Breaking down the Xfinity playoff field ahead of Texas

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The Xfinity Series underwent a change in its playoff standings last week without the series even holding a race.

Daniel Hemric exited the Round of 8 opener at Kansas with a nine-point lead over Elliott Sadler. Then NASCAR handed Hemric a 10-point penalty and suspended his crew chief for one race after his No. 21 Chevrolet was found to be too low in post-race inspection.

After an off week, Hemric is second on the playoff grid, one point behind Sadler ahead of this weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

That points shift came after a major shakeup on the very first lap of the Kansas race. A multi-car wreck involved playoff drivers Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier, Austin Cindric and Cole Custer. Only Custer was able to finish the race.

The playoff field is separated by 56 points.

Here’s a look at the eight playoff drivers ahead of the series’ trip to the Lone Star State.

Elliott Sadler ( 14 points above cut line)

Sadler, who is winless so far in his final NASCAR season, leads all drivers with seven top-10 finishes in the eight races on 1.5 mile tracks in 2018.

His best finish on a 1.5-mile track this year is third at Kansas. He’s placed fifth three times.

He’s finished in the top six in seven of the last 10 races of 2018.

Sadler has just one top five in his last 14 Xfinity starts at Texas.

“Being able to head to Texas in our current points position gives us some relief, but we still need to go out there and give it our all,” Sadler said in a media release. “As we saw in Kansas, anything can happen in these playoff races. We still have a long way to go to get to Homestead and these next two races are crucial in making the championship four.”

Daniel Hemric (+13 above cut line)

Like Sadler, Hemric is winless through 30 races. But he’s finished in the top 10 in each of the four playoff races.

He leads the playoff drivers with an average finish of 5.5 through the playoff races, up from a regular season average of 9.9. His average is 2.5 positions better than any other playoff driver.

Hemric finished third at Texas in the spring and has four top fives on 1.5-mile tracks this season, fourth among playoff drivers.

“The guys that entered the Round of 8 with a solid points advantage thought they could cruise all the way to Homestead, well, we proved that theory wrong in the opening laps of the race at Kansas Speedway,” Hemric said in a media release. “Now everyone has to legitimately race every single lap and try to get to the end of these races in order to score points and at least get an opportunity to advance. It is no different than what we have been doing all year. We need to maximize our days and maximize the weekends.”

Tyler Reddick (+11)

Reddick is winless since he won the season opener at Daytona, but the JR Motorsports driver has finished in the top 10 in six of the last nine races, including a runner-up result at Indianapolis. He has top 10s in three of the four playoff races

Reddick will make his third start at Texas. He placed 33rd and 23rd in the first two. In the spring he was caught speeding after he pitted from third place on Lap 136.

“We had some good speed here in the spring and I am very confident that we can back that up and unload with that same speed this weekend,” Reddick said in a media release. “With our position in the Round of 8 right now, we all know what we need to do and if we can have a smooth, mistake-free weekend we should be able to leave here in an even stronger points position as Homestead approaches.”

Christopher Bell (+1)

Before he crashed on Lap 1 at Kansas, Bell was riding high through the playoffs with three top fives and two wins in the first round.

Now he’s hanging by a thread above the cut line.

The rookie returns to Texas where he finished second in the spring, one of six top fives he has this year on 1.5-mile tracks.

Though he has two victories in the playoffs, he’s only won two of the last 15 stages.

Matt Tifft (-1)

When it comes to average finish among the playoff drivers, Tifft has had the biggest improvement from the regular season. Through four playoff races his average is eighth, up six spots from his regular-season average.

He’s finished in the top 10 in eight of the last 10 races.

Tifft finished sixth at Texas in the spring. His four top 10s there are tied with Dover for his most at a track.

“Since they’ve paved Texas, it’s a lot more similar to Kentucky, where it’s a one to one-and-a-half lane track,” Tifft said in a media release. “It’s very narrow at Texas. Usually at intermediate tracks we have big, sweeping wide arcs. … The challenge with Texas is we run such a hard tire that we’re pushing the car to make it as free as possible, but there really is no slip in that tire so if you push it too far you’re done.”

Justin Allgaier (-5)

The JR Motorsports veteran was on a hot streak entering the playoffs with three wins in the last six regular-season races.

But Allgaier’s fortunes have cratered since then. He crashed at Richmond and Kansas and placed 15th on the Charlotte Roval. His only positive was placing third at Dover where he won in the spring.

After an average finish of 8.7 in the regular season, his playoff average is 22nd.

Allgaier doesn’t have much to look forward to with Texas, where he has just one top-10 finish in 16 career starts. He placed 35th in the spring after his engine expired.

“Kansas definitely didn’t go the way we wanted it to and that’s on me,” Allgaier said in a media release. “We find ourselves in a hole going into these final two races in the Round of 8, but one thing is for sure, whenever this team has been down we’ve come back stronger than before. I have faith that we can finish strong this weekend and head to Phoenix with a solid shot at making it to (Miami) as part of the championship four.”

Cole Custer (-23)

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver hasn’t visited Victory Lane since last season’s finale in Miami.

He enters Texas with 12 top fives this season, including three runner-up finishes. His five top fives on 1.5-mile tracks trails only Bell (six).

Custer placed fourth at Texas in the spring. He’s finished in the top five in all three of his Texas starts, which is tied with Kyle Busch for the second most starts at Texas before a finish outside the top five.

“(Texas has) been a great track for us in the past and I’m looking forward to it probably more than any track right now,” Custer said in media release. “We definitely have to be on our game and be hunting for a win and stage points as much as possible. It’s doable to make the points up, but we’re going to really have to make some magic happen. We’ll go to Texas with a lot of speed because we always do at mile-and-a-half tracks, so there is no reason we won’t finish well as long as we don’t get involved in a wreck like last weekend.”

Austin Cindric (-43)

The rookie driver has had a harsh campaign with seven DNFs and only four top fives in the first 30 races.

In the playoffs alone, he has one top five and a top 10 in addition to his Kansas DNF and a 13th-place finish at Richmond.

He has the second worst average finish in the playoffs at 15.8.

Cindric finished ninth at Texas in the spring.

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.