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Trucks XFINITY

Elliott Sadler, Noah Gragson Win Most Popular Driver Awards

The NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Most Popular Drivers have been named.

Elliott Sadler won the award in the XFINITY Series for the third consecutive time, which was also his retirement season. He announced he’d be stepping away from full-time NASCAR National Series competition following 23 years with 853 races across the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series. It marks the fifth straight year that a JR Motorsports driver has took home the honor.

“I’m blown away by the support of my fans throughout my career and in the last few months after announcing my decision to step away. To be voted the NXS Most Popular Driver for a third straight year is incredible. Not only that, but to be the winningest with four awards is unreal,” Sadler said. “I’m grateful for each and every fan, for all of their support and daily votes. I’m humbled by this experience and can’t thank my family, friends, fans and NASCAR enough. I love you guys.”

Noah Gragson won the award in the Camping World Truck Series for the first time in his second full-season of competition. The 20-year-old finished second in the year-end standings, and will move up to the XFINITY Series in 2019 with JR Motorsports. It marks the first time a driver from Kyle Busch Motorsports has took home the honor. 

Both Sadler and Gragson will be honored at the NASCAR XFINITY Series / Camping World Truck Series banquet on December 8 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver will be announced as part of their banquet on Thursday, November 29 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the award the past 15 years in a row.

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

Hendrick Motorsports Shifts Crew Chiefs Around

The dream team of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson will not be together in 2019 as Hendrick Motorsports will be splitting them up.

“Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. “They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. What they’ve accomplished together has been absolutely remarkable and will be celebrated for generations. This has been an incredible, storybook run.”

Johnson and Knaus are in the midst of their 17th season working together, making them the longest-running crew chief-driver combination in the garage. The pair won a record-tying seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championships together.

“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years,” Hendrick said. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers. All three of us agree it’s finally time for new challenges and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”

Johnson will instead will be led by Kevin Meendering, who has currently crew chiefing for Elliott Sadler in the NASCAR XFINITY Series at JR Motorsports. In three seasons together, Meendering has led Sadler to three wins, 38 top-five’s, and 73 top-10’s. Meendering is not new to Hendrick Motorsports, having spent 16 years there beginning with a high-school internship in the chassis department.

“Over the last couple of years, he’s been one of the most sought-after talents in the garage,” Hendrick said of Meendering. “Kevin is an impressive person who came up in our organization and will hit the ground running on day one. We already know how well he works with our people and that he’s a respected, forward-thinking crew chief. Having worked with a veteran driver like Elliott Sadler for three years is extremely valuable experience. He’s the right fit for Jimmie at the right time. With an established No. 48 team behind them, I believe they will perform at a winning level next season and chase that eighth championship.”

Knaus, meanwhile, will be partnered with William Byron for his sophomore campaign in the No. 24 Chevrolet. Knaus has a history with the No. 24, as he was part of the original Rainbow Warriors team from 1993 to 1998 under the direction of Ray Evernham. 

“You can’t quantify how much Chad’s leadership and championship experience will benefit William, who is a special talent,” Hendrick said. “The two of them are a great match, and I’m excited to see what they can do together. Chad has the Rainbow Warriors pedigree and truly appreciates the history of the No. 24. I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and do it his way.”

Byron’s current crew chief Darian Grubb will be promoted to technical director, an executive leadership role supporting Hendrick Motorsports’ engineering and vehicle development resources.  

“Darian has established himself as a respected leader in our company, and we’ve seen him thrive in an executive role,” Hendrick said. “We’ve identified opportunities for improvement, and we know having him step up to technical director will help move us forward in those areas. He’s a champion who brings a wealth of knowledge that will continue to benefit us.”

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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XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway

Anybody remember the Powershares QQQ 300 from February? The second verse produced by Daytona International Speedway with the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 was just as memorable.

The race started off exciting with the field remaining side-by-side for the first half of the first stage, though the second half failed to produce with a single-file train to the checkered. The following stage was the opposite as no much passing to begin, but the race to the end had a thrilling battle between Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott.

However, the battle to the end of the event was even better than that. 

Sure, the event produced it’s familiar big wreck with 19 laps to go, and that included Austin Cindric going for a small barrel roll on the turn one banking. But we’ve grown used to that on the restrictor plate tracks due to how close the field is. Thankfully, all the drivers involved were okay. This, combined with two more smaller cautions, set-up a late-race run to the checkered – which saw everything you’d expect. 

Larson and Elliott Sadler were set to battle side-by-side right to the checkered, each nosing ahead at different times through the overtime finish. Ultimately, they will go down as having one of the closest finishes in series history according to the record books, separated by 0.005 seconds at the line.

Now, let’s discuss Justin Haley. As the pair traded blows, Haley got a run off of turn four and used to that his advantage, beating the pair back to the line. However, there was a problem with his move – he dipped below the yellow line.

To prevent drivers from racing down on the apron and back up on the track for safety concerns, NASCAR has a double-yellow line rule, which states “when the vehicle’s left side tires are beneath the left line of the inside double yellow lines that separates the apron from the racing surface while passing another vehicle,” a competitor is penalized in violation – unless they are forced under.

With a whole car-width between himself and Sadler, it is clear that Haley wasn’t forced below with his move. The replay also shows him nosing ahead as his left side tires are below the first of the two yellow lines to the left of his No. 24 Chevrolet.

If he would’ve remained on the surface, Haley could’ve had his first career victory. Instead, he gets credited with an 18th-place finish. Certainly a disappointing situation, but he did take it in stride and that is to be applauded given his youth. 

For Sadler, it marks his second straight Daytona runner-up by a mere bumper as he looks for his first series victory since September 2016 at Kentucky Speedway. As the current points leader, it’s clear that he has the consistency to contend for the championship. However, a victory would really solidify his chances against competition like Justin Allgaier and Christopher Bell.

Oh, and there’s another rule that could be analyzed as drivers aren’t supposed to lock bumpers. However, there were plenty of times that competitors got close to each other and there was no call made by the sanctioning body. Recall Haley’s tweet from February.

The NASCAR XFINITY Series can produce some of the best restrictor plate racing as witnessed with each of their three events this year. It’s a shame that both Daytona events have been filled with controversy and will be remembered that way instead.

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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XFINITY

Sadler’s Time To Shine?

For the last two years, Elliott Sadler has solidified himself as one of the best running for a championship in the XFINITY Series. However, he has yet to capture his first title.

Now one might think after the constant disappointment of coming up short, Sadler might suffer a slump on-track because of it. After all, he has had some of his best years and still, nothing. Meanwhile, the drivers that have defeated him have gone on to occupy rides with the best teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

With all that in mind, who would be able to continue to keep their head up and do so at a high level after such struggles and let downs?

Well, Sadler.

Throughout the first 11 races in the 2018 season, he has nine top-fives (on pace to surpass his career-best 15 in a year) with five in the last five events and has yet to finish outside the top-10, something nobody else in the sport can claim. The 43-year-old owns a 48-point lead and has cemented himself as the early championship favorite.

You could state that Sadler has not gotten enough recognition for his stride. Despite all the adversity that surrounds him, he has proven to be one of the most positively consistent drivers around.

However, his underratedness can also be defended.

He has been good, but great? While the No. 1 team has been successful so far, there is still a lot they can do to be better.

For example, he needs to win.

Since 2013, Sadler has only won four times. His last coming in 2016. That’s not exactly a positive considering stand-alone races, he’s got more experience than his competitors, is with a team that has won two championships in that span (JR Motorsports), and the increased rules limiting Cup participation.

During this year’s Dash 4 Cash four-race program, not only was he never victorious, and because of that his team never seemed to be the biggest threats around. They only qualified in the top-five for half of the races (zero poles) and, did not lead the most laps at any point.

That is something that needs to change ASAP, before the playoffs. If they can win a race (stand-alone, not stand-alone, doesn’t matter) that would be huge for their momentum because with Sadler’s proven consistency, that could be enough to trigger a run equally as impressive as his current stat line heading into September.

We still have yet to reach the halfway point, but this could be what decides the fate of the season. No regular has multiple wins so far, so if Sadler can step up it may be enough to win the title; if not, his consistency may be overshadowed by a JR Motorsports teammate or fellow young driver yet again.

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.

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XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway

The NASCAR XFINITY Series has put on some of the best shows over the past couple of weeks, and the Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Although having a reputation for tearing up a whole bunch of equipment at the race’s conclusion, this year did not see a repeat of that as everybody managed to hold on to their cars. That said, it wasn’t boring by any means either with a classic battle between Spencer Gallagher and Tyler Reddick for the top spot. One ill-timed block by Reddick was all that Gallagher needed to get by, and score the win.

Notably, Gallagher has only led a single lap in the XFINITY Series to date – the last lap that won him the race at Talladega, giving GMS Racing their first win as an organization. It’s no secret that the driver of the No. 23 Chevrolet struggled last year, but this season has seen him run up front on a weekly basis, and he could easily turn what some may call a lucky win into a championship challenge.

RELATED: Mitchell Bruer recently detailed the turnaround for Gallagher 

On the flip side, Reddick will chalk this up to another race in where one decision kept the No. 9 out of victory lane, something that has seemed to be a common theme since his triumph at Daytona International Speedway. But his loss for JR Motorsports isn’t the focus, but rather his teammates’ days. 

Elliott Sadler had once again put himself in a position to win on a restrictor plate track, but a penalty for speeding on pit road had him restarting deep in the field late. The infraction is widely debatable, as he said he only sped to avoid the spinning John Hunter Nemechek. NASCAR has allowed drivers to speed through pit lane previously when avoiding an incident, but supposedly this one didn’t fall under that category. JR Motorsports’ problems did not end there as Justin Allgaier had to make a late-race pit stop after running out of fuel.

However, the team managed to rebound in stellar style, with both drivers charging through the field to score a pair of top-fives, with Sadler taking home the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus for the second straight week in a row. The charge by the pair was certainly fascinating to watch, whether running the high-line three-wide, to dipping down low at the last minute. One more lap with the momentum they had on their side, compared to the others being shaken up, and there may have been a different driver in victory lane. The way they were able to rebound, though, is why they have consistently led the series standings over the past couple of years, including a championship with William Byron in 2017. 

It would’ve also been interesting to see what Daniel Hemric would’ve been able to do if he was in the thick of the action late as he ran up front through the event until a tire issue in the late stages. They say tires aren’t important at restrictor plate tracks, but trying to run on the same right-side rubber all event didn’t pay off.

So far at Talladega Superspeedway, there have been two races – the ARCA Racing Series and the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Even with debate surrounding the rules for ARCA in finishing under green conditions, both events have produced exciting finishes with battles right down to the checkered flag. Hopefully the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series doesn’t disappoint on Sunday. 

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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XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway

No matter the reason as you can pick what you want, whether attraction of a short track or seeing no Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars, the NASCAR XFINITY Series delivered for the second straight week with the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway.

There was pit strategy near the end of a stage, and battles for position throughout the whole race – including three-wide at times. You also had six different drivers pace the field, showing potential to possibly reach victory lane. The Dash 4 Cash even had a bit of drama with on-track incidents. Do we need to say anymore?

Christopher Bell may have went home with the trophy, but he didn’t have it easy, enduring a serious challenge from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Noah Gragson in the closing laps. Really, seeing that pair run one-two shows the growth of young talent in NASCAR. When they both entered the fray, it was hold nothing back, go crazy style. However, in having been both riled back a bit courtesy of Kyle Busch, we’re seeing their talent shine. 

A runner-up for Gragson in his XFINITY debut is nothing to be disappointed about, but you have to wonder – what if? Utilizing the bottom line, he closed the two-second gap to Bell over five laps, looking underneath, even tapping the bumper of the No. 20 Toyota Camry a couple times, before fading a little. If Gragson didn’t switch to the top after a couple failed attempts, he may have been able to make the pass. You also have to wonder if there were flashbacks to ISM Raceway last year when the pair wrecked while battling for the lead as NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teammates for Kyle Busch Motorsports, too.

Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler placed third for the Dash 4 Cash $100,000 bonus, which came as no surprise as he ran upfront all night, pacing 30 laps. Though, this is another what if scenario as you have to wonder if Daniel Hemric would have snagged it without his issues. He had a quick car as well, leading 11 laps, until he had a flat tire and hit the wall. His Richard Childress Racing team could’ve handled that better. How do you leave a guy who has a tire going down on track for 17 laps to try and make it to the end of the stage? That should’ve been instant pit stop, and work towards fighting back. Instead, he finished 29th.

Now heading to Talladega Superspeedway, one can only guess what will happen and who will head home $100,000 richer due to another Dash 4 Cash bonus.

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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XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Powershares QQQ 300

The fans may have been treated to the closest finish in NASCAR XFINITY Series history with Tyler Reddick edging out Elliott Sadler in the Powershares QQQ 300, but it didn’t come without controversy or endless overtime attempts.

Although there have been concerns about a lack of competitiveness at times in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drafting package, those were unheard of in regards to the XFINITY drivers. From the drop of the green flag to the checkered, the competitors ran side-by-side for position. It was risky at times, with some of the blocks at the front of the field to keep the lead by the likes of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson, but everybody managed to escape trouble until the final laps.

Two of the drivers who had put themselves in position to challenge for the win in the late stages were JR Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Sadler, running up to second and third. But a push from Sadler, locking bumpers with the rear of Elliott’s No. 88 Chevrolet, resulted in a penalty from NASCAR for both. As in previous years, drivers may bump draft each other, but they cannot lock bumpers.

It’s one thing to penalize the driver who enables the push – Sadler in this case – as they are making the choice to plant themselves against their fellow competitor, knowing the risk of being penalized is out there. But, is it fair to penalize the driver getting pushed?

It goes without saying that Elliott gains an advantage from receiving the push from Sadler, but was it his choice to be pushed? He gets no say in the matter, as he can’t stop that person from doing what they’re doing. Now, there is a possibility that Elliott could break the draft, but we know the trouble that would cause instead. 

Since NASCAR implemented this rule, it has caused controversy at every turn, whether both drivers should be penalized, and whether it is always implemented. If you re-watch the end of the race, you can see that Ryan Reed was locked on Reddick’s bumper pushing him to the win. So where’s the penalty there, if the sanctioning body wants to be fair across the board?

“I’ve got a misunderstanding of the rule, so I’m sure they’ll explain it to me,” Sadler commented post-race. “I’ll get a phone call Monday, and they’ll explain to me what their interpretation of the rule is and what my interpretation of the rule is. 

“I thought you couldn’t lock bumpers to gain a position. That’s what I thought. I thought that’s what they’ve always said. So obviously now it’s not that, which you can black flag every single car in the field because, I mean, I tandem ‑‑ out of the 143 laps, 90 laps we were tandem‑‑ not the whole way around, but either down the frontstretch or down the backstretch or whatever. I’ve got to get an interpretation of what the rule really means.” 

Races mired by controversy stir the ire of the fans, taking away from the action that happened. The finish won’t be remembered in the weeks to come, but rather a penalty with 25 laps to go before the drama at the end. Is that what the sport wants when it seems like a pointless rule? 

Drafting on the restrictor plate tracks is supposed to be about who can make the most of the draft, the tools available of them, and making the moves that they can within their toolbox. It’s time that NASCAR takes themselves out of the box and lets the drivers play.

This wasn’t the only rule that came up in the discussion of this event, though, as the yellow line came back up as it did in the Advance Auto Parts Clash last Sunday.

With 21 laps to go, Reed pushed Ryan Truex down below yellow line, causing a wreck in turns three and four when Truex came back up onto the surface. NASCAR penalized Reed for forcing Truex, sending Reed to the back of the field for the restart.

The yellow line was brought into the rulebook to stop drivers from trying to get runs on the apron down the back, causing them to get a poor entry into turn three and cause a big wreck. However, through the years, it has become questionable whether drivers chose to go down, or were forced, at times. 

It’s no question reviewing the replays that Reed pushed Truex below the line entering the corner. However, Reed still feels he was unfairly punished, stating that he was just trying to save his car.

“I guess I forced the‑‑ I got loose and the 11 had to avoid me, so I forced him below the yellow line,” Reed said post-race.

So, is it fair to penalize a driver who is simply trying to save their car? Another angle to think about. 

But even with these concerns, it goes without saying that the XFINITY Series put together the best race of Speedweeks so far, even if it took multiple overtime attempts and chaos to get there. 

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

Categories
XFINITY

Elliott Sadler Makes XFINITY Series History with Award

Elliott Sadler has done it again. For the second straight year in a row, he was named the NMPA Most Popular Driver in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

It marks the third time the 42-year-old has won the award, after previously receiving it in 2011 and 2016. He joins Brad Keselowski and Kenny Wallace as a three-time recipient.

“It’s unreal to be voted the NXS Most Popular Driver for a second year in a row,” Sadler said. “To win this award given by the fans is truly an honor. I’m so grateful for each and every fan who took time out of their day to vote — it’s humbling. I can’t thank NASCAR and my fans enough for honoring me with this award once again. This is incredible. I want to thank everyone who voted, my wife, Amanda, and our kids, and all of our sport’s loyal fan base.”

JR Motorsports has won the award the past six years, beginning with Danica Patrick in 2012, Regan Smith in 2013, Chase Elliott in 2014 and 2015, and now Sadler. They have won a total of eight times (Keselowski in 2008 and 2009).

Sadler has matched his popularity with success on-track, taking the runner-up spot in the standings for a second consecutive year in 2017 behind teammate William Byron.

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

Categories
XFINITY

Sadler on Preece: “He Cost Us A Championship”

Elliott Sadler could see his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series Championship, and then it slipped away in a matter of seconds.

Battling JR Motorsports teammate William Byron in Saturday night’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he would complete the pass for fourth with 36 laps to go, ready to set sail. He was able to stretch it out to an eight car-length gap over the run, though as the event neared conclusion, Byron began to close the gap. 

The pair would catch third-place runner Ryan Preece with nine laps to go, with Sadler diving underneath the No. 18 Toyota entering turn three, but did not clear him. Instead, the No. 1 Chevrolet got loose, causing contact between the pair with Sadler brushing the wall. It was the opportunity that Byron needed, as he made the pass to take fourth and the championship.

“As long as you can hold your line and keep your momentum up, I don’t think the guys could have — no way he could have passed me, and I think when the 18 pinched me off so bad off of 2 and William got that run and cleared me into 3, I knew it would have been pretty much over with there,” Sadler said. “I mean, just the track position was very important.”

Sadler would try to pass Preece once again two laps later, but contact happened between the pair, punching a hole in the right front tire.  While Preece placed third with Byron fourth, Sadler ultimately crossed the finish line in eighth.

“He just cost us a championship, and he’s not even racing anyone,” Sadler told NBCSN. “You won’t get anywhere in this sport if you race someone like that. You have to race with respect. He cost us a championship. I don’t know what to say.”

Preece was fighting for a title of his own, though, as he was trying to bring home the owner’s championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. In the end, he came up short as Sam Hornish Jr. and Team Penske won with a runner-up finish. 

“I mean, really I got hired to race this race for the owner championship,” Preece said. “We weren’t anywhere near the 22 (Sam Hornish Jr.), but we were racing the 9 (William Byron). It’s pretty much what I said. If it was the 7 (Justin Allgaier) and the 1 (Elliott Sadler) or anyone else that wasn’t in for that owner championship, probably, I definitely would have just laid right over.

“I’ve been an Elliott Sadler fan growing up, so if I wanted somebody to win that owner championship or driver championship, it would have been him. Just, I cannot listen to my owner. I cannot listen to the guy who’s paying you in the end, so it’s just a tough deal. It’s crappy in the end – but I hate controversy.”

Preece went on to say that he was doing his job in making sure he beat Byron for second in the owner’s standings as the final four were JR Motorsport’s No. 9 driven by Byron, Team Penske’s No. 22 driven by Hornish, and Team Penske’s No. 18 driven by Christopher Bell. Though once Byron got by, he was willing to let Sadler go and fight for the title – and had planned on doing that when the contact happened.

“If there was no contact, I was going to let him go that corner,” he said. “I pulled down in the middle, not running the top because I was letting him go. I mean, I don’t know. The only thing I could’ve done differently was realistically given up second in the owner championship and finished third. You know, hindsight 20/20, we ended up there because of what happened, but I also – as soon as the 9 (Byron) got me, I was going to let him go.

“I don’t know much more than that I could do, other than, than layover on Joe (Gibbs) and Steve (deSouza, EVP of XFINITY and Development for Joe Gibbs Racing). If they came over the radio and said ‘hey, give up second in the owner championship and let these guys race,’ I would’ve done it. I’m just – team orders. I’m not afraid to lay over if it means – but just doing what I’m told.”

The explanation from Preece did not improve relations with Sadler, who said Preece was not racing Hornish at the time as “the 22 was a half a lap ahead of him.”

For Sadler, it marks the fourth time in the last seven years that he has finished the season as the runner-up in the standings.

“That’s pretty hard to swallow,” he said. “I’ve been racing a long time; y’all know that.  But I would say tonight is the most devastating and down and out I’ve ever felt in my career.”

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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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XFINITY

XFINITY Series: Five on Five

The Five on Five feature will break down some of the key points in each of the previous five races for the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Here is a peek at Dover through Phoenix.

First Time Winners

With a championship on the line as the playoffs heated up, the competition intensified as the series now has had 12 different winners in the last 12 races.

Ryan Blaney started off the stretch, breaking through for his first win of the season at Dover International Speedway after coming close all season long. Then, Alex Bowman scored his first career victory for Chip Ganassi Racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Joe Gibbs Racing won the next two races, with Christopher Bell scoring his first career win after a thrilling battle with teammate Erik Jones at Kansas Speedway, followed by Jones being victorious at Texas Motor Speedway.

Wiliam Byron capped off the stretch with his third win of 2017 at Phoenix Raceway.

Running Strong

The battle for the championship will now come down to Homestead-Miami Speedway with the three drivers locked in. JR Motorsports teammates Byron, Elliott Sadler, and Justin Allgaier will match up against Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric.

None of those five have been perfect through the past five events, each scoring at least one finish outside of the top-10. Though the nod has to go to Byron as he has the best average finish (6.6) and scored three top-fives, including a big momentum boost with the victory at Phoenix.

Byron’s ability to run up front all season long and challenge on the big stage when the stakes are high will be key entering next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Combined with his success on the 1.5-mile oval last year in the Camping World Truck Series, he’s easily the favorite among the teammates.

However, any slip-up by the rookie could be all it takes for either Sadler or Allgaier to pounce as they’ve both ran well there before, including a past win for Allgaier. The only waving factor is a possible confidence hit for Sadler as he struggled at Phoenix en route to placing 18th.

No Crew Chief

Allgaier’s chances at championship glory look to be hindered as the series gets set for the finale, though, after his No. 7 Chevrolet failed post-race technical inspection at Phoenix. 

His JR Motorsports entry was found with an unattached brake cooling hose in inspection, which likely would result in the penalty being a one-race suspension for crew chief Jason Burdett, a 10-point deduction in the driver and owner standings, and a $10,000 fine.

This isn’t the first time that this has happened to a JR Motorsports driver in a title situation, as Sadler ran the final event last year without Kevin Meendering atop the pit box due to a penalty. Ultimately, the veteran came up short, finishing third while Daniel Suarez won the race and the championship.

JR Motorsports did a great job facing adversity at Phoenix when their regular pit crews were stranded in Arkansas, forcing them to go with a back-up plan. Now backed up against the wall once again, Allgaier and the No. 7 team will need to dig deep.

Slower Cars

Brennan Poole saw his chances at being in the Championship 4 end early on Saturday at Phoenix, after he made heavy contact with the wall after going trying to go underneath a lap car who didn’t realize that he was there on Lap 22. The driver in which Poole made contact with was Caesar Bacarella, who was making his first career series start.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was critical in his post-race comments, stating that NASCAR needs to change how they approve drivers for events, and what drivers are out there each week. 

Lap cars have certainly played havoc with drivers all year long, even costing some victories in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Although NASCAR posts a minimum speed, some competitors have shown the ability to meet that but not be traffic aware. 

NASCAR debuted the “five minute clock wreck policy” to avoid having cars riding around the track slow, dropping debris, causing havoc for the front runners. While drivers of that nature have caused issues in the past, these really slow lap cars have resulted in bigger headaches. As the sanctioning body continues to evolve with a heightened focus on every lap mattering and the playoffs meaning everything, it may be time to re-evaluate the process. 

Down to the Wire

Phoenix Raceway may be known for producing great racing, and that showed on Saturday as the final transfer spot for the championship came right down to the final laps. Entering the event, none of the eight drivers vying for one of the four positions had locked themselves in, meaning every single pass mattered from start to finish.

The closing stages of the event saw the battle get close with Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer each vying for every possible position they could get, hoping to be the final driver to make it in. Hemric came out on top, finishing fifth with Custer seventh.

Although Hemric will be applauded for his ability to make the Championship 4, bigger accolades will find the Richard Childress Racing driver for his show of respect post-race. He made his way down to Custer, shaking his hand after their battle post-race.

For Custer, there is nothing to hang his head on as his rookie season has been impressive, scoring six top-fives and 18 top-10’s in 32 races. Unfortunately, though, placing 19th at Kansas Speedway due to a cut tire with two laps to go ultimately made the difference.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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