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Truck Series championship: Three men and a millennial

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Matt Crafton, Timothy Peters,  Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell.

One of these things is not like the other.

That would be Bell. The Camping World Truck Series rookie is the only participant in the championship race born after Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

The 21-year-old native of Norman, Oklahoma, is the only representative of the “Millennial” generation that is headlining NASCAR’s lauded “youth movement.”

Tonight’s Ford EcoBoost 200 may well be the last stand of the veteran Truck driver.

With help from wins, consistency, and the inaugural Chase format, Crafton (40 years old), Sauter (38) and Peters (35) fended off a wave of drivers who can barely grow a beard.

Sauter, who has three wins this season, is “not surprised” the final four has three veteran drivers.

“Ultimately, I think the veteran guys just probably through the course of the year raced a little bit differently than some of the younger guys, I would say, maybe a little bit smarter,” Sauter said Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day. “That just comes with experience, taking care of your equipment, things like that. So I’m not surprised by any means to sit here and know that we’ve got three of them, three veterans, running for the championship.”

Bell enters the finale with one win (Gateway), nine top fives and 16 top-10 finishes. Tonight’s race will be his 30th series start. The next closest among the title contenders is Sauter with 197 starts.

“I’ve always been the young guy,” Bell said. “It’s nothing new to me right now. Whenever I won the USAC championship (in 2013) … me and Bryan Clauson were the two guys at the end of the year that were racing for the championship. He was the veteran, I was the rookie.

“I’ve been in this situation before, obviously not at this magnitude. But I do have experience at, I guess, championship racing and pressure moments. So I’m excited to get the pressure on Friday and try and do my best to conquer it.”

One thing Crafton and Bell have in common, born 18 years apart, is they weren’t initially enthusiastic about the Chase format that’s put them 134 laps away from a NASCAR title.

“I wasn’t a fan of the Chase at all, but right now in the year that I’ve had with five DNF’s, to still be in contention for a championship, that’s unheard of,” said Crafton, a two-time champion. “You still have to be very consistent.”

Said Bell: “I was actually disappointed whenever I heard that NASCAR was going to the Chase format for the trucks because I felt like being at Kyle Busch Motorsports, we were going to be able to contend for the championship and be able to perform week in and week out, win the championship in the normal way.”

But unlike his teammate, fellow rookie William Byron, wins didn’t come in bunches.

“To be able to sit here in the final four, one race away from a championship is something that I wouldn’t have seen coming if you would have asked me in April or May,” said Bell. “It’s awesome to be in this situation.”

Sauter agrees. The native of Necedah, Wisconsin, has been competing in NASCAR since 2001 and has never won a title. With a chance to top his runner-up result in the Truck series in 2011, Sauter knows the end of his career is near.

“You know, when I say I’m running on time, I’m no fool,” Sauter said. “The landscape is changing. Having said that, it’s a younger man’s game. That seems to be the new trend. I personally feel like, you know, I’m running out of chances. That obviously weighs in the back of my mind a little bit. But at the end of the day, I’m going to give 100 percent. If it works out, great.”

While tonight’s race could be the last glorious chapter for a generation of Truck drivers, it could be worse. If not for an engine problem with 12 laps left in last weekend’s Phoenix race, Crafton, Peters, and Sauter would likely be competing against 18-year-old Byron.

At least with Bell, they can all get a season-ending beer together.

Greg Zipadelli to serve as Clint Bowyer’s interim crew chief

Greg Zipadelli
Photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images
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Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing, will serve as the crew chief for Clint Bowyer in Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, the team confirmed Monday.

Johnny Klausmeier will miss Saturday’s race, serving a one-race suspension because Bowyer’s car was found to have two lug nuts not safe and secure after last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bowyer enters Saturday’s race at Michigan (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 14th on the playoff grid. The top 16 will advance to the playoffs. Six races remain in the regular season.

Klausmeier will be able to resume his role for Sunday’s Cup race (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Michigan.

Zipadelli, who won Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 with Tony Stewart, will reprise the interim role he played earlier in the season in the Xfinity Series.

Zipadelli served as Chase Briscoe‘s crew chief for four races after crew chief Richard Boswell, the team’s car chief and an engineer were each suspended four races because ballast fell out of his car. Briscoe won three of the four races with Zipadelli as his crew chief.

Team Penske extends contract with Brad Keselowski

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Team Penske announced Monday that New Hampshire winner Brad Keselowski has agreed to a contract extension. Keselowski’s contract was to expire after this season.

A media release from the team did not state the length of the extension for Keselowski, 36. The Associated Press reported that the deal was for one year through the 2021 season.

Keselowski, who won the 2012 Cup title, has been with Team Penske since 2010, winning 31 Cup and 33 Xfinity races during that time.

“We are pleased that Brad will continue to be a part of our organization,” said Roger Penske in a statement. “Brad not only demonstrates talent and skill on the track, but his leadership away from it and his dedication to our partners have had a huge impact in making our organization one of the best in NASCAR. I am proud that we will be able to able to keep the continuity we have with Brad, Ryan (Blaney) and Joey (Logano) and look forward to competing for more wins and championships together.”

MORE: Winners and losers from New Hampshire

Said Keselowski in a statement: I have been racing for Team Penske for the vast majority of my NASCAR career and to continue to represent Roger Penske, our partners and his organization is exactly where I want to be. We’ve accomplished a lot of things together over the years, including winning both the Cup and Xfinity Championships, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Now, my goal is to win the Daytona 500, another championship and continue to build Team Penske into the best NASCAR team in the garage area.”

Logano is signed to at least 2022. In March, Blaney signed a multiyear extension with Team Penske.

Keselowski’s victory Sunday was his third of the season. He’s scored at least three wins in each of the past five seasons. Keselowski is second  in the points to Kevin Harvick.

GMS Racing, Brett Moffitt to honor Jimmie Johnson with special scheme

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GMS Racing and sponsor Plan B Sales have created a special paint scheme to honor seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on championship weekend in November at Phoenix Raceway.

Brett Moffitt, the 2018 Truck Series champion, will pilot the the specially adorned truck at Phoenix.

“Brett has been a part of the Plan B family and a great ambassador for our company over the years,” said Brent Powell, owner of Plan B Sales in a statement. “Last year we partnered with Brett and GMS for the Phoenix race, but this year is different with it being the season finale and Jimmie’s final (full-time Cup) weekend. It truly is an honor for us to showcase this throwback for Jimmie and hopefully see Brett clinch his second championship in our truck.”

Said Moffitt of Johnson in a statement: “I have looked up to him, leaned on him and had the utmost respect for everything he has done for our sport. This is the coolest paint scheme I’ve had in my career because of how much respect and admiration I have for Jimmie. I’m rooting for him to go out on top, and maybe we’ll both get the chance to celebrate a championship in Phoenix later this year.”

Johnson has announced this will be his final full-time Cup season. He drove a Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar in a July 28 test on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Johnson has expressed a desire to race different vehicles after this season.

 

Cup playoff grid after New Hampshire

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William Byron holds a 15-point lead on rookie Tyler Reddick for the final playoff spot in the Cup playoff grid after last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Six races remain in the regular season.

Byron finished 11th at New Hampshire, one spot behind Reddick, but Byron extended his advantage on Reddick by five points. Byron scored six stage points, while Reddick scored none.

MORE: Could New Hampshire be a sign of things to come in Cup?

MORE: Winners and losers from New Hampshire 

Jimmie Johnson fell to 25 points behind Byron for the final spot in the Cup playoff grid. Johnson overcame a spin after contact with Clint Bowyer to run in the top 10 but lost four spots in the final 20 laps to finish 12th.

“Good fight today guys,” Johnson told his team on the radio after the race. “Overcome a lot of (stuff) again.”

The series heads this weekend to Michigan International Speedway for two races. The Cup Series races there at 4 p.m. ET Saturday and at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. Both races will be on NBCSN.

Ten of the 16 playoff spots have been secured by drivers who have won at least one race this year: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer.

Here is a look at the Cup playoff grid. Drivers shaded in green are locked in the playoffs. Drivers shaded in yellow are in a playoff spot based on their point total. Drivers shaded in red are outside a spot in the Cup playoff grid.

 

Cup playoff grid New Hampshire