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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

William Byron and Chad Knaus Speak About Second-Half Success

AVONDALE, Arizona — The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is winding down, but William Byron continued to catch fire in the Valley of the Sun at ISM Raceway.  While the 21-year old would go on to finish 17th due to a late-race restart, he ran inside the top-10 for a large portion of the day, even as high as second at one point.

The Liberty University-product has been crafting a silently impressive season in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. Largely due in part to seven-time Cup Series Championship winning crew chief, Chad Knaus, making the transition to the No. 24 team after 17 season working for the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson.

“It think it comes down to a lot of experience for William,” Knaus told POPULAR SPEED. “He’s getting more familiar with the racetracks because he’s going there for the third, fourth time and that definitely helps. Obviously, William and I are getting closer together with our communication and how he describes things with the race car – that helps tremendously.”

The pair have been able to build chemistry throughout the year, but things didn’t really begin clicking until about Week 14 at Pocono Raceway. By this time, Byron was able to replicate two-consecutive weeks of finishing ninth and qualifying on the pole – in addition to a pole at the Daytona 500 and notching two more top-10’s.

It was at this point the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion solidified that he belonged in the sport’s premier series.

“It’s been really good,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED about his relationship with his new crew chief. “We’ve had our ups and down and such, but we just want to perform well – when we don’t perform well, we aren’t very happy and this was one of those weekends.”

With one race remaining in the season, Byron leads his teammates in highest average finishing position with 14.2 in 35 races. Expanded over the last 10 races, he ranks among the top-10 in average results as well, posting a 12.8. While teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman were able to find victory lane a combined four times in 2019, Byron drove his way to five top-five finishes (two runner-ups), 13 top-10s and led 233 laps.

“I think it’s us being a solid team,” Byron explained. “We definitely surpassed where we thought we were going to be. I think average finish and all of that helps – it’s just going out and doing a solid job every week.”

In the one of the more shocking stats of the year, Byron ranks second in the series in poles with five. The only driver to out qualify him is 2014 Cup Series title holder Kevin Harvick, with six. While all eyes will be on the Championship  4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this shouldn’t take away from the fact that Byron has the chance to tie the driver of the No. 4 for most pole awards on the season.

With the offseason looming, the driver of the Axalta Chevy Camaro had some thoughts on how to improve as a team during the near-three month break.

“Things change so much,” Byron said. “I think if we can have a good offseason – specifically, making our cars better on the flat-short tracks, I think we can put ourselves in a great position to be here (ISM Raceway) next year.”

Can the driver of the No. 24 put an exclamation point on his breakout season with a successful weekend in the series finale at Miami? Find out next weekend, starting November 16 at 2:05 p.m. ET with Cup Series qualifying on NBCSN and then finally in the Ford EcoBoost 400 the following day at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Keselowski and Logano Speak Out on Comments Made by Bubba Wallace

AVONDALE, Arizona — Throughout the weekend of the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway, Bubba Wallace was hounded by the media after accusations of an apparent intentional spin that occurred in the AAA Texas 500 from Texas Motor Speedway.

In a video taken by NASCAR NBC Sports writer, Dustin Long, the driver of the No. 43 – visibly agitated – admitted to intentionally committing the act, but credited his actions to things he learned from Team Penske drivers, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

The drivers of the No.2 and No. 22 Ford Mustangs witnessed the the footage of Wallace’s comments, but we’re puzzled to what incidents he was referring to.

The only incident that came to mind for Logano occurred in the first race in the Round of 8 at Martinsville Speedway, just two weeks prior.

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion was driven up the track by Denny Hamlin and sandwiched between the right side of the No. 11 and the outside wall down the front stretch. This led to a flat tire and an untimely spin from Logano, which ultimately resulted in the infamous altercation between the driver of the FedEx Camry and the driver of the Shell/Pennzoil Ford at the conclusion of the First Data 500.

“At Martinsville, I got a flat tire,” Logano told POPULAR SPEED. “I’m trying not to crash, trying not to hit anything or get the quarter panels torn up – trying to live to race another day, basically. That’s kind of the thought at that moment, ‘How do I continue my race?'”

The Connecticut-native didn’t have much to say about the comments made by Wallace, although he seemed to have inferred that he may have aided with the on-track spin to prevent further damage.

While Logano opted a more tight-lipped approach to the situation, Keselowski did not shy away from speaking his mind on the accusations and the state of NASCAR, in certain regards.

” I wish he [Wallace] had given more context, because I’m not exactly sure what he’s talking about.,” Keselowski shared with POPULAR SPEED. “I’m guessing he’s talking about Michigan (International Speedway) when I had a flat tire and somehow kept it off the wall – but, that one was savable, it wasn’t by me. I don’t really have a lot of thoughts on it without understanding what he meant.”

The driver of the Miller Lite Ford seemed to defend Wallace and went on to reference NASCAR’s early lineage in a sense that the sport was literally founded off of criminals – bootleggers running moonshine through the Appalachian foothills during the prohibition-era. Keselowski finds it ironic that the sport has transitioned from hard-nosed competitiveness to a  “squeaky-clean perfect” approach.

“It makes you wonder about the days of Dale [Earnhardt] and all the other guys and what they were able to get away with,” the Michigan-native pondered. “Everyone obviously misses Dale, but then I wonder sometimes – if a guy like Dale was around would he even be accepted today?”

Keselowski admitted that this is not all due in part to NASCAR wanting clean and fair racing. He is fully aware that a vast majority of the sport’s revenue is acquired through sponsorships and naturally, partners prefer more ethical and cleaner methods upon representation.

After Long’s video of Wallace went viral on Twitter, the sport’s sanctioning body swiftly took action and slapped the 25-year old driver with a $50,000 fine and a deduction of 50 points from the No. 43 team.

Although NASCAR’s intent was to send a message, don’t expect these penalties to prevent further incidents like this from occurring in the future. Teams are always fighting tooth and nail to get best finish they can attain and that all begins with preserving the car.

While attempts to save the car won’t be as blatant as Wallace’s actions at Texas (See the video below) – we can almost guarantee that drivers will think twice about admitting to guilt. Sometimes the truth does not set you free.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Denny Hamlin seals title bid with clinching Phoenix victory

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Out, demon!

Denny Hamlin’s exorcism is complete. At ISM Raceway, the site of one of his biggest disappointments, Hamlin barged back into the Championship 4 with a dominating victory in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500.

Hamlin joins Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, Sunday’s runner-up, in the Nov. 17 race for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The three JGR drivers will battle Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing for the trophy.

After losing control of his car and sliding off Turn 4 last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Hamlin fell 20 points below the cut line for the Championship 4 entering the Phoenix race. But with his victory, Hamlin knocked defending champion Joey Logano out of title contention.

“I can’t believe it,” exulted Hamlin, who picked up his sixth victory of the season, his second at ISM Raceway and the 27th of his career. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve to be there.  I put them in a bad hole last week. 

“I told them today in the meeting, I said, ‘I’m going to give everything I’ve got to make up for the mistake I made last week.’ That’s all I got.’

Logano finished ninth on Sunday and ended the Round of 8 fifth in the standings and seven points behind Busch, who grabbed the last berth in the title race.

Hamlin led a race-high 143 laps, including 142 of the last 146, and built a lead of more than 12 seconds before surrendering the top spot for four laps during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. Hamlin’s advantage was more than nine seconds when John Hunter Nemechek’s Ford slapped the Turn 1 to cause the fifth and final caution.

“One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that,” said Hamlin, who came to Phoenix as the championship favorite in 2010, only to lose 18 points of his 33-point lead on a misguided pit call. “Fast car. But, yeah, I pushed for all I had. 

“I mean, that’s all I got. Once we got the big lead there, a little over 10 seconds, I just kind of sat there. I got to thinking about if the caution does come out, I want to lap as many (cars) as I can.”

A week after his 2010 misfortune at Phoenix, a shell-shocked Hamlin spun early and lost the title to Jimmie Johnson. In contrast, it was a focused and determined Hamlin who showed up at Phoenix on Sunday.

Busch led the first 69 laps of the race but lost the first stage to Hamlin after Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s collision with the Turn 4 wall caused the first caution of the afternoon. When the race came down to a restart with three laps left, Busch couldn’t keep up with his teammate and finished .377 seconds behind the No. 11 Toyota Camry.

“Just didn’t quite have enough,” Busch said. “I knew the 11 was the best car in practice. I knew we were going to be about third to fifth. We were second. Guys did a great job, this M&M Toyota Camry was good.

“It’s cool to have a chance to go race for a championship. Just keep coming up short.”

Logano led 93 laps, won the second stage and was out front until Hamlin passed him for the lead on Lap 177. From that point, Logano dropped like a rock to 11th and fell a lap down to Hamlin before third-place finisher Ryan Blaney started a cycle of green-flag stops on Lap 243 of 312.

Kyle Larson ran fourth and failed to advance to the Championship 4, as did Blaney and Chase Elliott, who rocketed into the Turn 1 wall with a flat left rear tire on Lap 166 and finished 39th.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

David Ragan Opens Up About His Final Two Races

AVONDALE, Arizona — When the checkered flag waves at the conclusion of the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway, there will only be one event remaining in the 2019 season. In conjunction with that, the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will also signify the final race for 14-year series veteran, David Ragan, as a full-time driver.

Although the driver of the No. 38 machine may not have had the most storied career, he’s had a sustainable one. With only two races remaining, the Georgia-native is not overly upset to see his profession as a full-time driver come to an end. His intentions upon walking away are putting an emphasis on spending more time with his wife and children.

“I don’t really have a lot of thoughts or emotions going into my last final races,” Ragan told POPULAR SPEED. “It’s business as usual and obviously we want to finish the year on a good note. We’re going to race hard and race for a good finish.”

The 33-year old is not racing for anything of utter importance in terms of Playoff implications, but he would like to close the year out on a strong note to help Front Row Motorsports learn more about their equipment for the 2020 season.

As Ragan gears up for what will be his final race as a full-time driver at the 1.5-mile oval, he offered kind words about the track and reminisced about a few memories throughout his career at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“This is such a unique racetrack – I really enjoyed coming here when they first had that new layout,” said the Front Row Motorsports driver. “Turns one and two are so different from turns three and four and there’s a lot of great race fans out here. I haven’t really had cars that could’ve won a race here, but I’ve got some top-fives and top-10s in the other divisions. I just remember coming out here and it being a really unique racetrack and having fun.”

While this is the end of the road for Ragan as a full-time driver, he revealed in a press conference at the track that he is not done racing completely. The series veteran expressed interest in running a few races part-time and even alluded to the possibility of filling in for teammate Matt Tifft in the 2020 season if asked.

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Feature

Jimmie Johnson is Feeling Optimistic in Return to the Desert

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AVONDALE, Arizona — Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson is currently wrapping up one of the statistically worst seasons of his career. The driver of the famed No. 48 is looking to rebound at ISM Raceway – a place that has been very kind to him in his 19-year career.

While the lifetime Hendrick Motorsports driver will start the Bluegreen Vacations 500 in the 22nd position, he feels optimistic about his car – even with the limited time he feels the premier series had on the Arizona-based track.

“The guys did a really good job getting speed in the car,” Johnson told POPULAR SPEED. “We only got two laps in, so it’s tough to tell. It’s was tough to understand what was going on in practice as well. It was cut short for us because we didn’t pass tech last week and the track is just now rubbering in, so the first practice was kind of a wash.

“The second one went by so fast. We knew we were off, but we knew where to attack. The guys did a great job putting more speed in the car and I’m optimistic, but I won’t know until we get in there and lay down those first few laps.”

The 43-year old enters ISM Raceway off a tough weekend that saw him slip in the traction compound at Texas Motor Speedway, getting into the wall. The PJ1 returns this weekend in the higher groove at the 1.5-mile speedway.

“It wasn’t part of my issue last week – I will say that at Michigan (International Speedway), it got me – but it is what it is,” said the seven-time champion. “The harder that stuff is, the more grip it has. After cautions or certainly at the start of the race, we know this stuff isn’t going to have grip going into turns one and two. It’s always been the same, but I feel a lot of drivers didn’t realize it until they were riding around on the pickup trucks before the race, waving at the fans.”

Johnson has the second-most wins at ISM Raceway among active drivers, including three consecutive wins spanning from 2007-08 and one addition victory in the Fall of 2009. The track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway has not been too kind to the Team Chevy driver since the reconfiguration in 2018, as he only has one top-10 finish. This will by no means be an easy event for Johnson to overcome, but it’s hard to go against a confident driver who has 15 top-fives, 21 top-10s and an average finish of 10.2  at a venue where he also has four wins.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Daniel Suarez Looks to Carry Momentum from Texas into Phoenix

AVONDALE, Arizona — Daniel Suarez is in the midst of a contract-year at Stewart-Haas Racing, as his agreement expires at the conclusion of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. After matching a season-high best finish of third last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the driver from Monterrey, Mexico is looking to build off some momentum as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets set to do battle at ISM Raceway.

Suarez, who considers the 1.5-mile oval a sort of home track, was in good spirits when talking about his chances this Sunday.

“Texas was a lot of fun and we’re looking to carry that here to Phoenix,” Suarez told POPULAR SPEED. “This is kind of like a home track for me. There are a lot of good people here, lots of fans and it’s always fun to come back.”

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity driver has had a rollercoaster ride of a career when coming to the Valley of the Sun. He notched his career-best finish at Zoomtown U.S.A. in his rookie season in the Spring of 2017 with a seventh. His best effort since then came the in the following Spring, where he finished eighth. Since then, the 27-year old has not fared better than 23rd.

“I think we have a good car – I don’t think we have the best car, but I think I think we have a car that can get a top-five or a top-10,” said Suarez. “Hopefully we can make the right calls and get a top-five.”

When asked about the pressures of performing without a contract for the 2020 season set in stone, the driver of the No. 41 offered up a humorous reply.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen? I go back to Mexico and work on old cars?,” Suarez joked. “We have some work to do. I feel like the team is doing their part, I’m doing my part, we just have to put all the pieces together – that’s the way it works. Sometimes it takes one week, sometimes it takes three months – we’ll keep working. I feel like life is tough, learn your lessons. I just have to find different ways to make things happen off the racetrack. I’m learning a lot so hopefully we can get a win.”

Team-owner Tony Stewart revealed that they are in the process of getting a deal done to extend Suarez’s tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing. The three-time Cup Series champion also assured the media that he is big fan of the driver from Mexico and would like to keep him around for an extended period of time.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Denny Hamlin Comes to Terms with 2019 Season Regardless of Outcome

AVONDALE, Arizona — Denny Hamlin began the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season in the best way possible – with an emotional win in the Daytona 500 after the passing of friend and teammate J.D. Gibbs. Fast forward 34 races, now the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry has found victory lane five times and could be the favorite to win the Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But now the 15-year series veteran finds himself in an all too familiar position. After what could be deemed one of Hamlin’s most dominant performances since competing at the Cup level, he sits fifth in the Playoff standings, facing a 20-point deficit he must overcome to advance his way to Miami.

“No matter what I will not consider this year any sort of failure,” Hamlin told POPULAR SPEED. “We had a great year, we won races, we competed, we led more laps than we have in a long time, we have more top-fives than anybody in the series – it’s been a really good year.”

In conjunction to the 38-year old driver leading NASCAR’s premier series in top-five finishes, he also leads his fellow competitors with an impressive 9.7 average finishing position on the season – the only driver to average a finish above 10th.

While Hamlin knows he is not in a must-win scenario this weekend at ISM Raceway, he acknowledges the fact that with the Playoff format, he must have a solid points day and ultimately capitalize on – at the bare minimum – a top-five finish.

“We all play by the rules, we know what the format is, but it doesn’t always work out for you,” said the Virginia-native. “It’s extremely difficult to win one of these [championships] and we’re content either way.”

In a shocking turn of events, a very humble and poised Hamlin accepted the fact that he could very well never win a championship during his Cup Series tenure, but he has found solace in this possibility. He recounts a exchange with NASCAR legend, Mark Martin, who similarly had a very storied career in the sport but never hoisted a championship trophy.

Martin – who totaled 40 wins in his illustrious Cup Series career – told Hamlin that looking back, winning a championship wouldn’t make any difference in his life right now. He still managed to have a very storied and respect career.

“I’m at that point right now,” the driver of the No. 11 admitted. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what I’m capable of, my competitors know what I’m capable of. I really appreciate all the love the media has been giving me over the last three weeks – it’s been incredible – but I think we have to give some love to the other competitors as well.”

Hamlin adamantly relayed that every driver in the Playoffs  should receive equal attention and exposure. He believes anyone in the post-season has a shot at advancing to the series finale at Homestead and should be treated with the utmost respect.

As the 38-year old nears the conclusion of his 15th season, it’s evident that series veteran has matured and Hamlin says this has been a major benefactor to his on-track success.

“I’ve definitely grown, no doubt about it,” said the Toyota Racing driver. “I’ve have major life changes this year, so I’ve had to grow and change and that’s really helped on-track things as well. If it ends up that our year is over after this weekend, then I can’t wait to get back to the racetrack in 2020. It was so much fun racing this year and having a shot to win every single weekend – it was a pleasure.”

Hamlin drove his way to victory lane at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway in the Spring of 2012. In 28 races at the 1.5-mile speedway, he has 12 top-fives and 16 top-10’s with an average finish of 11.3. The 312 Lap event in the desert will not be an easy one for the driver of the No. 11, but with the new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, it’s essentially anyone’s race to win.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Busch corrals first Busch Pole of the season at Phoenix

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

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

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

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