Who is hot and cold entering the First Data 500 at Martinsville

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The third round of the Cup playoffs begin this weekend on the oldest and shortest track on the circuit – Martinsville Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday on NBCSN).

The next three races will determine the four drivers who will compete for the championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Here is who is hot and cold entering the final short track race of the season.

Who is Hot

Chase Elliott

Round of 12 – Red Hot
• Won at Kansas (10th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2, 44 laps led)
• Finished 31st at Talladega; pit from 7th after Stage 1 ended but before pit road was open after running out of fuel; involved in multi-car accident on final lap
• Won at Dover
2018 Season – Red Hot
• Advanced to Round of 8 for 2nd straight season
• Won 2 of last 3 races and 3 of last 11 (98 starts before 1st career win)
• Finished top 10 in 4 of last 5 races and 9th or better in 10 of last 13
Martinsville – Good
• Finished top 10 in 2 of last 3 Martinsville races (9th in March)
• Six career Martinsville starts: 2 top 10s and 4 finishes of 12th or worse
• Started 3rd, 6th in Stage 1, 5th in Stage 2, 123 laps led, finished 27th in this race one year ago; spun by Denny Hamlin in Turn 3 on Lap 498 while leading

 

Aric Almirola

Round of 12 – Very Good
• Finished 10th at Kansas (6th in Stage 1, 16th in Stage 2); penalized for uncontrolled tire on Lap 120
• Won at Talladega (4th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2, 1 lap led); passed Kurt Busch in Turn 4 on final lap
• Finished 13th at Dover; contact with Brad Keselowski on Lap 397 while battling for 4th, collected Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman
2018 Season – Good
• Advanced to Round of 8 for first time in career
• Finished in Top 10 in 4 of last 6 races
Martinsville – Bad
• Finished 12th or worse in 8 straight Martinsville races
• Three top 10s in 19 Martinsville starts
• Started 10th, 19th in Stage 1, 20th in Stage 2, finished 18th in this race one year ago

 

Joey Logano

Round of 12 – Very Good
• Finished 8th at Kansas (1st in Stage 1, 3rd in Stage 2, 100 laps)
• Finished 5th at Talladega
• Finished 3rd at Dover; hit axle from Ross Chastain on Lap 339 while running 8th
2018 Season – Very Good
• Advanced to Round of 8 for 4th time in career (1st since 2016)
• Finished in top 10 in 4 straight races and 8 of last 10
• Finished in top 5 in 5 of last 9 races
Martinsville – Very Good
• Finished top 10 in 3 of last 4 Martinsville races and 6 of last 9 (6th in March)
• Scored stage points in every stage in the last two Martinsville races
• Started 1st, 3rd in Stage 1, 3rd in Stage 2, 59 laps led, finished 24th in this race one year ago; contact with frontstretch wall on Lap 259 while running 3rd after contact with Austin Dillon; big tire rub on Lap 487 after contact
with Kyle Busch while battling for 3rd; spun from 6th on Lap 492 after tire went flat

 

Erik Jones

• Finished 4th at Kansas (8th in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2)
2018 Season – Very Good
• Finished top 10 in 3 straight races and 6 of last 9
Martinsville – Not Good
• Never finished better than 12th in 3 career Martinsville starts (17th in March)
• Started 8th, 18th in Stage 1, 16th in Stage 2, finished 26th in this race one year ago; spun from 27th on Lap 316

 

Who is Cold

Martin Truex Jr.

Round of 12 – Not Good
• Finished 5th at Kansas (12th in Stage 1, 10th in Stage 2)
• Finished 23rd at Talladega; reported rear end issue on Lap 100 while running 23rd; involved in multi-car accident on last lap
• Finished 15th at Dover; collected in multi-car accident on Lap 397 after Aric Almirola and Brad Keselowski made contact battling for 4th
2018 Season – Slumping
• Advanced to Round of 8 for 2nd straight season (3rd time in career)
• Kansas ended a streak of 3 straight finishes of 14th or worse
• Finished outside the top 10 in 7 of last 10 races
Martinsville – Good
• Finished top 5 in the last two Martinsville races and top 10 in 5 of last 7 (4th in March)
• Started 2nd, 5th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2, finished 2nd in this race one year ago

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

• Finished 20th at Kansas (21st in Stage 1, 22nd in Stage 2); penalized for speeding in pits on Lap 120
2018 Season – Bad
• Kansas ended a streak of back-to-back finishes of 9th or better
• Finished 14th or worse in 24 of 32 races in 2018
Martinsville – Streaking
• Finished 10th in 2 of last 3 Martinsville races (37th in March)
• Finished 15th or worse in 9 of 11 career Martinsville starts
• Started 22nd, 27th in Stage 1, 19th in Stage 2, finished 10th in this race one year ago; spun on Lap 36 while running 27th after being clipped by Michael McDowell.

 

Kyle Larson

Round of 12 – Ok
• Finished 3rd at Kansas (11th in Stage 1, 6th in Stage 2); started in rear after going to back-up car
• Finished 11th at Talladega; started in the rear due to unapproved adjustments; spun from 11th on backstretch on Lap 104 with flat tire
• Finished 12th at Dover; penalized for speeding in pits on Lap 244 while running 15th
2018 Season – Hot and Cold
• Eliminated in Round of 12 for 2nd straight season
• Kansas ended a streak of 3 straight finishes outside the top 10
• Last 10 races: 5 top 10s and 5 finishes of 11th or worse
Martinsville – Terrible
• Finished 14th or worse in 4 straight Martinsville races (16th in March)
• Finished 14th or worse in 8 of 9 career Martinsville starts
• Started 9th, 16th in Stage 1, 22nd in Stage 2, finished 37th in this race one year ago; DNF – spun from 23rd on Lap 303 and hit inside backstretch wall

 

Alex Bowman

Round of 12 – Too Little, Too Late
• Finished 9th at Kansas (14th in Stage 1, 9th in Stage 2); made contact with Daniel Suarez on Lap 3 after Suarez hit wall; scraped wall in Turn 1 on Lap 25
• Finished 33rd at Talladega; got loose on Lap 186 and hit wall while running 10th, then got hit by J.J. Yeley
• Finished 28th at Dover; DNF – collected in multi-car accident on Lap 397 after Aric Almirola and Brad Keselowski made contact battling for 4th
2018 Season – Bad
• Kansas ended a streak of 2 finishes of 28th or worse
• Finished 12th or worse in 6 of last 8 races
Martinsville – Bad
• One finish better than 22nd in 5 career Martinsville starts (7th in March)

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.