NASCAR Cup Series

Jones Looks To Capitalize In Playoffs

LAS VEGAS — There are not many drivers who can say they have as much momentum heading into the playoffs as Erik Jones does.

He and the No. 20 team have really come alive in the summer months, proving to be a constant threat inside the top-five, and showing that he can finish the job as he did at Darlington Raceway earlier this month, where he won the Southern 500.

While the big talk of the season has been his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates and their four wins, it may be a disservice to not include Jones in the conversation of their dominance.

“We don’t have as many wins as those guys, but we’ve been in contention to win a few more. We just haven’t capitalized on it,” Jones told POPULAR SPEED. “So, we definitely need to win some races here in the playoffs to really be a contender. For us, I mean, my goal at least, and I think Chris is on the same page, is just to get to that round of eight.

If we can make it through this round and the round of 12, you got an opportunity to go to Homestead. In that round, Texas and Phoenix are two great tracks for me. Martinsville’s a little bit of a struggle sometimes, but Texas and Phoenix are two places I feel like we can go and win a race at those places.”

Now, despite the solid runs, Jones knows he cannot think too far ahead, especially after last season.

In a similar position, the Michigan-native entered the final ten races on a sour note, wrecking and finishing last in the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The end result essentially killed his championship hopes from the get-go, as he was forced into a must-win situation and quickly eliminated.

Heading to Sunday’s South Point 400, Jones now knows how important a solid day in the South Point 400 will be to keep himself alive.

“Yeah, I mean definitely there’s a big emphasis on just having a solid weekend, right? You want to qualify well and race well and if we can come out of here with, I mean obviously the wins the goal,” he said. “But if we can come out with the top five and a good deal of stage points and pick up a couple of spots in the standings and just close that gap to the lead, that’s a solid day.”

While it may be the first race of the playoffs, he also noted how he will be keeping a close eye on the 12th place cutoff.

“We’re fighting for 12th. That’s what we’re looking at here. You’re fighting for that 12th place in points and hopefully getting some playoff points moving forward and just closing that gap up,” Jones said. “You just want to tighten that gap up to lead. Right now we’ve got 40 points to the lead and we need to get that smaller. That’s too much to be in contention to get all the way to homesteads.”

The No. 20 team will enter Sunday as the tenth seed, with additional five playoff points as his disposal.


TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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

NASCAR Cup Series

Hamlin Taking It One Week At A Time

LAS VEGAS — In many eyes, Denny Hamlin is the favorite heading into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ playoffs.

This comes as a complete change from a year ago where he had zero wins and was quickly eliminated from contention after the Round Of 16. Now, with four wins to his name, it certainly changes the narrative around the No. 11 team.

“It certainly puts us in a better position,” Hamlin told POPULAR SPEED. “I mean, when you think about how our championship was won, it’s based off of going out there in the regular season, building yourself a buffer through performance, and just getting to Homestead. And it’s all about a one-race shootout after that.”

Hamlin started his season on a high, winning the Daytona 500 and seemingly has not slowed down, capturing 13 top-five’s and 17 top-10’s. All of this has given him 30 additional playoff points ahead of the playoff and gives him the advantage with the opportunity to gain more.

Having the excess playoff points is going to be beneficial for Hamlin and, with as many as he has, it may have people painting him as a lock for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

However, Hamlin is staying away from the mindset of looking into the future, instead choosing to live in the present, and tackling each race one at a time.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Hamlin said. “We’re going to play this week by week. We’re not looking forward to Richmond next week or the Roval the week after. It’s all in on Vegas this week and trying to figure out what we can do to win this week. And we know we’ve got the performance to do it right now.”

After finishes of 32nd, 16th, and 12th last year in the Round Of 16 in 2018, it is understandable why as though the 38-year-old is taking this approach. However, there should be no reason to doubt Hamlin, especially with how he has run of late.

In the last eight races, he has only finished outside the top-10 once and finished inside the top-three five times. In addition to that, Hamlin also has the best average finish (seventh) in the last six races. Meaning, even with his disappointing the 29th finish at Darlington Raceway, he has still set the standard that all drivers are chasing.

The only question surrounding Hamlin is can he finish the job? He has been close before but, this may be his best opportunity to capture his first championship.


TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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


Jones Builds Momentum in Chicago

JOLIET, Illinois — On the edge of the playoffs, Brandon Jones entered this weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway needing a good run to give some breathing room between himself and the cutoff.

After an eventful day, Jones was able to provide just that, capturing a fourth-place finish in Saturday’s Camping World 300.

The 22-year-old was a constant threat in the top-five all day, but did have to face adversity just past halfway when he received a penalty on pit road for speeding. Despite that though, Jones was able to rally in quick fashion.

“Yeah, I think we were two spots shy of what we really were capable of today,” Jones told POPULAR SPEED. “Kind of got behind that pit road penalty some. Got out of the box, looked down, I was way over my mark, so I knew it was coming. I told them just be ready for it. All in all, we fought back. We had plenty of laps. I wish we may have had one more stop. I think that would have really got us back in the hunt pretty good there. But all in all, man, that was a great day for us. Really what we needed to do. Finished great in both stages there and have a top five at the end of the day.”

He also believes that his experience from running the NASCAR Ganders Outdoor Truck Series race the night before behind the wheel of the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota helped learn in preparation for Saturday.

“It helped me for sure run on the top side,” Jones said. “I figured that out in the truck race what I was doing there, kind of straddling that top seam and then moving all four tires above it. I used that for the Xfinity car and it seemed to help today.

After the up and down season he has had, the top-five puts them in solid shape moving forward; however, the No. 19 team is still looking for more.

“I still want wins,” Jones said. “I feel like that this car was capable of running to compete for the win there today, and we just got to keep plugging along.”

His second top-10 in the last three races allowed him to move from 12th to 11th in the standings and is now 117 points ahead of the cutoff.

“It’s momentum. It’s confidence for the guys. It’s morale for them to go back to the shop, and I know they want to work for me as much as they can, but when we have good finishes, it’s kind of a bonus,” Jones said. “It’s kind of like, we can kick in the butt to try to get to that first position. So, we’re close. This is how we started at the beginning of the year. Nothing really happened except for that pit road penalty today, and that’s what we’ve got to do, minimize mistakes.”

Looking ahead, the Georgia-native is confident in his ability to the newly found momentum the upcoming schedule.

“We got some good tracks coming up,” Jones said. “Daytona, you never know what’s going to happen there. Kentucky has always been great to us, also.”

The No. 19 will look to improve on a third-place finish at Daytona that they scored earlier this season.


TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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


Bell Ready for Another Title Hunt

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. —  Christopher Bell is starting his second full-time season for Joe Gibbs Racing and is looking to secure the title. He fell short last season at Homestead-Miami Speedway after finishing 11th, placing him third in the championship battle behind Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer.

“We really did well all season long, just didn’t execute a Homestead so we just need to be that much better at Homestead this year,” Bell told POPULAR SPEED.

Unfortunately, his car at Homestead was not as good as in other mile and a half’s where he won plenty of races. To see a driver from a dirt background transition to asphalt and be as dominant like Bell has become an impressive sight.

The Oklahoma native has proven that he can seriously contend for race wins and championships by being dominant in 2018, winning seven races.

The 2019 campaign can give him a fresh start especially after the disappointment last season, but the experience can be a key factor in his success. It should come as no surprise, as he’s been showing his skills early on when he was in the Truck series.

Bell is a rising star in the sport that will be up in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in the future. His first full-time season in the Xfinity Series was definitely a learning experience, and falling short of last year’s title was part of that. 

“We learned a lot, you never quit learning so hopefully I’m better with a little bit more experience but it’s going to be hard to top last year, that’s for sure,” Bell said.

A win on Saturday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway would be a massive boost for the driver. He would be reaching a career achievement that has yet to be accomplished, winning at a superspeedway track.

“I’ve never won a superspeedway race. It would be outstanding to get one today especially with the new Supra; you don’t get many opportunities to become a first time winner,” Bell said.

Toyota is debuting the new Supra for the Xfinity series and excitement is in the air. The cars look good and they are showing that historical speed. Becoming a first time winner would be a memorable moment for any Toyota driver in the field.

“It would be very cool if I could be the first one to win in a Supra.” said Bell after qualifying.


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

NASCAR Cup Series

A Win-Win-Win Scenario For Leavine, DiBenedetto, And Toyota

On Wednesday, Leavine Family Racing announced that Matt DiBenedetto would be the driver of their No. 95 in 2019.

Also, the team also confirmed they would be switching to Toyota and forming an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.

These moves are wins for everybody involved.

It’s a victory for LFR, a young team who has yet to make a significant impact in the sport now takes over the spot Furniture Row Racing currently has with Gibbs.

While there is no guarantee that they perform as well as FRR, this is a team that is currently used to qualifying around 25th and finishing around 20th; the opportunity at hand give them to an excellent chance to improve. They will now have the assistance of one of the best organizations in NASCAR and manufacture support from the defending manufacturers’ champion.

On the flip side, the move works well for JGR and Toyota as they will not lose a team at the end of the season despite FRR’s demise.

Besides, if all goes well, the two could have a potential landing spot in Cup for some of their development drivers that are currently rising the ranks of NASCAR. Whereas without LFR and with the four-car limit the sport has in place, they could lose drivers as they have with Noah Gragson, William Byron, and Ryan Preece due to not having enough room. With the No. 95 in their stable, they now have that chance to work with Leavine and possibly create a situation like they had in 2017, where Erik Jones ran full-time in Cup with FRR.

The move is also a win for DiBenedetto, their newly acquired driver.

The 27-year-old who left his home for the last two years in Go Fas Racing simply because of the fact he wanted a chance to prove himself. The move to the No. 95 allows him.

DiBenedetto, who has went from starting and parking to racing in lower-funded rides, now has an opportunity to show everyone that he belongs here.

The California-native showed that his skill when scoring the occasional top-10’s with BK Racing and Go Fas; if he can continue to exceed exactions with his new team, the potential for more success will continue to grow.

With all the changes that are coming in 2019, this may be one that will require the most attention as the season progresses.

Can they see success even close to the bar set by Furniture Row? How much will they improve? All these questions will eventually be answered, but for now, Leavine Family Racing appears to be heading in a positive direction.


TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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


Noah Gragson Makes Name Known in XFINITY Debut

Friday night, the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Richmond Raceway was another short track spectacular. The Toyota Care 250 was filled with action on the 0.75-mile oval among many of sport’s rising stars.

Once again, there were no Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars in the field, and four drivers were not only racing for a win, but for $100,000.

Nonetheless, another young star was making his XFINITY Series debut and caught the eye of many after the event. Las Vegas native Noah Gragson brought the No. 18 Switch Toyota Camry home in the second position.

“It’s tough,” Gragson said of his first XFINITY start. “I found a little something in the track, a little speed there at the end of the second stage on old tires, and I kept it in my memory banks till the end, and I told my team, ‘I’ve got something when it’s time to go — just tell me when.’

“And about 18 to go, I told them, ‘I can’t wait any longer; I don’t have any more patience.’ And I ran Christopher down about two or three car lengths.”

After starting 11th,Gragson nearly passed teammate Christopher Bell in the late stages of the race for the lead, but came up short. Despite being frustrated, the 19-year-old demonstrated that Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t lack talent and has many skilled drivers in their organization.

We saw it the weekend prior, when Ryan Preece, who isn’t running a full-time schedule in the XFINITY Series, won his second career victory. 

But for Gragson, he is young, and his future is bright as he is learning from one of the best in the business, Kyle Busch. He grew up watching him race, and now the future Hall of Famer is his mentor.

His impressive performance at Richmond just added to his success so far. In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver saw victory lane last season at Martinsville and has two top-fives in four races so far this year.

Gragson’s personality outside of a race car is fun and humorous, especially on social media. But when he is strapped in a race car he is focused on running strong and hopefully parking it in victory lane.

The KBM driver is still developing and he will be one to keep an eye after showing signs of success early in his career.


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


Joe Gibbs Racing Reveals 2018 Driver, Crew Chief Line-Up

Joe Gibbs Racing is certainly going to be part of the discussion for race wins and the championship next year in the NASCAR XFINITY Series after revealing their 2018 driver/crew chief line-up on Wednesday afternoon.

“Our NASCAR XFINITY Series program is so important to us at Joe Gibbs Racing,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. “We are focused on the opportunities we have this weekend in Miami of course, but excited about the talented lineup of drivers we will have competing for us in 2018. The addition of Brandon Jones to our lineup will provide tremendous competition to the Series and give us two opportunities to run for the XFINITY Driver’s Championship, as well as the Owner’s Championship next season. For as young as he is, Brandon has gained a lot of experience across several different series and we are excited to see what he can do in our equipment and with Chris (Gabehart) leading that team.”

As announced last month, Christopher Bell will run his first full schedule in the XFINITY Series behind the wheel of the No. 20 Toyota Tundra. Bell is one of the drivers in the Championship 4 for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title this weekend, and scored his first career XFINITY win at Kansas Speedway in October. 

Serving as the team’s crew chief will be Jason Ratcliff, who has spent the past five years calling the shots for Matt Kenseth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Ratcliff led the No. 20 to eight wins and best points standings finish of second in 2013. 

Brandon Jones will move from Richard Childress Racing to JGR in 2018 to drive the No. 19 Toyota Camry full-time. Jones is currently in the midst of his second full season of XFINITY competition, currently 16th in the standings with three top-10’s; he finished 10th in points last year.

“I’m really fortunate to have gotten as much experience as I have to this point of my career and very thankful to have worked with so many great people and teams over the past several years,” said Jones. “When you look at what JGR has done with Toyota in the XFINITY Series over the past decade the results speak for themselves and I’m excited to go out next season knowing I have an opportunity to be successful each and every week.”

Chris Gabehart will call the shots for Jones, as he enters his second season on top of the box. Gabehart has been successful to date, scoring nine wins and 39 top-10’s in 64 races, including a fourth-place standings result with Erik Jones in 2016.

The organization will also continue to field a third entry, which will see their Cup drivers split time behind the wheel. Kyle Busch is expected to run seven races, along with fellow stars Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, and Denny Hamlin. Also on-board to run some of the events is Ryan Preece with at least 10 races on his schedule in 2018. He ran three events in 2017, scoring his first series victory at Iowa Speedway. 

“Obviously I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities that I have already had with JGR this season and now to be able to increase the number of races next season is a great step in my career,” said Preece. “I’m looking forward to going out there and make the most out of the opportunity.”

Eric Phillips will be the crew chief, entering his third season on the pit box with the team. He led Suarez to a fifth-place points finish in 2015, before scoring five victories (four with Busch, one with Hamlin) this season. 

“We’re proud of our crew chiefs in that series as well,” Gibbs added. “Jason (Ratcliff) is someone we obviously have a lot of confidence in having had great success for us in both the XFINITY and Cup Series. Having Chris (Gabehart) and Eric (Phillips) back gives us proven winners atop each pit box. We believe their experience and ability to work together will really help the development of our young drivers and help our veterans compete for wins each weekend.”



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


Toyota’s Domination is Even Worse Than You Think

When Martin Truex Jr. won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on July 8, it kicked off a remarkable hot streak for the two affiliated Toyota Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing.

Truex’s  victory at Kentucky was the first of eight wins in 11 races for JGR and Furniture Row.

Over those 11 races, the six drivers for those two teams have combined to lead 78.8 percent of the total laps run. That translates to 2,390 laps led by the six Toyota drivers vs. a combined 642 laps led for the 30 or so Chevrolets and Fords typically in the Cup field in any given race.

Or to look at it another way, five of the six JGR/Furniture Row drivers — all but Daniel Suarez — have led at least 134 laps in the last 11 races. In that same period, Kyle Larson has led 250 laps, which makes him the only Chevrolet driver to lead more than 100 laps.  Brad Keselowski (167 laps led) is the lone Ford driver to be out front for more than 100 laps in those 11 races.

In this span, JGR’s Denny Hamlin has led 213 laps, which is more than all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers, all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers and all three Richard Childress Racing drivers combined. Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, hasn’t led a lap since Daytona in July.

Unless one of the Ford or Chevrolet teams suddenly finds some speed, the last eight Cup playoff races could well see more of the same from JGR and Furniture Row.

And that is to say, utter and total domination.

Will someone step up over those eight races?

We’ll find out soon enough, starting this weekend at Dover International Speedway.


10 Surprising Outcomes in the Bojangles’ Southern 500

Denny Hamlin scored an exciting victory in Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway after leader Martin Truex Jr. suffered a flat tire in the closing laps.

The victory, the second of the year and 31st of his career for Hamlin, capped a long, intense night of racing at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.

Here are 10 surprising facts about the 25th race in the 26-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season.

  1. Seven-time’s struggles

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, finished 12th at Darlington. He has now gone 12 consecutive races without finishing better than 10th. His last finish inside the top 10 came June 4, when he won at Dover.

  1. Battle of the brands

Toyotas swept four of the top six finishing spots, with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin (1st), Kyle Busch (2nd) and Matt Kenseth (6th) turning in strong showings. Rookie Erik Jones (5th) had an excellent run in his Furniture Row Racing Camry. Kurt Busch (3rd) was the lone Ford in the top six finishers, with Austin Dillon (4th) the only Chevrolet.

  1. Dillons do it

It was a good night for the Dillon brothers. Austin Dillon finished fourth to earn his first top-five finish since winning the Coca-Cola 600 in May, while brother Ty was 13th in the No. 13 GEICO Chevy. That matched Ty’s best finish of the season

  1. Twice as nice

Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch finished third behind race-winner Hamlin and Kurt’s younger brother, Kyle. Coming off a fifth-place run at Bristol, this is the first time Kurt has finished in the top five in consecutive races all season.

  1. Playoffs

Three drivers who are winless in 2017 — Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray — remain playoff eligible heading into the final regular-season race next weekend. The only way one of them can be knocked out is if there is a first-time winner at Richmond International Raceway next Saturday night. No other driver can race his way in on points.

  1. Points

Martin Truex Jr. won the first two stages of the Darlington race and has clinched the regular season championship and the 15 playoff points that go with it. He will enter NASCAR’s championship battle with at least 52 points.

  1. Martin’s mayhem

There were two throwback paint schemes in the race that paid homage to NASCAR Hall of Fame member and two-time Bojangles’ Southern 500 winner Mark Martin. Trevor Bayne finished 35th in one of the Martin schemes and Clint Bowyer 40th in the other.

  1. Leading the way

In a 367-lap race, Hamlin and Kyle Larson each led the exact same number of laps – 124.  You don’t see that very often.

  1. Broom time

Hamlin swept both the Monster Energy Cup and the NASCAR XFINITY Series races at Darlington for the second time, having done it first in 2010. The only other drivers to sweep at The Track Too Tough To Tame are Dale Earnhardt in 1987 and Mark Martin in 1993.

  1. Broom time, Part Deux

Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t win any of the first 18 races of the Cup season. They have now won four of the last seven. And for the second consecutive Cup race, JGR swept the weekend, as Hamlin won both races at Darlington and before that, Kyle Busch won all three at Bristol. This team is peaking at the right time.


Cup Driver Limits Help XFINITY Series Competition, Hurt Bottom Line

NASCAR announced stricter limits on Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver participation in the two lower series for 2018 this past week.

Full-time premiere series competitors with more than five years of experience will only be allowed to run seven NASCAR XFINITY Series and five Camping World Truck Series races next season.

Additionally, all NASCAR Cup Series drivers will be prohibited from competing in XFINITY Series ‘Dash 4 Cash’ and both level’s Playoff races. 

These limits result from the dominance of veterans taking away from the spotlight meant to shine on the sport’s developing talent.

Kyle Busch captured his fourth win in eight starts this season in Saturday’s Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen International, further fueling support for the participation guidelines.

It marked Busch’s 90th career series triumph. Once he reaches a milestone 100 wins, he said he would retire from XFINITY competition.

The 32-year-old expressed his displeasure with the increased limitations following his victory and made it clear that the new rules will prolong his tenure in the series.

“I guess I should kinda say thanks that they guaranteed me another two-year contract, at least, from NOS Energy Drink in being in the XFINITY Series,” Busch told Clare B. Lang in an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will be able to compete in two more races this season, before being limited to seven events next year which won’t put him at 100 wins until at least 2019.

While this may not please fans who are eagerly anticipating his exit from the series, the issue surrounding Busch and other Cup stars spans more than just competition.

It highlights the dynamic of sponsorship in the second-tier division. Many teams sell space on the car based on a prominent NASCAR Cup Series drivers splitting seat time with a rising talent. However, the participation limits restrict these opportunities.

“It’s industry wide,” Busch said. “It’s not just affecting me. It’s affecting the industry.”

Sponsors remain an essential avenue for teams to secure funding to field cars. From Busch’s perspective, the restrictions on veteran drivers may promote more compelling competition while making funding harder to find.

“When I’m gone, and there’s no NOS Energy Drink for even seven races, let alone it was 10, maybe it should have been 15 races,” Busch said. “When there’s 15 races that NOS Energy Drink is willing to pay for me to drive in the XFINITY Series, that lessens the gap that Joe (Gibbs) has to make up for somebody else to get into the car to be able to fill that car out and be able to make it a full-sponsored car and share with me.”

Striking a balance between creating an intriguing product and having the financial support needed to race remains the greatest challenge facing the XFINITY Series.

While the sport is committed to the path that favors providing greater opportunities to showcase its youth, and hopefully, it ultimately helps teams meet the bottom line.

But Busch believes the road that the series is going down may do more harm than good.

“And pretty soon, it’s not going to be feasible,” Busch said. “It’s not going to happen. There’s going to be cars that shut down because of that.”



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