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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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News

2020 Silly Season Updates and Expectations

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

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

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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

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

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

Gavin Baker | NKP

Chris Buescher

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

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

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

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Tyler Reddick

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Cole Custer

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Christopher Bell

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

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

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

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

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

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

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

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Martin Truex Jr. advances to Championship 4 with dominant Martinsville win

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – It took a post-race fracas on pit road to distract from the dominance of Martin Truex Jr., who led a career-best 464 laps in winning Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway and punched his ticket for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race.

The 2017 Cup Series champion took the lead from pole winner Denny Hamlin off pit road on Lap 30 under the first of 11 cautions and held it the rest of the way, save for a six-lap stint where Kyle Larson stayed out on old tires near the end of the second 130-lap stage.

Denied victory by Joey Logano’s bump-and-run in last year’s Playoff race at the .526-mile track, Truex won for the first time at the venerable short track, for the seventh time this season and the 26th time in this career.

Byron chased Truex all the way to the checkered flag but couldn’t get close enough to make a move in the final laps.

“I can’t believe we just won Martinsville, man,” said Truex, who finished .489 seconds ahead of William Byron after a restart with 24 laps left. “Miami (site of the season finale) is awesome, but we’ve wanted to win here for a long time.”

As strong as his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was, Truex didn’t expect the level of domination he showed on Sunday.

“I don’t think anyone expected that,” said Truex, who opened a 20-point lead over second-place Hamlin in the Playoff standings. “This racetrack, in general, you don’t see that. Hats off to my guys. Pit crew was stellar today, and we didn’t make many adjustments. We adjusted on early and it came to life, and that was a lot of fun.

“I don’t know, maybe now I’ve got this place figured out. Who knows? But just really proud of everybody, and after last year, we talked earlier, everybody wants to keep talking about last year, and I’m like, ‘We’ve got work to do.’ I’m just proud of everybody for giving me a race car like that and being able to put it all together today when it counted.”

A post-race discussion between Hamlin and Logano started with civility and ended in a wrestling match between the drivers and their crews. The point of contention was an incident on Lap 458 when Hamlin’s Toyota and Logano’s Ford made side-to-side contact off Turn 4 and Logano car’s banged into the outside wall.

Logano spun in Turn 1 to bring out the 10th caution, and he recovered to finish seventh, but he wanted answers from Hamlin after the race.

“We were having a discussion,” Hamlin said. “Everything was civil, and then, like Joey does, he does a little push and then runs away. So that’s Joey. Scared. He said, ‘Do you want to go?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m here.’ But then he runs away.”

“I just wanted to see what his thoughts were, and it wasn’t quite the answer I was looking for,” said Logano, who initiated the physicality with a light push to Hamlin’s right shoulder.

Seeking his first win in NASCAR’s top series, Byron ran consistently in the top 10 all afternoon but was no match for Truex.

“He was really strong,” said Byron, who had not finished on the lead lap in three previous starts at Martinsville. “I could work my brake bias a little bit in the car and gain a little bit, and then I’d get to him and I’d heat up a lot and then kind of fall back. I don’t really know. He was super strong. Our car bounced a little bit on the short run, which was tough to kind of get around. But overall, it was a really good day.

“This isn’t a place that I’ve loved coming to, and it just clicked this weekend, the things we did with the car going into qualifying and then obviously our race. Super excited, but second is not super fun, either. We’ll try to get one spot better next time.”

Brad Keselowski ran third, followed by Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch. Kevin Harvick, Logano, Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman completed the top 10.

With Truex locked into the Championship 4—winning a Round of 8 race for the first time—Hamlin, 14th-place finisher Kyle Busch and Logano remain above the cut line for the season finale, with the Playoff field to be cut from eight drivers to four, two races hence at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

Harvick is fifth in the standings, 1 point behind Logano in fourth. Blaney is one point behind Harvick with Larson another nine back. Chase Elliott finished 36th on Sunday, 55 laps down after his rear axle broke on Lap 180, and is 44 points below the cut line—likely needing a victory in one of the next two races to make the Championship 4.

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Truex leads JGR 1-2-3 sweep with playoff win at Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. – On a night of “firsts” for Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, Martin Truex Jr. continued to assert his mastery over the first round of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Rallying from a spin off the bumper of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford and passing teammate Kyle Busch for the lead with 25 laps left, Truex led an apparent 1-2-3-4 finish for JGR in Saturday night’s Federated Auto parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.

The victory was a milestone for Truex, too. The winner of last week’s playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Truex had never before won back-to-back races. Now, the driver of the No. 19 Toyota has six wins this season, a season sweep at Richmond and 25 victories in his Cup career.

Never before had the organization swept the top four spots in a race in NASCAR’s premier series — but that sentiment was short-lived.

Busch came home second, 2.630 seconds behind his teammate. Denny Hamlin ran third, followed by Erik Jones, who completed the Gibbs sweep with a pass of pole winner Brad Keselowski for fourth place on Lap 378 of 400. Jones’ No. 20 Toyota failed post-race inspection, however, and was ultimately disqualified and scored last.

Truex’s win was no cakewalk. On Lap 315, Stenhouse, who had just pitted for new tires, drove hard into Turn 3 beneath the No. 19 Camry. Stenhouse lost the nose of his No. 17 Ford, slid up into Truex’s car and sent him spinning, handing the lead to Busch.

Restarting third after the fifth and final caution, Truex chased his teammate for the next 50 laps, finally clearing him on Lap 375.

“Luckily I didn’t hit anything,” Truex said of his spin. “I just tried to keep it off the fence, tried to get spun around and get going, and we ended up—because we were pretty far up front, we got going in a pretty good spot and left pit road in a good position and then good adjustments at the end again by (crew chief) Cole (Pearn) and (engineer) James (Small) and the guys.

“This is just freaking unbelievable. So we came here to get bonus points and damn sure we did that. … Had a heck of a race with Kyle and Denny all night long, really, and we just kept plugging away at it, kept plugging away at it, as we always do. We just keep digging and we never quit.  Next thing you know, catching the 18 (Busch) for the lead, I’m like, ‘Cool, all right, here we go.’ Man, to sweep Richmond finally is pretty awesome, as much as we’ve led here coming into this year, and just thanks to everybody. It’s pretty amazing.”

Though Busch led a race-high 202 laps to Truex’s 109, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota conceded his car wasn’t quite up to the task of challenging his teammate.

“I don’t think we were as good as him all night long,” Busch said. “Martin, the car, the combination thereof, us, the combination of, just lacked a little bit. You know, like the 11 (Hamlin) lacked a little bit more than us. Just weird, I don’t know.

“We led a lot of laps. We were up front a lot. But when I was out front, he could keep the closest distance to me. That kind of worried me for a finish like that in the long run.”

Keselowski, the only other driver to lead laps, ended up finishing fourth after the Jones disqualification, followed by fellow playoff drivers Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer in order.

With what looked to be a fourth-place run, Jones made up 20 points of the 23 point deficit he brought to Richmond from Las Vegas, where a stuck throttle sent him hurtling into the outside wall and cost him a 36th-place finish. Jones was set to head to the Sept. 29 elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval three points behind 12th-place William Byron (24th Saturday) for the final berth in the Round of 12 but instead will need to win the race in order to advance.

Alex Bowman (23rd), Jones, Bowyer and Kurt Busch (18th) enter the final race of the Round of 16 below the cutline. Jones faces the largest deficit—45 points.

 

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NASCAR Cup Series

Martin Truex Jr. wins Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs opener at Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS — It had been almost three months since Martin Truex Jr. last raised a trophy and while others may have wondered about his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team’s Playoff potential, this team never wavered in its confidence or pursuit.

And sure enough, they were the ones celebrating in Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after Sunday night’s South Point 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs opener.

“Welcome back,’’ an ecstatic Truex screamed to his team on the radio after taking the checkered flag an impressive 4.173-seconds ahead of fellow Playoff competitor, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick.

It was Truex’s fifth victory of the year – best in the field – and an automatic ticket to the next round of the Playoffs.

“We took a gamble, qualified 24th,’’ said Truex, who led 32 laps. “For a while, it wasn’t looking too smart with the 4 (Harvick) out front. Got the right adjustments in the end. Had a great car all day long.

“Hell of a way to make a championship run. Get some good bonus points, move on to the next round, see what we can do there.’’

As strong as Harvick’s Ford had been – leading 47 laps on the day – he said after the race he really didn’t have much for Truex in the end.

“I knew the Gibbs cars would be tough,’’ said the 2014 Cup champ. “Martin was just so much better on the second half of the run. He made up that ground there, was able to stay close enough to us. My car started to get loose and push the front. It was just in kind of a four-wheel drift.

“We did some things this weekend that we probably will have to un-do going forward. I think we can do a little bit better going forward.’’

The Top-10 drivers on Sunday were all Playoff competitors. Three-time Vegas winner Brad Keselowski was third in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott brought his No. 9 Chevrolet home fourth and Harvick’s Penske teammate Ryan Blaney was fifth.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron were sixth and seventh, followed by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, reigning series champion Joey Logano in ninth and Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman in 10th.

While the race’s final laps came down to a battle between Harvick and Busch, it was actually Logano who led the most laps on the day – 105 of the 267.

“We got shuffled out the back and then got to the outside of the 41 (Daniel Suarez) and didn’t know I was there and he crashed our car,’’ said Logano, whose No. 22 Ford suffered a lot of right-side damage after it was squeezed into the wall avoiding Suarez.

“We just didn’t have a chance to fix it as good as it needed to be and as good as it was before that,’’ said Logano, who won the first stage.

“They fixed it as good as they could to recover with a top 10. Our car was so fast and I feel like we had a chance of winning it, but we just kind of got shuffled into everything.’’

On the plus side, Logano said, “Our car was fast. We were definitely capable of winning this thing, no doubt. We showed that. That is a positive.’’

It was a frustrating evening for many of the other Playoff drivers as well, several who worked through various obstacles from a flat tire for polesitter Clint Bowyer (finished 25th) to a crash for Ganassi driver Kurt Busch (39th) to an early race mechanical issue for JGR’s Erik Jones (finished 36th).

First-time Playoff participant, 21-year-old Byron rallied to that seventh-place finish, but actually brought out one of the race’s four caution flags on lap 182 after spinning.

Regular-season champion and Las Vegas native Kyle Busch also had a busy day. He went two laps down early after brushing the wall. He made up enough positions on track and earned a spot back on the lead lap only to have problems with lapped cars as he raced forward.

The frustration was clear after he climbed out of his No. 18 JGR car on pit road, relegated with a 19th place finish even after he rallied back inside the top 10 at one point in the waning laps. The upside for him is the bonus points he received for winning the season title will carry over and balance some of the bad luck on Sunday.

“Should have run fourth probably, instead of 19th, ‘’ Busch said on pit road, his disappointment obvious as he called out the driving technique from slower cars.

When reminded he gets to carry those bonus points, he said, “It’s pathetic to have to lean on insurance. My premiums are going to go up.’’

The Cup Series moves to Richmond Raceway next week for the second race of the opening Playoff round. With the victory at Vegas, Truex has taken a three-point lead on Harvick in the championship standings. Logano is third, seven points behind Truex and Kyle Busch is fourth, 19 points off the lead.

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News

Martin Truex Jr. fends off Kyle Busch for repeat Sonoma win

SONOMA, Calif. – Dominant in defense of last year’s victory in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, Martin Truex Jr. held off Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, to win Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Sonoma Raceway.

With three-lap fresher tires after the final set of green-flag pit stops at the 2.52-mile road course — which for the first time since 1997 featured use of the carousel connecting Turns 4 and 7 — Busch closed an 8.269-second gap to slightly more than a second over the last 24 laps.

But the driver of the No. 18 Toyota could get no closer, given that Truex’s No. 19 Camry had better drive off the corners at the 12-turn course and was able to keep Busch at bay. Truex led three times for 59 of the 90 laps, including the final 24.

“I just dug down deep and tried to be smooth and hit my marks,” said Truex, who won for the fourth time this season — all in the last eight races — the third time at Sonoma (including two straight, and with three different car owners) and the 23rd time in his career. “Luckily I began with a big enough gap where I could get away and not feel too much pressure.

“It was definitely a battle going on, as far as the race there at the end for us on tires. It felt terrible the last 20 laps. The last 10 it just felt like it was on ice — just no grip anywhere. I’m really proud of all these guys and everyone on this team and everyone back at JGR.

“What a season we’ve turned this into. This is great, man, unbelievable. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

Joe Gibbs Racing has won 10 of the first 16 races this season. Truex, who moved from now-defunct Furniture Row Racing to JGR this year, has now posted at least four victories in four straight seasons, including the current one.

And with Matt DiBenedetto running a career-best fourth and Stage 2 winner Denny Hamlin driving from 26th to fifth in the final stage of the race after pitting during the second break, Toyota placed four drivers in the top five. The only interloper was third-place Ryan Blaney in a Team Penske Ford.

With four laps left, Busch had trimmed Truex’s advantage to 1.542 seconds, but Truex ultimately expanded the edge to 1.861 seconds at the finish.

“Yeah, any time I had to lean on the left rear, I just didn’t have the drive that I needed,” Busch said. “Actually tried to hold on to it, trying to save it. I knew that was going to be our problem — that had been our problem all day long. You get closer, you’re like, ‘OK, I can get him, I better go, pounce on him fast, so then he doesn’t have the time to pick up the pace.’

“But it didn’t work. He was obviously saving a lot. I knew he was going to be saving a lot, have enough to be able to most likely hold us off. I was right. I still tried everything I could to get there and ran real hard. … Sucks to finish second to a teammate, but it’s good for the company. Overall Martin is really, really good here. I’m just pumped that I actually ran good here.”

Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman claimed the sixth and seventh spots. Erik Jones, who started from the rear of the field after his team made repairs to the left rear quarter of his car post-qualifying, was eighth in the fourth JGR Toyota.

Aric Almirola and polesitter Kyle Larson completed the top 10. The winner of three straight poles at Sonoma, Larson posted his best finish at the road course.

The race ran caution-free, except for the two stage breaks. Front-row starter William Byron grabbed the lead from Larson on the first lap and won the stage wire-to-wire, but he lost track position while pitting under caution during the stage break and finished 19th.

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Martin Truex Jr. rallies for dramatic Coca-Cola 600 victory

CONCORD, N.C. – Martin Truex Jr. survived an early brush with the outside wall and a frenetic restart with five laps left to win Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

On a race that featured 16 cautions—most since the record 22 in 2005—Truex made a four-wide pass to the inside coming off Turn 2 on Lap 396 of 400 at the 1.5-mile track and beat runner-up Joey Logano to the finish line by .330 seconds.

The victory was Truex’s third of the season, matching Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski for most in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series so far. It was his third at Charlotte and the 22nd of his career, but it was hardly the sort of dominating performance that saw Truex lead a record 392 laps in 2016.

Quite the contrary. After charging to a lead of nearly three seconds in the first stage of the race, Truex blew a right front tire and slammed the Turn 4 wall hard enough to cause the third caution of the evening. After repairs, Truex restarted 32nd on Lap 79, but by the end of Stage 1 on lap 100, he had rallied to finish ninth and remained in the mix the rest of the night.

And when David Ragan stayed out on old tires, and Ryan Newman made a two-tire stop before the final restart on Lap 396, Truex cleared those two drivers and Logano down the backstretch in the move that won the race, and event in which each driver honored a fallen soldier in observance of Memorial Day.

“That was just incredible—what a race!” Truex said after putting on a celebratory smoke show on the frontstretch. “This is for everybody who gave their life so we could be here doing this tonight.

“What a hell of a team—we never gave up on it. I thought we were done. We blew a tire and hit the wall. We never gave up on it. Just kept fighting, just kept fighting. What a race there at the end. That was pretty wild.”

“Wild” doesn’t adequately describe the decisive restart. Busch split the Fords of Ragan and Newman in Turn 2, choosing to go three-wide rather than pushing Ragan clear in the top lane. Truex then powered his No. 19 Toyota to the inside off Turn 2 and had the lead by the time the cars rolled through Turns 3 and 4.

But when Truex sped through Turn 4 and approached the tri-oval, Logano was right on his bumper, pushing hard. It wasn’t until the cars reached Turn 1 on Lap 397 that Truex pulled away.

“I was thinking I was going wherever there was a hole, because I wasn’t lifting,” Truex said of his winning move. “That’s kind of the way it works there. It seemed like the second half of the race, for sure, the bottom was really where you wanted to be. I had a hole in the bottom to get into (Turn) 3, and I knew that was my only shot. Just barely cleared the 22 (Logano) off (Turn) 4 sideways. He was on my bumper and had me sideways, and I hung onto it and luckily finished it from there.”

Logano overcame early handling issues to finish second but wasn’t a factor until late in the race.

“The 38 (Ragan) ran really high, and I thought he was going to run the middle, and I kind of misjudged it,” Logano said of the last restart. “That’s what just killed a little bit of momentum where Martin was just able to have enough momentum to clear me off that corner.

“At that point I shoved him ahead to try to make the pass to the outside, but he defended it well… The good thing is we kept fighting and got something out of the day.”

Kyle Busch ran third, followed by Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Chris Buescher, who rallied from hard contact with the Turn 4 wall on Lap 127 and charged from 12th to sixth after the final restart.

Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson, pole winner William Byron and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10 in an action-filled race that featured 30 lead changes among 11 drivers.

Though Truex won NASCAR’s only 600-mile race for the second time, the significance of the event was undiminished.

“This is just a special race,” Truex said. “The longest race of the year. So much history. What this weekend means for all the soldiers and all those that have given the ultimate sacrifice so we can even be here. The Null Family that’s on my car—Chief Petty Officer (Nicholas) Null.

“I met his family this weekend and they were so appreciative of NASCAR and teams and everybody for doing this. I can’t wait to see them here. They said we were going to win, and now we get to have a cold beer and celebrate. Just appreciate everybody on this weekend. It’s definitely a special one. Kudos to NASCAR and all the teams for putting it all together.”