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NASCAR Cup Series

GOOD & BAD: 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Season

Another year of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition is in the books, with a familiar sight as Kyle Busch was crowned the series champion. 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: While the final event is the pressure cooker of the season, you should just treat it like any other weekend. Just ask Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens. As the rest of the contenders faltered under the pressure, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did what he does best en route to his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.

On any given week through the season, the No. 18 M&M’s Camry and that was on display with the top speed in Saturday’s practice. Despite not winning in the 21 races prior to the Ford EcoBoost 400, he also consistently ran up front, as highlighted by 27 top-10 finishes in the 36 events in 2019. However, many had placed him beneath his rivals due to only five top-10’s in the first nine playoff races. 

They all failed to recognize that Busch continuing to put himself in the right position, plus the poise of being in the position previously certainly helped. While you could see his title contenders were using a “win or bust” mentality, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens ran the event just like any other weekend. When he was unable to keep up with Martin Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick, it was just about giving feedback to continuing making adjustments to find more speed. Combined with a ultra fast pit crew that just did their job as normal and you had a recipe for success. 

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

BAD: The championship seemed to just come together on a less than stellar level for Busch, though, as the last event of the season did not have that late race drama to get you up on your seat. The contenders showed speed, but made uncharacteristic mistakes. 

Truex dominated the opening stage, though fell back in the second stage due to the pit crew putting on the tires on the wrong side of the car under a green flag stop. While he was able to make-up the ground in quick fashion to be in position to contend during the third stage, he was never able to make up the lost track position to Busch.

Denny Hamlin appeared to be in a closer position to challenge Busch than Truex was in the final stage despite an okay start. However, Chris Gabehart would elect to put on a big piece of tape, hoping to pick up downforce and speed so they could run down their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. It would back fire, with the No. 11 Camry overheating, resulting in an unscheduled pit stop, and a finish of 10th.

GOOD: No matter the format to decide the champion, the best drivers are always going to rise to the top. Over the past couple seasons, Busch, Truex Jr. and Harvick have been part of the Championship 4.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

BAD: Although Chase Elliott started off the playoffs on a high with a bunch of momentum following a great comeback victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, he hopefully has forgotten about the weeks that followed.

He suffered a blown tire at ISM Raceway, backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the outside wall, and ultimately failed to finish better than 32nd in the Round of 8. He broke an axle at Martinsville Speedway, and then tried to run the high line early in the event at Texas Motor Speedway, getting loose and backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the wall. Though even before that rough round, he suffered a blown motor at Dover International Speedway, and a crash at Talladega Superspeedway in the Round of 12. 

GOOD: The legitimacy of the champion produced by the playoff system in NASCAR has been, and will be debated for years to come with fans are either side of the fence. However, the post-season is producing what the sanctioning body wanted – drama. Let’s take a look back at Kansas Speedway, shall we? 

Eyes were focused in on the final laps of the Hollywood Casino 400 with everyone wondering who the eight drivers transferring to the Round of 8 would be. Certainly the late race caution helped up the stakes, but there were plenty of things to watch at the end, Elliott‘s late-race charge to challenge for the victory, to Brad Keselowski trying to salvage a decent day and losing ground at the end.

Ultimately, Keselowski saw his championships hope end courtesy of a mere three points. Although you could blame the sub-par performance on Sunday, there was also a crash at Talladega Superspeedway and an 11th-place finish at Dover International Speedway. If only he would have finished three spots further up the board any of those times.

BAD: Jimmie Johnson ultimately watched his chances of making the playoffs end in a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Battling three-wide, William Byron crowded Johnson, resulting in Johnson getting into the grass and sideways. In total, nine drivers were caught up in the incident. Johnson’s rear-end damage was significant enough that he could not continue.

Although NBC put on the focus on Johnson not making the post-season solely focused on Sunday, there were 25 races that drivers also scored wins and points to ensure their championship chances. Quite frankly, this year has been a struggle for seven-time with consistency being a struggle to find, including a crew chief change mid-season.

RUSTY LABOUNTY | NKP

GOOD: There were some good finishes this season, including Hamlin and Harvick at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Lap cars can be thanked for bringing the pair closer together, but that’s all part of the long-run racing in how you handle the traffic. Harvick, using some of his short track skills, kept the advantage by slowing down a touch sooner than expected and taking the preferred line that Hamlin would have wanted.

On the same coin, Hamlin does earn respect in how he handled the situation. He gave Harvick a bump in turn one, but just enough to get scoot him out of the groove a little and not wreck him. Notice the difference in crowd reaction compared to how he handled Martinsville Speedway a couple years ago with Elliott.

BAD: Anybody remember the fan attendance for the Food City 500? You can preach all you want that short tracks should be on the schedule, but you also need to show that you’re willing to support them and that’s by putting butts in the seats. Certainly there’s other factors contributing to the attendance – hotel costs, food costs, weather, though no matter how you approach it, it’s not a good look.

GOOD: Ryan Preece proved that he could drive this season, starting right off at the Daytona 500. He drove directly through all three wrecks that happened, crossing the line with an eighth-place finish in his Cup Series debut. Just check this out for evidence.

BAD: The racing may be a struggle to watch sometimes, but it’s made even worse when the officials can’t do their job. There was at least three of the first six races of the season that they had issues putting cars inline for the restart. How hard can it be to put a field of cars two-wide evenly when timing and scoring electronically prints you a perfect order? 

There was also that time at Atlanta Motor Speedway where Truex was assessed a penalty, but then it was taken back as NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said post-race the pit stop was reviewed in the tower and there was no penalty as they could not confirm foot was down early per video. It’s a little concerning when you hear straight from the sanctioning body that they don’t have enough views of a pit stop to confirm something, especially when they made us to believe their new pro trailer system with less officials on pit road and using video instead would work. 

Russell Labounty | NKP

BAD: We also need to get the coverage of these races improved. Between the endless commercials, and lacking smarts in the booth, it’s going downhill really fast. I mean, do you really the viewers at home care if the commentators are eating ice cream?

It seemed they would show a small piece of the race, before going straight to another commercial break. Essentially, giving you bits of the racing action in-between allowing you to memorize each ad since you’d seen it too many times to count. It almost felt like a third to a quarter of the race was shown in commercial – maybe more.

On top of that, the actual coverage of the event was lacking. Supposedly, observations from Texas Motor Speedway indicated it was a “slug fest” with groups of cars running together closely, battling for position. However, NASCAR on Fox didn’t bother to show that. They just showed the pack racing for the first 10 laps after a restart, and then focused on the single-file train at the front or went to commercial. 

P.S.: It’d also be nice if they showed the running order during their “Crank it Up” segment.

BAD: The Cup Series package certainly needs improvement, as the consensus from the majority of the races is that the rules package is doing nothing to produce “exciting racing” with the main show falling behind the two junior series. Hence why there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the new car in 2021. This was showcased through the whole season, with a bunch of lackluster races.

Take the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If you put aside the championship drama, the actual race was just – meh. There was no real battles or challenges for positions as everybody seemed to move up or down simply based on the strategy that they were running. You would get exciting battles on the restart, but they’d string out after five laps and then it was just a follow the leader train.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

You could also look back at the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway where Hamlin gapped the field by over 10 seconds at one point. The racing was so spread out with the unlikelihood of drama near the end that NASCAR put out a caution for John Hunter Nemechek‘s contact with the outside wall that normally would have been no cause for concern. After all, the Front Row Motorsports driver made it back to pit road without laying down any debris.

Other events that you could add to the list include the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway, Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.

“The cars don’t have any speed,” Busch said following the Pennzoil 400. “You’re wide open just trying to suck off of any car that you can that’s in front of you to get a draft. I was running 31-flats when I was chasing those leaders down and then once I got there, I stalled out to 31.40s because the wind was just so bad behind those guys that you couldn’t corner anymore, you couldn’t maneuver. I couldn’t run low if they ran low and I couldn’t run high if they ran high so you’re always trying to figure out which way to go.”

While it’s nice to look forward to 2021, that just means that we’re getting ready another boring season – unless they can make some minor tweaks to improve the status quo. Let’s beg and hope that happens. Alas, let’s remember what Jeff Gordon said earlier this year – “Tires don’t wear out, speed don’t slow down, you can’t get away from each other, and track position is key.” 

GOOD: Let’s back it up a little, though, as the package did not fail everywhere. 

The Hollywood Casino 400 was a great race to watch from the fan’s perspective. Between the aged surface and a new tire compound, drivers were using multiple grooves across the surface to try and gain time on their competitors. This allowed for side-by-side racing throughout the entire duration of the event, including a couple battles for the lead. The aged-surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway also allowed us to get a good race there, too. 

There was also New Hampshire, as although the field was spread out at times throughout the afternoon, there was always at least one battle for position within the top-10 to keep an eye on. By laying down the PJ1 traction compound in the separate lanes, it allowed drivers to get their cars working high or low to challenge each other. There was also varying strategy played with earning stage points versus trying to set yourself up for a good finish and tire wear, which kept things interesting with a variety of drivers finding their way to the front at times.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Bristol Motor Speedway also reminded us as to why we love short tracks with the Food City 500.

The reconfiguration caused the high line to become the only place for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but that wasn’t quite the case on Sunday. Track officials finally got the right traction compound as throughout the event, competitors were able to run high and low, with different drivers favoring each groove.

The result was constant side-by-side racing from the drop of the green flag, to the checkered flag, for positions throughout the field. It was also beneficial that NASCAR on FOX listened to the fan’s critiques from the past couple of weeks, not spending their time focused on the leader but rather showing each of these battles. 

There was also excitement with the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but we know restrictor plates are always entertaining when drivers want to race for it. 

If every race could be like what we saw here, then perhaps other gimmicks would not be necessary for fan excitement.

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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Home Tracks

Ford Performance Claims Hailie Deegan in 2020 DGR-Crosley Deal

On December 11, DGR-Crosley announced it would be making the jump from fielding Toyotas to Fords in 2020 and that in just six days, they would be introducing a new development driver. This manufacturer swap spelled early speculations for Hailie Deegan, who was a free agent following the 2019 season and who already had ties to the newly branded Ford team in the past.

Fast forward six days and DGR-Crosley revealed that the 18-year old driver will indeed be racing for their organization full-time in the newly modeled ARCA Menards Series as Ford Performance’s development driver. This is a massive win for both Deegan and DGR-Crosley as the female racing prodigy has cemented herself as arguably the sport’s most enticing up-and-coming talent.

This new deal comes just one month following Deegan’s breakout season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West in which she captured 11 top-10s, eight top-five’s and her first multi-win season (2) – all while finishing third in the series’ standings.

MVPindex also revealed that last year, the female development driver ranked third amongst all NASCAR drivers in social media engagements and impressions, only bested by 2019 Monster Energy Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. In an all important digital age where social media is prevalent in growing the sport’s popularity, it’s highly encouraging that Deegan is the only driver inside of the top-10 who doesn’t compete in the Cup Series.

Being a highly touted talent skyrocketing through NASCAR’s lower divisions and someone who is essential for the sport’s growth, the Ford Performance development driver deal makes sense for both sides. By getting Ford’s support, Deegan is getting assurance from the manufacturer that she will receive all the tools and backing to ensure a long-standing career in NASCAR.

The deal with DGR-Crosley also opens new potential avenues for the 18-year old driver and her racing career. The David Gilliland run race team fields drivers in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. It would not be out of the ordinary to see Deegan potentially run some truck races in the later stages of 2020, given on-track success in the ARCA Series.

The California-product will race the No. 4 Monster Energy Ford Fusion in all 20 races run in the ARCA Menards Series, but she won’t be going in blindly to the developmental driver series. In 2019, Deegan amassed four top-10’s and one top-five finish in the mere six races she ran for Venturini Motorsports.

It should also be noted that the latest success story of Ford Performance’s developmental driver program was Cole Custer. Custer masterfully raced his way to a ride in the newly named NASCAR Cup Series in 2020 after a stellar NASCAR Xfinity Series season. The California-native will take over driving duties for the No. 41 at Stewart-Haas Racing and with stars like Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola nearing the back-end of their careers, Deegan could make a potential great fit down the road.

The deal between the Ford Motor Company, DGR-Crosley and Deegan should spell a future of longevity and success for all parties involved. This is a much-needed statement from both Ford and NASCAR that Deegan will be one of the core-center pieces in shaping the growth of sport’s future. One thing is certain, all eyes will remain to be on the 18-year old talent as she continues her meteoric rise through NASCAR’s lower ranks.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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
Commentary

OBSERVATIONS: Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

While the rest of the contenders faltered under the pressure, Kyle Busch did what he does best en route to his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.

On any given week through the season, the No. 18 M&M’s Camry and that was on display with the top speed in Saturday’s practice. Despite not winning in the 21 races prior to the Ford EcoBoost 400, he also consistently ran up front, as highlighted by 27 top-10 finishes in the 36 events in 2019. However, many had placed him beneath his rivals due to only five top-10’s in the first nine playoff races. 

They all failed to recognize that Busch continuing to put himself in the right position, plus the poise of being in the position previously certainly helped. While you could see his title contenders were using a “win or bust” mentality, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens ran the event just like any other weekend. When he was unable to keep up with Martin Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick, it was just about giving feedback to continuing making adjustments to find more speed. Combined with a ultra fast pit crew that just did their job as normal and you had a recipe for success. 

In the end, he avoided the drama that found others and came out on top.

Cracking Under the Pressure

Each of Busch’s rivals, meanwhile, did not follow the same mentality and it showed clearly.  

Truex dominated the opening stage, though fell back in the second stage due to the pit crew putting on the tires on the wrong side of the car under a green flag stop. While he was able to make-up the ground in quick fashion to be in position to contend during the third stage, he was never able to make up the lost track position to Busch.

Denny Hamlin appeared to be in a closer position to challenge Busch than Truex was in the final stage despite an okay start. However, Chris Gabehart would elect to put on a big piece of tape, hoping to pick up downforce and speed so they could run down their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. It would back fire, with the No. 11 Camry overheating, resulting in an unscheduled pit stop, and a finish of 10th.

Harvick’s team simply missed the handling on the No. 4 Ford, and could never contend with the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas over the long haul. Rodney Childers tried a gamble by leaving his driver out on track longer than others in hopes of a caution, but fell short en route to placing sixth.

Somethings are not what they seem……

When a driver wins a championship, you would expect them to get out and let out a big cheer. Just ask the twitter critics.

Some people celebrate in different ways and though Busch did not appear “super excited,” the championship did hit home with him.

“I kind of probably don’t remember much of it already,” he admitted post-race. “But I do remember taking the white flag and crossing underneath that and just‑‑ I had some tears rolling down my eyes for the last lap and was just like, come on, man, we’ve still got to finish this thing, don’t be such a sis. How was my last lap time? I don’t even know. Hopefully it was decent. We had a good lead to the guys behind us. But, overall, just emotions were starting to set in. I probably didn’t know where the hell my mind was at but knew we had won and we had won big and was just kind of being a bit more subdued about it.”

Of the notables, the Busch’s signature bow was missing from the celebration, to which Busch said he simply kind of forgot to do it in the moment. 

“You even forget you win the race,” he added. “As I was doing the victory celebration, doing the lap around with Brexton‑‑ that was really awesome, by the way‑‑ I was coming into Victory Lane, and they were there with the checkered flag, and I was like, oh, yeah. Like you forget you win the race. It’s just that crazy. So yeah, I forgot to do a bow. It’s all good. I think Rowdy Nation will forgive me.”

The celebration was fun to watch for the fans, though, in seeing Busch experience it with his son Brexton and the memories made there. The clip of them riding around the track will probably be replayed a bunch through the next couple weeks.

Lackluster Race

If you put aside the championship drama, the actual race was just – meh. There was no real battles or challenges for positions as everybody seemed to move up or down simply based on the strategy that they were running. You would get exciting battles on the restart, but they’d string out after five laps and then it was just a follow the leader train.

It certainly was lackluster in comparison to the previous two nights with the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series. So perhaps that is why the venue will move next season – but we all know the racing that we witnessed at ISM Raceway last week.

Needless to say, something needs to be done about the Cup package as the consensus from the majority of the races is that the rules package is doing nothing to produce “exciting racing” with the main show falling behind the two junior series. 

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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News

‘This one’s for Rowdy Nation!’ Busch caps season with second title

The Candy Man can. And did.

Kyle Busch secured his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, besting perhaps the most impressive field of championship contenders in the six-year history of the elimination-style playoffs.

Busch outran fellow finalists Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., winning the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 on the strength of a clever pit strategy and a car that came to life under the lights. Hamlin was making his first Championship 4 appearance since 2014, while Harvick and Truex were making return trips to the finale.

“We have a great race team and a great owner,” an emotional Busch said after climbing from his car. “Everybody always says you never give up and we’re no different,. Sometimes we may not be the best, sometimes we may not have the right track position. Today we had a really good car and I could race around and move around.

“There’s always your doubters, there’s always your haters,” Busch said smiling. “You know what? This one’s for the Rowdy Nation. You guys are the best. Thank you so much.”

Busch had claimed the series’ regular-season championship in September, building a stockpile of playoff points that guided him to his fifth straight appearance in the Championship 4 field. The 34-year-old driver also won the title in NASCAR’s premier series in 2015, the second year of the elimination format.

Sunday’s march to the title capped a brilliant — and sometimes, difficult — year for the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota. A four-win regular season marked his fifth straight year with multiple victories in NASCAR’s top series, but Busch entered the Miami race winless since early June. That skid, plus a dominant Round of 8 from all three of his title competitors, put “Rowdy” and the No. 18 team flying under the radar for championship weekend.

“We had a cold spell there,” crew chief Adam Stevens. “It’s been well-documented, believe it or not. Quite a few questions about it. Felt a little bit like 2015 to me. Take the broken legs out of the equation. We were hot early in 2015 when Kyle came back. We didn’t win since Indy that year, then came to Homestead and got the job done.”

Busch also scored four Xfinity Series wins and five victories in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, totals that helped him surpass 200 career wins in NASCAR national series competition in March.

The year was not without tragedy, though. Joe Gibbs’ son J.D., co-founder of Joe Gibbs Racing, died in January after complications after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.

“It’s been a difficult time,” Busch said. “To be able to reward them with a championship, I don’t know how much it means to them, but it’s the best I can do. I know JD was looking down on us all season long.”

Busch becomes the 16th driver with more than one premier series championship. Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson is the only other active driver with multiple titles on his resume. Busch also is the first repeat champion in the elimination-style postseason.

Both championships came with Stevens calling the shots on the pit box. The 41-year-old crew chief raced dirt late models before starting his NASCAR career as a fabricator with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Busch’s first title was a story of resilience as he recovered from severe leg and foot injuries after a crash in the season-opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway. He missed 11 races but met the criteria for a playoff waiver in a big way, winning five races on his path to a title-clinching performance at Homestead.

Busch also is a former champion of what is now called the NASCAR Xfinity Series, riding a nine-win season to that tour’s title in 2009.

Categories
Trucks

Todd Gilliland Looking at “Couple Different Things” for 2020

With Kyle Busch Motorsports finalizing their pair of full-time entries for 2020, it gave confirmation that Todd Gilliland will not return to the organization for another season.

The second generation racer alluded to this fact last weekend at ISM Raceway when discussing his future plans. 

“We have a couple different things,” he said at ISM Raceway. “We’re hoping to have things locked down pretty soon to be able to announce. Right now we’re just staying focused on what’s in front of us. We’ll take it one week at a time and be the best race car driver I can be.”

Gilliland has not performed as well as he has hoped this year driving in the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series, failing to make the playoffs with just six top-five’s and 13 top-10’s in 22 races. 

However, there has been recent success as he was able to score his first career series victory at Martinsville Speedway a couple weeks ago. He admits feeling relief right upon crossing the finish line. 

“Afterwards you just feel like you belong,” he adds. “It’s something I was really lucky to be able to do was win early in the ARCA Series in my first race and then my first race here at Phoenix in the K&N Series, just makes things so much easier. Puts you in the talks every single week. Just being a winner in every series makes things easier.”

Following a championship in the K&N Pro Series, it’s easy to understand that he felt this season would have gone much better right from the start.

“Still to this day, I don’t feel like it should have been this hard,” he commented. “Even from the beginning of my truck races, I ran almost better than I had been. I started out running pretty competitive and then went downhill slowly. I really don’t know. Communication, people and obviously KBM has really great people. Me and Marcus (Richmond, crew chief) really didn’t gel together. Communication is key in every business.”

The lack of success earlier this year brought forth many critics, including Kyle Busch making comments to the media about Gilliland’s lack of success. After all, Christopher Bell and Erik Jones were both able to win titles quickly in his equipment with Busch winning all five races he entered.

Everything came to a head when Gilliland shouted over the radio upon crossing the finish line that, “Kyle Busch should stay in the f***ing motorhome.” The young driver has since apologized to his team owner for the comments, saying that they talked on the phone middle of the week and got “everything smoothed out.” 

“I feel like obviously he wasn’t happy,” Gilliland said. “I wouldn’t be either, but at the same time a part of him understood just the frustration and I’m sure he didn’t want me to be back here, but luckily we talked things out and I’m happy to still be in this No. 4 JBL Toyota Tundra.”

As the options are considered for 2020, one option that stands out would be having Gilliland driving for his father David Gilliland‘s team. 

“I wouldn’t even really call it falling back on, I think it’s always a good option,” Todd Gilliland said. “He’s always been there for me and at this point, they’ve built a really good race team. That’s always something to look at, but there’s a bunch of other really great race teams out there. Just always have to keep your options open. Just try to get the best results possible.”

Gilliland could also see his father’s team expanding in the future, knowing that David “would do anything he could get his hands on.”

“He has five trucks here this weekend and a K&N car. That’s literally everyone in the shop,” he commented. “It’s pretty cool to see how fast they are growing, but you also see sometimes that people get ahead of themselves. I’m hoping that’s not the case with them. It’s really cool the people they’ve brought in and brought together to be able to expand and be competitive at this level so far.”

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
NASCAR Cup Series

PREVIEW: The Championship 4 – Busch, Truex, Harvick and Hamlin

AVONDALE, Arizona — Heading into ISM Raceway, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick had already locked themselves into a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with their Round of 8 wins at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

After 312 laps in the Bluegreen Vacations 500, Denny Hamlin ensured that his storybook season would live to see another chapter after delivering a championship-caliber performance in the Arizona desert, en route to an emotional victory. Kyle Busch will occupy the final spot in Miami after out-pointing reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Joey Logano.

With the field now set, race fans will be treated to two David and Goliath-esque battles in the Sunshine State. In the first, Harvick is the lone-Ford driver set to take on three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. The next comes in the form of Hamlin going up again all prior series champions in Busch, Truex and Harvick.

Following the duel in the desert, the past series champions participated in a press conference in the media center at ISM Raceway. It was evident these three drivers had been in this position before. While they were somewhat complaint with the media’s questions, they all went about it in a very tight-lipped-manner with their best pokerface.

Take Kyle Busch, who has not had the strongest playoff run in series history. Some would wonder if horrid post-season results thus far have affected his confidence.

“I never questioned our ability or our opportunity to be able to go out there and continue to get ourselves to the Final 4,” the 2015 title-holder said. “We just had a rough road, others teams had rough roads, but we’re here and that’s the good part.”

Rough is a bit of an understatement. Out of the four competitors that advanced to Homestead, Busch is the only driver without a win in the Playoffs. In fact, you’ll have to look all the way back to June at Pocono Raceway to find the driver  of the No. 18’s last victory this season. Although winless, the past series champion has not been awful. He finished runner-up twice in the last nine races, including this past weekend in Arizona, but certainly that’s far from the dominance shown previously.

Looking ahead to the series finale, Truex and Busch shared the same sentiments in a sense that all three Joe Gibbs Racing teams would be working together the week of the championship.

“I feel like we’re all here because we work together,” the driver of the No. 19 said. “Our teams work together really well, we’ve got a great group at Joe Gibbs Racing and I would assume all the way up to Sunday morning we’ll all be working together.”

Busch went on to elaborate that he worked with Carl Edwards back in 2016 and even with Truex last year as future-teammates for the 2019 season.

Harvick chose not to reveal much about his intentions for his 2019 championship plans (and for good reason, sitting wedged between two Gibbs teammates), but he had mentioned that he went into this race weekend at ISM Raceway to prepare for the series finale in 2020.

“I think we’re pretty confident that we’re like a fifth-place car, the winningest driver in ISM Raceway history said. “That’s about what we thought coming in here and that’s about where we were in the first race.”

The trio of drivers were asked about the lack of ability to pass at the 1.5-mile speedway this weekend and all appeared visibly agitated. Truex chimed in muttering “it’s always been that way,” while Busch offered up a classic-Kyle comment saying, “whoever gets the lead… bye-bye!”

The stone-faced past champions didn’t reveal much else. As they vacated the media center, Hamlin entered and was much more generous with his insight and outlook moving forward.

“This is very similar to 2010, in the sense of the cars and the speed that we’ve had this season,” the driver of the No. 11 said. “There’s similarities for sure, but it’s very different. This is a tighter-knit group of guys. I think Chris [Gabehart] takes a lot of pride in assembling these guys from top to bottom. He worked hard to make sure he had the best people possible working on that car.”

Hamlin had nothing but praise to give for his new crew chief for 2019, Chris Gabehart. From weekend one at Daytona International Speedway, Gabehart called a team meeting with a plan in place for the season. After an emotional Daytona 500 win and one of the most dominant seasons in Hamlin’s 15-year career, it seems the driver/crew chief pairing were able to execute these plans with ease.

While the past-series champions are all working with crew chiefs they’ve been coupled together with for many years, Hamlin feels that “having a fresh set of eyes” puts him and Gabehart at an advantage as he makes a bid of his first series title.

The driver of the FedEx Camry is making his first attempt at a championship since the inaugural season of the new Playoff format in 2014. Hamlin recounts his mindset from 2010 when he essentially thought he had the championship locked up against Jimmie Johnson heading into Phoenix and Homestead. The Virginia-native will be going about this a lot different this time around.

“I didn’t prepare for the ‘what if it doesn’t work out,’ I was only going there thinking ‘I’m going to come here, handle business and go to Homestead and get the trophy,'” Hamlin said. “I think over the years – we’re almost 10 years later – I’m just more content with what I’ve accomplished in the series and I don’t need validation of a championship. There’s many more opportunities ahead of me, this is not my last opportunity to win a championship – especially with the relationship that I built with Chris. I see this going a long way. I’m going to enjoy the moment, because all you can ask for when you started the year was an opportunity for a chance to complete for a championship and we have a chance to compete. It’s goal accomplished, now we just got to go out there and do it.”

Hamlin is the only championship contender without and title to his name. Truex, Harvick and Busch enter Homestead with a chance to be the only active driver aside from Johnson with multiple championships at the Cup level.

With the endless amount of storylines heading into the Ford EcoBoost 400, you won’t want to miss the series finale in the final championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway

There was a lot of discussion to be had about the race at ISM Raceway on Sunday, but you could say the action on-track did not live up to that hype. Despite the speedway’s officials attempts to widen the groove with the PJ1 traction compound, the racing turned into a boring affair.

The restarts brought plenty of drama with drivers all over the track trying to gain ground, but that did not last as they embarked on the long run. The field would get widely spread out, even race leader Denny Hamlin gapping the field by over 10 seconds at one point. The challenges for position seemed to only happen when you had cars falling off the pace, except for a solid battle for 30 laps between Hamlin and Chase Elliott for second near the end of stage two.

The racing was so spread out with the unlikelihood of drama near the end that NASCAR put out a caution for John Hunter Nemechek‘s contact with the outside wall that normally would have been no cause for concern. After all, the Front Row Motorsports driver made it back to pit road without laying down any debris.

Ultimately, Hamlin did what he had to in getting the track position, and having a good handling No. 11 FedEx Camry to utilize the clean air and drive away from the field. Despite restart concerns mid-race with some issues, he also prevailed on the final run to the checkered with three laps to go, securing his position in the Championship 4.

Kyle Busch did try to mount a challenge in the final laps, with some questioning whether he fully drove hard or held back some after being reminded of his Joe Gibbs Racing’s teammate’s position coming to the green. However, if you know Rowdy, he is not a driver to settle for second and he has not won in 21 races.

On the flip side, the worst round of Elliott’s NASCAR career came to an end as he suffered a blown tire, backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the outside wall. After having a bunch of momentum following a great comeback victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, the most popular driver failed to finish better than 32nd in the last three races. 

Joey Logano will also be asking himself several questions as he started out fast and led early, but an ill-handling car caused him to fall a lap down mid-way through the event. His Team Penske team says that was simply caused by a half-pound air pressure adjustment, but the complete 180 in the car’s behavior has many other questions being asked.

Though overall, the drivers who deserved to be in the Championship 4 are there. The Big three in Hamlin, Truex, and Busch have made the cut, joined by Kevin Harvick. They currently boost the four best average finishes across all 35 races to date this season and have proven capable of winning. It’s just a matter of who will do it when it counts at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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
NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Busch corrals first Busch Pole of the season at Phoenix

Kyle Busch sped to the Busch Pole Award in Saturday’s qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Busch tripped the clock with a best lap of 140.116 mph in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota on the 1-mile Arizona oval. His first pole of the season was his fourth at Phoenix and the 32nd of his Monster Energy Series career. He’ll be vying for his third straight Phoenix win in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM).

Joey Logano is set to start second in the Team Penske No. 22 Ford after just missing the pole at 139.752 mph. Denny Hamlin qualified third in the JGR No. 11 Toyota with teammate Martin Truex Jr. winding up fourth. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick completing a top-seven sweep by playoff-eligible drivers. Ryan Blaney, the final title hopeful in the field, was 10th-fastest.

Both Truex and Harvick have already clinched spots in the Championship 4 field for the title Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Playoff Drivers are Feeling the Pressure at ISM Raceway with New Traction Compound

AVONDALE, Arizona — The Arizona sun beams down on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage area. Blue skies collide with the outside wall that stretches across the dormant 1.5 mile ISM Raceway. But this is far from a laid back weekend in the Valley of the Sun.

Cup Series crew members are frantically fine tuning their machines and lining up to go through inspection before hitting the track for what will positively be an intense pressure cooker of a race in Avondale, Arizona. While the premier series will only be partaking in a pair of practice sessions this Friday, there is more on the line now than ever to perform well this weekend.

ISM Raceway has been the sight of the semi-final event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit since 2002. But it was announced that in 2020, the track that underwent a $178 million renovation would be the sight of the Championship race weekend.

Why is this race in specific one that every driver had circled on their calendar for the 2019 season?

The 2020 Championship race will be held on November 8th, exactly one year from today. Not only will track conditions be almost identical to this weekend, but the rules package being applied to the Bluegreen Vacation 500 will be the same next year. On top of that, there is a new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, which has the entire garage area in a frenzy – and for good reason.

There was a traction compound applied to the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway and drivers like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, found out quickly that slipping up in those grooves could get treacherous.

Playoff drivers expressed a plethora of concerns about how the race will play out on November 10th and expect it to be a challenge for all 312 Laps. Even previous Cup Series Champions Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who are currently in the Championship 4 by upwards of 20 points, are on edge about the competition around them this Sunday.

“We’ll be watching those Trucks and Xfinity races pretty closely,” Logano said. “I think it’s going to take a little bit for it to come in but it looks to me like it will probably come into play in Turns 1 and 2 – it’s pretty high up there in Turns 3 and 4.”

Logano was one of a handful of Playoff drivers who performed well in the AAA Texas 500 with the new traction compound, notching a fourth-place finish. He sits fourth in the standings 20 points to the good and will need a clean race to advance to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a chance to win back-to-back championships.

Busch has the worst average finish in the Playoffs – next to the driver of the No. 22 – with a 13.38 average through eight races . All eyes will be on the No. 18 M&Ms Camry as Busch is currently riding a two-race win streak at the 1.5-mile track with an impressive 2.8 average finish over the last five events at ISM Raceway.

“Here at Phoenix it’s already very challenging and difficult to pass,” Busch said when asked about the PJ1 compound. “We saw that here in the Spring, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s going to be a hard fought finish this year and next year at the end.”

Martins Truex Jr. locked himself into the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway after capturing his third short track win of the season in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago. Normally, Truex could play it safe and focus on the weekend ahead, but the driver of the No. 19 will be far from complacent with a lackluster performance at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“I think it’s on everyone’s mind that this will be the final four race that decides the championship next year, so this race and the Spring race will be very important – especially with the rules package staying the same,” said the 2017 Cup Series Champion. “Everyone’s going to want to get a good head start on next Spring here for sure this weekend.”

The driver from Mayetta, New Jersey was also one of the benefactors of a rewarding finish last weekend at Texas. It should come as no surprise that the championship-caliber driver is one of the few drivers not overly concerned with the traction compound this weekend.

“At some point Sunday we’ll use that traction compound in [Turns] three and four because we typically run a higher line on long green flag runs,” Truex said. “It just depends on if enough guys are running up there and working it in – if that happens it’ll probably get pretty good.”

Playoff drivers below the cutoff line such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Hamlin could be pitted with an advantage over drivers like Busch and Logano due to their inherent need to perform well or win for a chance to compete for the 2019 Championship.

Larson was one of the lone drivers in the Cup Series in favor of the PJ1 compound application last weekend and he is feeling confident heading into the Bluegreen Vacations 500 this Sunday.

“I feel like there’s nobody better in our series in terms of searching for lanes and grooves to make your car better,” the driver of the No. 42 said. “If it burns in quick, I think I’ll really benefit from it.”

Talladega Superspeedway winner and racing prodigy, Blaney, revealed that he believes restarts could get even more hectic than normal this Sunday due to the track compound application.

“In the Spring you saw those wild four-five wide racing on restarts, but it’s going to be even more interesting this year especially with the stuff they put down on [Turns] one and two up top,” the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford said. “I think people are going to be using that top lane later in the day and it’s really going to affect restarts.”

The 25-year old started from the pole at ISM Raceway earlier this year and finished third with a legitimate shot to win. Blaney also reiterated that he had been pushed around quite a bit in that race and that he intends to return the favor and be one of the aggressors on those climatic restarts.

Hamlin, who finds himself 20 points below the cutoff line, was deemed one of the 2019 favorites for the Championship after an impeccable season. The 38-year old found trouble at both Martinsville and Texas Motor Speedway, but his chances really took a hit when he accidentally got caught up in the traction compound in the AAA Texas 500.

The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry had some strong words about the PJ1 application and even tried taking matters into his own hands following the race at Texas.

“I discussed with NASCAR that you’d have a better show from beginning to end if they didn’t add anything after the Xfinity race,” Hamlin shared. “Those cars did a really good job burning it in and it was actually really good at that time – it would’ve been great to start the Cup race with.”

Hamlin went on to further explain that the traction compound took hundreds of laps to properly develop last week and it was really slick – hence why when he got loose in re-application and crashed. With 312 Laps at a 1.5-mile track, the Cup Series may not have have the luxury of waiting hundreds of laps for the compound to burn in.

The Virginia-native boasts a series-leading average finishing position of 9.2 through 34 of 36 races this season and will need to replicate more of that magic this Sunday to continue his dominant stretch into Miami.

If the prior Playoff Round finales at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway are any indication of what to expect at ISM Raceway, then fans are in for a dramatically intense race at Zoomtown U.S.A. With two only spots available before Championship weekend at Homestead and teams already stressing about the PJ1 traction application, you won’t want to miss the Bluegreen Vacations 500 from ISM Raceway at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

With every point and position mattering that much more, some drivers will be regretting their decisions on Sunday.

Ultimately, it proved to be tough to pass throughout the AAA Texas 500. Some drivers were able to make passes, but being able to balance running the bottom and the edge of the groove that the PJ1 had been applied certainly did not make it easy. That was showcased through the final run to the checkered which saw the field spread out with no big battles for position.

As a result, strategy to gain track position became critical throughout the event – which worked to the advantage of some in being able to get a strong finish.

Costly Mistakes

While several of the playoff contenders were able to have strong finishes, including Kevin Harvick who punched his ticket to the Championship 4, there are others who have made the hole bigger for them moving forward.

Chase Elliott entered Sunday’s race in a hole following a broken axle at Martinsville Speedway. Now he has put himself in a “win or bust, no matter what” situation being over 60 points behind the cut-off following an incident on Lap 9. The Hendrick Motorsports driver tried to run the high line, getting loose and backing the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into the wall.

Although he started off the playoffs with tons of momentum from a dominating performance at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, it has been rough since then with a blown motor at Dover International Speedway, a crash at Talladega Superspeedway, and the issues the past two weeks. By contending for the win at Kansas Speedway, he was able to squeak his way into the Round of 8 by a mere three points. Now it will take an even more commending performance if he wants to be part of the title battle.

Denny Hamlin also made a similar mistake to Elliott, getting sideways in turn four and spinning through the infield grass on Lap 80. As a result, he scored a 28th-place finish, giving up any cushion that he had over the cut-off line to now sit 20 behind Joey Logano for the last position.

Hamlin could point his way into the next round by simply beating Logano, but needs to be wary in doing so in case someone like Elliott or Kyle Larson pick up the checkered flag to move up the cut-off line. Therefore, competing for the win would be his best bet and that seems likely as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has ran well at ISM Raceway previously. He has scored a pair of top-five’s in past three trips to the desert.

Cream Rising to the Top

No matter the format to decide the champion, the best drivers are always going to rise to the top. Over the past couple seasons, Martin Truex Jr. and Harvick have been part of the Championship 4 and will be once again this year. Considering both competitors have been on their game all through the playoffs, it will more than likely take winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to secure the title. 

Over the past couple years, Kyle Busch has joined them, along with a fourth face that seems to change each season. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver appears to have a good chance at doing so once again being 22 points above the cut-off, however these playoffs have proven to expect the unexpected. If he is off on his game at all next weekend, the No. 18 could be left on the outside looking in.

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.