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XFINITY

Jones Survives “Wild Chase” to Compete for XFINITY Title at Homestead

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Throughout the XFINITY Series Chase, there were moments when it looked like Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones would not have a chance to be one of the final four championship drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After winning the 2015 Camping World Truck Series title as a rookie, he was instantly a favorite for the 2016 XFINITY championship and with four victories on the year, rightfully so.

However, mishaps have plagued Jones at inopportune times.

In the opening of the Round of 12, he led half of the 200-lap race at Kentucky Speedway but got caught up in a late wreck with Ty Dillon and finished an undeserving 28th.

The following week at Dover International Speedway, the 20-year-old ended up two laps down after reporting a vibration in his team, which forced him to make an off-cycle pit stop before halfway. This came back to haunt Jones when he had to pit for fuel with less than 10 laps left and he finished 16th.

He scored a top five at Charlotte Motor Speedway to survive the three opening Chase races and compete in the Round of 8.

The second round went smoother, but he was never able to lock into Homestead with a victory. None of the other series regulars won in the Round of 8 either, so he didn’t endure as much pressure as in the first round. Despite multiple issues on pit road through the event, he finished 10th in Phoenix, which sufficed for a berth in the title-deciding race in southern Florida.

In this playoff format, the fastest cars aren’t always the ones still standing for the championship finale. Look at Kyle Busch Motorsports rookie William Byron, who won six Truck Series races but was eliminated from the Chase when he suffered an engine failure after leading 112 laps at Phoenix.

Byron’s title hopes ended at the conclusion of the Round of 6 and won’t do what seemed likely, which was also winning the Truck Series championship as a rookie, like Jones.

“It was definitely shocking to see William get knocked out,” Jones said. “I don’t think anybody expected that. It just shows how wild the Chase is.

“I was watching it, and I was in disbelief. Sure, it crosses your mind when you’re in that position, and you have a mistake. We can still get it and do what we need to do. It’s a wild Chase format, but I’m proud to say we’ve made it to Homestead.”

For two consecutive seasons, Jones will have the opportunity to win a NASCAR championship as a rookie.

“It would be really sweet to go back-to-back with the Truck and XFINITY deal,” Jones said. “This is going to be one of my only shots in the near future to win an XFINITY championship. I’d definitely like to get it done and hopefully go try to win a [Sprint Cup Series] championship someday. It’s a goal of mine, and I’d love to do it, so it’s pretty special to be at Homestead again with a shot to win a championship.”

If Jones were to hoist the XFINITY trophy next week, he’d be the first in NASCAR history to win the Truck and XFINITY titles in consecutive seasons.

In 2017, he’ll race in the premier series in a second car for Furniture Row Racing driving the No. 77 Toyota.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

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Trucks

Kennedy Eliminated in Round of 6 After Two-Team Effort in 2016

AVONDALE, Ariz. — It was a tale of two teams for Ben Kennedy in 2016, who was eliminated from the Chase Round of 6 on Friday night.

Kennedy, son of International Speedway Corporation CEO Lesa France Kennedy, finished ninth in the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway, which ended the GMS Racing driver’s title aspirations along with Kyle Busch Motorsports rookie William Byron, who suffered a blown engine after leading 112 laps.

The 24-year-old started the year with Red Horse Racing and drove the No. 11 for the first three races of the season collecting finishes of 23rd, 15th and 11th while driving for Red Horse. Owner Tom DeLoach decided to emphasize focus on Timothy Peters having an opportunity to win the 2016 championship, so his team parted ways with Kennedy.

He joined GMS in April and made his debut with the team at Kansas Speedway in May, where he earned his first top 10 of 2016.

In the summer night showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway in August, Kennedy won his first career Camping World Truck Series race and clinched a berth in the series’ inaugural Chase.

He collected two top fives in the Chase and survived the opening Round of 8. But finishes of 18th, 13th and ninth weren’t enough to advance to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway as one of the final four.

“It was a good transition coming over to GMS, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from this group,” Kennedy told POPULAR SPEED. “I have awesome teammates and really smart people. We’ve had fast trucks. We won at Bristol, and we ran down Kyle [Busch] at Chicago. Some races we have been able to capitalize and some we’ve missed it a little bit, but we’ll go on to Homestead.”

GMS had the best year of its history in NASCAR this season. The organization, which only had one victory since its inception, has won six races in 2016 with the Homestead finale next.

Naturally, the team will look to build on its success from this year and translate it to 2017.

“We’ll just keep building on it, we have a really good platform,” Kennedy said. “This year was all about learning. There were some tracks that kind of surprised us. We thought we had some good mile-and-a-half packages as well as this one [Phoenix, a one-mile oval] and missed it quite a bit. But will have a good notebook going forward.”

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

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Trucks

Byron Misses Final Four After Engine Failure; Knows Bright Future is Near

AVONDALE, Ariz. — After climbing out of his truck and adhering to obligatory interviews with television and radio reporters, a disappointed William Byron sauntered down pit road to visit Victory Lane and congratulate his Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Daniel Suarez on his first career Camping World Truck Series win.

Walking next to Byron and comforting him with an arm around his shoulder was his driving coach, Max Papis, who explained to the 18-year-old rookie, “Sometimes, that’s racing.”

The young NASCAR phenom dominated the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway, as well as the entire 2016 Camping World Truck Series season. But his quest for the title was spoiled when his No. 9 Toyota’s motor expired with nine laps remaining.

He captured his second pole of the year and was en route to his seventh win on Friday night, but it wasn’t meant to be for the racer who led 112 of 150 laps at the desert oval.

Yet Byron held his high and had a slight grin on his face, knowing his team gave it all it had.

“It’s been a good, or great season for us — it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to for us obviously,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED. “But those things happen, I guess. We had a lot of good things happen to us this year, so I’m just proud of that and proud of this team.”

The victory was in his hands, and it would have given him a berth in the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week, but instead the No. 9 finished a hapless 27th.

“I think that the water temperatures were a little too high, but I don’t know what we could have done there,” Byron said of his engine’s failure. “We didn’t have a ton of pit stops to clean the grill or anything, so I don’t know how much we had on the grill or whatnot, so it’s just unfortunate.”

He and GMS Racing’s Ben Kennedy, who finished ninth, were eliminated from the Chase Round of 6. Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton, Christopher Bell, and Timothy Peters will go for the title in the series finale.

Although Byron won’t capture the grand prize next week, he has a bright future in the XFINITY Series on deck. He’ll compete for NASCAR’s second-tier level championship in 2017 with JR Motorsports.

“I just can’t wait for that opportunity,” Byron said. “But I’m so invested in these guys [at KBM] right now and with this year. It hurts because we’re fighting. We fought all night, and we fought all throughout the Chase to get the best points position, and it just didn’t work out.”

Homestead marks his final race with KBM. Surely, he’ll try to end his tenure with the organization with one last victory.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

Categories
Trucks

Pit Road Mishap Dooms Gallagher at Texas

After starting from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway, it looked like Spencer Gallagher was on the verge of his first career NASCAR victory.

Gallagher, son of GMS Racing owner Maury Gallagher, led 88 laps in the Striping Technology 350 but ended up with a seventh-place result.

He had a dominating performance at the mile-and-a-half track, but GMS teammate Johnny Sauter, who clinched a Championship 4 berth with a victory at Martinsville last week, won his second consecutive race.

GMS has won the last three Truck races. Before Sauter’s win, ARCA Series veteran Grant Enfinger spoiled the Chase party with his first NASCAR victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

During the final round of pit stops under caution, Gallagher entered pit road as the leader, but his crew had trouble changing the right rear tire, and it cost the No. 23 team the lead and ultimately, the race.

Gallagher restarted seventh, and Sauter took the lead off pit road.

Said Gallagher, “It’s been nothing but amazing since we unloaded it off the truck. I got to hand it to this GMS Racing team as they’re strong. We lost this as a team, but if we pull one of these off, it’ll be as a team. But hey, that’s three [consecutive wins] for GMS Racing. I don’t think any other team is going to win a race this year. There’s a championship run coming out of this team.”

Although he’ll have to continue his wait for the elusive first victory, the 26-year-old was in good spirits after the race.

While Sauter did his post-race interview with FOX Sports from Victory Lane, Gallagher crept into the camera shot and briefly danced behind his teammate.

https://twitter.com/NASCAR_Trucks/status/794733195656888320

Seemed like he was happy for Sauter, who will be one of the final four Chasers standing at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

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Trucks

THREE TAKEWAYS: Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville

Sauter Clinches Championship Berth

Thirteen-year Camping World Truck Series veteran Johnny Sauter will be one of the four championship drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway in three weeks. He won the Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday to clinch his spot in the final four.

Sauter started fifth and led 50 laps at the paperclip-shaped track. He held off a late charge by Chase Elliott, who started from the pole and led 109 laps.

Sauter won the season-opener at Daytona in February and hadn’t been to Victory Lane since then. His Martinsville win came at the perfect time, and now his No. 21 GMS Racing team can focus on the championship-deciding race in southern Florida.

He finished runner-up in the 2011 Truck Series standings six points shy of the title, which went to Austin Dillon. Will 2016 be the year he wins his first championship?

Logging Laps For Sunday

Elliott drove the No. 71 truck for Contreras Motorsports to get experience at one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks. Elliott, making his first truck start since 2013, looked like the truck to beat, but settled for a second-place result behind Sauter.

Said Elliott after the race: “I feel like I learned a lot and at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing for tomorrow.”

Elliott has two career Sprint Cup Series starts at Martinsville. He made his Cup debut at the track in Spring 2015, but was involved in a wreck and finished 38th. Earlier this season, he finished 20th one lap down.

Ben Versus Ben

After the race, Ben Kennedy and Ben Rhodes had a few words for each other. Rhodes made contact and spun Kennedy’s No. 33 with 25 laps to go, which naturally upset Kennedy, who is one of the six Chase contenders.

Rhodes said he would have apologized to Kennedy, but the two talked on pit road immediately after the race instead.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

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Trucks

Nemechek’s Title Hopes … And Engine, Go Up in Smoke

Entering Saturday’s Fred’s 250 at Talladega Superspeedway, John Hunter Nemechek was one of the two drivers outside the cutoff for the next round of the inaugural Camping World Truck Series Chase.

Nemechek needed to have a strong finish to advance to the Round of 6, but his race was short-lived after the engine of his No. 8 expired on Lap 13 of the 94-lap race.

Nemechek was running in the top 10 when his truck’s motor went up in smoke. The failure ultimately squashed his championship hopes.

There was no indication of the truck overheating according to Nemechek.

“All my temps were fine,” he told Fox Sports. “I haven’t seen a blow up like that in a while. Definitely disappointing, but that’s how our last three weeks have been.”

The last three races have resulted in finishes of 14th, ninth, and 16th for the No. 8 team, including a 10-point penalty following New Hampshire for a rules violation.

The 19-year-old son of former NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek won two truck races this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Although he won’t win the title this year, he wants to salvage the 2016 season with a few more victories.

He said, “Hopefully we can go forward and win some races before the season is over.”

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

Categories
XFINITY

Can Koch’s ‘Underdog’ Lure Suffice For Homestead Advancement?

Less than 10 months ago, Kaulig Racing was not yet in existence.

Today, the first-year XFINITY Series team with Blake Koch piloting the No. 11 Chevrolet is third in the Chase standings with three races left in 2016.

Everyone appreciates a good underdog story and Koch’s inceptive season with the single-car organization has certainly been popular with fans of NASCAR’s secondary series.

Koch stated the team’s goal at the start of this year’s XFINITY campaign was simply to make the series’ inaugural Chase. Through a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing and 19 top-15 results in 30 races, they’ve accomplished that and more.

The No. 11 advanced to the second round of the Chase, which Koch did not expect. And it’s easy to see why he didn’t because outracing Sprint Cup Series-affiliated teams such as RCR, Joe Gibbs Racing, or JR Motorsports is not an easy task.

But through the first four races of the Chase, Koch has done something some of the drivers of those teams haven’t. He’s stayed away from trouble.

Koch isn’t necessarily the flashiest driver in the series, but he’s one of the most consistent. His four Chase finishes are 11th, 14th, 12th, and ninth. That’s enough to place him seven points behind championship leaders Elliott Sadler and Daniel Suarez.

So here’s the big question: Can Koch make it to Homestead-Miami Speedway as one of the four title contenders?

There’s no reason why he can’t. When you’re racing against JGR and JRM — two organizations with series regulars that have combined for nine victories in 2016 — and your best finish is eighth, surely the odds are going to be against you. But those teams’ drivers can afford to be more aggressive, which means they’re prone to more crashes.

JGR and JRM have flexed their horsepower all season long, and that’s OK … until a battle for the lead late in a race results in a couple of DNFs.

It’s kind of like The Tortoise and the Hare story, and Koch has been the tortoise that goes steadily about his business.

The next two races at Texas and Phoenix are going to be tough. The pressure will be on the remaining Chase contenders to get the best finishes possible and be one of the Championship 4 at Homestead.

But for Koch, any further playoff advancement is all gravy. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He’s only five points above the Chase cutoff, so he might need some more things to go his way in the next two events.

But there aren’t any guarantees of misfortune striking the competition. Koch can only worry about racing to the best of his ability and anything else that happens with other Chase contenders is out of his control.

Still, you never know, he might have the red XFINITY banner above his windshield come November 19th.

After all, not many people predicted the little team that could to survive the Round of 12. Only time will tell the fate of his career-best season in NASCAR.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

Categories
XFINITY

THREE TAKEAWAYS: Drive For The Cure 300 at Charlotte

The Round of 12 in the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase came to an end on Sunday evening with Joey Logano winning the 300-mile event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Ty Dillon, Brennan Poole, Ryan Sieg, and Brandon Jones were eliminated from playoff contention, and now the Chase Grid is set for the Round of 8.

Larson’s Domination Not Enough

Kyle Larson started from the pole and led 165 laps in the 200-lap event, but a late caution along with a not-so-good restart handed Logano the lead with 12 laps remaining.

Larson, although not an XFINITY regular, did have an incentive to win in the Chip Ganassi Racing entry.

His car entered the race 12th in the owner’s championship standings and needed a win to advance to the next round. It looked like it was going to happen for the No. 42, but the team finished fourth and won’t be contending for the XFINITY owner championship in the final four races.

Jones Advances, But Still Not Error-Free

Erik Jones entered Sunday’s event 10th in the driver standings and needed a mistake-free day to advance to the Round of 8 — or at least it seemed that way. He didn’t have a perfect race, but luckily for him, other Chase contenders had issues, and he was able to keep his championship hopes alive.

Jones battled Larson for the lead for a majority of the race, but he was penalized with 25 laps to go for an uncontrolled tire during a round of green-flag pit stops.

He was running second at the time of the penalty, and his wandering tire brought out the caution. Jones was able to rebound to a fifth-place finish after leading 21 laps.

Dillon’s Disappointment; Koch’s Exuberance

Ty Dillon missed the cutoff for the Round of 8 by one point. He finished one lap down in 11th place and the third-year series regular will not win the 2016 championship.

Dillon told NBC Sports: “We were terrible today and didn’t give ourselves much of a shot. We fired off pretty good. I don’t know — for whatever reason; our car was definitely not the same today.

“You got to expect things to happen, which happened in the first race at Kentucky. That’s the way this Chase is built. Things happen, and some of the best cars are going to get knocked out, but you got to be able to rebound if you’re going to win the championship and we weren’t able to rebound.”

On the other hand, Blake Koch and his first-year team, Kaulig Racing, are advancing in the Chase. Koch said he was so excited he wanted to do a burnout when his team told him they’re advancing to the Round of 8.

Koch finished 12th at Charlotte; he and the No. 11 team appear to be the underdog story of 2016.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

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Trucks

THREE TAKEAWAYS: UNOH 175 at NHMS

The UNOH 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway served as the first battleground for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chase playoffs. Already some of the eight contending drivers were met with adversity and will need to make up for it in the upcoming two events of this round. In the end, William Byron grabbed the first victory of the playoffs and earned entry into round two.

Here are three takeaways from event one of the Chase:

KBM Puts Everyone on Notice

From the drop of the green flag, Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates and Chase contenders Byron and Christopher Bell dominated the 175 lap race.  Many drivers tried various pit strategy, but they were no match for the Toyota-powered organization. Byron and Bell executed a flawless race, led a total of 171 laps and finished first and second respectively.

The strong showing from the organization secured them as early favorites for the championship. If either of the two rookies were to grab the title this year, they would be among the youngest Truck Series champions – Byron (18) would be the youngest ever.

Problems Are Going to Come

Among the Chase contenders, Daniel Hemric did not have the happiest of days. Early on in the race, the 25-year-old driver suffered a flat left-rear tire and sustained minor damage. After repairs on pit road, the driver was several laps down, and couldn’t recover. He finished 28th.

The No. 19 team now stands eighth, 21 points from safety. Two drivers will be eliminated after the event at Talladega Superspeedway. To advance to the next round, Hemric might need a little luck to pull through. However, problems are bound to happen for other contenders as well – especially with a restrictor plate event looming in two weeks. Perhaps the team just needs to focus and stay consistent.

Won’t Back Down

Just because they’re not in the Chase, doesn’t mean they’re going to back down. It might serve as a surprise that several non-chase drivers earned strong top-10 finishes Saturday afternoon. Tyler Reddick secured his fifth top-5 of the season and rookie Cole Custer placed sixth. Furthermore, part-time Truck Series competitors Kaz Grala and Brett Moffitt finished seventh and eighth respectively.

Drivers like these might be a source of aggravation for the Chase contenders, but they prove how talented and competitive the Truck Series field is. While they might not be scraping for a title, their season isn’t over until the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway – and victory lane remains on their mind.

EMAIL STEPHANIE AT stephanie.adair@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.

Categories
Trucks

KBM Makes Statement With One-Two Finish in First Chase Race

If Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race was any indication of how the Chase will play out, then teams other than Kyle Busch Motorsports will have to step their game up if they want a chance at the 2016 title.

William Byron won the series’ first ever Chase race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after starting from the pole and leading 161 of 175 laps. His KBM teammate, Christopher Bell, finished second and led 11 laps. Even Cody Coughlin, although not a series regular, led three laps in the No. 51 Toyota for KBM but finished 20th after running out of fuel mid-race.

Not a single lap was led by a non-KBM truck at the mile-long track. What does this mean for teams such as ThorSport Racing, Brad Keselowski Racing, Red Horse Racing and GMS Racing, who are all in the championship hunt? They’ve got some work to do.

Byron’s victory was his sixth of the season; a record for a Truck Series rookie. His No. 9 Toyota is fast no matter where the series goes, and he entered the Chase as the favorite for the championship. Now he’s guaranteed into the next Chase round.

Bell had a rocky start to his first full-time season with four finishes outside the top 15 in the first seven events. But he now has three consecutive top fives and only one finish outside the top 10 in the last 10 races. He also won at Gateway Motorsports Park in June.

Of the 17 races completed thus far, KBM has won nine of them. If veterans such as ThorSport’s two-time champion Matt Crafton, GMS driver Johnny Sauter, or RHR racer Timothy Peters want to spoil the KBM young gun party, they’ll need to find more speed in the six remaining races.

BKR’s Daniel Hemric had trouble at New Hampshire and already finds himself in a must-win situation. He had brakes issues and spun on Lap 25. His No. 19 Ford was taken behind the wall during the race and wound up 28th.

As for John Hunter Nemechek and Ben Kennedy, their respective finishes of ninth and 11th on Saturday won’t be enough to win it all at the season finale in November.

As long as Byron and Bell stay out of trouble and barring any bad luck, they’ll be the drivers everyone will chase for the trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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