Friday 5: Silly season off to a late start, leaving many questions

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — The anticipation of NASCAR’s Silly Season has been building because of its late arrival.

Wednesday’s announcement that David Ragan would not run full-time in Cup next year and Thursday’s announcement that Matt DiBenedetto was out at Leavine Family Racing after this season kickstarted Silly Season, making it the latest start to the ride-changing season in recent years.

Also Thursday, Erik Jones left little doubt he’ll be in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing next season and a report stated that Christopher Bell will take over the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing.

Many questions remain. Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer could be headed to Cup next season but have not announced where they’ll be. Clint Bowyer’s contract expires after this season, and while there are indications he’ll remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, nothing official has been announced. Kurt Busch signed a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for this season and said after he won in July at Kentucky that “it would be stupid not to keep this group together.”

Those are just among some of the questions this Silly Season. There are other moves that could take place.

But until this week, there had been a lot of talk but little action. 

That’s much different than when Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway two years ago for the August race. By that point, it had already been announced that:

— Matt Kenseth was out at Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2017 season.

Erik Jones would replace Kenseth in that ride in 2018.

Alex Bowman would take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in 2018.

Brad Keselowski had signed a contract extension with Team Penske.

Ryan Blaney was moving to Team Penske in 2018.

Paul Menard was taking over the Wood Brothers ride with Blaney moving

William Byron would drive the No. 24 in 2018

Matt DiBenedetto would remain with Go Fas Racing.

When Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway last August, there were few moves that had been completed. The only announcements to that point were:

Bubba Wallace to remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through 2020.

— Kasey Kahne was retiring from full-time Cup racing.

Wallace’s announcement was in July. Kahne’s announcement was in August.

The decline in announcements to this point is partly on the complexity of completing deals. It’s not just the driver that has to be signed. There has to be enough sponsorship. Until there is, some deals won’t be done. At this rate, actual movement in Silly Season could continue to go deeper into the season. Of course, the talk is always there, even early in the year.

2. Life in the Fast Lane

Bristol Motor Speedway is notorious for nabbing speeders on pit road. And that could play a key role in Saturday night’s Cup race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

There have been at least six speeding penalties in each of the last 10 Cup races at the half-mile track. There were 11 speeding penalties in April’s race, the most at the track since 17 speeding penalties were called in the April 2016 race.

Those racing for the final playoff spots have had their troubles with speeding on pit road at Bristol.

Daniel Suarez, who is six points out of the final playoff spots, has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races. Jimmie Johnson, who is 12 points out of the final playoff spot, also has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races.

Ryan Newman, who has a 10-point lead on the final playoff spot, was penalized for speeding at Bristol in the 2018 night race.

Bristol’s pit road speed is 30 mph, the same as Martinsville Speedway but Martinsville has not had as many speeding penalties in recent races.

So what makes Bristol more troublesome for drivers?

The track has pit stalls on both the frontstretch and backstretch. On pit stops during cautions, drivers must enter pit road at the exit of Turn 2 even if their pits are on the frontstretch, meaning, they must drive down the backstretch pit road and then run below the apron in the corners before entering the frontstretch pit road. It is the turn where drivers can get in trouble with speeds by cutting it too sharply.

“You’re just trying to get everything you can,” Newman said. “You’re cutting that radius and it’s kind of an unspecified science, I guess, of trying to guess the distance and the speed and you only got some much time to practice it and when you get somebody racing you, you push it a little bit and you get caught.”

3. Sure bet (almost)

Kyle Busch has won six of the last 12 short track races in Cup. No one else has won more than once in that time.

He’s finished in the top three in eight of those 12 races. He’s finished eighth or better in all but one of those races. The exception was a 20th-place finish in last year’s night race at Bristol. He spun on Lap 2 and was hit by multiple cars in that race. Later, he had contact with Martin Truex Jr. and then spun with a flat tire with less than 20 laps to go in the race.

Here is a look at his recent finishes on short tracks (wins in bold):

8th — Richmond (April 2019)

1st — Bristol (April 2019)

3rd — Martinsville (March 2019)

4th — Martinsville (October 2018)

1st — Richmond (September 2018)

20th — Bristol (August 2018)

1st — Richmond (April 2018)

1st — Bristol (April 2018)

2nd — Martinsville (March 2018)

1st — Martinsville (October 2017)

9th — Richmond (September 2017)

1st — Bristol (August 2017)

4. A budding rivalry?

Sam Mayer and Chase Cabre have seemingly built quite a rivalry in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.

It’s been cooking for a bit among the title contenders.

In a story Thursday in the Bristol Herald Courier, Cabre said of Mayer: “I think he’s arrogant. Sam and I have talked, and he knows where I stand.”

Cabre also said in the story: “We have an ongoing rivalry, so things will happen and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion. There’s a good guy and bad guy element now between us. Nobody wants to tear up a race car, but it looks like Sam and I are going to be mashing heads for a while.”

It didn’t take long for them to make contact Thursday night.

Cabre spun on the opening lap after contact from Mayer. NASCAR penalized Mayer for the incident, forcing him to restart at the rear. Mayer went on to win the race and had plenty to say afterward about Cabre.

“He just keeps racing me like … you know what,” Mayer said. “I can’t say the word that describes him right now. He definitely does not race me clean. I did not appreciate it at all. It started at Memphis, all the way back there (June 1 in a race won by Cabre). I waited until it really mattered to finally do something and unfortunately I did it big. I wouldn’t want to call it a rivalry.”

Cabre finished eighth. Medics came to his wrecked car after the race and helped him on to a stretcher. After being checked in the infield care center, he was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation. He later tweeted he was suffering from back pain.

5. Leading the way

Since NBC took over broadcasting the Cup races, beginning June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points than Denny Hamlin.

He has scored 273 points in those seven races. He’s followed by Martin Truex Jr. (262 points), Kyle Busch (250), Kevin Harvick (249) and Erik Jones (237).

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Jagger Jones earns K&N West Rookie of the Year honors

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Like grandfather, like father and now like son. Racing success is definitely a tradition in the Jones family.

Jagger Jones has followed in the shoes of his legendary grandfather Parnelli and father P.J., capturing the 2019 Sunoco K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, it was announced Wednesday.

“(Winning Rookie of the Year) and to win races, those were our two main goals,” the youngest Jones, of Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a statement. “I think the whole season we’ve led the Rookie of the Year standings, which is pretty cool, and separated ourselves from the other rookies and got it done.”

Driving for Sunrise Ford and team owner Bob Bruncati, the 17-year-old Jones earned one win, eight top fives and 11 top 10s in the 14-race season. He also earned one pole, led 248 laps and had an average finish of 5.4. He finished second in the overall standings behind champion Derek Krause and three points ahead of third-ranked Hailie Deegan.

MORE: Parnelli Jones’ grandson Jagger set to make own racing mark in K&N debut

Brittney Zamora, driving for Bill McAnally Racing, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

“McAnally versus Sunrise was definitely the race in the West competition wise,” Jones said. “To get that and finish second in the points in my rookie season, I was pretty pleased with that.”

Jones becomes the sixth Sunrise Ford Racing driver in the last 13 years to win the top rookie honors, joining Jason Bowles (2007), Luis Martinez Jr. (2010), Austin Dyne (2012), Dylan Lupton (2013) and James Bickford (2014). Bill McAnally Racing won the top rookie award in each of the last three seasons: Todd Gilliland (2016), Derek Kraus (2017) and Hailie Deegan (2018).

Sam Mayer previously won the K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year award for 2019.

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Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 car in 2020

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JR Motorsports’ revealed Wednesday that Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric will drive its No. 8 Chevrolet for the majority of the 2020 Xfinity Series season, in addition to one race with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel.

Hemric, who drove Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car in the Cup Series this season, is scheduled for 21 races.

RCR is replacing Hemric with Tyler Reddick in 2020.

Hemric returns to the Xfinity Series, where he competed for RCR from 2017-18. He made the Championship 4 in both seasons.

“I want to thank Dale, Kelley and everyone at JR Motorsports for believing in me,” Hemric said in a press release. “For a Kannapolis (N.C.) boy like me, driving for the Earnhardt family is pretty awesome.

“My goal here is simple — to go win races for JR Motorsports and to help their program any way that I can. I’ve raced against their cars before and I know how they’re capable of running. My focus is on finishing the Cup season out strong, but once the checkered flag flies at Homestead, we’ll set our sights on getting the No. 8 car to Victory Lane early and often next season.”

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Daniel is a solid competitor with a great personality. He’ll be a quality addition to our lineup in 2020. We’re lucky to have him. I feel like he has grown as a driver from his time in the Cup Series. That will be valuable to him with this new opportunity to compete in the Xfinity series. He’s a local Kannapolis native with a lot of determination to succeed, and I’m excited to work with him.”

Burton, who has driven in six races for JRM this season, is set for 11 next year.

Other drivers who have piloted the No. 8 for JRM this season included Zane Smith (10 starts), Ryan Truex (six starts), Ryan Preece (four starts), Regan Smith (two starts), Brett Moffitt (one start), Chase Elliott (one start), Sheldon Creed (one start) and Earnhardt (one start).

 

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

On the show will be Rutledge Wood, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan.

Obviously, the main topic of discussion will be this weekend’s championship races, particularly the Cup battle between Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

You can join the conversation by calling 1-844-NASCARNBC 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.

Viewers guide to 2019 Miami Championship Weekend

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Sunday’s Cup Series championship race will be a significant moment in the career of one driver.

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick will each battle for the Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and NASCAR Hot Pass on NBCSN).

For Truex, Busch and Harvick, they have a chance to join Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple titles. One of them would become the 16th Cup driver to win multiple championships.

For Hamlin, he could finally lose his title of the winningest active driver without a championship on his record.

This will be the last scheduled championship weekend in Miami after it has hosted the event since 2002. Next year it will move to ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

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

FUN WITH NUMBERS

The Championship 4 is three against one on multiple levels.

As mentioned, it will feature three past champions going against Hamlin, who will try to win his first title in his 14th year of full-time Cup competition. In his only other Championship 4 appearance in 2014, Hamlin finished third.

Three Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing will be pitted against one Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 driven by Harvick.

“(We need to) beat three Gibbs cars.  Go faster than them,” Harvick said. “We’re going to do everything just like we’ve done all year.”

Three drivers in their 30s – Busch (34 years old), Truex (39) and Hamlin (38) – are going against Harvick, whose 43.

CHAMPIONSHIP BIRTHDAY?

Speaking of ages….

Like everyone else, Hamlin’s birthday falls on the same date every year – Nov. 18.

This year it falls on the day after Hamlin could claim his first title.

“Homestead is always my birthday weekend,” Hamlin said. “I want to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one.”

Hamlin recalled the last time he came this close to a title.

“In 2010 I shut everyone out,” Hamlin said. “Like I didn’t do any of the birthday stuff.  I didn’t hang out with anyone.  I really didn’t respond to calls or texts or anything like that.  But I’m not going to be that way I don’t think this time around because I just am not going to change who I am.”

Should he win the championship by winning Sunday’s race, he’d earn his 38th Cup Series victory on his last day of being 38 years old.

Also, a win Sunday would be Hamlin’s seventh of the season. That would make him the winningest Daytona 500 winner in a season since Jeff Gordon had seven victories in 1999.

RACE WINNER = CHAMPION

This weekend marks the sixth edition of the Cup championship race under the elimination playoff format.

While the championship is simply awarded to the highest-finishing driver out of the Championship 4, each year the champion has won the race.

2014 – Kevin Harvick (led final eight laps)

2015 – Kyle Busch (led eight of final 10 laps)

2016 – Jimmie Johnson (only led final three laps as part of an overtime finish)

2017 – Martin Truex Jr. (led final 51 laps)

2018 – Joey Logano (led final 12 laps after passing Truex)

Should Busch win on Sunday, he would end a 21-race winless streak.

“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is,” Busch said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. … It’s what your whole season comes down to.”

ONE LAST MONSTER MASH

Sunday’s race will be the last that Monster Energy serves as the title sponsor for the Cup Series.

Starting in 2020, the Cup Series will movie to a tiered sponsor system with no title sponsor.

The Cup Series has had a title sponsor since 1971 when Winston entered the role it held until 2003.

Nextel owned the naming rights from 2004-07. Sprint then held the rights through 2016 with Monster taking over in 2017.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

Three drivers who won races in 2018 have a last shot to earn their first victory of this season.

They include Austin Dillon (won the Daytona 500), Clint Bowyer (two wins in 2018) and Aric Almirola (one win).

This will also be Jimmie Johnson’s last opportunity to keep from going winless in two straight seasons. He is winless in the last 94 races (June 2017 at Dover).

UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

Sunday will mark the final full-time Cup starts for Paul Menard and David Ragan.

Both have said they plan to continue racing but suggest it could be in other forms beyond Cup.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will make his 471st Cup start Sunday. While he did not have as much success as others, he’ll be remembered for his quiet demeanor, abstinence from social media and devoted fan base.

Ragan, who won at Daytona in 2011 and Talladega in 2013, will make his 470th Cup start Sunday.

Both began running full-time in 2007 in a rookie class that included Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger. Montoya won rookie of the year honors.

Front Row Motorsports

Ragan said he’s looked at schedules for ARCA and some Late Model races across the country. He also said there are plans for him to drive the Next Gen car next year in some testing.

“Ford Motor Company has been a really good partner of mine and a supporter of my career since day one, and so I’m working with those guys on how I can help the big picture from Ford Performance and how we can work on next year and the Next Generation car as it rolls out,” Ragan said.

Ragan will be driving a throwback paint scheme on his No. 38 Ford. It will look like the car Ragan won with at Talladega with Front Row Motorsports.

MOVING ON 

This weekend will be the last for a handful of drivers in their current rides before they transition to a new team, while others are still without announced plans for beyond Sunday.

Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto will replace Menard in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford.

Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell will succeed DiBenedetto in LFR’s No. 95 Toyota.

Rookie Daniel Hemric is being replaced by Richard Childress Racing in its No. 8 Chevrolet with Tyler Reddick next season. Hemric will drive for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 21 race in its No. 8 car.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez has not announced his plans for next season. The 2016 Xfinity champion will end his third Cup season on Sunday.

JTG Daugherty Racing and Roush Fenway Racing will be swapping drivers after the Miami race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. go from driving Roush’s No. 17 Ford to JTG Daugherty to replace Chris Buescher. Meanwhile, Buescher will return to Roush after five years away to drive the No. 17.

Rookie Matt Tifft will not be back in Front Row Motorsports’ No. 36 Ford. He can’t commit to racing next year after he suffered a seizure last month. He’s missed the last two races while John Hunter Nemechek has competed in his place. Nemechek will be in the car this weekend.

NEW TIRE

All three national series will compete on a new tire set-up compared to what was used at this track last year.

This is the same combination of left and right-side tires each series ran at Chicagoland and those in the Cup and Xfinity Series ran at Darlington this season.

This left and right-side tire features construction updates to align with what is run at other speedways, while this right-side tire takes teams from a multi-zone tread tire to a single zone tire and will increase grip.

“The compounds we will be running provide plenty of grip, but also offer the endurance needed on Homestead’s track surface,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, in a press release.  “These high wear tracks put on some of our best races, and the past several years at Homestead have proven that.  Tire fall-off creates more ‘comers’ and ‘goers’ over the course of a long run, which means more passing and tire management being an important element of the race.”

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 night. Defending champion Brett Moffitt, two-time champion Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen will compete for the title.

The Xfinity Series will race Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Cole CusterChristopher BellTyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier will compete for the crown. Reddick won this race last year to claim the championship

This will be the final full-time Xfinity starts for Bell and Reddick before the jump to the Cup Series next year.