Friday 5: Lack of cautions limit gambles by crew chiefs

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The art of gambling along pit road could become more difficult even as some crew chiefs become more desperate.

Cautions are down 23.6 percent this season compared to this time last year. Simply, there are fewer opportunities for strategy calls by crew chiefs. It also means there are not as many chances to improve a car late in the race to challenge Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, who have combined to win 14 of the first 16 Cup races.

But what’s key is when those cautions aren’t taking place.

Cautions in the final stage of the race — when a crew chief can have the most impact with strategy — are down 41.4 percent from this point last season.

Seven of the first 16 races have seen either one or zero cautions in the final stage. While green-flag racing can be great for fans, it limits opportunities for crew chiefs to gamble.

“The lack of yellows is helping the dominant cars win the race and hurting the creative guys trying to mix up the field,” NBC analyst Steve Letarte said this week during the NASCAR America Debrief podcast with Nate Ryan.

Only once in the last four races has there been more than one caution in the final stage. That was Pocono, where Busch give up the lead to pit with 20 laps to go while Truex stayed out. Busch restarted eighth, behind cars that did not pit or took only two tires. A pair of late cautions limited Busch’s opportunity to get to the front quickly. The result was that he finished third to Truex. Kyle Larson, who also did not pit during that caution with 20 laps to go, finished second.

There have been a couple of races where gambles could have been made but weren’t this season. At Richmond, the lack of gambling was curious. At Michigan, radar and weather apps thwarted crew chiefs.

As the Cup Series heads into the final 10 races before the playoffs, beginning with Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the race for those final playoff spots will become intense. Only six of the 16 spots are set based on drivers who have won. 

If the trend continues of the same drivers winning — Harvick, Truex, Busch and Bowyer have combined to win the last six races — the pressure will build on teams hoping to win to make the playoffs. With fewer cautions, the chances of those teams will grow more desperate. 

2. Domination

At some point someone has to break the stranglehold Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have had at 1.5-mile tracks. Right?

Those three have combined to win the last 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks, dating back to last year’s race at Kentucky. Seven times during that streak, including the last four races, Harvick, Busch or Truex have taken the top two spots.

Of course, Truex has won the past two races at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday’s race and a 1.5-mile track.

The only driver not named Harvick, (Kyle) Busch or Truex to finish in the top two in a 1.5-mile race this season is Brad Keselowski, who was runner-up to Harvick at Atlanta in March.

And, if you discount the plate races, Harvick, Busch and Truex have combined to win 20 of the last 23 races (86.9 percent) since the start of last year’s playoffs.

3. Staying put

If you missed it, Denny Hamlin said on this week’s Dale Jr. Download that he is in the first year of a “long-term” contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.

The 37-year-old Hamlin, who has 31 career Cup victories but none this year, told Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he plans to keep racing for some time.

“I’ve got a good long-term contract now that we just started this year that goes for a while and maybe do another short one after that and that would be it,” Hamlin said. “Not that I don’t love the sport. I want to go as long as I’m competitive, obviously. That’s going to be right around the time my kids are going to start to be in sports or whatever they’re in to, and I want to be around for that.”

4. Good and bad

Kyle Busch has won four races, but he’s been passed for the win four times this season.

He’s won at Texas, Bristol, Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600. He was the last driver to lead before the eventual winner took the point at Las Vegas (Harvick won), Auto Club (Truex), Martinsville (Bowyer) and Pocono (Truex).

5. When will Chevrolet win again?

Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win is Chevrolet’s only Cup victory in the last 26 races.

Chevrolet’s last five wins have been by Larson (fall Richmond and both Michigan races last year), Kasey Kahne (Indianapolis last year) and Dillon (Daytona 500).

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Truck results, point standings after Miami

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Brett Moffitt beat Grant Enfinger to the checkers by two seconds to take his sixth race of the season.

Playoff contender Noah Gragson finished third.

Stewart Friesen was fourth with Sheldon Creed rounding out the top five.

Click here for complete results.

Moffitt’s victory earned him the championship. This is the first time since 1999 that the champion won the final race of the season.

With his third-place finish, Gragson finished second in the standings.

Justin Haley finished eighth in the race and third in the standings.

Johnny Sauter finished 12th in the race and fourth in the standings.

Grant Enfinger rounded out the top five.

Click here for the complete points report.

Brett Moffitt wins Truck race at Miami, takes championship

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Brett Moffitt beat Grant Enfinger by two seconds Friday night to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race and the championship.

It was his sixth victory of the season.

Moffitt’s first win of the season came at Atlanta in the season’s second race but even then he was unsure if the team would have the financing to go to every race and be eligible for the playoffs.

“It’s unreal,” Moffitt said on FoxSports 1 from victory lane. “I didn’t know if I was going to get the opportunity to compete for a championship even after I got my first win.

“Everyone pulled together hard here. Back at Chicago (in June) we didn’t know if we were going to make it to the racetrack.”

Chicago was another race won by Moffitt.

Friday night, Enfinger finished second to Moffitt.

Fellow playoff contender Noah Gragson finished third. Stewart Friesen finished fourth with Sheldon Creed rounding out the top five.

MORE: Brett Moffitt seeks to join pantheon of NASCAR ‘stache champions

Moffitt achieved the title in just 36 starts – the fewest since Mike Skinner won the inaugural championship in 1995 in 20 races.

Moffitt’s championship comes with an uncertain future. He announced Thursday that he does not have a contract for next year.

Playoff contender Justin Haley finished eighth.

“We just struggled.” he said. “I don’t know why.”

Former champion Johnny Sauter battled handling problems for most of the race and was not a factor.

“It was awful,” he said. “Just no grip. We laid an egg tonight. I don’t know why.

“When you suck that bad, it’s whatever, you just go home and go what the hell happened? I’ll ask myself that for three months.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

MORE: Click here for complete results.
MORE: Click here for the complete points report.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Jesse Little tied his career best finish of sixth (which he first scored at Iowa this June). … Tyler Dippel finished 15th to score his fourth top 15 in five Truck starts.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Robby Lyons slapped the wall on Lap 78; he finished 29th. … Chris Windom started 10th but hit the wall with a handful of laps remaining to finish 24th. 

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “We were just too tight there (at the end). Needed to make better adjustments on pit road and that’s where it comes down to me,” Noah Gragson told FS1 after the race. “This one is going to hurt for a while.”

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Myatt Snider scored three top fives and eight top 10s on his way to rookie honors. Snider’s best finish this season was runner-up at Talladega. His best unrestricted finish was a third at Martinsville.

NOTABLE: This is the first time since 1999 that the champion won the season finale.

WHAT’S NEXT: Nextera Energy Resources 250 on Feb. 15, 2019 at Daytona International Speedway.

Should Denny Hamlin’s team take No. 1 pit stall or leave it for Kyle Busch?

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin’s pole-winning effort Friday night made for an emotional moment in his final Cup race with close friend Mike Wheeler as his crew chief.

Hamlin’s pole also created a quandary.

With the pole, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team has the first pick of pit stalls. Any other race, it’s an easy call: The team takes the No. 1 pit stall at the exit of pit road.

MORE: Denny Hamlin will have a new crew chief in 2019

But things are complicated because Hamlin is not in the title race and teammate Kyle Busch, who qualified second and whose team has second pick of pit stalls, is racing for a championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

If Hamlin’s team takes a different pit stall, it would allow Busch to have the No. 1 stall, which is viewed as the best on pit road. That could be the difference in having the lead off pit road and could impact who wins the championship.

So, what will Wheeler do when crew chiefs make their pit stall selection Saturday morning?

“We’re paid to win races for JGR and (sponsor) FedEx,” Wheeler told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely on my mind and my heart to be aware of that for Denny and our team. Obviously, we want to win a championship for JGR, too. That’s one of the biggest goals, a bigger goal this weekend. There’s some chatter going on about that.”

In one sense, it could be an easy call — let Busch have the No. 1 pit stall. The focus in any organization at this point is on the team racing for a championship. So why not give that team that advantage?

On the other hand, Hamlin is winless this year and could have one of his best chances to score a victory and extend his streak of consecutive seasons with a win to 13. He won this race in 2013 to keep that streak alive. 

“I think everything is earned,” Hamlin said. “Nothing is given. With us having the No. 1 pit stall, nobody else — none of the other competitors will have it. I don’t know. It’s a discussion. I mean, certainly I would think that (Wheeler), with the pressure always to win, you’ve got to do everything you can to win. We’ll have that discussion.”

The pit stalls at Homestead-Miami Speedway are 30-feet, 8-inches long. The camera at the end of pit road is about 40 feet from the No. 1 pit stall. That’s closer than some other tracks. That means a driver in that stall can fire out of the pit stall and surge ahead of those coming down pit road.

Last year, Hamlin’s team faced a similar issue but it was an easier call. Hamlin, who was not in the title race, won the pole. Martin Truex Jr., a title contender, qualified second last year. Truex’s team — which has a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing — asked if Hamlin’s team could take another pit stall so Truex could have the No. 1 stall. Hamlin’s team declined.

Cup starting lineup at Miami

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Denny Hamlin posted a lap of 173.863 mph to win his second consecutive pole at Miami and his third in the past four years.

He edged teammate Kyle Busch (173.622 mph) by .043 seconds.

Martin Truex Jr. (173.539), Brad Keselowski (173.433) and Joey Logano (173.366) rounded out the top five.

Kevin Harvick posted a lap of 171.942 mph to line up 12th on Sunday. This is the furthest back he has been at Miami since 2015 when he qualified 13th and finished second.

Click here for the complete starting lineup.