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2020 Silly Season Updates and Expectations

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

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

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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

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

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

Gavin Baker | NKP

Chris Buescher

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

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

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

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Tyler Reddick

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Cole Custer

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Christopher Bell

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

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

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

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

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

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

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

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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
XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

Through the years, Homestead-Miami Speedway has continuously put on some of the best racing of the season, making it a fitting location to crown the champions as we close out the year. With ISM Raceway set to become the title venue in 2020, the 1.5 mile oval put on perhaps the best NASCAR Xfinity Series finale of all time.

With the track slowly aging, it has made grip a premium, resulting in a speed difference when you slap on four new tires. Though the track’s widening grooves allow you to watch competitors run from all the way around the bottom, to ripping the top lane. This, combined with a great evolution of talent in NASCAR right now, was the perfect recipe.

Through the night, “the big three” as they were dubbed – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, and Christopher Bell – battled back and forth for the top spot. They would each get a chance to pace the field whether through strategy, winning the race off pit road or pure speed. Though unlike other tracks where the leader would get out front, the conditions allowed for challenges to happen back in return.

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.

Though in the end, it was Reddick that got the upper-hand as he took the lead, and ultimately drove away from Custer following contact with the outside wall. Seeing the now two-time series champion run the top line lap after lap is a thing of beauty. Even Custer admitted defeat in saying, “Tyler—he can rip the top here. That’s about all you can say about it.”

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. It was why he was the favorite entering the weekend following the same performance last season. 

Although it is his second title in a row, this one is a little sweeter as you can see how much Reddick has evolved as a driver. After becoming a surprise champion in 2018, he put himself in position all year long with Richard Childress Racing and found the consistency that he was missing.

Bell, on the other hand, is certainly going to be looking back at these past couple of weeks in a different nature due to a pair of 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.

With all three of these drivers moving up to the Cup Series, the real winners are the fans because they are going to get to witness probably one of the best, and closest battles for Rookie of the Year that they have had in the past couple years. That said, the series is still in good hands with another young crop ready to rise to the occasion. Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson were evident of that on Saturday night with top-five runs.

As for the series, the decision to move the finale from Miami to the desert puzzles a lot of people, considering that last week’s racing at ISM Raceway was a little lack-luster other than the crazy restarts. That is something that certainly will need to be addressed.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

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News

Tyler Reddick gets back-to-back titles with scintillating victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – With his girlfriend expecting a baby, Tyler Reddick confessed on Thursday that he had practiced changing diapers on a pet cat.

Now, after winning Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 and his second straight NASCAR Xfinity Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Reddick gets to name the baby.

Finishing 1.038 seconds ahead of hard-charging Cole Custer, Reddick is the only driver to win consecutive titles in the series for two different car owners. The 23-year-old from Corning, Calif., won his first championship for JR Motorsports last year.

After switching rides to Richard Childress Racing, Reddick celebrated the organizations 50th anniversary by delivering his second straight title to team owner Richard Childress—the crowning achievement of a season in which Reddick collected a career-best six victories.

“It’s about this race team, man, and I was just honored to pilot this Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet,” Reddick said. “I’m losing my breath—I’m that excited. This one means so much more. It was just a lot better year, and it was really cool to go back-to-back.”

In winning for the second time at Homestead-Miami, Reddick was once again the quintessential rim rider, running within inches of the fence as he, Custer and fifth-place finisher Christopher Bell battled for the lead early in the final 79-lap green-flag run.

And now he can name his yet-to-be-born son “Beau,” under an agreement he made with girlfriend Alexa De Leon before the championship weekend. De Leon had another name in mind but agreed to let Reddick have his choice if he won the title.

Reddick had been so successful running the top lane in 2018 that Custer studied his in-car video before the race—but to no avail.

“Tyler—he can rip the top here,” Custer acknowledged after the race. “That’s about all you can say about it.”

After the top two drivers separated from Bell on Lap 167, Reddick closed on Custer until he reached his rear bumper. On Lap 182, Reddick dived to the inside into Turn 1 and slid up in front of Custer’s No. 00 Ford. Custer got the lead back briefly into Turn 3 on the same lap, but Reddick crossed over and cleared Custer for good off Turn 4.

In trying to catch the No. 2 Chevrolet, Custer scraped the wall in the closing laps.

“I could kind of match his lap time there and studied his in-car all the way coming here trying to figure out how to run the top better,” Custer said. “I got close. I tried to find a way to close the gap when I was behind and tried too hard and got into the fence.

“It sucks to come home second two years in a row. We’ll take it. We were a lot closer this year.”

Reddick, Custer and Bell all will graduate to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next year—Reddick with RCR, Custer with Stewart-Haas Racing and Bell with Leavine Family Racing. But Reddick is the only one who will do so with an Xfinity title.

Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson ran third and fourth, respectively, ahead of Bell, who claimed third place in the final standings behind the race winner and runner-up.

Despite missing pit road on his first attempt at a green-flag pit stop on Lap 159, Bell grabbed the lead on new tires by pitting three laps before Reddick and Custer. But the two chasers soon ran him down in a thrilling three-way battle for the top spot.

By the time Reddick took the checkered flag, Bell was 17 seconds in arrears.

“We just had great pit stops,” said Bell, who came to Homestead last year as the championship favorite and finished fourth. “Our pit stops would allow us to get up front, and then we would maintain until we started falling off, and then they would drive by me. For some reason, just can’t hit on what I need to, to be able to get around this place for a 30- or 40-lap run.”

A late brush with the wall and resulting flat tire relegated Championship 4 contender Justin Allgaier to a 14th-place finish.

Categories
XFINITY

Dale Jr. Confident in Allgaier for Xfinity Series Finale

AVONDALE, Arizona — JR Motorsports driver, Justin Allgaier, captured his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win of the season in the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 to secure a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 33-year old led a race-high 85 laps and regained much needed momentum after besting “The Big Three” heavy-weights of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and reigning series champion, Tyler Reddick, for his second career victory at ISM Raceway.

The Illinois-native may not have as glamorous statistics as his fellow-competitors battling for the 2019 title, but team owner and 15-time Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has the utmost faith in his four-year driver of the No. 7 Chevy Camaro. The 10-year series veteran has successfully raced his way into the playoffs in every full-time season he’s raced in NASCAR’s lower division and Earnhardt feels this experience has aptly prepared him to bring JR Motorsports their third-consecutive championship.

“Obviously, his age and experience is very helpful,” Earnhardt exclusively told POPULAR SPEED following the event at ISM Raceway. “He’s been in a lot of situations that I think he can lean on to maintain his composure and poise in some pretty tough situations.”

In conjunction with experience in the Xfinity Series, the 44-year old team owner believes his driver has been able to capitalize and adapt throughout his career in certain mid-race situations. Earnhardt has had the luxury of watching Allgaier intently over the last two years after stepping down from full-time racing in the Cup Series and turning to broadcasting on NBC.

“Anything sets him apart (from Bell, Custer and Reddick) I think if you watch a lot of the races,” the team owner relayed. “The success that he has is based off of restarts – he’s really aggressive on restarts. He just takes advantage of the guys around him and he did that again today. When he won at Chicago (Speedway) a few year ago, he had a great restart there at the end to take the win away from the other guys. He technically rarely has the best car in the race, but makes up for it on restarts when he gets that opportunity.”

Earnhardt also broke his silence on the possibility of making history by becoming only the second owner in the Xfinity Series to capture three-consecutive titles.

“Anytime you can put your name in the record books for anything, it’s awesome,” the 15-time Most Popular Driver exclaimed. “We feel pretty lucky and blessed to already have a couple of titles and those didn’t come easy, this one won’t either. This is going to be a real, real hard battle down there. I think we’re lacking a little bit of speed compared to that guys, but it’s close. We’re going to need everything we can get and little luck too. That’s how it’s been the last couple of times. I don’t know that we showed up with the best car throughout the day at Homestead, but we were there at the end when it mattered and that’s what you got to do. I’d put Justin up against any of those guy to position us to be in that position at the end.”

Even more impressively – should Allgaier notch JR Motorsports a third championship – the trio of titles would come from three different driver, which has never been done before in the series.

Earnhardt’s driver will without a doubt be the underdog heading to Homestead, but Allgaier is carrying a hefty set of momentum into the Sunshine State after quite possibly the most important win of his career to date. Witness if Earnhardt and Allgaier can eclipse this monumental achievement in the Ford EcoBoost 300 series finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBCSN.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

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

Categories
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.

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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

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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.

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XFINITY

Title Favorites Custer and Reddick Clash at Kansas

Contact on a late-race restart, combined with the pressure to lock themselves into the Championship 4, caused two of the top three competitors in the NASCAR Xfinity Series to clash at Kansas Speedway on Saturday.

Battling for the lead on a restart with less than 10 laps to go, Tyler Reddick slid up the track while four-wide with Noah Gragson and Brandon Jones, making slight contact with Cole Custer, causing Custer to bounce off the outside wall. Custer would fall back in the running order as a result, finishing 11th, while Reddick lost out in the battle for the win, placing second to Jones.

Following the completion of the Kansas Lottery 300, Custer approached Reddick to discuss the contact, where crew members from both teams got involved to result in a fight in the middle of pit road.

Custer stated that he approached his fellow title rival due to being frustrated with the contact. 

“I just wasn’t very happy with it and was just going to tell him that and he went berserk on me,” he said. “I guess that is part of it. I just wasn’t very happy with it. He just said, ‘Don’t touch me,’ then he started grabbing on me.”

While understanding his rival’s situation, Reddick felt confident in how he handled the situation. 

“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,” he told NASCAR on NBC. “I’m out of breath, had a little fight there with people, but it was kinda fun.”

The drivers have not had any issues with each other in the past, with the confrontation simply chalked up to being due to “heat of the moment.”

“We’re pissed off,” he added. “I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow, who knows maybe have a beer over it. Obviously didn’t want to get into his quarter panel, but if I lift, I get passed and I hate that it happened to him. We’ll try and move forward, obviously.”

Currently, both drivers are in a comfortable position to transfer to the next round, the Championship 4, in the Xfinity Series playoffs. Although Christopher Bell leads both Custer and Reddick, they both still sit 38 and 37 points above the cut line. To put that into perspective, you earn 10 points for winning a stage and 40 points for a race victory; it would take serious issues both either to have someone knock them out.

Through the Xfinity Series season, these three drivers have been the class of the field and easily were predicted to be part of the Championship 4. Based on the current standings, they would have to see two of the other eight playoff drivers win the next two events to eliminate all three.

It is possible, but highly unlikely given the dominance by The Big Three.  However, if they continue to clash with each other, it may result in an upset.

“A couple of us have a lot to lose in this deal and if we take each other out, neither one of us gets to Homestead and I feel we both deserve to be there,” Reddick said. 

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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Legitimized and Ready, Reddick Moves to Cup

It was confirmed on Wednesday, Oct. 2 by Richard Childress Racing that Tyler Reddick will be moving to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to drive the No.8 Chevrolet.

It was not an announcement that shocked anybody, or a move many argue will argue against.

After all, Reddick is the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion and currently having an even better season where he has captured five wins and the regular-season championship.

It could even be argued that Reddick is the most Cup-ready of the current batch of Xfinity Series regulars. After all, he’s already impressed in NASCAR’s top-level with a ninth-place finish in only his second start earlier this season at Kansas Speedway.

There is no other arguing that Reddick is ready for the jump; however, if you rewind the tape to the beginning of October last year, a future in Cup would have looked like a stretch.

He was with JR Motorsports, driving a car that had seen so much success with William Byron and Chase Elliott, and it was a forgettable year.

Reddick only had one win that came at Daytona, and really did not scream weekly contender with 13 finishes outside the top-20. He was in the playoffs but was not a favorite to win the title, let alone make the Championship 4 in a season that was dominated by Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier.

Later in the month, it would be announced that he was leaving the team to join RCR, which could have been seen as a step backward, and was a move that did not surprise anyone.

Reddick just seemed like someone could not be put in the same ballpark as Bell and Cole Custer as possible future Cup stars. All of this truly makes what he has accomplished in the year since that much more impressive.

He put together an impressive string through the 2018 Xfinity Series playoffs, en route to winning the title with a sensational performance in the season finale at Homestead-Maimi Speedway. He has also since proven that his championship performance was not a fluke, that he can contend for wins on a weekly basis, and that he is somebody that is going to need an eye kept on.

After all, it was not like RCR was just winning race left and right before 2019. They only had one in the two previous seasons which didn’t come from any of their full-time drivers in Xfinity.

With how much Reddick has turned around their program, it does raise the question – what can he do at the next level? Can he turn around an organization that has been on the decline?

With what he’s done in a year, it is certainly not out of the question.

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.