest we’ve ever been around Dover and you know, 400 laps there is tough no matter what. I think it’s going to be pretty crazy.”

The theory is also used in theory in the NASCAR  Gander Outdoor Truck Series as on several tracks, they are able to hold the throttle wide-open through the corner. Almirola feels it will be a similar experience in qualifying, with “not a lot of off-throttle time” during the event.

Although the allure of speed has caught the attention of many, it could work counter productively in not producing the type of competitive side-by-side racing fans are desiring. 

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to do some passing and you know, hopefully the dirty air deals not terrible, but it’s definitely going to be tough,” Truex said. “I think track position will be important, but the speeds it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be demanding. You know Bristol was pretty crazy. I thought it was just how hard you had to drive the car each and every lap and as fast as Dover is, I think feel wise it’s probably the fastest place we go. So it’s going to be an eye opener I think for some guys.”

The increase in corner speed could also present a challenge in relation to the tires, as there is a potential for issues with being faster across the middle of the corner, and more load on them as a result. 

“I think there is potential for that but I believe Goodyear has done a tires test there earlier this year and they had wheel force transducer cars on the track there collecting data,” Almirola said. “That is in their hands. I am not going to speculate on that. I think that there is potential if they are not prepared for it.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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News

Aric Almirola wins Busch Pole at Atlanta, first since 2012

HAMPTON, Ga. – Clint Bowyer was on the doorstep of securing his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole position since 2007, but teammate Aric Almirola and fellow Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had the last say.

Almirola powered his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to the fastest lap of the day in the final round of Friday’s knockout qualifying session at Atlanta Motor Speedway, claiming the second Busch Pole Award of his career — and his first since winning the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2012.

The 34-year-old driver from Tampa, Fla., will take the green flag from the top starting spot in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Almirola also earns the distinction as the first driver to put a Mustang on the pole for a Cup race, with Ford having introduced that model into the series this year. He’s also the first pole winner under NASCAR’s new higher-downforce, lower-horsepower 2019 Cup competition package.

“We knew our car had a lot of raw speed in it,” said Almirola, who covered the 1.54-mile distance in 30.55 seconds (181.473 mph) to beat Stenhouse (180.428 mph) for the top starting spot by .177 seconds. “Through the rounds, the adjustments that (crew chief) Johnny (Klausmeier) was making kept making our car a little bit better.

“Then that final round just was really good execution by the whole team … Honestly, the car that the guys brought, we were good right off the truck. We were second in practice and we carried that speed through qualifying. In that final round, we knew that a second lap was going to be faster than the first.

“That first lap, we kind of decided to throw that lap away and work on building the speed up. That second lap, I just really executed and hit all my marks perfectly and was able to be good enough and had a really fast lap to get the pole, which is really cool because I haven’t done it in like seven years. That was pretty neat.”

After leading the first two rounds, Bowyer was first to make an attempt in the money round, beating Austin Dillon in a drag race off pit road to start his final laps. Bowyer (180.410 mph) held the top starting spot until Almirola and Stenhouse surpassed him late in the session.

“I thought Austin would take off and go, and he was kind of lagging back,” Bowyer said of the start to the final round. “I knew it was a momentum deal, and I had to have as much as I could, and it still wasn’t enough.

“I do believe that we were the fastest car all day long, and they were going to have to do something and they formulated a good plan to beat us.”

Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin qualified fourth at 180.328 mph in the fastest Toyota, followed by the Stewart-Haas entry of Daniel Suarez (180.216 mph). Kyle Busch was sixth, ahead of the Chip Ganassi racing Chevrolets of Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch in seventh and eighth, respectively.

Martin Truex Jr., Dillon, Jimmie Johnson and Michael McDowell completed the top 12.

Defending race winner Kevin Harvick qualified 18th despite a power steering problem that surfaced during the first lap of Friday’s opening practice and persisted throughout time trials.

Harvick couldn’t turn his No. 4 Ford to the right, meaning he couldn’t correct the car off the corners.

“Today has been a complete waste of time for us,” Harvick said. “The car won’t steer. It won’t turn to the right. We can’t figure out what is wrong with the steering to make it go straight.

“It has been a bit of a challenge today. We haven’t really made any laps that you can actually turn the car. We were kind of just hoping for the best there, and it didn’t fix any of it.”

Joey Logano will start 27th after his car slipped on his first attempt in the opening round.

“I think it’s just the rules package,” Logano said. “We’re still trying to learn and understand what’s going on here. I just got loose the first lap behind the 10 (Almirola), trying to find the right distance behind the car I wanted to be.

“I don’t know if I was the right distance or the handling was just off. We tightened it up the second time, but it didn’t give us any speed. We will start in the back and work our way up.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Expectations Rising for Three Underrated Drivers in 2019

The new year is finally here and we are a couple months away from getting back to racing with the Daytona 500 just around the corner.

A new season means that we will be seeing some drivers change, as well as shifts in personal within organizations. The upcoming campaign will be unique since the sanctioning body is introducing a new rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars. 

Here are a three drivers that can surprise in 2019 and can take a step forward from 2018.

1. Aric Almirola

The veteran driver from Tampa, Florida debuted for Stewart-Haas Racing last season driving the No. 10 car that Danica Patrick drove for six years. There was always potential with that ride and Almirola showed how good they can be. With an average finish of 12.8 Almirola finished fifth in the playoffs, just one spot away from being part of the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

A win late in the season at Talladega Superspeedway gave Almirola a boost that he needed to finish the year strong. However, some can argue that he could have had a few more in the bag. For example, at Chicagoland Speedway, he led 70 laps but going through tire issues twice during the race stopped him from getting the victory.

“Our car was super-fast, especially out in clean air. It was incredibly fast. We just have to execute; we have to put a whole race together. That’s the difference between being good and being great,” Almirola said after that race.

This upcoming season making the Championship 4 is what should be expected from this team after breaking out in 2018.

2. William Byron

This one might be surprise for some people. Byron is going to enter his second season as a full-time driver in the Cup Series and we have seen how much talent he has as he moved up the ranks. In 2018, you can tell that Byron went through rookie struggles, but at the end of it he has grown from it.

“I mean, a lot, I guess I mean we had a lot of up and downs and its good, you know I’m excited for whatever is to come,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED shortly after finishing the Ford EcoBoost 400 in November.

This upcoming season, there will be a switch in crew chiefs as Chad Knaus will be taking the helm for the No. 24 team. This should really help the young driver develop and gain more experience. In 2018, his best finish was sixth at Pocono where he led 10 laps; with the proper resources and tools that are coming for Byron in 2019, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t expect to make the playoffs.

A debut in the playoffs would be impressive but getting passed the Round of 16 would be even bigger.

3. Ryan Blaney

His name is becoming more known as his popularity grew massively with fans in 2018. After scoring a last lap win at the ROVAL in Charlotte in October, Blaney showed that he needed to be taken serious for title consideration. He fell short of the Championship 4, but he did show us that he is a rising star in the Cup Series.

With an average finish of 9.4, Blaney was able to impress by running consistently up front. The competition within his team had some suggesting that he was behind his two other teammates when it comes to who is better; that shows the strength that Team Penske has. His move to the Captain’s Ship in 2018 is helping him grow especially since he is learning from a pair of veterans.

Blaney is going to enter the 2019 season with more expectations on the line, as people will look for him to score more victories and take the next step in the playoffs. An appearance in the Championship 4 is one goal that should be on the docket. The upcoming campaign may be the year that Blaney takes the next step in becoming an actual championship contender.

A new chapter in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history begins February 17 at Daytona International Speedway and these are three guys that can make a major improvement from 2018.

EMAIL BRYAN AT: Bryn_rivero@yahoo.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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway

NASCAR implemented the playoff system to create drama late in the season, and the Can-Am 500 certainly helped in doing so on Sunday at ISM Raceway.

Six drivers fighting for two spots – actually seven but Kyle Busch was also not mathematically locked in but just had to finish better than 33rd, and everybody got a piece of the drama throughout the event. From flat tires and pit road speeding penalties, to crazy restarts and wrecks, the clear picture of who would be the Championship 4 for Homestead-Miami Speedway was never written out until the checkered flag. The drama, combined with a track that allows drivers to make passes, produced the perfect race to set-up the finale.

It’s fitting that a crazy event sees the driver nicknamed Rowdy, Kyle Busch, make his way to the front via some great restarts – 10th to third in a corner at one point, to score the victory. A solid comeback from a flat tire worked out for Kevin Harvick, while Martin Truex Jr. used his point cushion and a smart race to his advantage. The three will now join Joey Logano next weekend in the Championship 4.

Aric Almirola certainly made it interesting, challenging for the victory on the late-race restarts, but just didn’t have enough for Busch, or Brad Keselowski for that matter. Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott each showed speed to win the race, but an incident with Denny Hamlin eliminated them both. For Clint Bowyer, it was a flat tire and contact with the wall ending his chances.

The format created the drama, but one thing is still important – performance.

“The whole year counts,” Chase Elliott commented afterwards. “Those guys, winning a lot of races throughout the season, is what kept them away from a pressure-filled situation. All the bonus points they built up pretty much got them to Homestead, and that that’s the way that step stone is meant to work. It pays to win.”

The four drivers who will race for the championship have ran up front all season long, winning races, leading laps, scoring the most top-fives, picking up over 20 top-10’s each, and have the four best average finishes of all competitors. Despite having bad luck at one point or another in the playoffs, the advantage they built via playoff points made it easier to advance. While it may seem to come down a single event, the teams that they built through out the year are what have gotten them here.

That’s why THE BIG THREE, along with hints of Logano, were originally predicted to make up the Championship 4. Now the four best drivers of the 2018 season will race for the championship, and it’s bound to be a show.

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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Almirola “Oh So Close” to Championship 4

Aric Almirola entered the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs as an underdog. Being one of five drivers that made the post-season based on points, expectations of making a deep title run were low.

However, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver quickly proved those predictions wrong and put up a strong nine-race performance that nearly earned him a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As his three challengers under the cutoff line crashed out of Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway, the No. 10 team found themselves at the front with a shot at victory.

Despite not having the fastest car, late restarts played into Almirola’s favor. However, he was unable to capitalize as Kyle Busch’s strength showed as he pulled away to his eighth win of 2018.

Almirola placed fourth, marking his second-best finish of the playoffs. However, only first-place mattered for his team at Phoenix.

“We took a seventh or eighth-place car and the next thing you know we were in position to win the race,” Almirola said. “It was a good day for us, but today we needed to win and we didn’t win.”

While it’s a discouraging conclusion to an impressive championship run, many never expected the No. 10 team to be in this position. Beginning the season with a new driver and ending it just short of a title race berth tells the story of a remarkable breakout year. 

“This is our first year working together,” Almirola said. “You look at all the teams we’re racing and they’ve got four, five, six, seven years working together, so what we’ve accomplished in one year is a hell of a lot…”

Outrunning some of the most experienced competitors in the garage this fall attests to SHR’s strength and Almirola’s growth. In his one previous post-season appearance with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014, he was eliminated after the first round.

With one event remaining in 2018, Almirola has already posted career numbers across the table, including scoring nine more top-10 finishes than his previous high of seven in 2014.

This success sets the bar higher for the No. 10 team moving forward. With a full year under their belts and returning to tracks where they contested closely for wins, Almirola could emerge as a consistent front-runner in the coming seasons. 

Phoenix may leave Almirola wrestling with what-if scenarios heading into the championship race, but off-season reflection and further improvement could fuel another breakout year in 2019.

“It’s been a long grind and I’m tired and I’m ready for the offseason, but I really wanted to go to Homestead with a chance to run for a championship and oh so close.”

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

OBSERVATIONS: AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

When it came to intermediate tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, Texas Motor Speedway was one that was circled as one to watch. The drivers covered all three grooves on the track, while track president Eddie Gossage entertained with his theatrics.

While those stunts may remain from Gossage, the track has lost it’s luster over the past two years since the reconfiguration and repave. The AAA Texas 500 now becomes a fight for the bottom groove, as drivers find it difficult to pass while racing on the racer’s edge. The result was a 501 mile race on Sunday afternoon strung out through the field without many battles for position.

The saving grace for the end of the event was a pair of cautions in the late stages, producing a pair of restarts that saw Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney battle for the top spot. The continued dominance from Harvick paid off as the mistakes which took him out of other events didn’t happen, and he made his way into victory lane to punch his ticket for Homestead-Miami Speedway.

His counterparts in THE BIG THREE weren’t so lucky with pit road speeding penalties and loose wheels taking both Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. out of contention for the win. Truex rebounded for a top-10, but Busch ultimately finished 17th. Those bonus points earned through victories and stage wins through the first 26 races are still paying, as the gap to the rest of the field is still significant. Ultimately, if one of them is set to be left on the outside of the Championship 4, that will have to happen courtesy of a win by one of the other four contenders.

The battle for championship does continue to get interesting, though. Joey Logano may be locked in for the Championship 4, but he’s making his life harder it may appear. After upsetting Truex with a late race bump-and-run at Martinsville, he made contact with Aric Almirola late at Texas.

“The 22 just went down in turn three and put it right on my door and about wrecked us both,” Almirola said post-race. “I am not sure. I will have to talk to him. He just continues to make things harder on himself. If that is the way he wants to race me when he is already locked into Homestead and we are out here fighting for our lives, that is fine. When Homestead comes around if I am not in, he will know it.”

Although the contact can be attributed to hard racing and the style of what Texas has become, one to has to ask – will it ultimately cost Logano at Homestead-Miami Speedway? We will see in a couple weeks.

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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

When you have friends and fast cars, you can make everything easy for you and your teammates. Just ask Stewart-Haas Racing.

Through the first two stages of the 1000Bulbs.com 500, their four cars controlled the event, taking the top-four spots as they got in line after each of the restarts, and pulled away. With having been used to chaos and big packs over the past couple of years, it was a weird dynamic to see the tides shift to looking so simple for them. Teams have been dominated together before – just look at Team Penske who had won six of the last right races at Talladega Superspeedway. However, they still had to contend equally against other drivers to score their victories.

The dynamic made for an interesting storyline and is something that will be talked about for the days to come. In return, though, the racing essentially turned boring. Seeing a whole string of cars follow each other around the 2.66 mile oval without much passing could easily put any fan watching to sleep. But, we’ve seen this before as drivers will ride and wait till the end before going crazy so everybody tried to hang in there.

If it wasn’t for a late-race incident by Jamie McMurray having a flat tire, or D.J. Kennington‘s team watching a tire roll out into the middle of the infield grass for a debris caution, it was turning essentially into a yawn fest with the only question remaining whether the four Stewart-Haas Racing had enough fuel to reach the end.

The last few green flag runs produced some more exciting action as teams tried to form runs, even an impressive attempt by Team Penske, but it was more of the same. The only saving grace to late-race drama was Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick running out of gas going into the overtime finish, leaving Aric Almirola to fend off the field.

Redemption would be the perfect word for Almirola. Sometimes you can say that drivers lucked into these wins, but he has come close a couple of times throughout the season, most recently at Dover International Speedway last weekend. He also got wrecked out of the lead at the Daytona 500 by Austin Dillon

Busch, meanwhile, was left disappointed and understandably so as he appeared poised to snag the victory and lock himself into the next round. His frustration came through in his post-race comments.

“There were two human element calls there at the end,” he said. “I don’t know why we ran an extra lap under yellow and why there wasn’t the yellow for a dispatch of an ambulance.”

In past events, when a wreck has happened on the last lap, NASCAR has gone on the side of caution and called a yellow to get the drivers involved attention as soon as possible. This has brought forth criticism from the fans in wanting to see a green-flag finish.Therefore, when Matt DiBenedetto, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott wrecked during overtime on Sunday, the sanctioning body did not drop the yellow flag as they believed all drivers were okay. 

It’s certainly a double-edged sword that they are faced as sometimes a wreck may not look significant enough, but may cause more pain than realized for someone. However, you also want to appease the fans by making sure to deliver what they came for. It will be an argument that will always have two sides, without a decision that’s more right than the other. However, it is worth saying that safety of the drivers should always come first and hopefully that is being focused on by the sanctioning body when making the call. 

The restrictor plate track was expected to shake up the Round of 8 in the playoffs, and it has done that.

Who would’ve expected Brad Keselowski to be the first driver on the outside right now? Jason Schultz explains how that came to be perfectly, and that can be read by clicking here. 

You also have Martin Truex Jr. as the last driver currently in a position to transfer, 18 points above the cut-off line. After being known as one of THE BIG THREE through the season, he could easily see his championship hopes dashed next weekend after two straight poor finishes.

Each round of the playoffs has been dramatic so far, and hopefully that will hold true for Kansas Speedway despite those above the cut-off line distancing themselves from the rest.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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Aric Almirola finds long-awaited redemption with Talladega win

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Aric Almirola has been tantalizingly close to winning this season, only to come up empty.

On Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, he finally got to light the victory cigar.

When the No. 41 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch lost fuel pressure on the final lap of the 1000Bulbs.com 500, Almirola was there to collect his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory since 2014 and clinch a spot in the Round of 8 in the series Playoffs.

Almirola’s second career victory-and his first in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford-came one week after a late caution at Dover robbed him of a chance to win.

At the end of a race in which the Stewart-Haas cars achieved mind-bending dominance at NASCAR’s biggest track, Almirola finished .105 seconds ahead of teammate Clint Bowyer, who, coincidentally, caused the telltale caution at Dover-one that mirrored a similar situation at New Hampshire in July.

“This is awesome! At Talladega!” Almirola exulted after taking the checkered flag. “I’ve been so close so many times this year. Four or five times this year, I feel like we’ve had a shot to win, and I haven’t been able to seal the deal… I feel like I’ve let (the team) down so many times, because we’ve had so many opportunities to win and haven’t done it…

“We come here, a place that I love-I won an Xfinity race here last year. I just love racing at Talladega, and I came here with the mind-set that we were going to go give ’em hell, and if we wreck, we wreck, and if we win, we win. And we won!”

Led by Busch, the four Stewart-Haas drivers swept the top four starting positions in Saturday’s knockout qualifying session. But that was just the beginning. Busch won the first stage of Sunday’s race, followed by Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Almirola.

It was more of the same in Stage 2, with Harvick taking the green/checkers ahead of Bowyer, Busch and Almirola. Harvick scored enough stage points to clinch a spot in the Round of 8 of the Cup Playoffs.

“This was an incredible race for us,” Almirola said. “We were so committed to each other and so organized, and nobody in the field could touch us. It was us against the field. What an impressive run. I’m just proud to be the one on top today.”

The SHR drivers were running 1-2-3-4 with three laps left when Playoff driver Alex Bowman lost control of his No. 88 Chevrolet in Turn 4 to cause the eighth caution of the afternoon.

The yellow put Harvick and fellow Playoff drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney in dire straits with respect to fuel, and all three came to pit road to gas up before the final restart in overtime on Lap 192. Busch held the lead until his car sputtered in Turn 4 on the final lap–after a multicar wreck in Turn 1 damaged the cars of Playoff drivers Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr.

Almirola surged into the lead and took the checkered flag, leading his only lap of the afternoon.

With the runner-up finish, Bowyer climbed from outside the Round of 8 cutline to sixth in the Playoff standings, 21 points to the good.

“I was happy for Aric,” Bowyer said. “He had that race won last week (at Dover), and it was me that brought out the caution. I feel like he got a little redemption there.

“Was happy that we finished second. I think it was second, second and second (in all three stages). As far as our day went, we needed to be a little bit better.”

Because of the late-race fuel shortage, Keselowski and Blaney enter next Sunday’s Round of 12 cutoff race at Kansas in ninth and 10th place, respectively. Keselowski, who finished 27th at Talladega, trails reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. (23rd Sunday) by 18 points for the final spot in the Round of 8. Blaney, who ran 29th, is 22 points back.

Kyle Larson salvaged an 11th-place finish after a litany of issues, including a blown left rear tire and spin on the backstretch, but Larson trails Truex by 26 points. Bowman, who finished 33rd after wrecking, can advance to the Round of 8 only by winning at Kansas.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished third on Sunday, followed by Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, who solidified his claim to a Round of 8 berth with the fifth-place finish. Logano is 39 points ahead of Keselowski, his Team Penske teammate.

AJ Allmendinger ran sixth, followed by Jimmie Johnson, who recovered from a spin through the tri-oval grass and contact with the inside wall on Lap 62 to come home seventh. Erik Jones, Paul Menard and Regan Smith completed the top 10.