Hendrick Motorsports’ recent run, Jimmie Johnson’s win has competitors on notice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Competitors saw this coming, yet there was nothing they could do to stop it.

After a lackluster summer that led some people to question how far Jimmie Johnson would advance in the Chase, Hendrick Motorsports has returned to prominence.

Johnson’s win Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway moves him into him into the Round of 8 and alters the feeling of this Chase.

“I think people would probably rate them as probably the favorite,’’ said car owner Joe Gibbs, whose teams have won a series-high 11 of 30 races this year.

Even as David Wilson celebrated Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Dover, the president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, said he knew a challenge was coming from Johnson’s team.

“What struck me as much as winning the race (at Dover) was how good (Johnson) was,’’ Wilson said Sunday.

Johnson didn’t contend for the win at Dover because of a pit road penalty. A speeding penalty prevented him from racing for the win at Chicagoland Speedway to open the Chase last month. Johnson’s team had no issues Sunday, leading 155 of the 334 laps to score his first win since March.

Johnson and his team have been mistake-prone this summer because they’ve been pushing to try to catch up to the Toyotas. But with the cars better, Johnson and his team showed that they no longer have to operate within a razor-thin margin of error.

“The easiest way to describe it would be I don’t have to scare myself to put up a good lap time,’’ Johnson said of what’s changed with his car since this summer.

Earlier this season, Johnson couldn’t make the car comfortable. The result was a 14-race stretch where he did not lead more than five laps in any race.

Now, he can.

“To have the car as consistent and stable as it is has really allowed us to be competitive, work through traffic, work through changing track conditions, and then if I do need to go out there and scare myself and pull away from (Matt Kenseth) or pull away from (Denny Hamlin), I can do it and get rewarded for it,’’ Johnson said.

That was no more apparent than the final restart. Kenseth led and had the preferred line. When the green waved, they went through Turns 1 and 2 side by side and drag raced down the backstretch, a mano-a-mano battle between Chevrolet and Toyota with Johnson’s Chevrolet pulling ahead and then pulling away.

“We were just a little off,’’ Kenseth said. “I just couldn’t run (Johnson) on a short run. I don’t think I could have done anything different there.’’

Kenseth wasn’t the only one searching for more speed Sunday. Brad Keselowski finished seventh — his lowest finish in the first four Chase races — but crew chief Paul Wolfe wasn’t thrilled.

“I feel like the Gibbs cars, we’re close to those guys, but it’s like the Hendrick cars and (Truex) have had the raw speed,’’ Wolfe said. “I feel like we’ve kind of been tit-for-tat with the Gibbs cars, depending on track position or balance. We’re just off right now.

“We could not get the speed to maintain in the top five once we got that track position.

Wolfe said that if he can’t find the speed, he’ll have to be more aggressive to make up for the deficit.

It isn’t just Johnson who has been fast for Hendrick. Chase Elliott led at least 75 laps for the second time in four races Sunday before he was collected in a crash on a restart. Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was his fifth top-10 result in the last six races — his best stretch all season.

“Nobody ever gave up, and you know, we know what a champion Jimmie is,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said. “We were good here in the May race. We’ve been good on the mile‑and‑a‑halves, and we’ve been better than we’ve finished. But this feels good.’’

To all but the competition.

Now Johnson in set for the Round of 8 and the rest of the Chase field has two races to determine who will join him.

Matt Tifft, Front Row Motorsports part ways so Tifft can ‘focus on my health’

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Front Row Motorsports and driver Matt Tifft announced Wednesday they have decided to end their agreement so that Tifft can focus on his health.

Tifft, a rookie in the Cup Series, said he can’t commit to racing in 2020 following his seizure at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 26.

Tifft has been replaced by John Hunter Nemechek in the No. 36 Ford for the last two races and this weekend’s season finale in Miami.

Tifft, 23, had surgery to remove a tumor in his brain on July 21, 2016. Tifft said on Nov. 3 at Texas Motor Speedway that scans of the area where the tumor was located looked good. Tifft has shared his process since the seizure on social media.

Jeff Dennison, senior director of sales and marketing for Front Row Motorsports, said then Tifft had a two-year agreement with the team and it planned to honor that.

Statement from Matt Tifft:

“I’ve made the decision to focus on my health and there is no rush or timetable to get back behind the wheel. Because of that, I can’t commit to racing full-time in 2020. I can’t say when I’ll be ready to race again, but I believe I will come back. I love this sport, the people, and I would like to be a part of it next year in some capacity.

“I want to thank Bob Jenkins, Jerry Freeze and the entire Front Row Motorsports organization for allowing me to live my dream of racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. They are great people and it’s been awesome to race there. I look forward to what’s next in racing when the time is right.”

Statement from Bob Jenkins, Owner, Front Row Motorsports:

“Matt has always shown us a lot of determination and courage. He’s a fighter and I believe, like him, that he’ll return to driving. For now, we support Matt and his need to focus on his health and his family. Racing will be there when it’s time. We want to thank Matt and his family for being a part of Front Row Motorsports and helping us continue to grow.”

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Who is the championship favorite by the numbers? Miami’s tale of the tape

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The odds for the four championship contenders in NASCAR’s premier series have Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. virtually listed as co-favorites.

The statistics indicate why.

Across a bevy of numerical criteria, there isn’t much separation among the drivers in the championship round of the 2019 playoffs.

The staff at Racing Insights, which provides in-depth statistical analysis of NASCAR for NBC Sports and other media outlets, ranked the drivers 1-4 in 16 categories and listed Harvick as its favorite by the numbers, just ahead of Truex, Busch and Hamlin.

Courtesy of research compiled by Racing Insights, here’s the tale of the tape for Sunday’s championship battle on the 1.5-mile oval of Homestead-Miami Speedway.


CAREER STATISTICS:

Driver                Age       Starts    Poles     Wins     Top 5     Top 10   Laps led  Avg. finish


Kyle Busch          34          533        31          55          199        295       17,311         13.65

Denny Hamlin      38          505        33          37          161        258       10,143         13.65

Kevin Harvick       43          681        31          49          205        361       13,993         13.01

Martin Truex Jr.    39          512        19          26          101        204         8,803         15.76


HEAD TO HEAD IN 2019:

Truex was the highest finisher of the four drivers in 12 of the past 35 races (including four of the past 10 races). Busch was the highest finisher 10 times (none in the past 11), Hamlin seven times (four of the past six) and Harvick six (once in the past seven).


CHAMPIONSHIP EXPERIENCE:

Harvick (2014, ’15, ’17, ’18, ’19) and Busch (’15-19) each have reached the final round at Miami in five of the six years since this structure began in 2014. This is the fourth appearance for Truex (’15, ’17, ’18, ’19) and second for Hamlin (’14, ’19).


BEST CAREER ON 1.5-MILE TRACKS:

Harvick has the most victories (16) and pole positions (13) and best average finish (12.28), beating out Busch (13 wins, nine poles, 13.47), Truex (12 wins, seven poles, 13.39) and Hamlin (nine wins, six poles, 14.09)


BEST ON 1.5-MILE TRACKS IN 2019:

Truex and Hamlin have two wins apiece, but Truex gets the nod on average finish (8.3 to Hamlin’s 11.9). Harvick (one win) is second in average finish (8.7) ahead of Busch (10.5), the only contender without a win on 1.5-mile tracks this season.


BEST AT MIAMI:

Hamlin has two wins while the other three also have one apiece. Harvick easily leads in average finish (6.56) with 16 top 10s and 10 top fives in 18 starts ahead of Hamlin (10.57 average finish and nine top 10s in 14 starts), Truex (10.79 average finish and nine top 10s in 14 starts) and Busch (17.43 average finish and seven top 10s in 14 starts).


BEST IN 2019 PLAYOFFS:

Based on wins, Truex has been tops by winning three of the first nine races for a 6.22 average finish that puts him ahead of Hamlin (two wins, 8.78 average finish) and Harvick (one win, 6.11 average finish). Busch is winless with a 12.11 average finish.


BEST IN 2019 SEASON:

Truex has the most wins (seven) over Hamlin (six). Busch (four wins) has the most top 10s (26) and best average finish (9.17), putting him ahead of Harvick, who also has four wins but does have the most poles (six, twice as many as Hamlin).


BEST DRIVER/CREW CHIEF PAIRING:

The combinations of Kyle Busch-Adam Stevens and Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers each have 26 victories, but Busch and Stevens have a better winning percentage (16 percent in 163 starts vs. 13.3 percent for Harvick-Childers in 211 starts). Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn have 24 wins in 178 starts (13.5 percent) while Chris Gabehart and Denny Hamlin have won six of their 36 starts together (35 this season; one in 2017).


FASTEST PIT CREW:

Kyle Busch’s No. 18 ranked first during the season (14.083 seconds per four-tire stop) and playoffs (13.718). Harvick had the sixth-fastest crew this season (14.39) and 10th in the playoffs (14.357), Truex’s was eighth in the season (14.606) and seventh in the playoffs (14.145), and Hamlin’s was 10th in the season (14.687) and ninth in the playoffs (14.336).


FEWEST MISTAKES BY PIT CREW:

Limiting errors to speeding, tire and safety violations and driving through too many stalls (and omitting penalties involving damaged cars), Harvick’s team had the least number of penalties for errors with five, followed by Truex (six), Busch (seven) and Hamlin (nine).

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin leads the way to Miami

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With his win at Phoenix and advancing to the Championship 4 race in Miami, Denny Hamlin is once again back on top of this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Not surprisingly, all four drivers who will battle for the championship are in the top four in this week’s rankings. Kyle Busch is second, last week’s No. 1, Kevin Harvick, drops to third, and Martin Truex Jr. is fourth, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Hamlin made the biggest jump in the standings, going from No. 7 last week to the top of the heap this week.

Conversely, Joey Logano, who was No. 3 last week, suffers the biggest drop, down to No. 8 – and also misses on his bid to defend last year’s championship this Sunday at Miami (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Here is this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Denny Hamlin (39 points): Entered ISM Raceway outside a transfer spot to the title race and now he might be the favorite to win it all. Or at least be co-favorite with teammate Martin Truex Jr. Last week: Seventh.

2. Kyle Busch (34 points): Could be the underdog at Miami. With everything on the line, is one of the best performers in pressure-packed situations – especially with a championship and snapping a 21-race winless streak on the line. Last week: Fourth.

3. Kevin Harvick (29 points): Lone wolf in the Joe Gibbs Racing party for the championship. But he may actually have the edge, as he has three teammates who can help him, while it’s every man for himself for the three JGR drivers. Last week: First.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (28 points): Has not finished worse than sixth in the last four races. Also has the most wins (seven) of the four championship drivers. Last week: Second.

5. Ryan Blaney (26 points): Finished fifth, eighth and third in the Round of 8 but it still wasn’t good enough to advance to the title race. Last week: Fifth.

6. Kyle Larson (22 points): Fourth-place finish was good effort but missed out on last chance to run for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, one of his best tracks. Was Chevrolet’s last hope; the bow tie has not reached the Championship 4 for the last three years. Last week: Sixth.

7. Erik Jones (14 points): Has three top 10s in last four races. While showed some signs of promise during the playoffs, the fact remains he’s likely going to finish 16th (last) among all playoff qualifiers when everything is said and done after Miami. Last week: Unranked.

8. Joey Logano (9 points): So close, yet so far away. Will we ever learn what happened to his car in the final stage that cost him a chance to defend last year’s title at Miami? Last week: Third.

9. Justin Allgaier (6 points): Xfinity win at ISM Raceway was his career-best 16th consecutive top-10 finish. Could he steal the championship from the “Big Three?” Last week: Unranked.

10. Christopher Bell (4 points): With Xfinity Series-leading eight wins, enters title race as favorite. This will be his Xfinity swan song before moving to Cup next season. What better way to leave than to go out on top. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Clint Bowyer (3 points), Brad Keselowski (2 points), Cole Custer (2 points), Stewart Friesen (1 point).

Nashville Fair Board votes to terminate contract with operator of Fairgrounds Speedway

Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway
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The Nashville Metro Fair Board voted Tuesday to terminate its contract with the operator of Fairgrounds Speedway, a track being eyed for a possible NASCAR race, according to The Tennessean.

Last December, Formosa Productions and Bristol Motor Speedway announced “an agreement to explore bringing major NASCAR racing events” back to the .596-mile track. The earliest Nashville could potentially be added to the schedule is 2021, though the schedule for that season is expected to be revealed in April.

Bristol Motor Speedway released a statement Tuesday night saying it is still interested in pursuing future involvement with the Fairgrounds Speedway.

“We appreciate all that Tony and Claire Formosa have done to sustain local racing in Nashville over the years,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager for Bristol Motor Speedway. “Today’s news does not change our interest or belief that Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway can be returned to prominence to help create a true renovation of the Fairgrounds. There is huge local, regional and national interest in the future of the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. As Mayor (John) Cooper, the Fair Board and Council determine what’s next for the historic race track, we are ready to engage with them on the vision that we believe can deliver a bright future for the Fairgrounds.”

The vote to terminate the contract with Formosa Productions, operated by Tony and Claire Formosa, is in response to a claimed breach of contract, which was first raised by the city in April and includes unpaid concessions commissions and rent payments.

A fairgrounds spokesperson told The Tennessean that the Formosas would owe the city nearly $180,000 by the end of the year. The Tennessean reports the Formosas have 90 days to vacate the premises.

According to The Tennessean, Nashville Fairgrounds Director Laura Womack said she and another board member met Oct. 14 with the Formosas and asked that they provide specific contract changes and documents regarding attendance and revenue records from this year’s racing season.

A meeting where those documents were due to be delivered was rescheduled to Nov. 6 before it was canceled by the Formosas.

“This shows little to no faith that we will be paid by the end of the year,” said Fair Board member Caleb Hemmer, according to The Tennessean. “Which begs the issue that we need to start looking to the future and what we need to do as a board to ensure there’s racing next year if the (Formosas) can’t fulfill their obligations as put forth by (the contract).”

Jim Roberts, an attorney representing the Formosas, attended the meeting according to The Tennessean. Roberts believed the meeting, which was delayed two hours due to winter weather, was in violation of the opens meeting act due to it not being properly noticed.

The Formosas have operated the track since 2010 and entered into a five-year agreement in 2017 after the city chose its bid over one from Bristol Motor Speedway

The deal between Formosa Productions and Bristol Motor Speedway, which would need to be approved by the Fair Board, would focus “on a long-range plan of significant track improvements and high-profile race events that could include NASCAR events upon the facility meeting standards.”

In May, Bristol officials revealed a $60 million proposal to renovate the track.

The plan would increase seating capacity of the .596-mile short track from its current size of 15,000 to 30,000, as well as include an expanded concourse, premium seating, pedestrian tunnels and sound barriers.