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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Brandon Jones

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Wednesdays were an important part of the week for Brandon Jones.

That was the day the Atlanta native and some high school friends would leave school and head to Braselton, Georgia, home of Lanier Raceplex.

“We thought we were ready to race,” Jones told NBC Sports of one of his early racing memories. “The first ever race was me and two other guys out there on a little short track racing. … I ran around this guy forever. Didn’t pass him, didn’t hit him. Just ran really conservative. I wanted to pass him, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

He’d figure it out, but years later, Jones would find himself in similar positions. In 2016, Jones competed in his rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series driving the No. 33 for Richard Childress Racing. It was his first full-time season in any NASCAR series.

“I caught myself doing a lot of things, like putting myself in a lot of small holes that I normally wouldn’t have taken,” Jones said of his rookie season. “That became a habit as I was racing with those guys that have more experience. I didn’t even know I was doing it and then I was looking back, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t even know I could do that.’ Seeing how far I could take myself. I found some limits.”

In February, Jones took some of the lessons and put them toward earning the pole for the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona International Speedway. It was his first pole in 69 NASCAR starts.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: If you were in the Cup night race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Jones: Man, I have put a lot of thought into this, too. Probably “House of the Rising Sun” by Five Finger Death Punch.

NBC Sports: Why a cover of the original?

Jones: They kind of took old school, western themes at the beginning and I kind of like that style now. Outlaw, western stuff like that. The cowboy-type stuff, I enjoy it. I don’t like the middle part though. I’m not a heavy metal death fan. I love country music, they kind of flipped flopped on it.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Jones: My first car was a Dodge Ram pickup truck. I ended up later, after I moved up here to North Carolina, meeting a buddy through racing. We ended up lifting it up and putting a big motor in it and stuff. That turned into not a daily driver.

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a car, whether it be a race car or street car?

Jones: My big red Dodge, everyone called it “Clifford” in high school.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Jones: Probably going up in one of the F-16 fighter jets, something like that. I enjoy doing things with the military, I’ve gone out and trained with them before and I’ve done obstacle courses and done a lot of cool stuff with them. Flying in one of the jets is something I haven’t done. … That’s next on the list.

NBC Sports: What’s the best race you’ve ever seen in person?

Jones: It probably wasn’t the best race I’ve ever seen, but it was the most exciting for me. It was Las Vegas (Motor Speedway) a long time ago, my very first race ever that I went to. I was pretty young, this was probably in 2009 or so. I was just overwhelmed by the racing. I went to driver intros and all that stuff. I made the ultimate fan day out of it.

NBC Sports: What do you remember about the first time you met Richard Childress?

Jones: It was the same day I think. Looking back on it it’s crazy that I knew him so young … I met the Dillon boys. They were (about) 13 and up in one of his suites playing video games and stuff and not even caring about the race. It was pretty funny. It’s cool to see how we all work together now. Just a small world type deal.

NBC Sports: Growing up, who was your favorite NASCAR driver?

Jones: It was whoever won the previous week. I didn’t have a clue … about driver personalities or anything. Every week it was like ‘Oh man, Jimmie Johnson was the winner that week, so he’s going to win next week.’ I bounced back and forth between a lot of them. But I did have a lot of Jimmie Johnson gear. I had the jacket and the necklace and an action figure.

NBC Sports: You had a Jimmie Johnson action figure?

Jones: I did, yeah. It was kind of like a stationary one. It was on a platform.

NBC Sports: What would be your dream concert?

Jones: I just knocked Granger Smith off my bucket list, and he’s probably my favorite country music singer. … He’s got a couple of songs that are just starting to take off, like top five on the country music charts. We actually arranged to hang out with him before the concert, so we got to see him before he went on stage. The only thing I want to see now, and I think we’re going to in Charlotte, is (Granger Smith at the Circle K) Speed Street (Festival). … When we saw him he didn’t have his full band with him, it was just him playing his guitar and singing. I think the one in Charlotte he’s coming to, he’s bringing the entire band. That will be my next one to go see.

Previous Xfinity Spotlight Q&A’s

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

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Truck Series Championship 4 Outlook

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Two past champions and two drivers who won their first Gander Outdoors Truck Series races this year are primed to battle for the championship Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Led by defending champion Brett Moffitt, the Championship 4 consists of Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen.

There are no upstart phenoms in this group of drivers, where the average age is 33. The veterans came out on top. But who will be the last one standing?

Here’s a breakdown of each driver.

Matt Crafton (No. 88 Ford for ThorSport Racing)

Wins: None

Career Playoff wins: Two

Miami Record: Three top fives in 18 starts, including his win in 2014 to claim his second championship.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Crafton did everything he needed to short of winning a race this season to make the title race. He enters Miami with three top 10s in the playoffs and only one DNF through 22 races.

Outlook: It’s entirely possible Crafton could claim his third Truck Series title this weekend without having won a single race this season. In fact, he hasn’t won since the 2017 race at Eldora. The last time a national series driver won a title without a win was Austin Dillon with his Xfinity championship in 2013. Crafton will try to do it as the only Ford driver going against three Chevrolets.

“Just beat the other three guys,” Crafton said Friday night. “At the end of the day, just go out there and just make your truck the best you can in practice and Homestead’s always such an interesting one just because you have so much tire wear, you get so much tire falloff and you get one set of tires in practice. You have one shot to get the balance of your truck good. … But at the end of the day we know what trucks we’ll be racing for a championship.”

 

Brett Moffitt (No. 24 Chevrolet for GMS Racing)

Wins: Four (Iowa, Chicago, Bristol, Canada)

Career Playoff Wins: Four (two this season)

Miami Record: Will make his second Truck start at the track following his win there last year to claim the title. Finished 31st and 36th in his two Cup Series starts.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Led the final 27 laps at Bristol and survived three restarts in that span to fend off Chandler Smith and Chastain for the win.

Outlook: Could become the second Truck Series driver to claim back-to-back titles, following Crafton’s 2013-14 reign. Regardless of the outcome Friday, Moffitt won’t have to worry about his career prospects. After proving GMS Racing’s decision to go with him over Johnny Sauter was the right one, he’ll be back in the No. 24 next season.

“I think it’s a different type of pressure,” Moffitt said Friday. “Last year (was) ‘What if I don’t get the opportunity again?’ type of pressure. Where this year is I need to perform for those who gave me this opportunity and that’s the Gallagher family and everyone at GMS. They’re working as hard as they possibly can to give me fast Silverados week-in and week-out. Anything short of winning a championship will be a disappointment for all of us. We feel like we have the best opportunity to do it. We feel like we have the best people to do it.”

 

Ross Chastain (No. 45 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports)

Wins: Three (Kansas, Gateway, Pocono)

Career Playoff Wins: None

Miami Record: Best finish in five Truck Series starts is eighth in 2013 while driving for Brad Keselowski Racing. Finished 16th last year with Niece Motorsports.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Got a late start on the points race after he switched his points declaration from Xfinity to Trucks after eight races in the Truck season. Checked off every box mandated by NASCAR to become playoff eligible, earning two wins in the process and scrapped his way into the Championship 4 without a playoff win.

Outlook: Chastain has everything to prove and nothing to lose Friday night. Eleven months since he lost a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series, Chastain has a shot at his first NASCAR title. Should nothing go wrong between now and February, Chastain will compete full-time in the Xfinity Series with Kaulig Racing.

“Bet ya’ll didn’t expect to see me here … A dream come true,” Chastain said after he finished ninth in Phoenix. “My team owner Al (Niece) just said it best, he said ‘Why stop now?'”

 

Stewart Friesen (No. 52 Chevrolet for Halmar Racing)

Wins: Two (Eldora, Phoenix)

Career Playoff Wins: One

Miami Record: Three starts with finishes of seventh and fourth the last two years.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): After a penalty at the start of the Phoenix race for beating the pole-sitter to the start-finish line, Friesen bounced back and held off Brandon Jones to claim his first win on asphalt and advance to the Championship 4.

Outlook: Friesen and Halmar Racing didn’t compete in NASCAR until 2016. They’ve won their first two races this season and are one race away from a championship. Like Brett Moffitt last year, we can’t help but speculate it’s because of the mustache.

“We’ve got our favorite truck we’re running next week that we’ve gotten a lot of time under our belt with,” Friesen said following his win. “It’s going to be a tough race, obviously. It gets tough to pass at Homestead. The tire falloff is huge. It falls off lap-to-lap. You can go out and start a run, you’re wide open for a lap. Then it backs up, backs up, backs up. Then you get right up on the boards. You got to work that air bubble and there’s a lot of stuff you can manipulate at Homestead to help yourself out that I’ve learned the last (three races there). It’s a gritty race track paved with the aggregate of the area. It looks like you’re racing on sea shells, that’s what it is. That’s what the pavement plants have there. It’s cool and it’s exciting. ”

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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).