Viewers guide to Miami Championship Weekend

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Sunday will be a life-changing day for one driver. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano will race for the Cup championship in Miami (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and NASCAR Hot Pass on NBCSN).

Harvick, Busch and Truex look to become the 16th driver in NASCAR history to win multiple Cup championships. Logano seeks his first series title.

“It’s just one of the greatest joys in the world,” Busch said of winning a NASCAR Cup title.

While one will celebrate Sunday, the other three will experience what Busch calls “one of the greatest defeats in the world.”

Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:

FAMILIAR FACES

Kyle Busch races for a championship for the fourth consecutive year after failing to advance to the title race in 2014, the first year of the elimination format.

Kevin Harvick makes his fourth appearances in the championship race in five years. This is reigning champion Martin Truex Jr.’s third appearance. Joey Logano also makes his third appearance.

The four drivers have combined to win more than 60 percent of the races this season — the first time the Championship 4 drivers have won more than half the races in a season in the elimination format. They also rank first through fourth in top fives and laps led this year. This is clearly the best four for the title this season.

FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT

When one races around each other enough, things happen and drivers never forget.

Joey Logano upset Martin Truex Jr. by bumping him out of the way on the last lap to win at Martinsville last month. Had Logano not won that day he would not have advanced to the championship race.

Logano said he was doing what he had to win that day. Asked how he’d retaliate, Truex said: “I’m just not going to let him win (the title). I’m going to win it.”

Logano and Busch have their history in this race. Busch was upset with how Logano raced him at the end of the race last year.

“He held me up,” Busch said of Logano after last year’s title race. “He was there blocking every single chance he got. Got a real buddy there.”

Of course, it was March 2017 at Las Vegas when Kyle Busch walked up to Joey Logano and threw a punch at him for a last-lap incident between the two.

Harvick bumped Busch out of the lead with seven laps to go to win at New Hampshire in July. Said Busch after the race: “I’m not sure he (Harvick) had to do it, but he did. It’s fine. How you race is how you get raced.”

MUST-WIN SITUATION

In the first four years of this format, the champion had to win the race to claim the crown.

Logano is still haunted by the 2016 race. He restarted third on the inside line behind Carl Edwards with eight laps left. Logano dived low to get by Edwards, who blocked. They made contact, triggering a multi-car crash. While Logano was able to continue, he could not get to the lead again and finished fourth.

“Every time I watch that race, I get so mad I slam my laptop closed,” Logano said. “That moment will forever be burned into my mind of how close we were to winning a championship that day, but we’ve got another opportunity to right that, so here we go.”

The streak of a champion needing to win the race at this 1.5-mile track is likely to continue. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 16 of the last 20 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

LAST RIDE TOGETHER

Sunday’s race marks the final race for Furniture Row Racing. The team, based in Denver, Colorado, is shutting down after this season.

Furniture Row Racing, owned by Barney Visser, made its Cup debut in 2005. The team did not compete in every Cup race until 2010. Furniture Row Racing scored its first Cup victory in 2011 when Regan Smith won the Southern 500. That was the organization’s only win until Martin Truex Jr. won in 2015 at Pocono. Truex has won 17 races with the team.

“We understand it’s here, (this) week is our last week, but it’s cool that we’re going to Homestead with a chance to win it in his last race,” Truex said.

Said Visser: “For me personally, my emotions are all over the board. I am sad not to be able to continue. I am going to miss the guys for sure, miss this whole thing. I don’t know what it’s going to feel like exactly when it’s over. And I don’t know what the emotions will be like when the Daytona 500 rolls around next year and we’re not in it. I just don’t know how emotional it will be. I am afraid it will be enormous.”

The team’s hauler left the shop late Tuesday night for its trip to Miami. It was an emotional time for the team.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was (Tuesday) night when we loaded up,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “I think we’ve just been head down, kind of pushing super hard, trying to do everything we can to get ready for this weekend, and once it was in the truck and saw the lift gate up, there was a lot of tears shed and a lot of sad faces, and I think all of us really realized that that was the last time we were going to do it together as a group.”

NEW (OLD) FACE ON THE PIT BOX

Tony Gibson, who is nicknamed “Old Man,” will be Kevin Harvick’s crew chief again this weekend in place of Rodney Childers, who was suspended the final two races by NASCAR for an infraction found on Harvick’s winning car at Texas.

That the 54-year-old Gibson is on the pit box is a story itself. He suffered a blood clot July 6.

“I was actually just driving home from work and just had a real, I just could not get my brain to function with my hands and my feet, and I could not drive any further and knew something was wrong,” Gibson said. “Just wasn’t sure, and ended up going to the emergency room and put me in for observation that night, and then about one in the morning they came back and they had done several scans and told me I had a blood clot in my vertebral artery.”

He said he was in the hospital for a little more than a week before being released. As the blood clot dissolved, it caused a mini stroke. He returned to the hospital. Gibson said he lost about 85 percent of the hearing in his left ear and most of the function in his left eye. He’s been doing rehab and returned to work Aug. 20.

Gibson has an appointment scheduled with his neurologist Friday but will miss it because he will be in Miami, leading Harvick’s team.

“I was very lucky, and I don’t take that for granted,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of people out there that are way worse than me, so it’s just something that I’ll overcome and I’ll get used to it and go on.”

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

There will be many changes after Sunday’s race, particularly among drivers.

Matt Kenseth does not have plans to race next season, so Sunday’s race looks to be his final Cup race.

Daniel Suarez will run his last race for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. after this season. Suarez has not announced where he’ll drive next year but is expected to sign with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Kurt Busch will drive his final Cup race for Stewart-Haas Racing. His seat is expected to be filled by Suarez. Busch is expected to move to Chip Ganassi Racing and replace Jamie McMurray, who has an offer from car owner Chip Ganassi to drive in next year’s Daytona 500 before moving to a position in the front office.

Ryan Newman will run his final race for Richard Childress Racing and move to Roush Fenway Racing to drive the No. 6 car next season. Newman will be replaced by RCR Xfinity driver Daniel Hemric.

Matt DiBenedetto will drive his final race for Go Fas Racing. DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing to drive the No. 95 next year. Go Fas Racing has not announced a driver for next year.

AJ Allmendinger will drive his final race for JTG Daugherty Racing this weekend. He will be replaced by rookie Ryan Preece next season in the No. 47 car. Allmendinger has not announced plans for next year.

This also will be the final weekend seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson races with crew chief Chad Knaus. They’ve been together since Johnson’s rookie year in 2002 but will split after this season. Knaus will be the crew chief for William Byron next year. Kevin Meendering will be Johnson’s crew chief next year.

PIT CREW CHANGES

Kevin Harvick’s team announced this week that it is changing its rear tire changer.

Chris McMullen, who had been teammate Aric Almirola’s rear tire changer all season, moves to Harvick’s team this week and replaces Michael Johnson.

The move was made because Almirola was eliminated from title contention last weekend at Phoenix. McMullen becomes the team’s third rear tire changer this season. Daniel Smith had the role until health issues forced him out. Johnson took over at the Southern 500.

That’s not the only team that has made changes in the playoffs. After teammate Ryan Blaney was eliminated last month at Kansas, his jackman, Graham Stoddard, went to Joey Logano’s team.

“That group has been stellar,” crew chief Todd Gordon said of the revamped unit. “If you look at Martinsville, I would give them a fair amount of credit for putting us in position to win that race.”

Kyle Busch’s team changed fuelers before last weekend’s race at Phoenix. John Eicher moved over from Erik Jones‘ team in a temporary role. He filled in for Matthew Tyrrell, who stayed home on baby watch. Crew chief Adam Stevens said that he had not heard as of Wednesday if Tyrrell’s baby had arrived but said that Tyrrell would be in Miami with the team and resume his fueling duties.

Martin Truex Jr.’s team has had the same pit crew since Richmond, the second playoff race. Clay Robinson had been a backup front tire changer at Joe Gibbs Racing and moved over to Truex’s team, which gets its pit crew from JGR.

ONE LAST CHANCE

Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson, drivers who each won last year, have a final chance to score their first victory of this season.

Johnson has scored at least one win in 16 consecutive season, which is tied for the third-longest streak in series history (Richard Petty has the record at 18 consecutive seasons).

Hamlin has scored at least one victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which ranks 13th on the all-time Cup list.

Larson has finished runner-up six times this year but has yet to win. He’s had at least one win in each of the past two seasons.

NEW TIRE

Cup and Xfinity teams will have a new left-side tire this weekend compared to what was run in Miami last year.

The left-side tire features a construction update. It is the same left-side tire teams ran at Chicagoland in July. The multi-zone right-side tires have not changed since last year. Cup and Xfinity teams have run this combination of left- and right-side tires at Auto Club Speedway in March and at Chicagoland Speedway in July.

“Because of the high wear we see, these compounds provide the endurance and tread wear needed for Homestead’s track surface, while at the same time giving the cars enough grip,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

TWO OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS AT STAKE

The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series also will crown their champions this weekend.

The Truck series will race Friday. Former champion Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Justin Haley and Noah Gragson will compete for the title.

The Xfinity Series will race Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Hemric will compete for the crown. Custer won this race last year but was not eligible to win the championship, having been eliminated from title contention earlier in the playoffs.

The 23-year-old Bell, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, won the Truck series title last year.

A.J. Allmendinger joins Kaulig Racing for multiple Xfinity races

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A.J. Allmendinger will return to NASCAR competition this year in multiple Xfinity Series races for Kaulig Racing, the team announced Thursday.

Allmendinger, who serves as an analyst for NBC Sports’ motorsports coverage, will drive the No. 10 Chevrolet in an undisclosed amount of races. Kaulig Racing fields Justin Haley full-time in the No. 11 Chevrolet.

Allmendinger joins a growing list of drivers who are scheduled to pilot the No. 10 this year, including Ross Chastain, Austin Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

“I am excited for the opportunity to hop back into a Xfinity Series car,” Allmendinger said in a press release. “I look forward to helping Kaulig Racing build their program, as well as fight for wins with them.”

Allmendinger has one win and 11 top-five finishes in Cup and two Xfinity wins. All three wins were on road courses.

Allmendinger last made laps in NASCAR in the 2018 Cup finale in Miami. He also competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona earlier this year.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: The Motorsports Hour

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America’s The Motorsports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET and will cover multiple forms of auto racing, including NASCAR, IndyCar and more.

Krista Voda hosts with Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger. Our special guest will be American Flat Track racer Briar Bauman.

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.

Meet the No. 1 draft picks in the NASCAR Heat Pro League

Greg Matarazzo
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NASCAR’s race weekend in Phoenix earlier this month was one of many firsts for Slade Gravitt.

It marked the first time the 16-year-old had ever visited a state that didn’t border Georgia. It was also the first time he ever set foot on an airplane.

On March 9, the native of Cumming, Georgia, flew to west to Arizona for where another first was awaiting him: Wood Brothers Racing would select him No. 1 among PlayStation 4 users in the first NASCAR Heat Pro League draft.

“It was a very interesting week because I started off Sunday, Monday questioning if I even had an opportunity or a chance to get drafted,” Gravitt told NBC Sports. “I saw myself as a top-10 driver. I was doing a good bit on social media. I thought I was getting drafted but there’s (what) teams prefer and we didn’t really know what the teams preferred at the moment.”

For the Wood Brothers, they preferred Gravitt’s youth and his “marketability” combined with his ability in the game.

“Then we got a couple of text messages from people at 704 (Games, the producer of the NASCAR Heat series) and people at Wood Brothers saying, ‘Hey, we’re drafting the No. 1 draft pick and flying them down to Phoenix at ISM Raceway,'” Gravitt said.

While it was his first time leaving the Southeast, it wasn’t Gravitt’s first time to attend a NASCAR event, having been to races at Talladega, Charlotte and Atlanta.

Gravitt was raised in a home of NASCAR fans 15 minutes from Bill and Chase Elliott‘s hometown of Dawsonville. His parents, Dana and Michael, were fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott, while his grandfather cheered on Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“My parents, they’re pretty supportive of it,” Gravitt said. “My dad was in the background a good bit of the Pro League draft stream. He loves it, honestly. He’s always telling me, ‘Hey, look at this article’ and stuff like that.”

Even before the Pro League was announced last year, Gravitt was an avid player of NASCAR games. He was also part of a gaming league called The Midnight Broadcasting Network, which streams their races and other games online. Seven members of that group, including Gravitt, were selected in the draft.

But Gravitt was the only one who was drafted in person and got to mingle with the likes of Richard Petty, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard.

“I’m still trying to relive what happened, cause it all went by so fast,” Gravitt said.

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Greg Matarazzo’s journey to being the No. 1 Xbox One player drafted by Chip Ganassi Racing was very different.

Matarazzo, 24, grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey, far from any NASCAR landmark and with parents and friends who didn’t particularly care about auto racing.

He was turned onto NASCAR through the video games “NASCAR Thunder 2003” and “NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona.”

From 7 to 17, he raced himself, competing in go-karts on the grounds of the Somerset County 4H Fair, even earning some trophies in a go-kart with a No. 97 on it inspired by Kurt Busch. But that’s as far as his racing career went.

“It wasn’t really a racing state,” Matarazzo told NBC Sports. “It just wasn’t really something super accessible. … It was just kind of something I enjoyed on my own. My parents weren’t really into racing. We weren’t in the position to start-up a race team and start traveling on the weekends to tracks hours away.”

After high school he started his own clothing brand, Burassi, founded on a batch of 175 shirts he bought with money saved from a job at a pizzeria. In September 2017 he swapped coasts, moving to Los Angeles to operate Burassi full-time.

“The name Burassi is just a made up word,” Matarazzo said. “That’s kind of what the whole brand is about, just creating something out of nothing. I’ve always had an optimistic and creative mindset and perspective on life. I was just like, this is something I like to do so let me just see where it takes me. Seven years later, I’m out here in LA operating from my apartment.”

It was in that apartment on his Xbox where the door was re-opened on Matarazzo’s chances of being part of NASCAR.

“Actually, I’ve been a PlayStation guy my entire life,” Matarazzo said. “But I ended up getting a Xbox literally just so I could play against my roommate on Fortnite so we could play on the same team.”

As soon as Matarazzo saw the announcement for the esports league in December, he realized “this is my shot.

“I had to hop right on there and start qualifying.”

The second domino that led to him being drafted – after getting a Xbox – had fallen a month earlier.

“I got my foot in the door with Elijah,” said Matarazzo, referring to Elijah Burke, a Business Intelligence Coordinator at Chip Ganassi Racing. “I unknowingly hopped in one of his stream races. I guess he saw my username, ‘skrrtBusch’ and he was just like, ‘Yo, that’s a genius name, that’s crazy.'”

After being alerted by another user, Matarazzo did a Twitter search for his username and found a tweet by Burke:

“I sent him a DM (direct message) and we started chatting, and then that kind of had my foot in the door at CGR, and then we kept in touch throughout the whole qualifying process,” Matarazzo said. “I guess I proved myself to them and they ended up drafting me. It’s crazy how if I had never gotten an Xbox none of that would have happened. A little bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time.”

It led to Matarazzo being introduced at the draft by his childhood hero, who had defined his racing career in reality and online.

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What are Gravitt and Matarazzo hoping to get out of the Pro League?

Gravitt has aspirations about someday working in broadcasting or being a chef.

But what if the Pro League and esports in general turns out to be a long-term commitment?

“Of course I’ve thought about that, what my future can be in this being my age,” said Gravitt, who is a junior in high school. “When it started, I just wanted to have some fun with friends and put on a show in a professional manner. … I’m starting to realize my age and skill level could lead to something bigger. I haven’t really thought about an exact answer to that. Best I could say is more opportunities are in my way than someone than who is in their early 20, late 30s.”

While Matarazzo hopes to promote his brand and NASCAR’s, he also wants to pay it forward. He’s thinking of people like himself growing up in New Jersey with no clear path toward being part of NASCAR.

“It’s lowering the barrier of entry,” Matarazzo said. “We’re kind of stomping into uncharted territory with what we’re trying to do here.”

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Martin Truex Jr. has ‘unfinished business’ at Martinsville Speedway

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Something’s gotta give for Martin Truex Jr.

Truex enters this weekend’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway on a quiet hot streak. In the four races since the Daytona 500, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has alternated runner-up finishes at Atlanta and Phoenix, along with eighth-place finishes at Las Vegas and Fontana this past Sunday.

Dating back to the 2018 season finale in Miami Truex has three runner-up finishes in the last six races.

Truex has also placed in the top five nine times since he last won in July at Kentucky Speedway (22 races).

But there’s a good chance Truex can improve his fortunes this weekend with the return to the half-mile track in Martinsville, Virginia.

Truex has top-five finishes in his previous three visits to Martinsville. You may remember the most recent one in October.

Truex started 33rd after his car failed inspection and slowly climbed his way to the front, eventually leading 18 laps. It ended in a riveting duel with Joey Logano over the last few laps and Logano executing a bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn on the last lap.

Truex finished third.

“We’ve certainly got some unfinished business going into Martinsville this weekend,” Truex said in a press release. “It’s a place that wasn’t one of my favorites early in my career, but the last few years, I feel like I’ve really started to get a handle on it.”

Somehow, some way Truex is seeking not only his first Martinsville victory, but his first short-track win in 79 attempts in the Cup Series.

Martinsville has been the short track Truex has come closest to getting a win at. He’s crashed out of the last two races at Bristol and in his last 10 starts there he’s led in just one.

He’s had winning cars at Richmond, but a combination of wrecks and issues on pit road have prevented him from winning after leading more than 675 laps in four of his last five starts there.

So with Truex seeking redemption on multiple fronts with a win – which would be his first for JGR – maybe Martinsville arrived just in time.

“It would mean a lot to win (at Martinsville), especially after how the last race there ended up,” Truex said. “I’m confident that we’ll have a fast SiriusXM Camry this weekend and be right there to have a shot at the end of the race.”