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Former champions battling to stay alive in Cup playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Title hopes could end today for more than one series champion.

Former champ Jimmie Johnson holds that final transfer spot to the next round, but he leads former champion Kyle Busch by seven points and former champion Matt Kenseth by eight points.

“This is our first Homestead of this year,’’ Busch said, referring to the season finale that determines the crown. “We’ve got to come through this race. It’s not a must-win, but it is a must-perform.’’

It will be challenging because Busch, Johnson and Kenseth are all strong at this track.

Johnson’s three wins at Kansas are the most among active drivers. Busch has finished in the top five in five consecutive Kansas races. Kenseth has led 269 of the 536 laps (50.2 percent) run in this event the past two years.

That makes Sunday’s elimination race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) even more intriguing.

Johnson, who is in his first bid to break a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships, finds himself in this spot because of a lack of speed. It’s hurt him in qualifying, costing him stage points, and hurt him throughout the race.

“We are a team and a group that thrives on adversity,’’ said Johnson, who noted he was the slowest of the championship cars last year in Miami and still won his record-tying seventh title.

“Whenever we have been backed into a corner we have always stepped up and have delivered. All the members of this No. 48 team love a challenge, and we are not even close to losing that desire and that fight to be out there and compete and race for the win and race for the championship.’’

Mistakes have plagued the team the past two weeks. At Charlotte, Johnson took off before all the lug nuts were secured on the left front tire and had to back up to have that remedied, losing time. Last week, spotter Earl Barban told the team they could begin work on Johnson’s wrecked car before the red flag was withdrawn. NASCAR parked the team for the infraction.

“There are lessons learned in everything,’’ Johnson said. “When I think of the Charlotte pit stop itself and I think of Talladega and the mistake there that Earl made, really all mistakes come from guys trying as hard as they can. 

“I personally have sympathy for that. I mean, the guys are just trying to do the best job they can and everybody makes mistakes. I make plenty of them, and I think Fridays show that on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to jump on somebody over that.  What I ask of myself is to learn from those lessons and try not to repeat them.’’

Kenseth, winless in his last 48 starts, has a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but his team has seemed to be the weakest of JGR’s playoff teams throughout the postseason.

“If we don’t run good Sunday, then we don’t deserve to be in the next round anyway,’’ Kenseth said Friday.

Kenseth lamented the performance he and his team had at Kansas in May, finishing 12th.

“You’re only as good as your last race,’’ he said. “Our last one here we ran really, really bad.

Kenseth suggests he might have to knock someone else out of a playoff spot if Kyle Busch runs like he’s capable.

“If I’m Kyle (Busch), I’m feeling pretty good,’’ Kenseth said of his teammate. “He’s crashed two weeks in a row and he’s still in (playoff contention). That’s pretty amazing. Plus he’s been running so good, it’s one of his better places now. So I wouldn’t be very concerned if I was Kyle, I guess, because he’s had the performance.

“Now, (Jimmie Johnson) hasn’t run quite as good as he’s accustomed to running. We haven’t run as good as we’re accustomed to running.”

That Busch is so close after a miserable round (29th at Charlotte and 27th at Talladega) is because he has so many more playoff and stage points than Johnson and Kenseth.

Busch has 41 playoff points. Johnson has 17 and Kenseth five.

Busch’s job is simple he says.

“I look at it as out-finishing (Johnson) and (Blaney) by three, four spots each stage, each round, in order to make up enough points to pass them both,’’ he said. “Whether that’s doable or not, we’ll see. We’ll certainly try. We’ll fight hard, hopefully run up front all day long. We’ve done that this year. We did that here in the spring. We just need to back it up and do it again when it’s crunch time.”

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Watch: Championship 4 drivers share thoughts on Miami outcome

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After 200 laps Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, William Byron claimed the Xfinity Series championship in his rookie year by finishing third in the Ford EcoBoost 300.

He finished ahead of his JR Motorsports teammates, Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, and Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric.

Watch the above video for Byron’s first interview as a NASCAR champion.

Below are interviews with the remaining Championship 4 drivers.

Elliott Sadler

Sadler placed eighth in the race after contact with Ryan Preece with less than 10 laps to go cut a tire on his No. 1 Chevrolet. It Sadler’s fourth runner-up result in the points in his Xfinity career.

Justin Allgaier

Allgaier finished 12th in the race after struggling for most 300-mile event. He was competing without his primary crew chief, who had been suspended for the race. Chad Knaus, the seven-time champion crew chief in the Cup Series with Jimmie Johnson, helped out on the pit box for the No. 7 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric

Hemric finished last among the Championship 4 drivers in 34th after his No. 21 Chevrolet experienced battery problems early in Stage 2. Hemric spent 12 laps on pit road before returning to the race.

JR Motorsports sweeps top three in final Xfinity Series standings

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William Byron finished third in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 to give JR Motorsports its second Xfinity title.

The team, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., swept the top-three spots in the final standings with Elliott Sadler placing second and Justin Allgaier in third.

Daniel Hemric placed fourth after finishing last among the Championship 4 drivers in the race.

Race-winner Cole Custer ends the season in fifth.

Click here for the points results.

Results, stats for Xfinity season finale at Miami

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Cole Custer led 182 laps to win the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s his first Xfinity win and the first series win for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Custer swept all three stages of the race and beat Sam Hornish Jr., William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Preece.

Byron clinched the Xfinity title with his third-place finish.

Click here for results.

Cole Custer wins first Xfinity race; William Byron claims series championship

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Cole Custer dominated to win Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, earning his first Xfinity Series victory, as William Byron finished third to clinch his first Xfinity championship.

Byron, 19, clinched the championship and the Rookie of the Year award by finishing ahead of teammates Elliott Sadler (eighth) and Justin Allgaier (12th).

Byron passed Sadler for good with six laps to go after the drivers battled closely for the top spot among the Championship 4 contenders for much of the last 50 laps.

“I don’t think I breathed for the last 20 laps, that was incredible,” Byron told NBCSN. “(Sadler) raced me clean. We raced hard for it. I can’t believe this. I just got to thank God for giving me this platform to perform. I can’t believe this. I’m tired.”

Sadler’s chances of getting back by his teammate were ruined when he made contact with the left rear of Ryan Preece soon after he had been passed by Byron. The contact got Preece sideways and caused Sadler to get into the wall.

Damage from the impact cut a tire on Sadler’s No. 1 Chevrolet. After the race, Sadler got into a confrontation with the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on pit road. Sadler finished runner-up in the championship standings for the fourth time in his career.

Byron’s title is the first championship for JR Motorsports since Chase Elliott‘s in 2014.

Daniel Hemric‘s chances at a title disappeared on Lap 61 when he visited pit road for a battery problem. The Richard Childress Racing driver returned to the track 12 laps later. Until he was passed by Byron on Lap 54, he was the highest running championship driver. Hemric finished 34th.

Custer’s victory comes in his 38th series start. The win is also the first Xfinity victory for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The 19-year-old driver led 182 of the 200 laps, a series-high at the track.

“I haven’t done that in a while,” Custer told NBCSN in Victory Lane. “We definitely had something to prove this weekend. We were so close to making (the Championship 4) last weekend. … Our Haas Automation Ford was unreal. We really wanted to have a good showing on Ford Championship weekend, even though we weren’t in it.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Cole Custer

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

MORE: Race results

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Sam Hornish Jr. finished second for his third top five in six starts this season … Pole-sitter Tyler Reddick finished fourth in his last start with Chip Ganassi Racing … Ryan Preece finished fifth in his fourth start of the year. He placed in the top five in all four races … Ty Majeski finished 10th in his third start of the year for Roush Fenway Racing. It’s his first top 10.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: A day after winning the Truck Series title, Christopher Bell finished 36th after losing his engine on Lap 78 … Ryan Reed finished 20th after being issued a penalty on the initial start of the race.

NOTABLE: Sam Hornish Jr.’s runner-up finish helped Team Penske clinch the owner’s championship … William Byron finished his rookie season tied with Erik Jones (2016) for the second most wins by a rookie with four.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “To be honest with you, if there’s a person you don’t want to cost a championship to it’s Elliott Sadler.” – Ryan Preece