Long: Cinderella is a Disney movie, not a Cup championship contender

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AVONDALE, Ariz. —  After a topsy-turvy Sunday that saw championship hopes fluctuate much like the highs and lows of the season, NASCAR fans are left with the best Cup championship field in Miami since the elimination format began in 2014.

For most of the season, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — the Big 3 — have dominated and they all advanced to race Joey Logano for the Cup title.

“I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Kyle Busch said after winning at Phoenix.

Busch wasn’t boasting. He was just telling it like it is.

Busch (eight wins), Harvick (eight), Truex (four) and Logano (two) have combined to win more than 60 percent of the races this season. Never have the Championship 4 drivers won more than 50 percent of the races that season.

“You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has kind of been the top three guys, the best three, which has been (Harvick), us and (Truex), and (Logano),” Busch said. “(Logano) has been solid. He’s been consistent, and he’s been good, especially these last nine weeks, eight weeks, I guess.

“So I think that this is a good group of four that we’re going to race for a championship with.”

One can argue about the playoff format and say that it rewards only those who get hot late, but Busch, Harvick and Truex did what was expected by advancing. They showed the value of dominating the regular season and building a treasure trove of playoff points that proved valuable.

Even with those advantages, they still had to squirm in this round.

Harvick celebrated his berth in the Championship 4 last weekend after winning at Texas only to find out three days later that NASCAR had taken it away because of a violation so egregious that series officials also suspended Harvick’s crew chief and car chief for the rest of the playoffs and penalized Harvick 40 points.

Instead of being assured a spot in Miami, Harvick entered Sunday’s race three points ahead of teammate Kurt Busch for the final transfer spot.

As he often does when under pressure, Harvick thrived, winning the pole and showing he had the fastest car in Saturday’s final practice. Nothing changed Sunday when he led the opening 72 laps before what a Goodyear official said was “quite possibly” a puncture that caused Harvick’s right front tire to deflate. Harvick had to pit before the end of first stage on Lap 75 and did so when pit road was closed. He lost a lap and the penalty meant he couldn’t take the wave-around on that caution to get back on the lead lap.

“My main job was to try to get it back to the pits without crashing into the wall or having a tire blow out and rip the fenders off,” Harvick said after placing fifth. “I felt it go down going into Turn 1 and just kind of tried to nurse it into Turn 3 and back around. 

“I couldn’t get down over there, and I just drug everything all the way around. I drug the splitter off. It never really handled as good after that, but we made some adjustments to our car and got ourselves back in contention there in the second stage staying out, and it worked out okay.”

Harvick was back on the lead lap less than 30 laps later when Logano had a left rear tire go down and spun.

With less than 80 laps left, Harvick led Busch by only one point. That would change when Busch wrecked after contact from Denny Hamlin as they raced for the lead with 44 laps to go.

That incident nearly ended Truex’s day. Truex has not been as strong recently as he was in the middle of the year. He was 10th on that restart and nearly hit Alex Bowman’s spinning car amid the smoke and chaos.

“There was cars, smoke everywhere,” Truex said after finishing 14th. “I just basically stopped going into Turn 3 and was lucky to find a hole to get through. Just a little bit of good fortune, a little bit of the right place, right time, and the rest of the day we just battled and got what we could out of the car and did what we had to.”

Busch was steady all day. He wasn’t spectacular but put himself in a position to win and did just that.

Now, the focus turns to Miami where the four best race for a title.

And Cinderella is nowhere to be found.

Kaulig Racing hauler involved in accident on way to Kansas Speedway

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Kaulig Racing announced Wednesday night the hauler for its No. 10 team was involved in an accident on the way to Kansas Speedway for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

Team president Chris Rice said in a statement released on social media that Kaulig’s two drivers for the hauler were alert and had been transported to a hospital for evaluation.

According to 13 WLOS, the accident occurred around 5 p.m. ET, and a state trooper said the truck’s driver and passenger were taken to Mission Hospital by ambulance with serious but non-life threatening injuries.

According to told Fox Carolina, the North Carolina Highway Patrol said the hauler was traveling westbound on I-40 in McDowell County when it went off the right side of the road near mile marker 93. It went through a guard rail and down an embankment before stopping in the woods.

Rice said the team still planned to field two cars in Saturday’s race.

Ross Chastain is entered in the No. 10 Chevrolet this weekend for his fifth start of the year with the team. Chastain was announced Tuesday as the full-time driver of the car next season.

Kaulig also will field the No. 11 Chevy of Justin Haley in Saturday’s race.

Silly Season scorecard: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finds new home in JTG Daugherty Racing

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was without a 2020 Cup ride for less than 25 days.

Only a few weeks after Roush Fenway Racing announced it was parting ways with Stenhouse in favor of Chris Buescher, Stenhouse has landed in Buescher’s old ride at JTG Daugherty Racing in a multi-year deal.

Stenhouse will have Ryan Preece as a teammate in his first full-time year with a new team in a decade.

Here are where things stand with Silly Season:

OPEN RIDES ANNOUNCED FOR 2020

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after this season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

JTG Daugherty Racing: It was announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Reece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher.

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

Clint Bowyer His contract expires after this season with the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team. Take it whatever way you want but Bowyer stated Sept. 20 that he did a commercial shoot in September with Kevin Harvick for next season.

Kurt Busch His contract expires after this season. Car owner Chip Ganassi has suggested in media reports that a deal will be done. Busch declined to discuss much about his contract status before the Sept. 29 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, stating: “We haven’t really started talks. I felt like it was good to get the playoffs underway and go as far as we could comfortably. Man, there’s a lot going on and we’ll see how things play out. Again, it’s all about all the stars lining up with Chevrolet, Monster Energy, myself, Chip. For me, I feel like things haven’t progressed because of the focus on the playoffs.”

Daniel Suarez He has said that both he and the team have an option on his contract for next year. He has remained confident that he will return to Stewart-Haas Racing to drive the No. 41 car.

Xfinity Series

Ross Chastain – Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 he would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET with Jimmie Johnson

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Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is the guest of honor on this week’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths, which airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Johnson joins Marty Snider and Kyle Petty. Together they’ll discuss this week’s storylines and take fan phone calls.

You can call in at 844-NASCAR-NBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Tanner Gray to make Truck Series debut at Martinsville

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Former NHRA Pro Stock champion Tanner Gray will make his Gander Outdoors Truck Series debut in the Oct. 26 race at Martinsville Speedway, DGR-Crosley announced Wednesday.

Gray, 20, will drive the No. 15 Toyota in the final three Truck Series races of the season.

This is Gray’s first season in NASCAR competition after also racing in super late models.

Gray competed full-time in the K&N Pro Series East this season for DGR-Crosley, where he earned one win, six top fives and nine top-10 finishes. He also claimed one pole on his way to finishing third in the point standings. He made three starts in the K&N West Series and earned two poles and three top fives.

MORE: Tanner Gray embracing NASCAR after drag racing career

“I’m excited to make the step up to the Truck Series,” Gray said in a press release. “I think it’s going to be challenging, but I’m ready to take the next step with my DGR-Crosley guys. We’ve been preparing for this all season, and I think the best way to learn is to go out and do it. Between testing and spending time in the Toyota simulator, I think I have a good feel for Martinsville and will be able to adapt quickly. We will have three practice sessions to get acclimated and get the truck where it needs to be. We just need to keep our nose clean in the race and have a solid day on pit road.”

Gray’s K&N team will make the transition to the Truck Series with him for the remainder of the season. Seth Smith will serve as crew chief duties while veteran Eddie D’Hondt will be his spotter.

“I’m really looking forward to Tanner’s Truck debut after the building season that he’s had,” Smith said in a press release. “He’s learned a lot from where he started at the beginning of the season to where he’s at now. We tested at Martinsville and I feel like we had a really successful test session.”