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Xfinity Championship 4 made up of favorites and a surprise

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Unlike on the Cup side where there are no surprises, the Championship 4 in the Xfinity Series is not entirely what was expected when the playoffs started.

Justin Allgaier, who won the regular-season title, was eliminated at the end of the Round of 8. So was teammate Elliott Sadler, who had 24 top 10s in the first 32 races but no wins.

Rookie Christopher Bell got into the Championship 4 in walk-off fashion, winning Saturday at Phoenix after he entered the race 34 points below the final transfer spot.

Bell joins Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick in Saturday’s title race in Miami (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The drivers have an average age of 23 and have combined for nine wins since February, with Hemric the only winless among driver among them.

Here’s a look at each driver’s record ahead of Miami.

Christopher Bell (No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing)

Wins: Seven, a rookie record (Richmond I, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Iowa II, Richmond II, Dover II and Phoenix II)

Career Playoff wins: Four (Including win at Kansas last year as a part-time driver)

Miami record: Earned a DNF in first Xfinity start last year for an engine failure. Best finish of second in three Truck Series starts. Won the Truck Series title in 2017. Has been in the Championship 4 in each of his three full-time seasons in NASCAR.

Outlook: Bell enters as the favorite with his series-leading seven wins. Despite two DNFs in the Round of 8, he has won three of the last six races. Toyota has won two of the last five Miami races.

“I don’t know if you can take any momentum (to Miami),” Bell said after his win Saturday.  “The 00 (Cole Custer), they’re licking their chops because they won by (15.4) seconds last year so I’m sure they’re feeling good. We saw with the Cup deal, Jimmie Johnson won his championship (in 2016) because a couple guys beat themselves and took each other out and he was just at the right spot at the right time and he was definitely not the best out of the four. What we’re going to have to do next week if we are the best car, try not to beat yourself and if we’re not the best car, just wait for the opportunity for that last pit stop and you never know when the last restart is going to come.”

 

Cole Custer (No. 00 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing)

Wins: One (Texas II)

Career Playoff wins: Two (Won Miami last year when he was not part of Championship 4)

Miami record: Two starts in Xfinity. Finishes of 17th and a win. Started second in 2017 and led 182 laps on way to his first career Xfinity win.

Outlook: Despite only one win through 32 races, Custer placed in the top 10 a series-leading 25 times this season. And as Christopher Bell noted, Custer won at Miami by just over 15 seconds last year.

“All of the cars at Stewart-Haas (Racing), we build fantastic cars,” Custer said Saturday. “I could take any single car out of our fleet and I could take this car this weekend (at Phoenix) and I think it would be just as good as the car we’re taking to Homestead. I think the tires are gonna be a little bit different. I think it’s a different left-side tire. We have the flange-fit bodies this year, so that’s a little bit different. You have to account for those things and make sure that you’re adjusting and making your car as good as it can be.”

 

Daniel Hemric (No. 21 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing)

Wins: None

Career Playoff wins: None

Miami record: Finished 34th, 23 laps off the lead in 2017 due to an early mechanical problem. Three Truck Series starts with a best finish of fifth in 2016.

Outlook: For the second year in a row, Hemric enters the Championship 4 without a win to his name. Should he claim the title without winning in Miami he’d be the first driver to win a national NASCAR championship without having ever won a race.

Hemric leads the Championship 4 drivers in average finish (9.1). His five runner-up finishes without a win leads all winless drivers in Xfinity.

“You just hope you’re going to find yourself in position to have another shot at it like we did last year,” Hemric said after he finished second Saturday. “Now I can confidently say we do have that shot. It’s a tough situation to be in after the 10-point penalty we got after Kansas. It put you a little bit on edge and then we got into Texas and lost some points. We knew we had to come here (to Phoenix) today and be a solid as we could and give ourselves a shot to try to maximize our points as best we could and that’s what we did.

“… Having that taste in our mouth from having that taken away from us last year the way it was makes us that much more hungry when we go there next week.”

 

Tyler Reddick (No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports)

Wins: One (Daytona I)

Career Playoff wins: One (At Kentucky last year as a part-time driver)

Miami record: Started from pole and finished fourth in first Xfinity start last year. In three Truck Series starts finished sixth, third and second.

Outlook: Reddick admitted he would have been “surprised” had you told him nine weeks ago he would be the only JR Motorsports driver in the Championship 4.

Nine races ago he finished 34th in race No. 23 at Road America. By that point he had just one top-five finish since he won the season-opener at Daytona. In the nine races after Road America he earned four top fives, three top 10s and announced he’ll compete for Richard Childress Racing in 2019.

“I (knew we had) the potential to get to (Miami) all year long,” Reddick said after placing sixth at Phoenix. “I guess we’ve just been getting our bugs out this year. Our regular reason had moments of greatness but never really seized it. We’d have speed, but something would happen. … The playoffs have been more about what this team is really about. We’ve done everything we needed to. We’ve done a very good job of staying out of trouble and minimizing mistakes. But we’ve been lucky too.  … Sometimes it never hurts to just be a little lucky.”

NASCAR America: Daytona 500 ‘Turning Point’ came on Stage 2 pit stop

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The moment that set up Denny Hamlin‘s Daytona 500 win on Sunday came on Lap 108, according to NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte.

That’s when Hamlin made a pit stop near the end of Stage 2.

“(Crew chief Chris) Gabehart calls his car to pit road,” Letarte said. “He doesn’t care about stage points. He cares about four fresh tires on a hot, slick Daytona track.”

Then on Lap 122, during the stage break pit stop, Gabehart decided to put only fuel in the No. 11 Toyota when he was 21st.

“On Lap 163 he got 6 seconds of gas, that’s it, no tires,” Letarte said. “That gave him track position (eighth) in front of all of those accidents. The turning points to this race was before Stage 2 even ended.”

Watch the above video for more.

Garrett Smithley in Spire Motorsports car at Atlanta as entry lists released

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Garrett Smithley is listed as the driver of Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Smithley, a native of Peachtree City, Georgia, competes in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and made three Cup starts last year.

Spire purchased Furniture Row Racing’s charter after the team closed at the end of last season. It fielded Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500 in the No. 40 in a partnership of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Quin Houff also will compete for Spire this season.

Click here for the preliminary Cup entry list.

Click here for the preliminary Xfinity entry list.

Click here for the preliminary Truck Series entry list.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Daytona 500 recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and recaps all the action from Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett will discuss all the major storylines from the race that saw Denny Hamlin claim his second 500 win.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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.

‘Bizarre’ Daytona 500 marks Jamie McMurray’s likely final Cup start

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If Sunday’s Daytona 500 turns out to be Jamie McMurray‘s 583rd and final Cup start, then the race threw all it could at him as a going away present.

McMurray finished 22nd in what the Chip Ganassi Racing driver called a “bizarre” Daytona 500.

The 43-year-old driver had to start his 17th “Great American Race” at the rear due to a rear gear change. By Lap 19 in he was in 19th.

His day was complicated on Lap 50 when he was caught up in a six-car wreck, which damaged his right front fender. With repairs made to his No. 40 Chevrolet, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner continued.

Even with the damage, McMurray managed to navigate his way up to 10th by Lap 84.

He then led the field from Laps 164-169, with just the last two laps under green.

Then chaos reigned.

The final 20 laps saw three multi-car wrecks, but McMurray managed to avoid the ones that caught 21 and seven cars.

“Certainly, a bizarre 500 to have so much green-flag racing and then so many wrecks at the end,” McMurray said. “It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps. It’s part of it. You were able to get big runs. It seemed like as the sun went down those runs happened more often. When the Daytona 500 is on the line, people are willing to take big risks. They just all waited to the end.”

But McMurray couldn’t avoid the last major wreck. While running eighth he was ensnared in a nine-car melee that resulted in the overtime finish. 

“I’m thrilled I made it as long as I did,” said McMurray. “I made it through two or three wrecks I should have been in and didn’t get torn up. It is just part of it. It is what it is and I’m just thankful I’m safe. This is just one of those places you come to that there are a lot of unknowns and certainly after flipping at Talladega (last April), speedway racing was a little different in my mind.”

McMurray will now transition to an analyst role for Fox Sports.

Should the native of Joplin, Missouri, never make another Cup start, he ends his career with seven wins, 63 top fives and 168 top 10s.

He exits the NASCAR stage after 581 consecutive Cup starts.

Next week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be the first without McMurray since the Oct. 20, 2002 event at Martinsville Speedway. That was the race after McMurray scored a surprise first career win at Charlotte Motor Speedway driving Ganassi’s No. 40 Dodge in substitution of an injured Sterling Marlin.

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