HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, lead the field on a restart during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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What drivers said after NASCAR season finale at Homestead

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Here is what drivers had to say Sunday after the 18th annual Ford EcoBoost 400, the 2016 season finale, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson – winner and 2016 champion: “Oh my gosh, there is no, no way on earth. Just beyond words. Just didn’t think the race was unfolding for us like we needed to do to be the champs, but we just kept our heads in the game. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) called a great strategy, made some great adjustments for the short runs.  Luck came our way and we were able to win the race and win the championship. I wouldn’t be here without so many people believing in me and giving me this chance.  From my dirt days – my parents first and foremost. My brothers. My wife and family today. Car owners, sponsors, Chevrolet, Lowe’s, so many amazing people along the way that believed in me to give me this chance. Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, all the men and women at Hendrick Motorsports for working so hard to get these cars fast and giving me an awesome 15 years with the company. Just thank you. From the bottom of my heart.  Thank you. So thrilled to be in this moment. So grateful for the opportunity and so thankful and blessed. I am at a loss for words.”

Kyle Larson – finished second: “Congrats to Jimmie (Johnson), congrats to Chevy for winning the championship, that’s pretty cool and that Jimmie could win seven there. We had the car to win there and I know that I did everything in my power to win the race. But rules are rules and I have to work in the (restart) box … Well, you are supposed to be side-by-side entering the box and he was all the way behind me. So not really anything I could do to maintain his distance behind me. But it’s whatever, I am happy for him.”

Kevin Harvick – finished third: “I’m proud of everyone on my Jimmy John’s team and every person that’s prepared my cars this year. We fought to the very end and tried to close out the season with one last win. I have to thank Jimmy John’s, Busch beer, Mobil 1, Outback, ditech, Hunt Brothers Pizza, Morton Buildings, Bad Boy Off-Road and all our great partners. I also have to say thanks to two great partners who played a major role over the course of my career: Chevrolet and Sprint. They were so good to us for such a long time, and I can’t thank them enough for their support. We finished strong, and we’ll be back in 2017 to try and make another run at a championship.”

Joey Logano – finished fourth: “It was eventful, to say the least. I hate being that close to a championship and not getting it. The team did a great job all day. We had a good race car and we put ourselves in position to win. No one made any mistakes or anything like that on our pit crew. That last restart, I was hoping to get Jimmie there and trying to get either to the inside or outside of him. I just timed it a little bit wrong to get underneath him. I just didn’t have enough time to get under him. We lost some time there and unfortunately we finish second. The championship means so much and everyone forgets about second place. That is what stinks. But overall I am proud of this team. This will be motivation for next year. This hurts.”

Kyle Busch – finished sixth: “We were just too far back. In order to make up that many spots, we were going to need more than just two laps, but we were going to be able to do it if there were more laps, but that’s the choice we made and we didn’t feel like we had a shot to win if we didn’t come down (final pit stop). So, we were going to just be fighting them off from that point. Just can’t say enough about this M&M’s team. All year long they fought hard and there were moments today where definitely it wasn’t going to be our race at all and then there were moments where it might be our race and we just weren’t able to pull through tonight.”

AJ Allmendinger – finished eighth: “Just a product of hard work. I will be honest, I was shocked by how bad we were. Dropped the green and the car wouldn’t turn and we just kind of fought that all night. This tire is a tire that we’ve definitely struggled on. Got to keep doing our homework on it. Had a pit road penalty, we fought back there and kept doing the right thing. I could see the No. 21 was the guy we were actually racing. He was having trouble, so I was just trying to be smart. Kept getting the wave around, kept getting our laps back, and missed the big wreck and hell I don’t know how we finished eighth. Good finish, we’ve definitely got to do our homework to be better and be ready for next year.”

Michael McDowell – finished 10th: “We had a great car. We made up a lot of spots in the beginning and we just sort of maintained that all day. We were running right there 16th – 20th most of the day and the strategy worked out, everything played out. Got back on the lead lap which obviously was a game changer. There at the end we got a couple of good restarts and we had a good car. We were able to close off a good season. … Well, it’s great momentum. The last 10 weeks have been great. We have run more in the top 20 than we ever have. As you do that every weekend it gets easier and easier to do it. We’ve got a busy offseason and still got to work hard and everybody is going to be trying to find extra speed come February.”

Austin Dillon – finished 12th: “We had a really good Dow-Dow Corning Chevrolet today. I’m so proud of everyone at RCR for putting together a car that was so unbelievably fast. We worked as a team and used a lot of what we learned at the Homestead-Miami test a few weeks ago. At the beginning of the race, I thought we were going to drive to the lead. The race just didn’t play to our favor at the end. I want to thank all of the partners on the No. 3 car. We’ve had a great season making the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the last few weeks have shown what we are capable of.”

Kurt Busch – finished 13th: “We really struggled on racetracks that chew up tires such as Homestead, Texas, Chicago and Fontana. We just didn’t have the long-run speed or the balance, but luck played in our favor today to take the wave around and guys we were running with in points got in that wreck to help us get back on the lead lap and to get a set of fresh tires at the end. We were able to dodge some of the cars on the restart with the damage we had. It wasn’t the Chase we wanted. We were the slowest seventh-place car in points that I’ve ever seen. We finished a spot higher in points but we didn’t have the car as good this year as we did last year. The second half of the season was a struggle. We need to revamp our notes and try to turn over a new leaf starting next year.”

Paul Menard – finished 14th: “First, I’ve got to thank my team for all the hard work they put in this year. This schedule can be tough. The Richmond/Menards Chevy wasn’t handling like we had it during practice at the beginning of the race. We were good in the shade but handling went away in the sun. Once the sun went down, we were able to make adjustments in the right direction. The long green-flag runs didn’t do us any favors as we were caught a lap down more than once. We were able to race to the free pass position, though, and started in the top 15 in the closing laps. It wasn’t the year we wanted. Luckily I have a team that doesn’t give up. We’ll regroup in the offseason and come back fresh in Daytona.”

Brian Scott – finished 15th: “We actually had a car that was capable of competing. That kept us in the race and kept us able to hang on when we took the wave around to get back on the lead lap. I thought we were gonna have a shot for a top 10, but it just didn’t play into our favor with not having a car that was very good on restarts the first couple of laps. I’m proud of my guys though for fighting all year. Even through the struggles it’s been a fun year … I’m excited. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m excited to find out.”

Danica Patrick – finished 19th: “Today was another reminder of why you don’t give up. We’ve had some tough races this year, but my guys have never given up. I’m so proud of everyone on the No. 10 TaxAct Chevy team for all of their hard work all season. They put in so much effort every single weekend. The tough days are character building, and they’ve definitely made us stronger as a team this year, and I know we’ll carry that strength into next season.”

Trevor Bayne – finished 20th: “That wasn’t the result we were looking for but I’m proud of my team tonight. We never gave up and fought hard tonight. I just want to thank everyone who worked on this AdvoCare team all season long. This is a great group of guys and I’m really looking forward to working with them again next season when we get to Daytona.”

Tony Stewart – finished 22nd: “I’m proud. It’s been an awesome 21 years racing in NASCAR with the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. That is really cool to see that No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) up there making history. Now we’ve got three guys in the seven win club. Pretty proud day, I was glad I got to race with him on the day he got his seventh … I raced, I did what I do every time I get in the car. I didn’t think of anything else other than just racing the race. We got behind there and we tried something to make ground and got caught out and had to run 60 laps on a set of tires. At the end the line-up there was, let’s say confusing. I was still screaming about that just like I would on any other race. I was true to form all the way to the end.”

Ryan Newman – finished 25th: “I hate it for the guys. Our Caterpillar Chevrolet struggled a bit today compared to Friday and Saturday, but Luke Lambert and the crew made our car better throughout the race to take an 11th-place car and put it into contention with 20 laps to go. I want to thank my Caterpillar pit crew for gaining me a bunch of spots on pit road. We gained track position after most, if not, every pit stop we made. Unfortunately, we got caught up in the big wreck. We tried to do everything we could to stay out and limp home to the finish, but our Caterpillar Chevrolet was too damaged to complete the final few laps. I want to thank everyone at RCR for a solid season and look forward to returning in 2017 to compete for another championship. ”

Ryan Blaney – finished 26th: “We just struggled tonight. I made a lot of mistakes. I made a big mistake early and we ended up getting a flat tire out of it. I just hit the wall early being impatient. That just wasn’t smart, so that’s something I need to be better at and not being so impatient. We learned a lot this year. It was a fun year and I’m just looking forward to years to come. This team does a great job. We’ll learn during the offseason and then come back.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – finished 30th: “I was just trying to get all I could get there. It looked like (Austin Dillon) got underneath (Matt Kenseth) and I tried to get underneath (Dillon) and when I did he was really close to my door and it just kind of sucked me around and we got loose. It’s a bummer way to end. We were just kind of average all night. It’s a tough way to end the season, but we’ll build it and get back ready for next year.”

Ty Dillon – finished 33rd: “We were so solid all day. I’m really happy with our effort all weekend long and how much speed that we showed. We unfortunately just got caught up in that big wreck in the closing laps of the race. It stinks, because it looked like we were on our way to a top-10 finish. Matt (Borland, crew chief) called a great race and we had some really solid pit stops. The balance of the race car was pretty spot on all race and that’s credit to Matt and the guys for being prepared. I’m proud of our No. 95 Advil Chevrolet and the partial season I was able to race with this team. I’m excited for what the future holds. I’ve learned a lot this season and am appreciative of the opportunity.”

Carl Edwards – finished 34th: “Yeah, I think it was shared, you know what I mean? I think it was just racing. I haven’t seen a real close up view, but the way I had it figured is first of all that was the race of my life up to that point. That was a lot of fun and Joey (Logano) was so good on the short run. I don’t know how he got that restart. It was a really good restart. I thought we were – I thought everything was going to work out and (spotter) Jason (Hedlesky) told me he was looking low and I – he told me basically he was there. I knew what Jason was saying and I just pushed the issue as far as I could because I figured that was the race there and so here let me watch it again. Yeah, Joey just timed it perfectly, he moved down, I thought I could feel him a little and I just thought that – I was probably a little optimistic, but I thought I could clear him or force him to lift. I just thought I had just a little more time, but he drove down as far as a guy could be expected to drive down and that’s how it ended. I don’t know what the caution was for. I really hope it was something that we needed to have a caution for because that was really – that was going really well.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 35th: “It’s a product of a format that’s based on putting everything and risking everything. I don’t know. It’s not really all that surprising. It’s disappointing. I don’t think that’s great racing, but I understand why it happened on both ends.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished 36th: “All I see is (Brad Keselowski) coming up the track and nowhere to go. This is one of those wrong place, wrong time. We got put in the back a few times. Once was our mistake early and (Kevin) Harvick’s after that. It’s unfortunate. We had a really good race car tonight and nothing to show for it. It’s two weeks in a row. Frustrating, glad this year is over and we will go and regroup and get ready for next year.”

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Clint Bowyer looks to be relevant again

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 19:  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet, sits in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
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CONCORD, N.C. — Clint Bowyer can be loud, wild and ready for the next good time, but after a season that felt as arduous as Odysseus’ journey, Bowyer’s voice softens when he states a goal for this season.

“I sure hope you are watching me,’’ Bowyer said as he stood next to his No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. “At the end of the day, relevancy in this sport is everything, and I’ve lost that a little bit. Not a little bit. A lot.’’

Four years after finishing runner-up in the championship, Bowyer could barely finish in the top 20 in races last year for HScott Motorsports, a team no longer competing in NASCAR.

It was a stunning fall for driver who seemed on solid ground after he signed a three-year contract extension with Michael Waltrip Racing in May 2014, following back-to-back finishes in the top 10 in points.

Fourteen months later, though, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season.

Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)

A month after that, Bowyer signed to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing Tony Stewart in 2017. That left Bowyer without a ride for 2016. With few options, Bowyer went to HScott Motorsports and suffered through a season that saw him record three top-20 finishes in the last 19 races.

“Was it the best thing in the world for me?’’ Bowyer said of last season. “Probably not. It probably wasn’t healthy as a matter of fact, but, nonetheless, this deal was worth it. This opportunity was worth whatever you had to go through, whether it was sitting at home or getting into something. It didn’t matter, I signed on for this thing. I want to be in this car because I knew it was my soonest opportunity to be in the best possible situation to win races.’’

But it has been four years since he last won, a span of 149 races.

He was asked Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center if he is any good still.

“That’s a real legitimate question,’’ Bowyer said. “You just don’t know. I think the last time I was in a good car, I was good. I think that I’m a smarter driver than I was three years ago. I think I’m plenty capable of winning races. I love what I see at Stewart-Haas.’’

His team was set up for him. Mike Bugarewicz gained experience last year in his rookie season as a crew chief for Stewart. That should help Bugarewicz in the transition to his new driver. Bowyer and Bugarewicz started talking weekly in the second half of last season, discussing what setups Bowyer liked, track conditions, tires, etc. Anything to learn each other and help their communication this season.

“For me, that driver/crew chief relationship is everything and you’ve got to get that established,’’ Bowyer said.

Bowyer also can lean on some familiar faces at Stewart-Haas Racing. He was a teammate to Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer was at Michael Waltrip Racing when Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers was there. Billy Scott, crew chief for Danica Patrick, was Bowyer’s crew chief, for part of the 2015 season.

About the only person he doesn’t know well at SHR is Kurt Busch.

“We just never really hung out,’’ Bowyer said of the 2004 champion. “He’s the one guy that I really think has more raw talent than about anybody out there. I want to go out and learn as much as I can. I know he can really diagnose what’s going on with the car. The depth he goes in with the debrief is probably a lot higher than I’ve had in the past.’’

That’s just part of the culture at Stewart-Haas Racing that has Bowyer excited.

“They don’t take second as an option,’’ Bowyer said. “They go and work hard and figure out how to go win these races.’’

No longer does he have to worry about finishing 25th (his average finish last year was 23.6).

“With equipment like this, if you’re 25th or something at the end of the day … there’s a reason for it,’’ Bowyer said. “That’s the breath of fresh air. It’s not expected. It’s not going to happen.’’

Told that Stewart sees Bowyer as calmer, the 37-year-old replies that he’s “confident again.

“When 2016 finally came to an end, I was looking at Dale (Earnhardt) Jr and Amy having a good time (at their New Year’s Eve wedding), and I’m like I can’t wait for tomorrow morning,’’ Bowyer said. “Just get all that brushed off, get it behind you and … focus on the task at the hand and using this wonderful opportunity to be good and great again.’’

And relevant.

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Ford executive encouraged by changes at Roush Fenway Racing

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 12: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 Roush Performance Ford, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 12, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — The Global Director of Ford Performance says he’s optimistic Roush Fenway Racing will be more competitive this season because of leadership changes that “embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing has been shut out of NASCAR’s playoffs each of the past two seasons and last won a race in 2014.

Ford’s Dave Pericak said Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center that Roush Fenway Racing is in a better position to take advantage of Ford’s technical support after offseason changes.

“I think Roush has made all of the right, now, decisions and changes within their organization to truly embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization and putting the technology into these cars as opposed to just bolting some stuff together and going out on the racetrack,’’ Pericak told NBC Sports.

“I think there has been a huge acknowledgement on their side that there has to be a shift within their own organization, a shift within their leadership. We’ve helped them on a technical side of things to get their equipment up to speed. I’m optimistic that this year you’re going to see all of that coming together and you should see better performance out of that Roush organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing opens the season with new personnel in executive levels. The team announced in late November that Kevin Kidd, who had been the organization’s Cup team manager, would become the competition director, and Tommy Wheeler, who oversaw the production of the organization’s Cup and Xfinity cars, would be the team’s operations director. The team also announced that Robbie Reiser, who had been general manager, was being reassigned.

The organization also is smaller this season. Roush downsized to a two-car operation with the departure of Greg Biffle. The team will have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne as drivers and loaned Chris Buescher to JTG Daugherty, a Chevrolet team, because there wasn’t a proper place to put him with a Ford team this year.

Stenhouse showed signs of progress early last season, climbing to 13th the points after the season’s fifth race before finishing the year 21st. Bayne placed 22nd and Biffle 23rd. The three drivers combined for zero wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.

The top-five and top-10 results were an increase from the 2015 season. Roush’s drivers combined for four top fives and nine top 10s that season.

Roush is one of two Ford teams downsizing this year. Richard Petty Motorsports will field one entry this year instead of two. Pericak said such moves could help both teams.

“The downsizing that you’ve seen is a way for us to re-focus those teams and get back to the fundamentals and get them back on the right path,” Pericak said. “You don’t want to have so much going on that you can’t focus in areas that you need to focus and fix what you need.’’

Something else that could help Roush and RPM is the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing to the Ford camp. The move gives Ford two top-tier teams in SHR and Team Penske. Some of the information gleaned by those teams can be shared.

“I think when you look at that, it’s a very positive thing to bring that level of competition to your group, everyone is going to benefit from that,’’ Pericak said. “And the other thing we’ve been working strongly on is that one Ford approach, sharing where sharing makes sense.’’

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New Cup team to field Daytona 500 entry

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Gaunt Brothers Racing plans to enter all four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series restrictor-plate races this season, beginning with the Daytona 500.

D.J. Kennington will seek for the qualify for the season-opening race. The team has no charter and is not guaranteed a starting spot.

Other non-chartered teams that have announced plans to vie for a Daytona 500 starting spot are: Tommy Baldwin Racing (Elliott Sadler) and car owner Mark Beard (Brendan Gaughan). Michael Waltrip also has stated on Twitter he will compete but has not offered any other details.

Gaunt Brothers Racing is owned by Marty Gaunt, president of Triad Racing Technologies.

“With the recent unveiling of the 2018 Toyota Camry, we feel that now is the right time to return to the racetrack,” said Gaunt, whose Triad engines powered five championship-winning Toyota drivers and contributed to multiple manufacturer championships at the NASCAR national level, in a statement.

The team competed in what is now the NASCAR Pinty’s Series in 2011. Gaunt Brothers Racing is fielding a Toyota Camry in partnership with Triad client RAB Racing, which is led by Robby Benton. RAB Racing will supply cars, shop space and technical support.

“Our aspirations will be no small task, but we know what we need to do to position ourselves to make this a successful effort,” Benton said in a statement. “We’ll transition over to the Daytona 500 after competing in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona with our sports car program later this month.”

Kennington, who is from St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, is a two-time NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion. He made his Cup debut last fall at Phoenix International Raceway, placing 35th.

No driver has been announced for the team at the other three restrictor-plate races this season.

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NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 59: David Smith previewing the 2017 season

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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The makeup of a race weekend in 2017 is expected to look different, with some major enhancements expected to be announced soon for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

But the teams that will compete on the rebranded circuit will look very familiar.

While a NASCAR offseason normally is filled with personnel changes, many teams elected to stand pat for this season.

Why? That’s a topic explored by Motorsports Analytics founder David Smith in a recent column entitled “Welcome to 2016, Part 2, which was the subject of this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast.

Smith discussed the reasons why teams didn’t make changes and the reasons that perhaps some should have. He also floats some interesting possibilities for future moves (Chase Elliott and Chad Knaus? Cole Pearn to Team Penske?).

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

Stay tuned for time codes for easy referencing while listening to the podcast.