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Matt Tifft: Richard Childress Racing will be ‘totally new world for me’

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CONCORD, North Carolina — After two years and more than 35 starts with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series, Matt Tifft will have a new home next season.

It was announced last week that Tifft, 21, will join Richard Childress Racing next season driving the No. 2 Chevrolet.

Tifft said Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway the move will present a “totally new world for me.” The native of Hinckley, Ohio, will drive something other than a Toyota for the first time since 2014 when he competed in three Camping World Truck Series races for B.J. McLeod Motorsports.

“I don’t know how the simulation of the Chevy things work,” Tifft said. “I don’t know what they do differently on the engineering side or the driver development side. All that will be new to me. New crew chief, new guys. That part is always exciting because you have newness around it. Not to say this was bad at all, because I’m really having a great time with my guys right now and it’s been a lot of fun. You have the opportunity to be there for a couple of years and hopefully grow together and get to a place where we’re winning races.”

There are four races left in Tifft’s tenure driving the No. 19 Toyota for JGR. In his rookie Xfinity season, Tifft has two top fives and 10 top 10s following Saturday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Tifft is one of the eight drivers left in the playoffs.

He finished ninth in Saturday’s race, recovering from an uncontrolled tire penalty that sent him a lap down and temporarily outside the top eight in the standings.

No matter the outcome of Tifft’s playoff experience this season, he has multi-year deal waiting for him at RCR’s shop in Welcome, North Carolina.

“It’s something I had to do for my career to be able to hopefully stay around a while longer,” Tifft said. “It’s exciting for sure. Obviously, right now the playoffs matter. This year matters. It’s something for sure to look forward to next year.”

Tifft will be joining a RCR operation that will include at least Daniel Hemric. The driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet was announced as returning to RCR next season in the hours before Tifft’s news was announced.

Next season will be Tifft’s first in NASCAR with a full-time teammate.

MORE: Daniel Hemric moves forward with new RCR contract

Similar to Tifft, Hemric arrived at RCR this year after having driven a Ford for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series in 2016. But he had driven a Chevrolet the previous year while racing for NTS Motorsports.

“He has so much car knowledge,” Tifft said of Hemric. “He comes from a background of working on and building cars and that’s really cool and it’s really admirable for a driver to do that. I understand the workings of the cars a good bit and I’ve learned a lot more about it. But having someone like that I think will just improve my understanding of these cars and what exactly I need to know about them. It’s nice to have a teammate there that can explain anything going on and you can bounce stuff off each other. That will definitely be a great thing for me.”

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Cole Pearn on questions about team’s success: ‘Sad sign of the times’

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Amid talk last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway that Toyotas had an advantage entering the Cup playoffs, Martin Truex Jr. won Sunday’s race to give the manufacturer its fifth victory in the last seven events.

Truex, who advances to the second round with the Chicagoland victory, has scored two wins and four top-five finishes during that stretch. Kyle Busch has two wins for Toyota during that stretch and Denny Hamlin has one win.

Tuesday, Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, was asked on “The Morning Drive’’ about his reaction to those who suggest his team’s success is due to some sort of impropriety instead of hard work.

“I think that maybe just comes with the territory,’’ Pearn said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s a little bit sad sign of the times. You do a lot of hard work and a ton of people put a lot of effort into it and then people try to take the wind out of your sails a little bit. That’s just the world we live in, unfortunately.

“I don’t know I remember racing being that way when I was growing up, but that is the way it is now, and unfortunately that just comes with the territory and you just deal with it.’’

Ford driver Brad Keselowski has been vocal in recent weeks — and was so again last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway — about Toyota’s advantage and NASCAR needing to even the competition. In his comments, though, Keselowski has not accused Toyota teams of achieving their success due to improper methods.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, was asked Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about NASCAR’s reaction to Keselowski’s comments.

“I think we look at it as just a competitor,’’ O’Donnell said. “Certainly our job is to put a level playing field out there. We’ve got a submission process that each of the (manufacturers) goes through and kind of witnesses, so we believe they are on a level playing field. For us, I look at it as a little bit of posturing. Brad certainly ran well this weekend (finishing sixth).

“At the end of the day, you’ve had that car all year long, you’ve got to go out there, it’s playoffs and you’ve got to deliver. You’re seeing drivers who are going to be on the top of their game. We’ll get to the end of the year and see where we’re at and evaluate things for ’18, but when we look across the board for the entirety of the year … multiple teams have been able to win, so we’ll see how that plays out here.’’

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Kyle Petty: Brad Keselowski almost beyond ‘point of diminishing returns’ on Toyota criticism

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Brad Keselowski again was vocal this week with criticisms of Toyota and its performance level of late in the Cup Series, saying on Twitter that he hasn’t seen NASCAR “let a manufacturer get this far ahead since the ’70s.”

The tweet was followed by rebukes from Toyota drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and crew chief Cole Pearn.

Keselowski’s latest comments followed those he made in July and August about the manufacturer.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett responded to Keselowski’s continued criticisms of Toyota before Sunday’s Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway.

“Yes Brad, we know that you’re disgruntled,” Petty said. “We know what you think. We understand that. It’s time to kind of quiet down a little bit, do your job. Because you’re almost past that point of diminishing returns on what you’re saying, where it becomes whining and it’s not very constructive.

“We’re in the playoffs, this is a special time for the sport. Let’s focus on what’s going on on the race track.”

Said Jarrett: “I think Toyota has an advantage. Was it something they were given? No. Is it unfair? No. They worked extremely hard to make all of this happen.”

Watch the above video for the full discussion.

Five questions heading into Cup playoffs

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Can anyone catch the Toyotas?

That’s the challenge facing the field heading into Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. EST, NBCSN). Toyota drivers have won six of the last nine races and their speed has competitors worried.

After Richmond, Kevin Harvick said: “I think the Toyotas have run better than the rest of the field. In order to be where we need to be, we have to get the most out of our car and we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks. We’ve struggled in the race the last two weeks and got to get it figured out quick or we’ll be looking for something to do the last 10 weeks besides race for a championship.’’

While Martin Truex Jr. was in position to win the last two races — he was leading with five laps or less left and didn’t win at Darlington and Richmond — don’t overlook Kyle Busch.

When he won the title in 2015, he wasn’t the favorite. It was Harvick that year, but Busch scored enough points to advance through the first two rounds. He advanced to Miami after top-five finishes in each of the three third-round races.

“It’s really similar,’’ Busch said of how he feels he’s entering this year compared to that 2015 title season. “(Truex) is the car to beat week in and week out. (Kyle Larson) and myself are tossing it up for who is second best. Hopefully, we can do our job and execute and everybody does the right things and gets ourselves to Homestead to have a shot for the championship.’’

Is Hendrick Motorsports sandbagging?

We’ll find out. Since Kasey Kahne’s win at Indianapolis in July, Hendrick’s three playoff drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kahne — have not finished better than eighth in a race.

Last year, questions were raised about Hendrick after some struggles entering the playoffs. Then Johnson led 118 laps before finishing 12th in the opener at Chicago, and Elliott led 75 laps before finishing third. Both advanced to the second round. Johnson moved to the third round after his Charlotte victory and advanced to Miami after his Martinsville win.

Then Johnson won in Miami for his record-tying seventh series championship.

The point is, it’s difficult to count out at least Johnson, if not the organization.

“My 10 best tracks are coming up,’’ Johnson said after Richmond. “So, I’m excited about that. I’m excited about Fall being right here right around the corner. We will just go racing. You never know. This format really keeps things up in the air. 

Is this Martin Truex Jr.’s title to lose?

He’s got a big advantage with 53 playoff points — 20 more than the next driver. That should get him through the second round and likely the third round.

Odds are he makes it to Miami, but the twist is that some might not view him the favorite in the season finale even for how dominant he has been this year. The reason would be if Kyle Larson, who was eliminated in the first round last year, makes it to Miami. Larson is exceptional at Homestead-Miami Speedway — provided he can avoid hitting the wall while running the high line — and would provide a worthy challenger for Truex in the title race.

“Cars have been just lightning fast and team’s been doing a great job,’’ Truex said after Richmond. “We’ve got a few little things we’ve got to work on, but all in all, I feel like we’re definitely one of the strongest teams. Hopefully, we can just continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, and hopefully we don’t need those bonus points, but it’s going to be nice to have them, that’s for sure.’’

Will youth be served?

Five of the 16 drivers entering the playoffs are 29 and under.

They are Chase Elliott (21 years old), Ryan Blaney (23), Kyle Larson (25), Austin Dillon (27), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (turns 30 on Oct. 2).

The last driver under age 30 to win the title was Brad Keselowski in 2012. He was 28 years old. Kyle Busch turned 30 during his championship season in 2015.

Larson is the favorite of this group to win the championship and would be the youngest champ since 1995 when a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon won the first of his four series championships.

The average age of the last 10 champions when they won the championship is 34.9.

What’s the biggest storyline?

Admittedly there are so many from Jimmie Johnson going after a record-breaking eight series title to Martin Truex Jr. seeking his first crown after dominating so much of the season.

While Chip Ganassi Racing and Furniture Row Racing go for their first Cup title and Richard Childress Racing looks for its first Cup crown since 1994, it’s hard to top what the Wood Brothers seek.

The family team first competed in NASCAR in 1953 but has only won an owner’s title. That came in 1963, less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Wood Brothers often ran only partial schedules so the team never had the chance to win many championships. This is the team’s first time in the playoffs (the Woods never competed in the Chase).

While the victory lane celebration at Daytona after Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 remains memorable for the Wood Brothers, it would not compare to what the celebration would be like if Blaney drove the No. 21 to the series crown.

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Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. lead opening Cup practice at Richmond

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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RICHMOND, Va. – Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. paced the opening Cup practice Friday at Richmond Raceway, each posting a lap of 120.897 mph.

They were followed by Kyle Busch at 120.423 mph, as Toyotas took the top three spots. Kyle Larson was fourth at 120.401 mph and followed by Brad Keselowski (120.380 mph).

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who needs a win to make the playoffs, was next at 120.032 mph. Last weekend’s Southern 500 winner, Denny Hamlin, was next at 120.011 mph. Rookie Erik Jones, who will be penalized 60 minutes of practice in the final session, was next at 119.936 mph.

There were no incidents in the 55-minute session.

Click here for full practice report

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