Pondering the Chase: Five questions about the playoffs

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Trust us, NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan and Dustin Long get along even though they don’t always see eye-to-eye about the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With the playoffs set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN, Ryan and Long tackle some of the key issues and project what they think will happen.

Here’s how they see the Chase unfolding:

Which driver are you going to watch closely in this Chase?

NATE: Jimmie Johnson. Last season, the six-time series champion entered as the top seed. This year, some are picking him to exit in the first round for the second consecutive season. Johnson hasn’t seemed comfortable in the first two years of the revamped elimination playoffs, but reaching the championship round for the first time would signify more than just a sense of acclimation. It also might quell the speculation of whether he and crew chief Chad Knaus still can build a championship-caliber team as effortlessly as it annually seemed for the No. 48 from 2006-13.

DUSTIN: Kurt Busch. He started the season strong, scoring 14 top-10 finishes in the first 16 races. In the last 10 races, though, he’s had only three top-10 finishes. So which Busch will we see in the Chase? Will it be the one who was consistent and strong early in the season, or will it be the one that has struggled lately? 

First driver confrontation among Chase competitors will be between …

NATE: Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth. If Kenseth is several laps down, the odds are nil that he will wreck another Team Penske driver from the lead. But battles for position are fair game, and Kenseth has the bitter memory of the bump by Joey Logano at Kansas Speedway last year. Keselowski antagonized Kenseth at Richmond, the latest skirmish in a long-running feud that seems primed to flare again at Chicagoland, New Hampshire or Dover – all tracks where both drivers have wins.

DUSTIN: Nobody had Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson last year at Chicagoland Speedway. Who would have guessed in 2014 that Matt Kenseth would have gone after Brad Keselowski at Charlotte? The point is friction develops between drivers running near the front or battling for the lead.

Harvick and Carl Edwards rank third and fourth respectively in laps led. They have a history (recall that shoving incident in 2008 at Charlotte). They’ve both gone to at least the third round in each of the past two Chases. Harvick made it to the championship round each time; Edwards did not. I’d watch these two because they’ll likely be around each other throughout the Chase.

Can Kevin Harvick win with his pit crew?

NATE: Yes. The Richmond race was a small sample size, yet there was marked improvement. This team has been off its game at some inopportune times this season, but Harvick has been the best driver on the circuit in more than two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing. If crew chief Rodney Childers continues to prepare top-notch cars, Harvick can overcome any pit crew woes through sheer force of will at least once per round.

DUSTIN: Yes. Jimmie Johnson won the 2010 title after crew chief Chad Knaus changed the entire pit crew in the middle of a race. The pressure will be on Harvick’s crew, just as it has in the past. The challenge is keeping up with the Joe Gibbs Racing crews, who have been fast all season and not had many mistakes. This pit crew needs to focus on consistency. If it can do that, Harvick should have a fast enough car to stay near the front and that’s what one needs to advance in this format.

Who wins the championship?

NATE: Denny Hamlin. No other driver is more acutely aware of the many ways in which a championship can be lost. Hamlin, who has raced for a title in Miami three times since his rookie season a decade ago, is over the sting of 2010’s collapse. The lessons still remain fresh, though, and it’s been evident in his calm this season. He has been locked into the playoffs since his Daytona 500 victory, but there were many chances to panic when the No. 11 team got off to a slow start under new crew chief Mike Wheeler. Hamlin stayed steady as Wheeler found his footing, and that composure is indicative of why a battle-tested veteran finally will become a champion in his 11th season.

DUSTIN: Kevin Harvick. Even with questions about his pit crew, this team has consistently been the only one to challenge the Toyotas all season. Harvick also has been through the battles of the Chase — from needing to win at Dover to advance last year to fighting through to win the 2014 crown. Experience can’t keep a car part from breaking but it can help a driver in tough situations. Experience will lead Harvick to the final round for the third consecutive year.

Who is your dark horse to win the title?

NATE: Kyle Larson. After getting over the hump with the victory at Michigan, he motored through Darlington (third) and Richmond (second) with renewed vigor and a swagger that was striking for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Larson relishes his team being the underdog, but it won’t be if he reaches the title round. Homestead-Miami Speedway is his favorite track for good reason, and a championship would be a real possibility if he can scrape through the first three rounds.

DUSTIN: Tony Stewart. Look, no one figured Stewart had a chance to win the 2011 title and he did. Certainly, this is a different time and the five years since have aged Stewart, but he’s wise enough and shrewd enough not to give a darn about any of that. In his final 10 races, he’ll just go race. This team will have to pick up its performance, but what a ride it could be for Stewart.

Miami Championship Weekend schedule

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The NASCAR season ends this weekend with the championship races for the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Three drivers will leave the 1.5-mile track as champions.

For Friday, wunderground.com forecasts a temperature of 75 degrees, partly cloudy skies and a 14% chance of race for the start of the Truck Series race.

On Saturday, the forecast is for a temperature of 77 degrees, sunny skies and a 10% chance of rain for the start of the Xfinity race.

On Sunday, the forecast is for a temperature of 75 degrees, sunny skies and no chance of rain for the Cup race.

MORE: NBC to have multi-network coverage of Cup championship race

Here’s the complete weekend schedule with TV and radio info.

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, Nov. 15

7:30 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

9:05 – 9:55 a.m. – Truck Series practice (No TV)

10:35 – 11:25 a.m. – Final Truck practice (No TV)

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

12:30 – 10 p.m. – Cup garage open

2:35 – 3:25 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

3:35 – 4:25 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

4:35 p.m. – Truck Series qualifying; single truck/one lap (FS1)

5:35 – 6:25 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

6:15 p.m. – Truck Series driver-crew chief meeting

6:30 – 7:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

7:30 p.m. – Truck Series driver introductions

8 p.m. – Ford EcoBoost 200; 134 laps/201 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday, Nov. 16

8 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

12:35 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; single car/one lap (NBCSN)

1:45 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

2:05 p.m. – Cup qualifying/impound; single car/one lap (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

3 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

3:30 p.m. – Ford EcoBoost 300; 200 laps/300 miles (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Nov. 17

11 a.m. – Cup garage opens

1 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

2:20 p.m. – Driver introductions

3 p.m. – Ford EcoBoost 400; 267 laps/400.5 miles (NBC, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Jagger Jones earns K&N West Rookie of the Year honors

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Like grandfather, like father and now like son. Racing success is definitely a tradition in the Jones family.

Jagger Jones has followed in the shoes of his legendary grandfather Parnelli and father P.J., capturing the 2019 Sunoco K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, it was announced Wednesday.

“(Winning Rookie of the Year) and to win races, those were our two main goals,” the youngest Jones, of Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a statement. “I think the whole season we’ve led the Rookie of the Year standings, which is pretty cool, and separated ourselves from the other rookies and got it done.”

Driving for Sunrise Ford and team owner Bob Bruncati, the 17-year-old Jones earned one win, eight top fives and 11 top 10s in the 14-race season. He also earned one pole, led 248 laps and had an average finish of 5.4. He finished second in the overall standings behind champion Derek Krause and three points ahead of third-ranked Hailie Deegan.

MORE: Parnelli Jones’ grandson Jagger set to make own racing mark in K&N debut

Brittney Zamora, driving for Bill McAnally Racing, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

“McAnally versus Sunrise was definitely the race in the West competition wise,” Jones said. “To get that and finish second in the points in my rookie season, I was pretty pleased with that.”

Jones becomes the sixth Sunrise Ford Racing driver in the last 13 years to win the top rookie honors, joining Jason Bowles (2007), Luis Martinez Jr. (2010), Austin Dyne (2012), Dylan Lupton (2013) and James Bickford (2014). Bill McAnally Racing won the top rookie award in each of the last three seasons: Todd Gilliland (2016), Derek Kraus (2017) and Hailie Deegan (2018).

Sam Mayer previously won the K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year award for 2019.

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Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 car in 2020

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JR Motorsports’ revealed Wednesday that Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric will drive its No. 8 Chevrolet for the majority of the 2020 Xfinity Series season, in addition to one race with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel.

Hemric, who drove Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car in the Cup Series this season, is scheduled for 21 races.

RCR is replacing Hemric with Tyler Reddick in 2020.

Hemric returns to the Xfinity Series, where he competed for RCR from 2017-18. He made the Championship 4 in both seasons.

“I want to thank Dale, Kelley and everyone at JR Motorsports for believing in me,” Hemric said in a press release. “For a Kannapolis (N.C.) boy like me, driving for the Earnhardt family is pretty awesome.

“My goal here is simple — to go win races for JR Motorsports and to help their program any way that I can. I’ve raced against their cars before and I know how they’re capable of running. My focus is on finishing the Cup season out strong, but once the checkered flag flies at Homestead, we’ll set our sights on getting the No. 8 car to Victory Lane early and often next season.”

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Daniel is a solid competitor with a great personality. He’ll be a quality addition to our lineup in 2020. We’re lucky to have him. I feel like he has grown as a driver from his time in the Cup Series. That will be valuable to him with this new opportunity to compete in the Xfinity series. He’s a local Kannapolis native with a lot of determination to succeed, and I’m excited to work with him.”

Burton, who has driven in six races for JRM this season, is set for 11 next year.

Other drivers who have piloted the No. 8 for JRM this season included Zane Smith (10 starts), Ryan Truex (six starts), Ryan Preece (four starts), Regan Smith (two starts), Brett Moffitt (one start), Chase Elliott (one start), Sheldon Creed (one start) and Earnhardt (one start).

 

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

On the show will be Rutledge Wood, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan.

Obviously, the main topic of discussion will be this weekend’s championship races, particularly the Cup battle between Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

You can join the conversation by calling 1-844-NASCARNBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.