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Commentary

WEAVER: Kyle Busch Gaining Momentum Ahead of Championship Race

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In the same way that qualifying isn’t the greatest indicator of race speed at Homestead Miami Speedway, the same principal should also be applied to Final Practice.

In that session, Joey Logano posted the fastest time while Jeff Gordon led the remaining contenders with the ninth-fastest time. Martin Truex Jr. was 10th, Kyle Busch 17th and Kevin Harvick 26th. But again, that doesn’t paint the full picture because the track slowed down during the course of practice while teams were employing a variety of tire strategies.

But if you were trying to find the winner of practice amongst the Championship Four, it has to be Busch and the No. 18 team. While Harvick and Gordon have endured topsy-turvy weekends thus far, the Joe Gibbs Racing contenders have somewhat silently been the fastest of the Championship Four through the first two days of track activity.

He qualified third on Friday and had the least significant drop-off in speed during the final one-hour session on Saturday. He’s also starting to display that signature Busch swagger that indicates he knows he’s got something for his championship rivals on Sunday.

“The M&M’s Crispy Camry was pretty good,” Busch said after practice. “I’m really pleased with it. It’s definitely one of the best race cars I’ve had here for sure. It does the things that I think that it needs to do so hopefully I’m right and hopefully we’ve got a good race car for tomorrow.”

Despite his four wins in 24 starts this season, Busch took a backseat behind Harvick and Gordon entering Championship Week due to poor results at Homestead over the years. In 10 starts at the South Florida speedway, Busch has scored only three top-10s and an average finish of 23.10.

Based on practice, it seems Busch will have every resource to flip the script on the expected contenders and crew chief Adam Stevens likes the momentum his team is establishing.

“It was pretty good,” Stevens said of his car. “It was better than yesterday. I’m glad that we didn’t have to race what we brought off the truck because we certainly had our work cut out for us, but I feel like we’re competitive for sure.

“We’ve got a good direction for a couple small race changes for tomorrow but not much so overall I’m very optimistic.”

Again, you don’t want to read too much into practice but Busch is well positioned to win his first championship on Sunday at Homestead. He was third-fastest in 15-lap average speed, fastest amongst the Championship Four, and his XFINITY Series start on Saturday is a bonus.

Bet on Busch.

Read my other Championship Race Columns

Championship Pick and Analysis

Championship Week Opens with Respect, Not Mind Games

NASCAR Generates Big Game Environment with Chase Finale

Even with the threat of rain, the Championship Race Must go the Distance

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

Categories
Commentary

WEAVER: Cup Championship Finale Deserves Nothing Less Than a Full Race

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — And God said let there be rain.

Actually, He never said that but there’s a chance it’s going to feel like it come Saturday and Sunday at Homestead Miami Speedway.

With the weekend arrives the first significant chance of precipitation to South Florida, and with it, the first real threat to a Championship Race without controversy. Both days are forecast to have persistent showers and it could spell problems for the Championship Four and NASCAR alike.

One week after ending the elimination race at Phoenix well short of the scheduled distance, the Sanctioning Body isn’t backing down on its policy of declaring races official after halfway. Even Chairman Brian France said as much on Friday during his annual Homestead press conference.

“That’s part of racing (and) it’s part of the strategy,” France said. “You saw that last week at Phoenix — you have to anticipate weather as being a factor in deciding things, as unfortunate as that is.

“Hopefully it won’t be a factor on Sunday.”

Translation: Even with a championship at stake, France is comfortable calling the race official just past halfway if it cannot be resumed by the end of the day, no matter what happens.

The problem with that stance is that The Chase for the Championship now ends with an entire season coming down to one race. The Championship Four of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all enter the Ford EcoBoost 400 with an equal shot of winning the championship, and the first driver to cross the Finish Line first takes the crown.

But as we saw at Phoenix, races could be won and lost based entirely on the fortune of a pit stall selection and the timeliness of a caution when weather becomes a factor.

While that’s a quirk that falls within the traditions of NASCAR, it’s also an archaic rule that simply shouldn’t decide an elimination race, much less the one that crowns a champion. France has repeatedly said that he wants this event to mimic the Game 7 personality of other sports, but those are required to go the distance — at least in Major League Baseball.

NASCAR has said they don’t start races unless they believe they can get the entire show in from start-to-finish. In other words, the status quo never intends to start a race with the intent to merely get to halfway.

With all due respect to the Daytona 500, this is the most important race of the year. It decides the champion and deserves nothing less than going the distance. NASCAR will be challenged in that respect this weekend so here’s to hoping the industry is treated to a full race.

Read my other Championship Race Columns

Championship Pick and Analysis

Championship Week Opens with Respect, Not Mind Games

NASCAR Generates Big Game Environment with Chase Finale

Reasons to Not Read Into Homestead Qualifying Results

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

Categories
Commentary

WEAVER: Don’t Read Too Much Into Championship Race Qualifying

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Kevin Harvick has been the clear-cut favorite to win the Sprint Cup Series Championship all week but laid the proverbial egg on Friday when he failed to qualify into the final round of time trials for the Ford EcoBoost 400.

As a result, he will start the race in 13th and dead last amongst the Championship Four.

Meanwhile Kyle Busch led the bunch with a third-place effort, followed by Jeff Gordon in fifth and Martin Truex Jr. in 11th.

It was a remarkable turn of events for the defending champion since he was pretty damn quick in practice and posted the fastest time in the first round of knockout qualifying. But somewhere between that first and second round, Harvick’s Chevrolet went tight and he just couldn’t find the speed needed to crack the top-12.

“Yeah, Round One was really good for us, and then we went to Round Two and just really, really tight in the next two runs that we made,” Harvick said. “You know, we just never really recovered from what we did in the first round to make it repeat.

“All in all, I just think our balance was too tight. We’ll work on the race car and go from there.”

So is there cause for concern if you’re in the Stewart-Haas No. 4 camp? Probably not. It’s far too easy to read too much into qualifying, especially on a stage like this weekend and the Sprint Cup Series Championship Race.

The truth is that Friday’s qualifying efforts really didn’t indicate much ahead of the rest of the weekend.

Harvick was fast throughout the day and just ran into a qualifying set-up that didn’t work well. He has a race-winning car and will just need to fine-tune it on Saturday during final practice. Much of Friday was spent in qualifying trim and wasn’t the best indication of how much race speed each of the four contenders have.

Even Busch was quick to dismiss the qualifying results at Homestead due to how easy it is to pass at the South Florida speedway compared to other stops on the tour.

“Qualifying position here doesn’t matter much,” Busch said. “With the opportunity this track presents to move around from the top to the bottom, middle, top and be all over the race track, you’ll definitely have enough time over 400 miles to work your way to the front.

“It’s not a race track like last week at Phoenix or at (New Hampshire) where it’s single-file and hard to pass. This place is good. I don’t think qualifying has anything to say about what kind of race we’ll see on Sunday.”

With that said, it does have to be a sort of moral victory for Busch, Gordon and Truex that they defeated the defending champion in the first real test of the weekend. This is especially true for Gordon, who struggled in the first round of qualifying, and needed to make a third run just to (barely) crack the top-24 to advance to the second round.

From there, the four-time champion was stout, and will start his final race from inside the top-5. But even with that minor accomplish, Gordon said he isn’t even worried for Harvick, knowing that the No. 4 will still be amongst the teams to beat on Sunday.

“I don’t think right now we’re in that place where we’re just focused on Kevin,” Gordon said. “We’ve got Kyle ahead of us. I mean, we’re trying to do everything we can right now to win the race, not just focus on the other three.

“And then you get in the race and you see what you have to do to win not only the race but the championship. I’m a little surprised (about Harvick), I’ll be honest with you. As fast as he was in that first round, I thought for sure he was going to be the guy to beat throughout all the rounds. So yeah, I was a little bit surprised with that.

“But I mean, I think because he is the favorite going into this and how good he’s been running, it’s nice to have him behind us. I certainly don’t mind that. But I don’t think he’ll be there long.”

In short, don’t read too much into qualifying. It just doesn’t mean that much here.

Read my other Championship Race Columns

Championship Pick and Analysis

Championship Week Opens with Respect, Not Mind Games

NASCAR Generates Big Game Environment with Chase Finale

Despite Weather Threats, Finale Deserves Nothing Less Than a Full Race

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

Categories
Commentary

WEAVER: NASCAR Playoff Has Generated Big Game Environment for Miami

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Even though the elimination format of the Chase for the Championship remains a controversial sticking point to many longtime fans, there’s no denying that NASCAR has generated the Big Event atmosphere it always wanted out of its Championship Race this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Even if you were a proponent of the old playoff format, or any of the previous championship procedures, such systems were rarely capable of producing a Super Bowl environment like the one NASCAR has put together for 2015.

It’s hard not to be a believer in the vision when you walk around the streets of Miami and see the advertisements and billboards decorating one of the most happening cities in the country. It’s even harder to not believe when a fan looks at the credentials hanging around your neck, and asks you about Jeff Gordon, and his chances to win the championship in his final career race.

It’s no secret that NASCAR has always dreamed of transcending the niche motorsports industry and standing alongside the NFL, Baseball and college sports as equals.

But missing in that equation was a true playoff and a legitimate championship game.

Sure, it’s goes against the traditions of racing, but this weekend is exactly what NASCAR needs to compete for fans against football and the other heavy hitters of pop culture and Americana.

Perhaps it’s just this specific collection of contenders in Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., but it really feels as though NASCAR has turned some heads across the non-racing community with this Championship Four.

In short, this weekend is absolutely a turning point for NASCAR. The next several years will see the departure of some of the biggest names in the sport. It starts with Gordon this year, continues with Tony Stewart in 2016, and will eventually follow with the likes of Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Fans who rarely watch NASCAR will tune in to the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday. They’ll do so to watch Gordon or Harvick, but it’s important that the industry delivers something else for them to gravitate towards moving forward.

At least locally in the greater Miami area, NASCAR has created that something in Championship Week. Even this occasional critic of the status quo found himself walking around South Beach on Thursday caught in the moment.

This weekend is a big deal, the race is sold out, and NASCAR is looking to capitalize.

Categories
Commentary

WEAVER: Miami Opens with Mutual Respect, Not Mind Games

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — In a radical departure from Championship Media Day last season, there were no jabs, no verbal exchanges and no mind games to be played by any of the remaining contenders.

It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity either.

During the introductory press conference on Thursday at the Diplomat Resort and Spa an hour north of Homestead Miami Speedway, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were each presented every chance to provide each other bulletin board material, but instead, they chose to take the high road.

“I want all three of you guys to come across the line in a photo finish if I can’t be in front of you,” Gordon said.

“I’d go with my childhood hero, Jeff Gordon,” Busch replied.

“This is a total set-up,” Truex added with a laugh.

While there is a tremendous amount of burning desire flowing between each of the four, there is also a great amount of respect between them as well. When asked about the lack of gamesmanship over the past several days, Harvick pointed to Gordon, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and said he’s the reason why.

“I think it’s his fault,” Harvick said of the four-time champion. “We’re going to blame it on him. It’s a little bit different, I think, just for the fact that I know we all want to win. We all want to have a championship.

“But in the end, you don’t want to be the guy that was disrespectful at Jeff Gordon’s last press conference or say something that was just a total jackass move.”

Beyond the respect factor, it also seemed as if each of the contenders conceded that there were no advantages to be found in playing mind games going into the Game 7 like event in South Florida. How does one even decide which of the four is the emotional weakest link?

Harvick is the defending champion.

Gordon has four championships to go alongside his 93 career victories.

Kyle Busch has matured a great deal over the past decade and overcame a broken leg and broken foot to make it to the Championship Four.

Truex drives for a single-car operation out of Denver, Colorado and has spent the past year alongside girlfriend Sherry Pollex, who is fighting ovarian cancer with every ounce of their combined strength.

So yeah, good luck breaking any of these deserving would-be champions.

It’s remarkable that in a year defined by intentional retaliation and the fuzzy driver code that the season would come down to four men with so much respect for each other and what they are hoping to accomplish.

Even though all four men want to be the NASCAR champion for their own selfish reasons, none of them seem willing to do anything on Sunday that would tarnish the definition of the label that comes with it.

“You know, if it comes down to a little bit of pushing and shoving at the end for the win, then it just depends on what I feel like the other guys are willing to put on the line,” Truex said.

“I don’t think anyone is just going to go out there and wreck someone to try to get the championship, at least that’s not the way I would do it.”

Gordon cocurs, saying that none of the four want to win a championship that way.

“If you put the bumper to them and they spin, they crash, even if you crossed the line first, that’s going to weigh on you a little bit,” Gordon said. “Yeah, you might be the champion but it’s still going to have a sort of shadow over it.”

Even Harvick, who opened the Chase for the Championship by famously declaring that he was going to pound Joe Gibbs Racing into the sand, has taken a reserved approach. He seems to appreciate the moment and recognizes the ability to do something special in racing Jeff Gordon for a championship in his final race, or going head-to-head with his old rival, Kyle Busch, or even the ultimate underdog in Martin Truex Jr.

There’s nothing but respect emanating from Harvick who knows he gets to defend his crown against three of his most respected peers, and that’s enough.

“I think there’s a lot of respect for where everybody is at,” Harvick said. “I think when you look at Martin and everything that those guys have done with what they’ve got in Colorado and here they are.

“And you look at Kyle breaking his leg and fighting back, and Jeff who’s going to retire and run the last race, there’s really no reason to create a story. There’s no reason to create a moment.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

Categories
Trucks

ARCA Team Lira Motorsport Expands into Truck Series at Homestead

In an era where competitive teams are becoming increasingly rarer in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, it’s refreshing to see Lira Motorsports expand into the division with the intent to compete for wins and someday, championships.

Owned by Sports Car veteran Carlos Lira, Lira Motorsports has been competing full-time in the ARCA Racing Series this season with a variety of drivers and colorful race cars that are impossible to miss.

After a successful season in which the team scored its first two victories with XFINITY Series driver Ryan Reed, Lira now heads to Homestead this weekend to launch its Truck Series effort with debuting ARCA standouts Kyle Weatherman and David Levine.

Lira’s son, Michael, serves twin roles as both a driver for the ARCA team and the program’s director of driver development. He says Lira Motorsports isn’t simply coming to log laps — he wants at least one truck in the top-10 and hopefully both in the top-15.

“This is built to stay,” the younger Lira told Popular Speed on Tuesday night. “We were careful to not build too fast. Everything that you see (referencing the four ARCA teams and two NASCAR trucks) was planned a long time before we did it.

“We don’t do things unless we can give it our full ability. We started with one ARCA car, then two, always with the intent to reach four if it made sense. We planned everything months in advance so what you’re seeing this weekend is something that we’ve waited a long time to make happen.”

CUCZoOBUYAARuPnWeatherman is the reigning ARCA Short Track Challenge champion, meaning that he scored more points than anyone else in all the races on venues one mile or shorter — including the pair of dirt tracks ARCA visits each season.

The accomplishment even bested overall ARCA champion Grant Enfinger, a noted short track devotee.

Weatherman spent all of this season competing against the Liras with Cunningham Motorsports, but common goals to make debut in the Truck Series and a mutual respect for each other allowed this deal to come together quickly.

“We started talking right after (season finale) Kansas,” Weatherman said. “Carlos called us and we were able to put this together. I’m really comfortable with those guys, they have a great shop and a great group of people. It’s going to be a good opportunity.”

Weatherman will work with crew chief Teddy Brown and he expects the car to be ahead of him when he arrives in South Beach, especially considering he wasn’t able to test.

“They’ve got a lot of resources and access to Ford and Roush (Fenway Racing) so I think these guys are going to make some noise,” Weatherman said. “I’m excited to get there. I’m excited to learn and go from there.”

CUCZfGIUYAAoRdOMeanwhile, Levine will continue where he left off in ARCA working with the same team and crew chief (Sam Schram) that guided him to 11 top-10s and a fifth-place in the overall championship standings. He hopes that familiarity will shorten his learning curve come Friday night.

“I’m really excited to be racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for the first time,” Levine said. “The opportunity to move up to the Trucks with my Lira Motorsports crew is a dream come true for me. We came a long way together in ARCA this year.

“Our goal at Homestead is to learn as much as we can in practice session and then see what we can do to get a good finish.”

Levine originally comes from sports car racing, having competed in IMSA and SCCA for several seasons before running the full ARCA schedule in 2015. There he won ARCA Rookie of the Year honors and posted a best finish of third at Kentucky Speedway in September.

Even though he isn’t joining Weatherman and Levin behind the wheel this time, Lira says he’s experienced a tremendous amount of pride watching Lira Motorsports grow this season.

“Last October, this was just an idea,” Lira said. “We had a shop and an idea to start our own team. Dad said we could eventually expand to Trucks and I told him he was out of his mind. But we’ve found good people and they’ve built this into something that can be really special.”

And while Lira enjoys competing in ARCA, he says this was just the perfect time to join the NASCAR Truck Series with the recent influx of young drivers and increased media exposure.

“It really makes more sense than ARCA from a financial perspective,” Lira said. “They are working to get costs down, the payouts are better in NASCAR and then there’s so much exposure in being a part of the Truck Series.

“This weekend is a test driver just to see where we stack up. We want to race for a championship in ARCA next year and we don’t want to do anything to take away from that side of the shop but we’re looking forward to see how NASCAR works.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
Commentary

Power Rankings: The Fast 15

Each week during the season, Popular Speed Executive Editor Matt Weaver will provide a power rankings list for the top-15 drivers in NASCAR.

The Fast 15 is a list of intangible qualities, based on momentum, attention and overall success in NASCAR over the past several weeks, meaning that it’s entirely possible that an XFINITY Series or Camping World Truck Series driver appears over one of his Sprint Cup counterparts.

Don’t agree with the list? That’s okay! Just let Weaver know in the comments section at the bottom on this page. Here are the updated rankings following a story-filled AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

  1. Kevin Harvick (LW: 1)

His streak of four straight victories at Phoenix was snapped by a 15 lap caution and the rain that followed it. But make no mistake, he was the man to beat and should be again on Sunday as he chases a second consecutive championship.

  1. Jeff Gordon (LW: 2)

How about this for a stat. Jeff Gordon leads all playoff drivers with a 7.7 average finish in the Chase for the Championship. He’s also posted six consecutive top-10s. One last race for Jeff Gordon very well may end with that elusive fifth championship.

  1. Kyle Busch (LW: 3)

Long expected to be the powerhouses of the playoffs, Joe Gibbs Racing is down to one contender left in Kyle Busch. But it’s also the man you would most expect as Busch has been on a tear since returning from injury and is good at both Homestead and with this race package.

  1. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 4)

Not since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 has there been an underdog of this sort racing for the Sprint Cup Series championship. Martin Truex Jr. has single-car Furniture Row Racing, out of Denver, on the brink of winning its first ever championship.

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 9)

Lost in the shuffle of solidifying the Championship Four was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race on Sunday night. A case could be made that Earnhardt should be headed to the Championship Four but isn’t due to the shenanigans at Talladega last month. So it goes …

  1. Joey Logano (LW: 10)

Logano was left wishing for one more chance at Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the rain came and probably should have gotten it if not for the 20 minute caution cleanup that preceded the rain out.

  1. Kurt Busch (LW: 7)

The 2004 champion was the fastest driver all weekend at Phoenix but never really got a chance to show his might as NASCAR flagged him for jumping the start of the race over pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson. As the race was rained out just after halfway, Busch could only work himself back up to seventh before the rain came.

  1. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 8)

Despite a pit road speeding penalty, the six-time champion still survived to a top-five finish in an all-around good day for Hendrick Motorsports.

  1. Carl Edwards (LW: 6)

Add Edwards to the list of drivers who wishes he could have gotten the rest of the race in on Sunday. He had a fast car and just never got the chance to make up the seven point deficit on Martin Truex Jr.

  1. Brad Keselowski (LW: 5)

One week after Jimmie Johnson stole a win from him at Texas, the 2012 champion spent much of the weekend out of the spotlight on down on the speed charts. He finished ninth, which was about where he’s been all season.

  1. Denny Hamlin (LW: 12)

Solid run for the No. 11 team with an eighth-place finish.

  1. Ryan Newman (LW: NR)

There were no car slamming opportunities for Newman who finished 11th to continue his solid but not spectacular Chase for the Championship.

  1. Paul Menard (LW: NR)

The driver of the No. 27 won’t get a lot of recognition for his season, but yet again, he finishes in the top-15 and has to be given credit for his smooth consistency.

  1. Erik Jones (LW: 14)

The Joe Gibbs Racing top prospect finished 19th in his second straight start filling in for Matt Kenseth. But he also moved one step closer to winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Jamie McMurray (LW: 11)

Meh. 15th.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

Categories
Commentary

WEAVER: Championship Race Pick and Analysis

While Zoo Miami simply got a cheetah to do the dirty work, predicting the eventual Sprint Cup Series champion is no easy task.

More than any other race, the NASCAR Championship Race at Homestead Miami Speedway is a total crapshoot. Sure, the team that performs the best and has the fastest overall car will likely win the race, and the championship, but it’s hard to lean on prior data to reach that conclusion.

The Championship Four of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will have their teams find every advantage, and Homestead is a unique track with no equal on the schedule. As a result, the Ford EcoBoost 400 will come down to the peripherals like pit stops, restarts and pit strategy.

Here’s what each contender has working for and against him this weekend in South Beach.

Kevin Harvick

Three wins, 27 top-10s, 8.9 average finish in 35 starts

The defending Sprint Cup Series champion enters the event as the favorite, and has been even faster than he was last season when they took the crown. Sure the No. 4 has two fewer wins but they’ve been more consistent, posting seven more top-10s and an average finish four spots better than 2014.

Unlike last year, where pit stops were a question mark until a playoff swap with the No. 14 team, there have been no such concerns this year.

Now Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have two years working together and have communicated like it too. At Homestead, Harvick has 12 top-10s in 14 starts with his first victory at the track last year, securing his first championship.

The only trouble Harvick has had this season is in the luck department, but he always seems able to overcome it.

Jeff Gordon

One win, 20 top-10s, 13.9 average finish in 35 starts

Prior to the Chase, it would be pretty hard to peg Jeff Gordon as a championship contender. His 15th-place average finish was the worst of his career and he had gone winless one year after winning four times and looking like the championship favorite until his elimination at Phoenix.

There have been times where the No. 24 has looked like a different team during the playoffs. Gordon led laps at Chicagoland, and remained a restrictor plate favorite at Talladega, all before winning at Martinsville to advance to the Championship Four and showing increased speed at Texas and Phoenix.

In all, he’s led all playoff drivers with a 7.7 average finish during the Chase itself.

But mostly, Gordon’s final playoff run has been defined by grit and survival. At races like Charlotte and Kansas, Gordon merely survived to top-10s while the other contenders eliminated themselves. In fact, the four-time champion has even admitted that his team did not put a perfect race together until Talladega and Martinsville.

Prior to those races, Gordon had made mistakes on pit road. He consistently lost track position on early pit stops and struggled to regain it throughout the race. He simply didn’t have the speed needed to work his way through the field either.

But if Alan Gustafson can order up the right changes and keep Gordon near the front of the field, the pit crew is good enough to earn him a few more positions before restarts. And while Gordon used to struggle on pit stops, he’s gotten much better at them, and that could be the key to securing that elusive fifth Sprint Cup championship.

And one has to think Hendrick Motorsports has saved its fastest bullet of the year for Gordon’s last race.

Kyle Busch

Four wins, 15 top-10s, 11.2 average finish in 24 starts

True to form, Busch serves as the most controversial figure in the Championship Four, having missed the first 11 races of the season due to injuries sustained in the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona.

When he returned, he was spectacular, meshing with his old XFINITY crew chief Adam Stevens to the tune of four victories in the remaining 15 races of the regular season. He’s cooled off somewhat during the Chase, but he’s made up for it with the consistency needed to advance to Homestead.

His JGR pit crew is spectacular and this package with the tapered spacer has always suited his skillset well, going back to XFINITY competition.

While Harvick enters the race as the favorite, Busch has to be considered favorite 1a.

Martin Truex Jr.

One win, 22 top-10s, 12.2 average finish in 35 starts

Truex is the closest thing to a Rocky Balboa figure as you could have in NASCAR. Like the fictional boxer, Truex is a championship caliber athlete that wasn’t able to show his max potential until his pairing with the right people and situation.

Crew chief Cole Pearn is a hidden gem and Furniture Row Motorsports owner Barney Visser has slowly invested in his Colorado-based team in preparation for this moment. Their strength lies in consistency, but you have to wonder if Furniture Row is capable of building a car that can compete head-to-head with the likes of Hendrick, Gibbs and Stewart-Haas in a one-race winner-take-all environment.

The Pick

Kevin Harvick is the defending champion and has the best overall numbers of the Championship Four. As a driver, he’s been excellent at Homestead no matter the package or team he’s driven for. His over-the-wall crew has been near the top of the charts all season, and he’s the only guy that’s proven he can win the championship under this format.

His must-win performance at Dover in the Chase was a reminder that he leads NASCAR in clutchiness if such a stat existed. Furthemore, Harvick has beat the other three championship finalists head-to-head 17 times this season.

For all those reasons, Harvick is the favorite to win this championship on Sunday. So perhaps the cheetah wasn’t such a bad idea after all. It picked Harvick too.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Detailed Sprint Cup Clinch Scenarios for Phoenix

For the remaining drivers in the Chase for the Championship, Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway is as straightforward as it gets.

The goals for the respective contenders couldn’t be any clearer, as by the end of the day, four of them will advance to the Championship Race with a chance to compete for the crown next weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway. The other four will be eliminated and will begin working towards next year and Daytona Speedweeks. In short, the stakes are pretty dang high.

First, here is the Chase Grid entering the penultimate race of the Sprint Cup season:

  1. Jeff Gordon (ADVANCED, WIN)
  2. Kyle Busch +11
  3. Kevin Harvick +10
  4. Martin Truex Jr. +7
  5. Carl Edwards -7
  6. Brad Keselowski -19
  7. Kurt Busch -28
  8. Joey Logano -63
Now, here’s what the remaining contenders must do on Sunday to advance.

Jeff Gordon

Advanced to the Championship Race via a victory at Martinsville

In a sense, Gordon has the easiest job and the least pressure to endure on Sunday in the Valley of the Sun. No matter what happens in the Quicken Loans 500, Gordon will race for that elusive fifth championship in his final career race.

But Sunday isn’t without challenges for Gordon, who still needs to find speed to match up with likely challengers Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Hendrick Motorsports likely will pull out everything they have for Gordon’s last ride, but Sunday will present a good opportunity to just learn as much as they can.

Kyle Busch

Enters Phoenix with 11 points over the elimination cutoff

Despite missing 11 races due to the broken leg and a broken foot at Daytona, Busch has never looked better and looks like a serious contender to win his first championship. Busch is the highest in points without a victory in this round and looks like a safe bet to advance without a victory.

Busch will have the speed to at least contend for the win, but it’s important that he not places himself in a position to get wrecked by someone far more desperate than him. Busch will clinch with a finish of third or better, fourth and at least one lap led of fifth and the most laps led.

Kevin Harvick

Enters Phoenix with 10 points over the elimination cutoff

The defending champion has won the four most recent races at Phoenix and five of the last six, making him the obvious favorite to win on Sunday. But unlike last year where he won to advance to the Championship Four, Harvick doesn’t have to go to Victory Lane to remain title eligible.

Harvick will clinch with a finish of second or better, third and at least one lap led, or fourth and the most laps led. So like Kyle Busch, it’s more important for Harvick to simply survive and advance rather than get caught up in an incident racing someone considerably more needing of a victory.

Martin Truex Jr.

Enters Phoenix with seven points over the elimination cutoff

Even though he enters the race holding onto a provisional transfer spot, Truex has the least amount of comfort of those currently set to advance. That’s because it’s possible for Truex to get eliminated even if he remains fourth in points.

In addition to trying to stay inside the top-four on Sunday, Truex also must be wary of a driver on the outside of the Chase Grid winning their way into the Championship Four and eliminating the lowest contender inside the top-four based on points.

So in addition to staying inside the top-four, Truex should also make a goal of making up the three and four points on Harvick and Busch respectively.

Carl Edwards

Enters Phoenix with a seven point deficit under the elimination cutoff

Unlike others on the outside looking in, Edwards isn’t in a must-win situation, but that still should be his goal on Sunday. Otherwise, he is going to have to find a way to make up seven points (spots on the track) on fourth, likely as the result of misfortune to Busch, Harvick or Truex.

Those drivers have been much too consistent this season to expect them to not be inside the top-10 in the closing stages of the race.

Brad Keselowski

Enters Phoenix with a 19 point deficit under the elimination cutoff

With a 19 point disadvantage, it’s not impossible for Keselowski to point his way into the Championship Four, but it would require multiple contenders in front of him to experience problems. So while Sunday isn’t a must-win scenario, it’s pretty darn close.

Keselowski has posted a 5.6 average finish at Phoenix over the past three season and has led 98 laps during that span. His driver rating over that period (115.6) is second to only Harvick (139.8) so the 2012 champion isn’t a long shot on Sunday by any means.

Kurt Busch

Enters Phoenix with a 28 point deficit under the elimination cutoff

Like Keselowski above, Busch isn’t in a definition must-win scenario, but his chances to point his way in are even more unlikely. At 28 points back, Busch would need multiple contenders, likely including Keselowski and Edwards, to have major problems and finish outside of the top-30. So the 2004 champion really needs a win.

Since the 2011 repave at Phoenix, Busch has enjoyed decent speed across three different teams. He has four top-10s in eight starts and finished fifth here in the spring.

He’s been fast all weekend and looks very much like a threat to win, likely his only shot to advance into the Championship Four.

Joey Logano

Enters Phoenix with a 63 point deficit under the elimination cutoff

Joey Logano MUST win this race, as it is the only way he can continue his efforts to win his first career championship.

Facing a 63-point deficit, there is no other way for him to advance to the Championship Four. Logano has enjoyed the speed to win every single race during the playoffs and that should again be the case on Sunday, but will good luck and fortune accompany that speed?

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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Harrison Burton Adding to Family Legacy with Phoenix K&N Effort

The Burton family has quickly become synonymous with NASCAR glory.

Jeff, Ward and Jeb have all tasted success at the highest levels of the sport, and now, it’s just a matter of time before young Harrison Burton adds to that legacy.

Burton is the 15-year-old son of Sprint Cup Series veteran and current NBC broadcaster Jeff Burton, and has already started to display some of the same characteristics that once led to his dad to Victory Lane 48 times in across NASCAR’s top two divisions.

He recently made his K&N debut two weeks ago at the All-American Speedway in Roseville, Calif., starting 12th and finishing 11th. More importantly, he completed all the laps and became acclimated to his car in advance of his second start in the Casino Arizona 100 at Phoenix on Thursday.

“I learned a lot at Roseville and I definitely have a better feel for K&N cars and how they drive,” Burton said of his first race in a perimeter rail chassis. “That racetrack is so small and tough you really have to be on your game to be able to go fast around there and by the end of the race I felt like I could do that.

“So I hope that transfers over to Phoenix.”

As you would expect from a second-generation driver, Burton has a quick mind for the discipline and rarely makes the same mistake twice. He’s already established himself as one of the rising starts in the sport, having won three USAC Quarter Midget National Championships in a career that’s also generated victories in both Pro and Super Late Models.

In addition to his father, Burton has been tutored by successful short tracker turned crew chief Freddie Query and now has veterans Chris Wimmer and Rich Lushes turning wrenches on his Super Late Models and K&N car respectively.

One of the more humble youngsters in the garage, Burton was quick to deflect his success to those around him.

“It’s been huge to surround myself with not only them but everyone on the team because there is without a doubt a huge sum of racing knowledge and experience there,” Burton said. “I, in no way shape or form, could do this without them.”

As for Phoenix itself, Burton says he’s been watching previous events on YouTube, with a sprinkling of iRacing to get prepared for his second career start.

“Phoenix is almost like a big short track so I think all of my short track stuff will help me here,” Burton said. “In addition to watching the tapes and turning laps on iRacing, I’ve also been able to bounce a lot of information off my dad — trying to really pick his brain about the place.

“He obviously has a lot of time here, but I feel like I’m driving him a little crazy with all the questions.”

The best usually do.

Burton will compete full-time in the K&N Pro Series East next season with HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks in the No. 12 DEX Imaging entry.

The Casino Arizona 100 will air live on MRN Radio at 8:30 p.m. ET. The tape-delayed television broadcast is set for Thursday November 19 at 7 p.m. ET.

NEWS AND NOTES

Championship: Four Drivers Enter Phoenix with a Mathematical Shot

HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks Heads West: NASCAR K&N Pro Series East team HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks will travel to the West finale at PIR. with East champion William Byron and his teammates Dalton Sargeant and JJ Haley. Byron tallied four wins, five top fives and 11 top 10s en route to his title. The 17-year old Charlotte, North Carolina, native competed in the Carneros 125 at Sonoma (California) Raceway in June and finished fifth. Sargeant travels West with the hopes of continuing his success in the West. In three races, the 17-year old Boca Raton, Florida, native has earned one win and three top fives. Sargeant finished fourth in the East with six top fives and nine top 10s. Haley, 16, Winamac, Indiana, finished sixth in the East with six top fives and 10 top 10s. Haley competed in one West race this season and finished third. Byron and his teammate Rico Abreu, will both be making their NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut Friday in the Lucas Oil 150.

Kennedy and Cassill Get Track Time: National series drivers, Ben Kennedy and Landon Cassill are slated to compete in the West finale. Kennedy and his Ben Kennedy Racing driver, Kaz Grala, are both entered. Kennedy has earned four top fives in six K&N West races from 2011-12. In 48 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races, he’s tallied five top fives and 15 top 10s. Cassill will be making his K&N West debut. He competed in the East finale at Dover (Del.) International Speedway and finished eighth. In 116 NASCAR XFINITY Series races, he’s recorded one top five and 12 top 10s.

Pursley To Return For 100th Start: Two-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champion Greg Pursley is slated to return for his 100th series start. In 99 starts, the 47-year old from Newhall, Calif., earned 20 wins over a span of 10 seasons. Three of those victories, occurred at PIR and he was crowned the 2014 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champion at the track last season.

Kennington Reutrns To Phoenix: Two-time NASCAR Canadian Tire Series champion (2010, 2012) D.J. Kennington will be making his eighth West start at PIR. In his seven series starts at Phoenix, he’s earned one top five and 10 top 10s.

2015 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Update: The fight for the championship title isn’t the only tight battle taking place. Teammates Gragson and Raz are separated by one point (94-93) headed into the finale. Ryan Partridge, Alex Schutte and Johnny White round out the top five. While Nicole Behar trails in sixth by one two points. The tiebreaker is higher finisher in the overall standings.

Todd Gilliland: Youngest ARCA Winner to Make K&N Debut

The complete entry list can be viewed below.

  • Bobby Hillis
  • Kaz Grala
  • Ronnie Bassett
  • J. Haley
  • James Bickford
  • Noah Gragson
  • Johnny Bornema
  • Christian Celaya
  • Ryan Partridge
  • Harrison Burton
  • Todd Souza
  • Matt Levin
  • Brandon McReynolds
  • David Mayhew
  • Bill Kann
  • Spencer Davis
  • Alex Schutte
  • Greg Pursley
  • Gracin Raz
  • Ron Norman
  • Johnny White
  • Nicole Behar
  • Colton Nelson
  • Travis Miller
  • Landon Cassill
  • Austin Reed
  • Clay Green
  • Dalton Sargeant
  • Todd Gilliland
  • Blake Williams
  • Brett Thompson
  • Christian McGhee
  • J. Kennington
  • William Byron
  • Ben Kennedy
  • Chris Eggleston

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN