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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Stewart-Haas Racing rookie Cole Custer

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Cole Custer has two NASCAR wins in the last three years, but so far the 19-year-old’s racing career is defined by two moments that didn’t see him in victory lane.

When he tackled John Hunter Nemechek last year and a month ago when Austin Dillon got his own point across by slowly forcing Custer into the outside wall under caution at Phoenix.

The latter took place four races into Custer’s rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series. But ask him what his “Welcome to the Xfinity Series” moment was in his first 11 starts dating back to last year and the incident is downplayed as not being that big a deal.

“I guess you could say Phoenix a little bit,” Custer told NBC Sports. “I honestly don’t know. There hasn’t really been a huge moment where anything huge has happened.”

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Two races later, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver achieved the biggest statistical moment of his short Xfinity career. He earned his first top five at Texas Motor Speedway, which surprised Custer given the 1.5-mile track’s recent repave and reconfiguration.

“I didn’t think I was the best at going to new tracks and new surfaces,” he said. “I think since we had such a great car and I adapted to the surface pretty good, we ended up having a fast car from the get go, really, and were able to have a solid day.”

It made him the second rookie to earn a top five this year after William Byron at Phoenix. The result came in the sixth race of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program.

The following Q&A had been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Since you’re going to be at Bristol this week, if you were competing in the Cup race what would you choose as your introduction song?

Custer: That’s a tough one. I wish they did it for the Xfinity Series. You definitely have to think about it a lot before you choose. I don’t know, off the top of my head. Maybe something like 21 Pilots. I really like their music. … Maybe “Ride” by 21 Pilots or something.

NBC Sports: What’s the most emotional you’ve gotten about a sporting event that wasn’t auto racing?

Custer: Probably (Carolina) Panthers’ games back when they were terrible. I was probably a bigger Panther fan when they weren’t good than when they are good, kind of like right now. I would get really mad. It would ruin my whole day when they would lose.

NBC Sports: Why do you think you had stronger emotional reactions when they were horrible than when they were good and going to the Super Bowl.

Custer: I don’t know, its frustrating when people make mistakes. It’s frustrating losing.

NBC Sports: What’s your least favorite part of race day?

Custer: Maybe right before qualifying, you’re pretty nervous just cause you have to lay down a fast lap in a short amount of time. That’s probably the most nerve-wracking.

NBC Sports: What’s the biggest difference for you going from JR Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing?

Custer: They’re both great organizations, have great people. Stewart-Haas has a lot of great people, a lot of great resources. I think they build a lot of fast cars. I think having Tony (Stewart) around and seeing him and how much he helps and cares, that’s pretty awesome and seeing all the racers here. It’s awesome to see.

NBC Sports: What’s been the biggest hurdle for the team in getting this season underway and this program started?

Custer: Pretty much just everything. We had to build a team from nothing. Having to get everything in place and build brand new cars and having to do all this stuff, it’s just not easy for anyone to do and let alone be fast when you go to the race track. I think we did a great job channeling all of it.

NBC Sports: You’ve gotten to race with Kevin Harvick a couple of times this year. What’s been a lesson you’ve learned from him that’s helped you on the track?

Custer: Probably just being patient during the races. He helps me every week in going to new race tracks and giving me advice on what his experiences have been there.

NBC Sports: What’s it been like getting to know your crew chief, Jeff Meendering, through these first few races?

Custer: It’s been great. He has a lot of background and a lot of knowledge. He’s a really smart guy and really level-headed. I think we go well together. He’s given me some really fast cars this year. I just have to learn how to bring things home clean and not making any huge mistakes during the race and I think we’ll have some good finishes. He’s definitely one of the best, though.

NBC Sports: How has your relationship with Tony Stewart grown over the last few years?

Custer: He’s just been awesome. He’s helped me so much in just communicating with my team and giving me advice and he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. You see him on TV and he’s a little bit different than what he actually is. He’s really soft-spoken, a really nice guy and one of the best. It’s been awesome to work with him.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

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     Top5     Top10   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 the past 10). 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 past 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 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 35 starts together.


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 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 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.

 

Penalty report from ISM Raceway

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NASCAR has fined five crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts on their cars after last weekend’s playoff races at ISM Raceway.

Each fine was for having a single unsecured lug nut.

In the Cup Series:

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, and Mike Hillman Sr., crew chief on J.J. Yeley‘s No. 53 Chevrolet, were each fined $10,000.

In the Xfinity Series:

Taylor Moyer, crew chief on Zane Smith‘s No. 8 Chevrolet, was fined $5,000.

In the Truck Series:

Joe Shear, Jr., crew chief on Johnny Suater’s No. 13 Chevrolet, and Trip Bruce lll, crew chief on race winner Stewart Friesen‘s No. 52 Chevrolet, were fined $2,500.