Categories
News

2020 Silly Season Updates and Expectations

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

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

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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

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

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

Gavin Baker | NKP

Chris Buescher

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

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

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

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Tyler Reddick

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Cole Custer

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Christopher Bell

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

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

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

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

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

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

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

Categories
XFINITY

GOOD & BAD: 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series Season

Another year of NASCAR Xfinity Series competition is in the books, with a familiar sight as Tyler Reddick was crowned the series champion for the second year in a row. Along the way, though, there were some highlights and low lights to consider from the action on-track all year.

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

GOOD: The future of NASCAR is very strong as proven by this past season’s championship battle. The series tagline “names are made here” remains true, as “the big three” in  Tyler ReddickCole Custer, and Christopher Bell showcased their talent on a weekly basis, with multiple wins a piece and highlights to call their own. Now being able to witness these three battle for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 2020 will be special.

Jasen Vinlove | NKP

BAD: Although Bell was able to prove himself, the last couple weeks of the season showcased a different side that hopefully does not remain in 2020. Although he was fast, the Toyota Racing driver made a couple costly mistakes. 

He sped on pit road and spun at ISM Raceway to cost himself a win there after dominating early, while he missed pit road under green and cost himself valuable time at Homestead. It did not ultimately be the title factor due to the handling of the No. 20 Toyota going away over the course of the long run, but those are mistakes you would not expect out of a driver who won eight events this past season.

GOOD: While it was fun watching the big three all year, the way the championship went down in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was perfect. Each of them were able to battle side-by-side, taking turns at challenging each other, allowing fans to keep guessing who would come out on top.

Reddick and Bell had a thrilling battle back and forth to start the third stage, with Bell trying to take Reddick’s line away to stop the ensuing challenge for the top spot. Though the highlight of the night belongs to Reddick and Custer. After coming off pit road together, the pair quickly made work of Bell, before going back and forth for a number of laps. From giving each other the slide job, to trying different lanes, it was everything you’d want in a title race in watching the contenders go head-to-head.

BAD: Sometimes it takes a little bit of calming down behind the wheel, and that seems to be something that Noah Gragson and Austin Cindric may want to address through the winter. On a couple occasions this year, being overaggressive put him in a worse situation than he should have been.

Russell Labounty | NKP

Gragson went over the edge at Kansas Speedway, ultimately getting into the wall on a couple occasions, resulting in an unscheduled trip down pit road. Then a week later at Texas Motor Speedway, running just outside the top-10, he tried to make a move of desperation to get underneath Jeb Burton – but wasn’t clear of Harrison Burton yet. As a result, he went sideways, before sliding through the grass and causing enough damage to end his night early.

Cindric lost valuable ground in the standings that ultimately cost him a chance at being in the Championship 4 at Kansas Speedway due to a couple unscheduled trips down pit road with flat tires. The contact was all self-inflicted, too. He grew frustrated battling Harrison Burton for position, saying that “he was driving all over the track,” that he drove in the back of the No. 18, sending Burton up into the wall and ending his day. The contact resulted in nose damage to Cindric’s Ford that was made worse when he made contact with John Hunter Nemechek on the restart.

While it is nice to see drivers who are willing to push the edge, getting yourself into deeper trouble than you should have been does not help. Sometimes you just need to take what the car will give you, and live to fight another week. Despite having talent to get the job done, if he continues being over aggressive, he may be sitting on the sidelines sooner than later.

GOOD: Cole Custer said it perfectly after the season finale – “Tyler—he can rip the top here. That’s about all you can say about it.” Through the year, it was a thing of beauty in watching Reddick do this on a couple different occasions when the track conditions would allow, and ultimately using that to score the championship. 

Ford EcoBoost 300

To run mere inches off the wall and not make contact, knowing a single slip-up could result in trouble, takes tons of concentration and a really well handling car. But yet the driver of the No. 2 Tame The Beast Chevrolet continues to make it look like second nature. 

BAD: Being able to witness drivers battle for the lead is everything that you want as a racing fan. That’s why it’s so frustrating when lap traffic ruins that. Garrett Smithley certainly did not make any friends this past season in that regards. 

As the laps began to wound down at Kansas Speedway , it appeared as though the battle for the win would be between Chase Briscoe and Bell. However, those hopes were dashed with 15 laps to go when they were caught up in a wreck with a lap car. Smithley told NASCAR on NBC that he wasn’t made aware that the leaders were coming up on him, and he was just riding around on 70-lap tires at that point.

The frustration radiated from Briscoe who was quick to ask on his radio, “What was he doing? Where was he going?” It was a reasonable question considering Smithley was already five laps down at this point in the event. 

At the beginning of a driver’s racing career at the short track level, lap cars are taught to remain on the bottom, allowing the leaders to battle as they should have the right to. Knowing that he was already multiple laps down and off the pace, why did he not remain on the bottom of the track? Secondly, it is a little disheartening to see Smithley throw total blame on his spotter for the incident. He is the one handling the controls of the racecar, and should be aware of the situation around him. 

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

GOOD: Since the repave, Texas Motor Speedway has been criticized for the type of racing fans have gotten to witness. Some work by the tire dragon and laying down some traction compound, and we may be getting somewhere.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 featured more side-by-side racing than we have seen in recent years, including a lengthy battle for the lead between Bell and Reddick. If you were able to roll the momentum on the top, you could get a run to make a challenge on the outside of someone, as witnessed by Reddick on several occasions.

BAD: JR Motorsports certainly has to be asking themselves a lot of questions after this season. After placing three drivers in the Championship 4 in 2018 and winning the title with Reddick, they were only able to win two races this past season. Oh, and Justin Allgaier made the final battle, but ultimately became the underdog in comparison to the others. What do they need to do to catch up to their rivals now?

GOOD: Although a lot of people would prefer the old style Bristol Motor Speedway to return – single-groove along the bottom, with bumpers and rooting needed to make ground, the new higher groove being the place to be style proved to be alright for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. 

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

There was racing all the way around the half-mile for positions all the time. It did not seem that a driver could be found by themselves as if they cleared their competitors, lap traffic came into question. That was fine, since it gave the fans something to watch all night long.

Although the top groove was the place to be, there was a way for passes to be made through the middle and bottom lanes of the track. Just ask Reddick. He started from the tail of the field, and drove his way to the second. He would spin while underneath Justin Allgaier for position, but managed to drive his way from 24th back to the front once again.

BAD: Anybody remember a driver change that happened this past May? Austin Dillon had to get out of the car with 40 laps to go as a result of his ribs getting too hot from the heat, and carbon dioxide from crush panels being pushed in due to wall contact. The team elected to put Daniel Hemric in the car when Dillon’s complaints began. If you know there’s an issue, why would you put a driver in that is also scheduled like Dillon to run 600 miles on Sunday? That should have maybe been a clue about what the future held in store. 

GOOD: Let’s continue praising the good racing – with a nod to Charlotte Motor Speedway. The hot temperatures on the Charlotte, North Carolina afternoon produced a slick race track, in return delivering the fans a show. With drivers searching for grip through the beginning stages of the event by using the middle lane that was coated in the traction compound, to trying to run as close to the wall as possible in the later half, there was a never a dull moment during the Alsco 300.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

BAD: The Alsco 300 could have only been made better if series officials would have been smarter in their decisions. Tire issues for both Bell and Brandon Jones could’ve been prevented if a caution for debris on the track was thrown by NASCAR. It seems that the sanctioning body missed the boat a couple times on Saturday, as they failed to throw the yellow flag late in the first stage for the same reason, resulting in nose damage for Custer. 

As a result, Bell finished 31st after blowing a tire, though probably could’ve made his situation better by electing to head down pit road rather than ride around under caution with the flat, allowing it to blow the fender apart as it tore to shreds. His teammate Brandon Jones made the smarter decision in pitting immediately, and was able to fight back to run top-five late in the race before fading to 10th on older tires late.

GOOD: Everybody wants to see drivers fighting to do whatever it takes for the win, and that was the key to an exciting race at Talladega Superspeedway in April. Those who followed through were rewarded on Saturday afternoon.

From the drop of the green flag, three drivers showed the determination to make whatever move was necessary- Reddick, Briscoe, and Cindric. They were rewarded when the checkered flag flew in the MoneyLion 300 with top-five finishes.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Of those three drivers, Reddick pushed the boundaries throughout the event. Sometimes he went a little too far, as notable with his contact with the outside wall during the second stage. Though despite whatever was thrown at him, he showed a constant stream of determined aggressiveness to make his way back to the front on each occasion. His move at the end to get the run on Bell with 10 to go, followed by blocking Briscoe, were the icing on the cake for the win.

GOOD: Although everybody wants to be critical of the rules package, the Xfinity Series got it right with the flange-fit composite bodies that were made mandatory for the 2019 season. While a bit of wall contact used to end someone’s day in the past, there is now the possibility to receive repairs and make a comeback. As a result, fans were entertained with seeing whether their favorite driver would be able to drive through the field, like Jeffrey Earnhardt overcoming a spin for a third-place finish.

GOOD: Being able to see passion and emotions – that’s what it is all about as it gets people talking. Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick’s dust-up at Kansas was a great display of that.

“As soon as he put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back; that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way,” Reddick told NASCAR on NBC afterwards. “I’m out of breath, had a little fight there with people, but it was kinda fun.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

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

Categories
XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

Through the years, Homestead-Miami Speedway has continuously put on some of the best racing of the season, making it a fitting location to crown the champions as we close out the year. With ISM Raceway set to become the title venue in 2020, the 1.5 mile oval put on perhaps the best NASCAR Xfinity Series finale of all time.

With the track slowly aging, it has made grip a premium, resulting in a speed difference when you slap on four new tires. Though the track’s widening grooves allow you to watch competitors run from all the way around the bottom, to ripping the top lane. This, combined with a great evolution of talent in NASCAR right now, was the perfect recipe.

Through the night, “the big three” as they were dubbed – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, and Christopher Bell – battled back and forth for the top spot. They would each get a chance to pace the field whether through strategy, winning the race off pit road or pure speed. Though unlike other tracks where the leader would get out front, the conditions allowed for challenges to happen back in return.

Reddick and Bell had a thrilling battle back and forth to start the third stage, with Bell trying to take Reddick’s line away to stop the ensuing challenge for the top spot. Though the highlight of the night belongs to Reddick and Custer. After coming off pit road together, the pair quickly made work of Bell, before going back and forth for a number of laps. From giving each other the slide job, to trying different lanes, it was everything you’d want in a title race in watching the contenders go head-to-head.

Though in the end, it was Reddick that got the upper-hand as he took the lead, and ultimately drove away from Custer following contact with the outside wall. Seeing the now two-time series champion run the top line lap after lap is a thing of beauty. Even Custer admitted defeat in saying, “Tyler—he can rip the top here. That’s about all you can say about it.”

To run mere inches off the wall and not make contact, knowing a single slip-up could result in trouble, takes tons of concentration and a really well handling car. But yet the driver of the No. 2 Tame The Beast Chevrolet continues to make it look like second nature. It was why he was the favorite entering the weekend following the same performance last season. 

Although it is his second title in a row, this one is a little sweeter as you can see how much Reddick has evolved as a driver. After becoming a surprise champion in 2018, he put himself in position all year long with Richard Childress Racing and found the consistency that he was missing.

Bell, on the other hand, is certainly going to be looking back at these past couple of weeks in a different nature due to a pair of costly mistakes. He sped on pit road and spun at ISM Raceway to cost himself a win there after dominating early, while he missed pit road under green and cost himself valuable time at Homestead. It did not ultimately be the title factor due to the handling of the No. 20 Toyota going away over the course of the long run, but those are mistakes you would not expect out of a driver who won eight events this past season.

With all three of these drivers moving up to the Cup Series, the real winners are the fans because they are going to get to witness probably one of the best, and closest battles for Rookie of the Year that they have had in the past couple years. That said, the series is still in good hands with another young crop ready to rise to the occasion. Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson were evident of that on Saturday night with top-five runs.

As for the series, the decision to move the finale from Miami to the desert puzzles a lot of people, considering that last week’s racing at ISM Raceway was a little lack-luster other than the crazy restarts. That is something that certainly will need to be addressed.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
XFINITY

JR Motorsports is Chasing History Heading to Phoenix

AVONDALE, Arizona — As the NASCAR Xfinity Series gears up for the semi-final race at ISM Raceway, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds himself in a position to achieve something only done once previously in series history. With JR Motorsports currently taking up three spots in the Round of 8 – Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Noah Gragson, a third consecutive title is very possible. 

Allgaier is the lone driver in position to advance to the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway sitting fourth in the standings, 18 points ahead of Chase Briscoe. Annett finds himself 28 points out of the final spot and Gragson is essentially in a must-win situation sitting in a 47-point hole.

JR Motorsports has won two consecutive championships. The first coming from the current driver of the No. 24 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, William Byron in 2017. The second was with current reigning Xfinity Series Champion is Tyler Reddick – who now races for Richard Childress Racing.

Should Allgaier, Annett or Gragson advance to Miami and win the 2019 Xfinity Series Championship they would eclipse a feat only done once in the series history. BACE Motorsports successfully won three-consecutive championship in NASCAR’s lower division from 1995-97. The first came from Johnny Benson Jr.; Randy LaJoie then drove his way to back-to-back titles from 1996-97.

This will not be an easy task for Annett and Gragson, who both find themselves in essentially a must-win scenario at ISM Raceway.

Annett is in the midst of a career-year driving the No. 1 Chevy Camaro for the 15-year Most Popular Driver recipient, Earnhardt. The driver of the No. 1 captured his first win across all three of NASCAR’s premier series in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. This comes in addition to a season where he has totaled six top-fives and 18 top-10’s with an average finish of 10th through 30 races.

For Annett, he believes his path to Homestead will reside in qualifying.

“Tomorrow is going to be crucial because qualifying at a track like this is at a premium,” Annett said. “This was probably the most beneficial track for group qualifying.”

The 33-year old driver is referring to the transition back to single-car qualifying that was mandated by NASCAR in May. At the start of the 2019 season, many drivers voiced their displeasure with the new group qualifying rule that had just been implemented.

“It’s all about putting the whole weekend together,” Annett further elaborated. “Winning the race is the only way we can go into this. Justin [Allgaier] is so good here and being 28 points behind him, it’s going to be difficult to out-point him.”

The driver of the No. 9 finds himself in the most difficult position of the JRM trio heading into the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 at ISM Raceway. It will be an uphill battle for Gragson who sits eight in the standings, but he is no stranger to success at the Arizona-based track.

While the 20-year old driver is still in search of his first win in the Xfinity Series, he almost found victory lane in the Valley of the Sun in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports last season, ultimately finishing second. Gragson has not been able to notch a top-10 at ISM Raceway in the second-tier series, but he does have an 11th place average finishing position in both of NASCAR’s lower divisions.

On the flip side, Allgaier is in a favorable position heading into a track where he’s had immense success. The driver  of the No. 7 Brandt Chevrolet found victory lane in the desert Spring of 2017 after leading 85 of 200 Laps. The 33-year old started on the pole last Spring and has led an additional 145 Laps since his last win in Avondale, Arizona.

He also posts a 9.1 average finish in 18 starts with six top-fives and 11 top-10’s at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway. This is all in addition to a career-high top-10 streak the Riverton, Illinois-product has strung together over the last 15 races.

But the 10-year series veteran is no where near satisfied.

“The crazy thing is – even with the top-10 streak – I still feel like it’s been a terrible year,” Allgaier said. “There’s been so many races that haven’t gone our way, but it’s definitely helped us grow as a team. We’ve done a great job at rebounding and managing the adversity.”

Allgaier acknowledges the fact that the series is being dominated by “The Big Three,” in Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer. However he believes there’s one thing that sets him apart from the young guns – experience.

“I’m the only driver who’s made the Playoffs every year since they started this format,” Allgaier shared. “Those three guys have had a lot of speed this year and they’ve been very good, but we’ve also noticed that when their days don’t go the way they want to go that they’ve had some challenges dealing with that.”

The odds are in the series veteran’s favor and he is going into the final two races with a must-win mentality. Allgaier is aware that these last events will not come without adversity, but also expressed great joy in the fact that the series finale will be ran at this track where he’s had so much success over his career.

Expect to see the trio of JR Motorsports drivers tomorrow with a heavy emphasis on a positive qualifying effort. If NASCAR superstar Dale Jr. wants to achieve the historical feat of three-consecutive Xfinity Series Championships, the road must go through the 1.5-mile track that is ISM Raceway.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

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

Categories
News

Christopher Bell tames Texas, clinches Xfinity Series title shot

FORT WORTH, Texas – Christopher Bell shrugged off a short-lived brake problem in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and cruised to a 5.635-second victory in Saturday night’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway.

With his eighth win of the year — a career-best for a single season — Bell locked himself into the Championship 4 Round of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs, with the title to be decided two weeks hence at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bell led 101 of 200 laps in winning for the first time at the 1.5-mile track and the 16th time in his career. Bell swept the first and second stages of the event, bringing his total of 2019 stage victories to 20.

“That’s pretty special to win here at Texas,” said Bell, a native of Norman, Oklahoma. “I have a lot of family here. This (checkered) flag right here is for my nephew (Trip). I promised him years ago that if I ever won, I’d give him the flag at Texas.

“I knew we were very competitive, and then I began having brake problems. And then whenever I got those brake problems, I just wasn’t as good. I couldn’t keep the car underneath me and I was really loose. So I had to work a little harder, and that red flag helped me and my brakes came back. We were able to drive away.”

Ross Chastain came home second after taking the lead by staying on the track under caution on Lap 142 while the other top contenders came to pit road for fuel. Chastain, driving the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet he will race full-time next year, held the top spot through two subsequent cautions and led the field to the final restart on Lap 171.

But Bell surged past Chastain on the restart lap and widened his advantage over the final 29 laps.

One of the Xfinity Series’ Big Three took a big hit on Lap 161. Racing behind Chase Briscoe for the seventh position, Tyler Reddick lost control of his No. 2 Chevrolet when Briscoe ran too high in Turn 2 and hit the outside wall.

Reddick’s Chevy bounced off the outside wall, slid across the track and slammed nose-first into the inside SAFER barrier on the backstretch, destroying the radiator and knocking him out of the race. Reddick ended the night third in the Playoff standings, and despite the DNF, he holds a 36-point edge over fifth-place Briscoe heading to next Saturday’s elimination event at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

“You’re never safe,” Reddick said after leaving the infield care center. “We had a lot better (points) cushion than that… I got us mired back in that mess there (after a restart on Lap 157) and that’s what I deserve, if I can’t be up front with a car like that, that fast.”

Briscoe stayed on the track after the contact with the wall and eventually paid the price. He lost three laps after his tire shredded and finished 22nd, falling 18 points behind sixth-place finisher Justin Allgaier for the final berth in the Championship 4.

“That was just unfortunate,” Briscoe said. “I don’t think we were the car to win by any means, but I think we would have run fifth to eighth area. We just had to stay in that same ballpark where the 7 (Allgaier) was. We were in really good contention to do that, and then I made a mistake running the top and tried to get too much.

“We thought all our tires looked good, but we had a rub and the tire went flat and put us three laps down. Obviously, we have our backs against the wall going into next week but we have really good fast race cars. We’ll go there and try to win the race.”

Playoff driver Austin Cindric finished third but goes to Phoenix seventh in the standings, 31 points behind Allgaier. Brandon Jones, John Hunter Nemechek, Allgaier, Harrison Burton and Cole Custer finished fourth through eighth, respectively.

Custer is second in the Playoff standings, 52 points ahead of Briscoe. Noah Gragson took the biggest hit in the Playoff race, crashing out of the race in 30th place after turning down across the nose of Burton’s Toyota on Lap 149 and oiling the track.

Gragson leaves Texas 57 points below the current cutline needing a victory at Phoenix to advance to the Championship 4.

Categories
XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway

Since the repave, Texas Motor Speedway has been criticized for the type of racing fans have gotten to witness. Some work by the tire dragon and laying down some traction compound, and we may be getting somewhere.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 featured more side-by-side racing than we have seen in recent years, including a lengthy battle for the lead between Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick. If you were able to roll the momentum on the top, you could get a run to make a challenge on the outside of someone, as witnessed by Reddick on several occasions.

As a result, there was the opportunity for drivers to make moves through the field all night long. Justin Allgaier drove from last after blowing a motor in practice to finish fifth, while Bell made a charge through in the final 100 laps following pit strategy to win. 

Peaking at the Right Time

Through the spring and summer months, the focus on the intermediate tracks had been either Cole Custer or Reddick. However, it seems there’s a new sheriff in town with Bell rising to occasion.

Virtue of showing dominance at Kansas Speedway before an incident with a lapped car, combined with a dominating victory on Saturday night at Texas, it’s safe to say Joe Gibbs Racing has their program coming together at the right time. After all, when Bell was taken out a couple weeks ago, it was his teammate Brandon Jones scoring his first career victory at Kansas. 

When Bell has his equipment and game on point, he can be tough to beat, as shown with four wins, four runner-ups, and a fourth across the last 14 races. If you just look at cookie-cutter intermediate tracks alone, he has scored just one finish worse than fourth in the last five events, and that was due to the incident at Kansas Speedway with lapped traffic.

He’s also proven to have the poise needed to be a champion, as well. He reported mid-way through the event on Saturday that he felt the brakes were going on his No. 20 Rheem Toyota Supra. Rather than panic, he took care of his equipment at the time, listened to the advice of his crew chief Jason Ratcliff to improve the situation, and was able to make his way to the front at the end when it mattered.

Bell was fast last year, and entered the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway as a favorite for the championship. However, he would up finishing 11th while his three playoff mates were inside the top-four, with Reddick scoring the race victory. If Bell wants to win the championship, he will need what he’s been missing.

Just Back It Up….

Reddick got himself caught in traffic through pit strategy, and ultimately crashed out of the event on Saturday night. Now rather than being very comfortable heading into ISM Raceway, the gap is smaller to the cut-off line – but still enough that he can breathe easier than most.

However, his interview at the post-race medical center showcased a young driver being overcritical of himself. He took full blame for the incident, saying that he did not do a good job throughout the night and that’s what happens when you get stuck in those situations.

If running inside the top-three until strategy mixed up the field is not doing the job, then something has to be wrong with this picture. Furthermore, it was a clear racing incident as Chase Briscoe checked up quick ahead of him after getting in the wall, and Reddick simply over-corrected in trying to avoid. 

Certainly you want to see young drivers look back on their mistakes through races, analyze them, and correct them moving forward. However, a line needs to be drawn in the sand. Reddick needs to take a deep breath, and realize he can only do so much behind the wheel. Furthermore, he has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt this year with multiple victories and being a solid championship contender. Did we mention that he won the title last season, too?

Overaggressive Driving Bites, Again

It’s the same story, another week for Noah Gragson appears as trying to be overaggressive put him in a worse situation than he should have been.

Running just outside the top-10, he tried to make a move of desperation to get underneath Jeb Burton – but wasn’t clear of Harrison Burton yet. As a result, he went sideways, before sliding through the grass and causing enough damage to end his night early.

If you recall Kansas Speedway, it was being over aggressive that got him into the wall on a couple occasions, resulting in an unscheduled trip down pit road.

Certainly we know that drivers are desperate at this point in the season to keep their championship hopes alive. It is clear that Gragson needed to win either at Texas or ISM Raceway to keep himself in the hunt. However, getting yourself into deeper trouble than you should have been does not help the issue. On top of not setting yourself up to move forward, you have given your team more work to do. Sometimes you just need to take what the car will give you, and live to fight another week.

Despite having talent to get the job done, if he continues being over aggressive, he may be sitting on the sidelines sooner than later.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway

Although a first career triumph for Brandon Jones and the fight between championship contenders Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer will top the headlines leaving Kansas Speedway, several other things happened during the Kansas Lottery 300 on Saturday.

Lap Traffic Problems

https://twitter.com/XfinityRacing/status/1185669422075088896

As the laps began to wound down, it appeared as though the battle for the win would be between Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell. However, those hopes were dashed with 15 laps to go when they were caught up in a wreck with a lap car.

Garrett Smithley told NASCAR on NBC that he wasn’t made aware that the leaders were coming up on him, and he was just riding around on 70-lap tires at that point.

The frustration radiated from Briscoe who was quick to ask on his radio, “What was he doing? Where was he going?” It was a reasonable question considering Smithley was already five laps down at this point in the event. 

At the beginning of a driver’s racing career at the short track level, lap cars are taught to remain on the bottom, allowing the leaders to battle as they should have the right to. Knowing that he was already multiple laps down and off the pace, why did he not remain on the bottom of the track?

Secondly, it is a little disheartening to see Smithley throw total blame on his spotter for the incident. He is the one handling the controls of the racecar, and should be aware of the situation around him. 

This is not Smithley’s first incident as a lapped car this season, either, as he crossed paths with Kyle Busch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Hopefully he learned something this time around as it is one of the most frustrating things in racing to see a battle for the win ruined this way.

Briscoe was able to rebound, getting a new rear bumper car installed to drive back up to finish third. Bell finished 12th, but thankfully has a comfortable advantage over the cut-off line in the playoffs thanks to a solid regular season campaign.

Overaggressive Driving

Knowing a spot in the Championship 4 is on the line, it was safe to say that several drivers were being overly aggressive on Saturday – namely Austin Cindric and Noah Gragson.

Cindric has been solid thus far through the playoffs to be considered a legitimate threat by some, as noted by POPULAR SPEED’s Mitchell Breuer entering the weekend. However, he wound up finishing 25th on Saturday after having to make a couple unscheduled trips down pit road with flat tires.

The contact was all self-inflicted, too. He grew frustrated battling Harrison Burton for position, saying that “he was driving all over the track,” that he drove in the back of the No. 18, sending Burton up into the wall and ending his day. The contact resulted in nose damage to Cindric’s Ford that was made worse when he made contact with John Hunter Nemechek on the restart.

Considering the issues experienced by fellow championship contenders and the speed Cindric has shown this year – finishing no worse than third in any playoff event entering this weekend, this could have been his opportunity to capitalize.

Although his title chances are not totally eliminated, he will essentially need to win one of the next two events to be part of the championship conversation. If he continues to let the little battles frustrate him, that certainly won’t happen.

Gragson, meanwhile, stated before the event that he was going to push harder than he has before, wanting to be aggressive and take advantage of the opportunity laid before him. It back fired, as he got into the wall on two separate occasions, ultimately finishing 13th with a car that should have placed in the top-10, possibly top-five.

Through Gragson’s truck series seasons with Kyle Busch Motorsports, he was fast on a weekly basis – but mistakes and being overaggressive certainly took away some chances at winning. It seems that cycle is still repeated. If he had not found the contact resulting in the flat left rear in the final laps, he could have been celebrating in victory lane. 

There is something to be said for a driver who wants to push as hard as they can to succeed, but a line needs to be drawn in the sand. That is something the rookie needs to find if he wants to be able to score his first career series victory. 

Great Strategy!

Through his career, Michael Annett has been seen as an average driver – able to find solid consistency, but not become a serious contender for a championship. 

His crew chief Travis Mack deserves all the credit for leaving his driver out there on old tires, while the rest of the leaders pitted. That allowed Annett to take four fresh tires on a later caution, setting him up for a strong charge to the front.

The call was almost a success, as Annett drove his way from outside the top-10 to third before another caution came out. If the additional yellow flag had not waved, he had enough momentum to power past the top-two and snag the victory. However, the additional heat cycle on the tires took any chance that he had away, resulting in a fourth-place finish.

For anybody looking for an underdog for the championship, Annett and more so crew chief Travis Mack made a case for the No. 1 team. If there is a race that comes down to a strategy call, it may just work in their favor next time.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
News

Christopher Bell makes emphatic statement with Richmond Xfinity win

RICHMOND, Va. – Eager to add a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship to his resume in perhaps his final season in the series, Christopher Bell made an emphatic statement in Friday night’s Go Bowling 250 at Richmond Raceway.

Bell swept the first two stages of the series Playoff opener—bringing his total of stage wins to 17—and led a career-best 238 laps in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, winning for the seventh time this season, the third time in five starts at the .75-mile short track and the 15th time in his career.

“That one was pretty special,” said Bell, who passed pole winner Austin Cindric for the lead on Lap 86 and never trailed after that. “Going 92 laps straight there (on the final green-flag run) was really difficult. We were sliding all around.

“I felt like, if I could get through traffic, I would be in good shape because my car could really move around good. I could run up (the track) and I could run down. The No. 00 (eventual third-place finisher Cole Custer) was keeping pressure on us pretty good, but this Supra was too good.”

Bell finished 1.700 seconds ahead of Cindric, who passed Custer on Lap 239 of 250 to secure the runner-up position. Bell’s car was so dominant that he opened a lead of 7.743 seconds over Cindric before Vinnie Miller hit the Turn 2 wall to bring out the second caution on Lap 51.

The only pressure Bell felt during his cruise to the checkers came from Custer, who passed Cindric for second on Lap 87 and shadowed the race winner early in the final stage, drawing within three car lengths at one point before Bell widened his advantage in traffic.

“The 00 could kind of close a little on us in the middle part of the run, but I was just trying to keep hitting my marks, keeping the rear tires underneath me and running on that yellow line (at the apron). When the 00 was closing, I was getting nervous, because I was pretty much running as hard as I could without slipping the tires), and he was gaining on me a little at a time there.

“It seemed like my car could move around maybe a little bit better than his, and lapped traffic helped me get a little bit of a gap.”

Custer faded to 4.432 seconds back at the finish.

“We were just kind of loose to start the run,” Custer said. “It kind of got worse, and I was using too much break and got to tight center (in the center of the corners). We were really close there for a second, but I just didn’t have the long-run speed.”

Cindric posted his second straight runner-up finish at Richmond, after running second to Custer in the spring. He’s fourth in the standings with a comfortable margin heading to the Charlotte Roval.

“This is the only double-digit buffer I think I’ve ever had in anything in NASCAR, so I’ll take it,” Cindric said. “Obviously, a really good night for the MoneyLion Ford Mustang, keeping the Fords up front. Two runner-up finishes here at Richmond is good, but you want to win races, so I’ve got to keep working and keep figuring out how to catch that guy in the 20 (Bell). But overall, a great day.”

Justin Allgaier finished fourth after qualifying second and dropping to the rear of the field for the start because of a pre-race tire change. Chase Briscoe ran fifth, followed by Harrison Burton, Noah Gragson, Zane Smith, Michael Annett and Tyler Reddick.

With an automatic berth in the Round of 12, Bell leads the Playoff standings by 18 points over Custer and Reddick. Brandon Jones (11th Friday), Ryan Sieg (12th), Justin Haley (17th) and John Hunter Nemechek (15th) fell below the cut line for the next round, with an elimination race looming two weeks hence at Dover.

Categories
News

Christopher Bell delivers for first road course win at Road America

ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – In a two-lap shootout in Saturday afternoon’s CTECH Manufacturing 180 at Road America, Christopher Bell checked out from the competition to claim his sixth NASCAR Xfinity Series win of the season.

Bell found himself battling the best of the best when it comes to road course racing in NASCAR inside the final laps of the race between AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric, but when Gray Gaulding went into the gravel in Turn 1, the full-course caution waved setting up an eight-mile dash to the finish.

“Man, I’m honestly in shock,” Bell said. “I really butchered qualifying and tore the crap out of the left-front. I felt like once we got in the race there, we’d be able to drive by those guys. Instead, they dropped the green flag and they were driving by me. That wasn’t much fun.

“Then I told Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) I was really, really tight. We got those tires off and he said the left-front was hurt pretty bad. We got pretty good there when we put our new set of tires on.

“That strategy worked out well for us coming in there (with 14 to go) and then the yellow coming out. This car was really, really fast today. We’ve had a great road course season.”

On the final restart, Bell cleared second-place Allmendinger, but it was Cindric who pitted during the last caution that was putting on a show trying to charge from his 20th place restarting position.

By the white flag, Cindric had passed 15 cars and found himself in the clutches of second-place Matt DiBenedetto but when DiBenedetto spun his No. 18 iK9 Toyota Supra in Turn 14, Cindric crossed the start-finish line second, 1.891 seconds behind Bell.

“We talked about a five-to-go plan, that was like a green-white-checkered,” offered Cindric who came up one position short of claiming three straight road course wins during the month of August. “I wasn’t 100 percent confident, but at the same time, we were battling a lot of wheel hop after four or five laps on tires and we had a lot more than on tires.

“In this kind of racing, you pretty much know that you’re going to get used up if you’re slower, so we wanted to go on offense and that was our strategy all day and we probably just needed one or two laps to get our Menards – Richmond Ford Mustang in Victory Lane. All in all, a good day, good points, p-2, is alright.”

Cindric described his 19-car charge through the field in two laps in one fitting word.

“Chaos,” Cindric added with a smile. “I passed a lot of cars that just ended up overdriving corners and missing corners. It was chaos, it was insane. I think it’s why all these people show up at Road America and enjoy this type of racing.

“You never know what you’re going to get, it always comes down to those last-lap dashes to the finish, I’m glad to be able to put on a show at a place like this.”

For Bell, it was his 14th career NASCAR Xfinity Series victory, but first on a road course. He attributed part of his success to luck, while also taking the time to reflect on the last-lap mishap for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate DiBenedetto.

“I guess I just get lucky on these things, that’s for sure,” added Bell. “I’m really heartbroken for Matt DiBenedetto, too. He was obviously really, really fast. We knew in practice that both of our cars were really good, and we were going to be right there racing with each other.

“I don’t really know what happened, but I saw him go flying off (Turn) 14 so that sucks. He’s in a tough spot right now and he needed a good run there.”

Allmendinger admitted that he spun the tires during the last restart and later collided with Noah Gragson while battling in the top-five. He became involved in another off-course exchange on the same lap and limped to a 26th place finish after making a pit stop on the final lap.

Behind Bell and Cindric, points leader and Bristol winner Tyler Reddick finished third, Gragson fourth and Kaz Grala rounded out the top-five.

Justin Haley, Chase Briscoe, Jeremy Clements, Justin Allgaier and Cole Custer comprised the remainder of the top-10.

For Allgaier, the top-10 was a relief after nosediving into the gravel in Turn 1 after suffering a flat left-front tire on the last lap of Stage 1. Falling off the lead lap, getting the lap back, the JR Motorsports driver used the remainder of the race to earn his 15th top-10 of the year.

Playoff contender Custer also had an impressive rebound after falling down a lap after running off course during the first lap of Stage 2 and mowing down several track signs. Earning the free pass late in the race, Custer used aggressive driving in the final run to the finish to earn his 15th top-10 of the season.

With three races remaining in the regular NASCAR Xfinity Series season, next up is a throwback weekend at the “Lady in Black” at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for the running of the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 on Sat., Aug. 31, 2019.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Erik Jones Deserves A Top Ride

As the summer heats up, so does the silly season rumors in NASCAR, with the focus this year on the future of Erik Jones and Christopher Bell.

Bell has continued to be one of, if not, the most dominant driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and is expected to move up to one of Toyota’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ rides. However, the question is which one, which is where Jones comes into play. The 23-year-old does not have anything secure for the 2020 season, and his lack of wins compared to his JGR teammates has many speculating that he could be replaced by Bell.

Jones’ future is so murky at the moment, that following a second-place finish Sunday at Pocono Raceway, team owner, Joe Gibbs, was still unable to provide any clarity.

“I know people get frustrated because you haven’t made a decision yet on some things. But I just say this: there’s sponsors involved, so many relationships involved, you’re trying to get through all that and work it all out,” Gibbs said. “Yeah, I think honestly that’s part of Erik’s world. It doesn’t go easy sometimes. He knows. I keep him updated; we do. He knows we’re working as hard as we can. Hopefully, it will be one of those things will get put in place here pretty quick.”

The statement continued the on-going trend of leaving the current driver of the No. 20 without a solid plan for the future.

Now, it is very possible Jones, regardless of what happens with the Bell situation, stays inside the Gibbs/Toyota family, with some suggesting that an opening at Leavine Family Racing could be where one of the two drivers ends up.

However, does Jones even deserved to be bumped from his ride? No, he does not, and his numbers prove that.

Now, it’s easy to point to Jones’ win column and say his only win has come at a superspeedway; but, that’s not exactly fair to Jones, especially when you compare him to other drivers that have recently come into the sport.

William Byron, who was dominant in Xfinity, still has not won a race at NASCAR’s highest level.

Ryan Blaney has only won twice, and one of those wins was essentially handed to him thanks to the last-lap chaos at the ROVAL.

Chase Elliott, only started to find his winning ways in his third full-time season, and still has not become a regular fixture upfront yet.

All of these drivers are considered the next big things of the sport, and they all have shown that they need time to develop like Jones, but it’s not just that. Jones has statistically been better than of all of them this season, with more top-five’s and more top-10’s, with only Elliott ahead of him in points.

Yet, for some reason, Jones is being considered a bust by some and has a significant chance of being replaced at season’s end by a driver that would also likely need time to develop before being able to win races on a regular occurrence.

This should not be the case, and it could be argued that if he was able to enter the market, he would be in high demand. Jones is a young driver, that has proven that he can run up front on a weekly basis. What kind of team would not want that?

In fact, if a move to LFR is his only option with the Toyota camp, it could very easily be argued that Jones should weigh his options and maybe see if other teams, like a Stewart-Haas Racing that has aging drivers or a Team Penske who could field a fourth car, would be interested in his services.

This is not to say Bell does not belong in Cup, because he does, but Jones should not be shoved aside so quickly with the potential and promise that he has proven to hold.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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