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XFINITY

GOOD & BAD: 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series Season

Another year of NASCAR Xfinity Series competition is in the books, with a familiar sight as Tyler Reddick was crowned the series champion for the second year in a row. 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: The future of NASCAR is very strong as proven by this past season’s championship battle. The series tagline “names are made here” remains true, as “the big three” in  Tyler ReddickCole Custer, and Christopher Bell showcased their talent on a weekly basis, with multiple wins a piece and highlights to call their own. Now being able to witness these three battle for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 2020 will be special.

Jasen Vinlove | NKP

BAD: Although Bell was able to prove himself, the last couple weeks of the season showcased a different side that hopefully does not remain in 2020. Although he was fast, the Toyota Racing driver made a couple costly mistakes. 

He sped on pit road and spun at ISM Raceway to cost himself a win there after dominating early, while he missed pit road under green and cost himself valuable time at Homestead. It did not ultimately be the title factor due to the handling of the No. 20 Toyota going away over the course of the long run, but those are mistakes you would not expect out of a driver who won eight events this past season.

GOOD: While it was fun watching the big three all year, the way the championship went down in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was perfect. Each of them were able to battle side-by-side, taking turns at challenging each other, allowing fans to keep guessing who would come out on top.

Reddick and Bell had a thrilling battle back and forth to start the third stage, with Bell trying to take Reddick’s line away to stop the ensuing challenge for the top spot. Though the highlight of the night belongs to Reddick and Custer. After coming off pit road together, the pair quickly made work of Bell, before going back and forth for a number of laps. From giving each other the slide job, to trying different lanes, it was everything you’d want in a title race in watching the contenders go head-to-head.

BAD: Sometimes it takes a little bit of calming down behind the wheel, and that seems to be something that Noah Gragson and Austin Cindric may want to address through the winter. On a couple occasions this year, being overaggressive put him in a worse situation than he should have been.

Russell Labounty | NKP

Gragson went over the edge at Kansas Speedway, ultimately getting into the wall on a couple occasions, resulting in an unscheduled trip down pit road. Then a week later at Texas Motor Speedway, running just outside the top-10, he tried to make a move of desperation to get underneath Jeb Burton – but wasn’t clear of Harrison Burton yet. As a result, he went sideways, before sliding through the grass and causing enough damage to end his night early.

Cindric lost valuable ground in the standings that ultimately cost him a chance at being in the Championship 4 at Kansas Speedway due to a couple unscheduled trips down pit road with flat tires. The contact was all self-inflicted, too. He grew frustrated battling Harrison Burton for position, saying that “he was driving all over the track,” that he drove in the back of the No. 18, sending Burton up into the wall and ending his day. The contact resulted in nose damage to Cindric’s Ford that was made worse when he made contact with John Hunter Nemechek on the restart.

While it is nice to see drivers who are willing to push the edge, getting yourself into deeper trouble than you should have been does not help. Sometimes you just need to take what the car will give you, and live to fight another week. Despite having talent to get the job done, if he continues being over aggressive, he may be sitting on the sidelines sooner than later.

GOOD: Cole Custer said it perfectly after the season finale – “Tyler—he can rip the top here. That’s about all you can say about it.” Through the year, it was a thing of beauty in watching Reddick do this on a couple different occasions when the track conditions would allow, and ultimately using that to score the championship. 

Ford EcoBoost 300

To run mere inches off the wall and not make contact, knowing a single slip-up could result in trouble, takes tons of concentration and a really well handling car. But yet the driver of the No. 2 Tame The Beast Chevrolet continues to make it look like second nature. 

BAD: Being able to witness drivers battle for the lead is everything that you want as a racing fan. That’s why it’s so frustrating when lap traffic ruins that. Garrett Smithley certainly did not make any friends this past season in that regards. 

As the laps began to wound down at Kansas Speedway , it appeared as though the battle for the win would be between Chase Briscoe and Bell. However, those hopes were dashed with 15 laps to go when they were caught up in a wreck with a lap car. Smithley told NASCAR on NBC that he wasn’t made aware that the leaders were coming up on him, and he was just riding around on 70-lap tires at that point.

The frustration radiated from Briscoe who was quick to ask on his radio, “What was he doing? Where was he going?” It was a reasonable question considering Smithley was already five laps down at this point in the event. 

At the beginning of a driver’s racing career at the short track level, lap cars are taught to remain on the bottom, allowing the leaders to battle as they should have the right to. Knowing that he was already multiple laps down and off the pace, why did he not remain on the bottom of the track? Secondly, it is a little disheartening to see Smithley throw total blame on his spotter for the incident. He is the one handling the controls of the racecar, and should be aware of the situation around him. 

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

GOOD: Since the repave, Texas Motor Speedway has been criticized for the type of racing fans have gotten to witness. Some work by the tire dragon and laying down some traction compound, and we may be getting somewhere.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 featured more side-by-side racing than we have seen in recent years, including a lengthy battle for the lead between Bell and Reddick. If you were able to roll the momentum on the top, you could get a run to make a challenge on the outside of someone, as witnessed by Reddick on several occasions.

BAD: JR Motorsports certainly has to be asking themselves a lot of questions after this season. After placing three drivers in the Championship 4 in 2018 and winning the title with Reddick, they were only able to win two races this past season. Oh, and Justin Allgaier made the final battle, but ultimately became the underdog in comparison to the others. What do they need to do to catch up to their rivals now?

GOOD: Although a lot of people would prefer the old style Bristol Motor Speedway to return – single-groove along the bottom, with bumpers and rooting needed to make ground, the new higher groove being the place to be style proved to be alright for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. 

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

There was racing all the way around the half-mile for positions all the time. It did not seem that a driver could be found by themselves as if they cleared their competitors, lap traffic came into question. That was fine, since it gave the fans something to watch all night long.

Although the top groove was the place to be, there was a way for passes to be made through the middle and bottom lanes of the track. Just ask Reddick. He started from the tail of the field, and drove his way to the second. He would spin while underneath Justin Allgaier for position, but managed to drive his way from 24th back to the front once again.

BAD: Anybody remember a driver change that happened this past May? Austin Dillon had to get out of the car with 40 laps to go as a result of his ribs getting too hot from the heat, and carbon dioxide from crush panels being pushed in due to wall contact. The team elected to put Daniel Hemric in the car when Dillon’s complaints began. If you know there’s an issue, why would you put a driver in that is also scheduled like Dillon to run 600 miles on Sunday? That should have maybe been a clue about what the future held in store. 

GOOD: Let’s continue praising the good racing – with a nod to Charlotte Motor Speedway. The hot temperatures on the Charlotte, North Carolina afternoon produced a slick race track, in return delivering the fans a show. With drivers searching for grip through the beginning stages of the event by using the middle lane that was coated in the traction compound, to trying to run as close to the wall as possible in the later half, there was a never a dull moment during the Alsco 300.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

BAD: The Alsco 300 could have only been made better if series officials would have been smarter in their decisions. Tire issues for both Bell and Brandon Jones could’ve been prevented if a caution for debris on the track was thrown by NASCAR. It seems that the sanctioning body missed the boat a couple times on Saturday, as they failed to throw the yellow flag late in the first stage for the same reason, resulting in nose damage for Custer. 

As a result, Bell finished 31st after blowing a tire, though probably could’ve made his situation better by electing to head down pit road rather than ride around under caution with the flat, allowing it to blow the fender apart as it tore to shreds. His teammate Brandon Jones made the smarter decision in pitting immediately, and was able to fight back to run top-five late in the race before fading to 10th on older tires late.

GOOD: Everybody wants to see drivers fighting to do whatever it takes for the win, and that was the key to an exciting race at Talladega Superspeedway in April. Those who followed through were rewarded on Saturday afternoon.

From the drop of the green flag, three drivers showed the determination to make whatever move was necessary- Reddick, Briscoe, and Cindric. They were rewarded when the checkered flag flew in the MoneyLion 300 with top-five finishes.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Of those three drivers, Reddick pushed the boundaries throughout the event. Sometimes he went a little too far, as notable with his contact with the outside wall during the second stage. Though despite whatever was thrown at him, he showed a constant stream of determined aggressiveness to make his way back to the front on each occasion. His move at the end to get the run on Bell with 10 to go, followed by blocking Briscoe, were the icing on the cake for the win.

GOOD: Although everybody wants to be critical of the rules package, the Xfinity Series got it right with the flange-fit composite bodies that were made mandatory for the 2019 season. While a bit of wall contact used to end someone’s day in the past, there is now the possibility to receive repairs and make a comeback. As a result, fans were entertained with seeing whether their favorite driver would be able to drive through the field, like Jeffrey Earnhardt overcoming a spin for a third-place finish.

GOOD: Being able to see passion and emotions – that’s what it is all about as it gets people talking. Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick’s dust-up at Kansas was a great display of that.

“As soon as he put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back; that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way,” Reddick told NASCAR on NBC afterwards. “I’m out of breath, had a little fight there with people, but it was kinda fun.”

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
Commentary

OBSERVATIONS: Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

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

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

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

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

Cracking Under the Pressure

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

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

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

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

Somethings are not what they seem……

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lackluster Race

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

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

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

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

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XFINITY

JR Motorsports is Chasing History Heading to Phoenix

AVONDALE, Arizona — As the NASCAR Xfinity Series gears up for the semi-final race at ISM Raceway, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds himself in a position to achieve something only done once previously in series history. With JR Motorsports currently taking up three spots in the Round of 8 – Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Noah Gragson, a third consecutive title is very possible. 

Allgaier is the lone driver in position to advance to the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway sitting fourth in the standings, 18 points ahead of Chase Briscoe. Annett finds himself 28 points out of the final spot and Gragson is essentially in a must-win situation sitting in a 47-point hole.

JR Motorsports has won two consecutive championships. The first coming from the current driver of the No. 24 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, William Byron in 2017. The second was with current reigning Xfinity Series Champion is Tyler Reddick – who now races for Richard Childress Racing.

Should Allgaier, Annett or Gragson advance to Miami and win the 2019 Xfinity Series Championship they would eclipse a feat only done once in the series history. BACE Motorsports successfully won three-consecutive championship in NASCAR’s lower division from 1995-97. The first came from Johnny Benson Jr.; Randy LaJoie then drove his way to back-to-back titles from 1996-97.

This will not be an easy task for Annett and Gragson, who both find themselves in essentially a must-win scenario at ISM Raceway.

Annett is in the midst of a career-year driving the No. 1 Chevy Camaro for the 15-year Most Popular Driver recipient, Earnhardt. The driver of the No. 1 captured his first win across all three of NASCAR’s premier series in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. This comes in addition to a season where he has totaled six top-fives and 18 top-10’s with an average finish of 10th through 30 races.

For Annett, he believes his path to Homestead will reside in qualifying.

“Tomorrow is going to be crucial because qualifying at a track like this is at a premium,” Annett said. “This was probably the most beneficial track for group qualifying.”

The 33-year old driver is referring to the transition back to single-car qualifying that was mandated by NASCAR in May. At the start of the 2019 season, many drivers voiced their displeasure with the new group qualifying rule that had just been implemented.

“It’s all about putting the whole weekend together,” Annett further elaborated. “Winning the race is the only way we can go into this. Justin [Allgaier] is so good here and being 28 points behind him, it’s going to be difficult to out-point him.”

The driver of the No. 9 finds himself in the most difficult position of the JRM trio heading into the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 at ISM Raceway. It will be an uphill battle for Gragson who sits eight in the standings, but he is no stranger to success at the Arizona-based track.

While the 20-year old driver is still in search of his first win in the Xfinity Series, he almost found victory lane in the Valley of the Sun in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports last season, ultimately finishing second. Gragson has not been able to notch a top-10 at ISM Raceway in the second-tier series, but he does have an 11th place average finishing position in both of NASCAR’s lower divisions.

On the flip side, Allgaier is in a favorable position heading into a track where he’s had immense success. The driver  of the No. 7 Brandt Chevrolet found victory lane in the desert Spring of 2017 after leading 85 of 200 Laps. The 33-year old started on the pole last Spring and has led an additional 145 Laps since his last win in Avondale, Arizona.

He also posts a 9.1 average finish in 18 starts with six top-fives and 11 top-10’s at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway. This is all in addition to a career-high top-10 streak the Riverton, Illinois-product has strung together over the last 15 races.

But the 10-year series veteran is no where near satisfied.

“The crazy thing is – even with the top-10 streak – I still feel like it’s been a terrible year,” Allgaier said. “There’s been so many races that haven’t gone our way, but it’s definitely helped us grow as a team. We’ve done a great job at rebounding and managing the adversity.”

Allgaier acknowledges the fact that the series is being dominated by “The Big Three,” in Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer. However he believes there’s one thing that sets him apart from the young guns – experience.

“I’m the only driver who’s made the Playoffs every year since they started this format,” Allgaier shared. “Those three guys have had a lot of speed this year and they’ve been very good, but we’ve also noticed that when their days don’t go the way they want to go that they’ve had some challenges dealing with that.”

The odds are in the series veteran’s favor and he is going into the final two races with a must-win mentality. Allgaier is aware that these last events will not come without adversity, but also expressed great joy in the fact that the series finale will be ran at this track where he’s had so much success over his career.

Expect to see the trio of JR Motorsports drivers tomorrow with a heavy emphasis on a positive qualifying effort. If NASCAR superstar Dale Jr. wants to achieve the historical feat of three-consecutive Xfinity Series Championships, the road must go through the 1.5-mile track that is ISM Raceway.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

Categories
XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway

Since the repave, Texas Motor Speedway has been criticized for the type of racing fans have gotten to witness. Some work by the tire dragon and laying down some traction compound, and we may be getting somewhere.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 featured more side-by-side racing than we have seen in recent years, including a lengthy battle for the lead between Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick. If you were able to roll the momentum on the top, you could get a run to make a challenge on the outside of someone, as witnessed by Reddick on several occasions.

As a result, there was the opportunity for drivers to make moves through the field all night long. Justin Allgaier drove from last after blowing a motor in practice to finish fifth, while Bell made a charge through in the final 100 laps following pit strategy to win. 

Peaking at the Right Time

Through the spring and summer months, the focus on the intermediate tracks had been either Cole Custer or Reddick. However, it seems there’s a new sheriff in town with Bell rising to occasion.

Virtue of showing dominance at Kansas Speedway before an incident with a lapped car, combined with a dominating victory on Saturday night at Texas, it’s safe to say Joe Gibbs Racing has their program coming together at the right time. After all, when Bell was taken out a couple weeks ago, it was his teammate Brandon Jones scoring his first career victory at Kansas. 

When Bell has his equipment and game on point, he can be tough to beat, as shown with four wins, four runner-ups, and a fourth across the last 14 races. If you just look at cookie-cutter intermediate tracks alone, he has scored just one finish worse than fourth in the last five events, and that was due to the incident at Kansas Speedway with lapped traffic.

He’s also proven to have the poise needed to be a champion, as well. He reported mid-way through the event on Saturday that he felt the brakes were going on his No. 20 Rheem Toyota Supra. Rather than panic, he took care of his equipment at the time, listened to the advice of his crew chief Jason Ratcliff to improve the situation, and was able to make his way to the front at the end when it mattered.

Bell was fast last year, and entered the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway as a favorite for the championship. However, he would up finishing 11th while his three playoff mates were inside the top-four, with Reddick scoring the race victory. If Bell wants to win the championship, he will need what he’s been missing.

Just Back It Up….

Reddick got himself caught in traffic through pit strategy, and ultimately crashed out of the event on Saturday night. Now rather than being very comfortable heading into ISM Raceway, the gap is smaller to the cut-off line – but still enough that he can breathe easier than most.

However, his interview at the post-race medical center showcased a young driver being overcritical of himself. He took full blame for the incident, saying that he did not do a good job throughout the night and that’s what happens when you get stuck in those situations.

If running inside the top-three until strategy mixed up the field is not doing the job, then something has to be wrong with this picture. Furthermore, it was a clear racing incident as Chase Briscoe checked up quick ahead of him after getting in the wall, and Reddick simply over-corrected in trying to avoid. 

Certainly you want to see young drivers look back on their mistakes through races, analyze them, and correct them moving forward. However, a line needs to be drawn in the sand. Reddick needs to take a deep breath, and realize he can only do so much behind the wheel. Furthermore, he has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt this year with multiple victories and being a solid championship contender. Did we mention that he won the title last season, too?

Overaggressive Driving Bites, Again

It’s the same story, another week for Noah Gragson appears as trying to be overaggressive put him in a worse situation than he should have been.

Running just outside the top-10, he tried to make a move of desperation to get underneath Jeb Burton – but wasn’t clear of Harrison Burton yet. As a result, he went sideways, before sliding through the grass and causing enough damage to end his night early.

If you recall Kansas Speedway, it was being over aggressive that got him into the wall on a couple occasions, resulting in an unscheduled trip down pit road.

Certainly we know that drivers are desperate at this point in the season to keep their championship hopes alive. It is clear that Gragson needed to win either at Texas or ISM Raceway to keep himself in the hunt. However, getting yourself into deeper trouble than you should have been does not help the issue. On top of not setting yourself up to move forward, you have given your team more work to do. Sometimes you just need to take what the car will give you, and live to fight another week.

Despite having talent to get the job done, if he continues being over aggressive, he may be sitting on the sidelines sooner than later.

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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XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway

Although a first career triumph for Brandon Jones and the fight between championship contenders Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer will top the headlines leaving Kansas Speedway, several other things happened during the Kansas Lottery 300 on Saturday.

Lap Traffic Problems

As the laps began to wound down, it appeared as though the battle for the win would be between Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell. However, those hopes were dashed with 15 laps to go when they were caught up in a wreck with a lap car.

Garrett Smithley told NASCAR on NBC that he wasn’t made aware that the leaders were coming up on him, and he was just riding around on 70-lap tires at that point.

The frustration radiated from Briscoe who was quick to ask on his radio, “What was he doing? Where was he going?” It was a reasonable question considering Smithley was already five laps down at this point in the event. 

At the beginning of a driver’s racing career at the short track level, lap cars are taught to remain on the bottom, allowing the leaders to battle as they should have the right to. Knowing that he was already multiple laps down and off the pace, why did he not remain on the bottom of the track?

Secondly, it is a little disheartening to see Smithley throw total blame on his spotter for the incident. He is the one handling the controls of the racecar, and should be aware of the situation around him. 

This is not Smithley’s first incident as a lapped car this season, either, as he crossed paths with Kyle Busch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Hopefully he learned something this time around as it is one of the most frustrating things in racing to see a battle for the win ruined this way.

Briscoe was able to rebound, getting a new rear bumper car installed to drive back up to finish third. Bell finished 12th, but thankfully has a comfortable advantage over the cut-off line in the playoffs thanks to a solid regular season campaign.

Overaggressive Driving

Knowing a spot in the Championship 4 is on the line, it was safe to say that several drivers were being overly aggressive on Saturday – namely Austin Cindric and Noah Gragson.

Cindric has been solid thus far through the playoffs to be considered a legitimate threat by some, as noted by POPULAR SPEED’s Mitchell Breuer entering the weekend. However, he wound up finishing 25th on Saturday after having to make a couple unscheduled trips down pit road with flat tires.

The contact was all self-inflicted, too. He grew frustrated battling Harrison Burton for position, saying that “he was driving all over the track,” that he drove in the back of the No. 18, sending Burton up into the wall and ending his day. The contact resulted in nose damage to Cindric’s Ford that was made worse when he made contact with John Hunter Nemechek on the restart.

Considering the issues experienced by fellow championship contenders and the speed Cindric has shown this year – finishing no worse than third in any playoff event entering this weekend, this could have been his opportunity to capitalize.

Although his title chances are not totally eliminated, he will essentially need to win one of the next two events to be part of the championship conversation. If he continues to let the little battles frustrate him, that certainly won’t happen.

Gragson, meanwhile, stated before the event that he was going to push harder than he has before, wanting to be aggressive and take advantage of the opportunity laid before him. It back fired, as he got into the wall on two separate occasions, ultimately finishing 13th with a car that should have placed in the top-10, possibly top-five.

Through Gragson’s truck series seasons with Kyle Busch Motorsports, he was fast on a weekly basis – but mistakes and being overaggressive certainly took away some chances at winning. It seems that cycle is still repeated. If he had not found the contact resulting in the flat left rear in the final laps, he could have been celebrating in victory lane. 

There is something to be said for a driver who wants to push as hard as they can to succeed, but a line needs to be drawn in the sand. That is something the rookie needs to find if he wants to be able to score his first career series victory. 

Great Strategy!

Through his career, Michael Annett has been seen as an average driver – able to find solid consistency, but not become a serious contender for a championship. 

His crew chief Travis Mack deserves all the credit for leaving his driver out there on old tires, while the rest of the leaders pitted. That allowed Annett to take four fresh tires on a later caution, setting him up for a strong charge to the front.

The call was almost a success, as Annett drove his way from outside the top-10 to third before another caution came out. If the additional yellow flag had not waved, he had enough momentum to power past the top-two and snag the victory. However, the additional heat cycle on the tires took any chance that he had away, resulting in a fourth-place finish.

For anybody looking for an underdog for the championship, Annett and more so crew chief Travis Mack made a case for the No. 1 team. If there is a race that comes down to a strategy call, it may just work in their favor next time.

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
XFINITY

Road Course Visit Surfaces at Right Time for Noah Gragson

With the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs on the horizon, all the competitors are hopeful to lock in their spots with trips to victory lane.

Noah Gragson could easily be the next driver to do so.

His rookie season did not start off smoothly, with just one top-six finish in the first 10 races. The team showed speed, however lacked the ability to finish off the events with clean finishes. Between pit road penalties, contact on track, or an inability to make the right adjustments, it seemed Gragson would fade in the second half of these races.

Though being able to spend time with crew chief Dave Elenz, the pair was able to find chemistry together, and the finishes have been there since. Compared to the first half of the season, Gragson has posted seven top-six finishes in the last nine races, with just one finish outside the top-10. 

There is also confidence in the young driver, as he has grown to believe in his JR Motorsports’ team ability, and they have entered the weekend set on running up front – rather than just hoping for improvement. 

No, he has not reached the level that the big three have attained. However, he has made progress and there’s good reason he could take the next step this weekend at Watkin’s Glen.

Although he has never ran the road course in New York, Gragson has proved that he can get the job done turning both left and right. In his pair of NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series starts at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, he was a threat for the win on both occasions. He finished second in 2017, and wrecked while battling teammate Todd Gilliland for the lead in 2018. Oh, and he won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race earlier this year at Sonoma Raceway.

“I really enjoy racing on the road courses and I’m really excited to get that stretch of the season started this weekend in Watkins Glen,” he said. “We were able to knock the rust off earlier this year in Sonoma with the K&N car and were fortunate enough to come away with the victory. Watkins Glen is definitely a different kind of animal than Sonoma but I am really looking forward to seeing what we can do this weekend with our West Herr Chevrolet.”

A victory this weekend could give Gragson the extra boost of confidence that he needs moving into the rest of the summer. It proved vital when he was in trucks, as winning at Martinsville Speedway to finish 2017 provided the footing to begin a playoff run in 2018, where he finished second in the standings.

The win at Watkins Glen would come at the perfect time, considering the NASCAR Xfinity Series will visit two more road courses before the playoffs. 

While Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing have taken up the headlines, JR Motorsports has been waiting behind them for their turn in the limelight. It could be begin right now this weekend with Gragson at Watkins Glen.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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

Categories
News

Noah Gragson Wins At Sonoma In Chaotic Overtime Finish

SONOMA, Calif. — The black flag taketh away; the black flag giveth.

In a race where Noah Gragson thought his chance for a win disappeared with a penalty for jumping a restart, the 20-year-old from Las Vegas wound up in Victory Lane after Ryan Preece’s apparent win disappeared under similar circumstances.

In the end, it was Gragson celebrating the win in Sunday’s Procore 200 at Sonoma Raceway.

“Helluva race,” Gragson said. “Kind of had a little bit of … adversity there in the middle of the race. Got called for jumping the start as the leader. Never really heard that one before, but we battled back through adversity and ended up the winner.”

Preece was extremely frustrated with how his afternoon concluded after leading over 20 laps to the finish.

“What are you gonna do?” Preece said. “It’s their sandbox, they’re gonna do what they want. They manipulated the race at the end of the day and we won that race. Jumping a restart is going two car lengths early; it’s part of it. You might as well hold my hands behind my back and tie them up if you’re going to make me go at the same line every single time.”

Gragson started second and took the lead from pole-sitter Hailie Deegan on the initial start. He didn’t relinquish the top spot until he encountered the aforementioned adversity: a restart violation of his own.

Gragson was slicing and dicing his way through the field from that point on, putting his No. 7 Switch Chevrolet in places it appeared wouldn’t warrant a pass.

But Gragson kept clawing back. After a few cautions bunched the field back up, he found himself in position to pounce. And although he was behind Preece when the final caution flew on the white flag lap, he was scored the winner. The NASCAR Xfinity Series regular collected his fifth K&N Pro Series West career win and and seventh overall in K&N.

Daniel Hemric, Austin Dillon, Cole Custer and David Mayhew rounded out the top five finishers with defending race winner Will Rodgers, Jim Inglebright, Deegan, Dave Smith and Paul Pedroncelli Jr. completing the top 10. With the penalty, Preece was scored 20th, the last car on the lead lap.

erek Kraus, the championship points leader coming into Sonoma, encountered engine issues around the halfway point and was on pit road for multiple laps as his team repaired the issue on the No. 16. After getting the free pass twice and making up three laps, he was in position for a top 19 finish, but crossed the finish line in 19th after being spun out on the final lap.

Kraus saw his championship lead cut to one over teammate Deegan, while Trevor Huddleston is 11 back and Huddleston’s rookie teammate Jagger Jones is now only 13 behind Kraus.

The Procore 200 will be broadcast Thursday, June 27 at 6 p.m. on NBCSN.

The next K&N Pro Series West event will take place on Saturday, June 29 at Douglas County Speedway in Roseburg, Oregon.

Categories
XFINITY

Rookie Outlook: XFINITY Series

When looking at a rookie class one might wonder, how much success is possible for these drivers? Well, if the last couple of years in the XFINITY Series is any indication, the sky is the limit.

Three of the last five drivers to win the award have gone on to win the championship, and just by looking at whose eligible this year, it could be argued that it is likely to happen again in 2019.

With that said, let’s take a look at those who will be competing for the honor.

Chase Briscoe

Well, it could be argued that a lot of these drivers could be perceived as the favorite, Briscoe may have the best case for himself.

He has experience in the form of 17-race schedule last year, where he had four top-10’s and a win. Not to forget the 24-year-old will be driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, one of the best teams not only in the series but in the sport as a whole. SHR proved the strength in their program last year by winning the owner’s championship with Cole Custer behind the wheel.

The expectations will, and rightfully so, be high for Briscoe.

Noah Gragson

Speaking of high expectations, there is Gragson, who joins JR Motorsports, whose last three rookie drivers (Tyler Reddick, William Byron, and Chase Elliott) have won the championship. So, no pressure right?

However, the Las Vegas native has proven himself worthy of the ride after two full-time seasons in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series, where he scored two wins, 12 top-five’s, and 30 top-10’s.

While he may not have as much XFINITY experience as some of his competitors, Gragson did have success in his three starts last season for Joe Gibbs Racing. His worst finish with the team was seventh, and he even came close to winning in his debut at Richmond Raceway in a runner-up effort.

John Hunter Nemechek

A team that has seen strong development over the last year, GMS Racing, partnered with a driver in Nemechek whose shown capable, could prove to be a lethal combo.

Nemechek comes from a season where he split time between XFINITY and trucks, where he was able to win in both. The 21-year-old showed off his talent in NASCAR’s second-tier series, where in addition his lone victory at Kansas Speedway, he was able to produce six top-five’s and 11 top-10’s in an 18-race effort for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Despite his impressive stat line though, he seemed to be overshadowed by Kyle Larson and Ganassi’s late-season addition, Ross Chastain, whom he split the No. 42 with.

With the ride at GMS all to himself, it will be interesting to see how he capitalizes on the opportunity.

Justin Haley

How about a dark horse? Haley enters the 2019 season, relatively under the radar, despite being impressive in 2018.

The 19-year-old was able to capture three wins in the truck series last year, and produced a strong enough playoff run to get himself into the series’ Championship 4. He also made three starts in XFINITY for GMS, where he was one legal pass away from winning at Daytona International Speedway.

This year though, Haley will be with a different team in Kaulig Racing, whose fielded a playoff entry in each of the last three seasons and, saw a noticeable increase in performance last year, scoring 11 top-10’s with then-driver, Ryan Truex.

Gray Gaulding

A driver who actually has more experience in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Gaulding looks to develop a much more stable schedule after spending the last few seasons jumping around multiple teams.

He joins SS-Green Light Racing to drive the No. 08 Chevrolet. The team fielded an entry for Spencer Boyd in 2018, averaging a 26.9 finish.

Seeing how Gaulding has never had one season-long ride to himself, it will be interesting to see how the 20-year-old can improve being with just the one team.

Matt Mills

Mills, who ran eight races last season in XFINITY, will join B.J. McLeod Racing in 2019 to drive the No. 8 Chevrolet.

The 22-year-old did get the chance to run two races with the team in 2018, where he was able to grab his season-best qualifying effort (25th) and matched his career-best finish (27th) at Richmond Raceway.

Part-Timers

The least experienced of all the drivers listed, Zane Smith, will join JR Motorsports for a limited schedule driving the No. 9 Chevrolet.

Despite his lack of experience, Smith is still well-accomplished, with four wins in the ARCA Racing Series and, a fifth-place finish in his truck debut last year.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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
Trucks XFINITY

Elliott Sadler, Noah Gragson Win Most Popular Driver Awards

The NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Most Popular Drivers have been named.

Elliott Sadler won the award in the XFINITY Series for the third consecutive time, which was also his retirement season. He announced he’d be stepping away from full-time NASCAR National Series competition following 23 years with 853 races across the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series. It marks the fifth straight year that a JR Motorsports driver has took home the honor.

“I’m blown away by the support of my fans throughout my career and in the last few months after announcing my decision to step away. To be voted the NXS Most Popular Driver for a third straight year is incredible. Not only that, but to be the winningest with four awards is unreal,” Sadler said. “I’m grateful for each and every fan, for all of their support and daily votes. I’m humbled by this experience and can’t thank my family, friends, fans and NASCAR enough. I love you guys.”

Noah Gragson won the award in the Camping World Truck Series for the first time in his second full-season of competition. The 20-year-old finished second in the year-end standings, and will move up to the XFINITY Series in 2019 with JR Motorsports. It marks the first time a driver from Kyle Busch Motorsports has took home the honor. 

Both Sadler and Gragson will be honored at the NASCAR XFINITY Series / Camping World Truck Series banquet on December 8 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver will be announced as part of their banquet on Thursday, November 29 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the award the past 15 years in a row.

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
Trucks

Executing is a Key for Gragson to Conquer the Title at Miami

HOMESTEAD, Fla – Noah Gragson will be making his last NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start for Kyle Busch Motorsports this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last month, JR Motorsports announced that Gragson will be running full-time in the NASCAR XFINITY Series next season. But before that, Gragson has one last job which is to win the championship.

After a solid season in his sophomore year in the Truck Series, Gragson has proven he deserved the opportunity as his skill and learning experience placed him in position to run for a championship.

“I definitely feel that everything I learned in the past, well really the past six years that I’ve been racing I feel like all that combined has really helped me out to be in this position,” Gragson said. “And the people, it’s all about people and the people you work with and fortunately we’re surrounded by great people at Kyle Busch Motorsports, Toyota Racing Development who have helped me get to this point these last two years so just really fortunate to be in this spot.”

Starting at KBM with Marcus Richmond calling the shots, the veteran brought his experience and knowledge to the No. 18 team which has helped Gragson develop as a driver. Last season, as Gragson ran his first full-time year in the Truck Series, he was able to pull off his first victory at Martinsville Speedway.

The 2017 season also turned out to be a season of experience, where Gragson learned from every angle as the youngster matured. With all of that said, we can say that put him in position to be where he is now with Rudy Fugle now calling the shots.

As he runs for his first Truck Series title tonight in the Ford Ecoboost 200, Gragson is focused on executing and ultimately putting his truck in the best position against his three competitors that are also running for the championship.

“I’m just focused on executing and doing whatever I need to do,” Gragson said. “I can’t think about the trophy, just have to think of how to get to the trophy and to finish first you have to first finish. I’m just focused on execution and doing my job and the rest will pay off.”

This season, Gragson has a win, seven top-five finishes and an average finish of 8.7. Homestead has not been the friendliest track for Gragson where he has had two prior starts, and his best finish has been 15th.

His final full-time start in the Truck Series may be what puts the cherry on top of the ice cream. The past two seasons, Gragson has been fortunate to gain plenty of experience and work with an excellent group of guys so conquering the title will not only be huge for him but also everyone back at the shop that has put so much work into the team.

EMAIL BRANDON AT: brandon.rivero@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MrBrandonRivero

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.