Ryan: Celebrate the Roval’s sublime silliness but with a little less circus

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CONCORD, N.C. – Chase Elliott plowed into the Turn 1 barrier with enough force to set off the airbags in a road car … and then won the race 44 laps later.

The world’s best drivers skidded on nearly every lap through two tricky speed traps on a superspeedway originally designed to push mph limits to the max.

Crew chiefs deviously plotted to game the system by determining whether it’s smarter to skip required sections of the course and instead serve stop and go penalties.

The beguiling mix of madness and mayhem reaffirmed that Sunday brought another witnessing of Peak NASCAR at its most irresistibly entertaining and, yes, silly.

The Roval is 17 turns and 2.32 miles of big, dumb fun, but it also was a brilliant and bold masterstroke by Marcus Smith (with a playoff cutoff race scheduling assist by NASCAR) to make Charlotte Motor Speedway’s fall race relevant again.

The notion of, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for saving the bland night racing on our historic 1.5-mile oval … let’s turn it into a quasi-street course that automatically becomes the toughest track in NASCAR’s premier series!” is an inspired stroke of counterintuitive genius.

It is innovative because it is so goofy in so many ways.

Train racing and Figure 8s never will make their way to Cup (we think), so the Roval will have to serve as the nearest cousin to the Saturday night short track creations that put stock car racing in its own league of necessary craziness.

NASCAR, a soap opera on wheels that has been renewed into its eighth decade, often is at its most appealing when it perilously straddles the line between circus and sport.

While other series such as IndyCar and Formula 1 toe a much harder line on competitive purity (and marshal its rules under the direction of strict stewards), NASCAR always has titled more toward seat-of-the-pants entertainment. That’s not just in its approach to determining championships but also in race management and the willingness to embrace virtually anything (Stages! Double-file restarts! All-you-can-eat Green-white-checkered finishes!) that can enhance “the show.”

They are different philosophies to approaching auto racing, and neither is wrong.

But one certainly is more haphazard.

And the Roval is the racing embodiment of NASCAR at its most gloriously shambolic.

“Hybrid” often is used to describe the abrupt connections of temporary chicanes, off-cambered corners and narrow transitions that don’t flow nearly as well as any natural terrain road course of sloped elevation changes and wide runoff areas.

This is the Dr. Frankenstein monster of a road course, but that doesn’t mean it’s a blight on racing. No less an authority than the legendary Mario Andretti proclaimed the road course as a gem with “phenomenal” sightlines as good as any in motorsports.

Another way to describe the Roval – and a term used quite often the past two years in the garages at Charlotte– is that it’s a delightful @#%!show that delivers the kind of nonstop unpredictability (the leader has wrecked on a restart two consecutive years!) and emotional bonanza that NASCAR was built upon.

Though both editions of this race have been mesmerizing, what happened afterward – whether it’s Bubba Wallace splashing an ailing Alex Bowman with Powerade while Chase Elliott channeled Russell Crowe in a victory celebration, or Jimmie Johnson and the series holding its collective breath while the 2018 playoff standings were tabulated – also measures up as just as compelling.

But there is a major caveat to all the goodness derived from chaos.

It’s possible to have too much awesome fun.

Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, underscored this during a Monday interview on SiriusXM NASCAR’s The Morning Drive. Gordon said his team explored if it might be better to blow through the backstretch chicane (i.e. at the roughly 170 mph-plus speeds of the Coca-Cola 600) rather than properly driving through.

Consider how much wilder – and probably untenable – the action would have been if NASCAR hadn’t foiled this nefarious plan by clarifying that any advance of position by cutting a chicane would result in a pass-through penalty (and not just the usual stop and go for missing it).

That was good preemptive officiating by NASCAR, which also did a fine job of managing the chicanes during Sunday’s race and ensuring the many offenders were punished.

But the news wasn’t so good with caution flags. There were at least four spins (including Alex Bowman making contact with Bubba Wallace on the first lap) that somehow didn’t merit a yellow, meaning that roughly for every two cautions for spins, there was at least one spin that wasn’t a yellow.

Two of the cautions were for single-car spins in which neither car needed assistance or was damaged in a way that scattered debris – both usually the conditions for a road-course caution.

Because NASCAR doesn’t employ “local” yellows (in which conditions apply only to a section of the track), the importance of being consistent is paramount in being fair to teams. It’s akin to an umpire establishing a strike zone by the end of the first inning and sticking to it: If there’s a spin that’s a caution, all similar spins also must be yellows.

Things are way less fun amidst the confusion of guessing when the yellows will fly.

There also were multiple instances in which NASCAR struggled to get the order correct, namely a caution in which Elliott started three spots behind Kevin Harvick despite beating him out of the pits. There also were an agonizing four laps of yellow between Stages 1 and 2 because the field couldn’t be reordered for a one-lap restart (despite coming off a harmless single-car spin).

As righteously difficult as the Roval is to navigate and strategize for drivers and crew chiefs, it is proving just as hard for NASCAR to manage.

While 17 turns are a lot to monitor, the size and scope of the track aren’t a valid excuse for struggling to adjudicate the race (NASCAR does just fine with Road America’s 4.2-mile track). NASCAR is reviewing the possibility of adding spotters around the Roval to help make calls more efficiently and quickly. That’s good, because there’s much more at stake.

Complicating the balance of entertainment and integrity is that this is a playoff race. Everyone’s game – officials included – must be raised to withstand the greater scrutiny.

The circus is fun, but next year, please send in a few less clowns and a few more corner workers to help ensure consistency with calling the caution flags.

Because there assuredly will be many in this big, dumb and massively fun race that has become one of the most unlikely treats of the Cup season.


Forgotten after Sunday’s unforgettable race was that IndyCar and NASCAR seemed to take another major step toward each other with Josef Newgarden’s six hot laps around Charlotte’s road course generating lots of buzz and positive chatter.

IndyCar doesn’t resume until March 2020, but NASCAR already should be targeting a race where it can have a star (preferably a former champion) working the paddock … or maybe even turning laps the way Newgarden did at Charlotte.

That’ll help build the momentum for the doubleheader discussion that has a lot of big names talking (“Why wouldn’t we bring those guys to race with our sport and join ours? I think it’s a great idea,” Clint Bowyer said on NASCAR America last week) but still needs to convince some major domos on both sides.

IndyCar has indicated a willingness to race on Saturday nights and allow NASCAR to have the Sunday slot – a compromise that should help engender an American motorsports extravaganza on a single weekend.

What we would like to see: Two doubleheaders. One certainly should be in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with NASCAR taking second billing on the layout for the Indy Grand Prix.

The second preferably would be at the Roval (with NASCAR in the prime slot), but that will require some schedule reworking. That might naturally happen for other reasons, though, by 2022 (or maybe even ’21)

Other tracks that have been bandied about as possibilities are Richmond Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway, both of which will play host to both series next year (Phoenix Raceway also would be an option if IndyCar worked out a return).

Another possibility? Daytona International Speedway, which once played host to IMSA and NASCAR on the same July race weekend. Using the track’s road course and oval on consecutive days could allow for both NASCAR and IndyCar to showcase themselves without worrying about the optics of speed disparities between the series on the same course.

Imagine a pair of doubleheaders at the country’s two most famous racetracks: Indianapolis and Daytona.


Another way to build IndyCar-NASCAR collaboration? Loosen the testing restrictions that both series have to make exceptions. Though Newgarden has talked openly about a ride swap (or just racing a Cup car in general), Team Penske president Tim Cindric explained that “it’s hard to get approval for these things.

“The testing schedule is so difficult, and the teams are so competitive,” Cindric said. “Everyone gets some advantage by (Newgarden) driving a Cup car or an Xfinity car or Joey (Logano) in an Indy car.

“You can maybe do one once in a while, but they’re all looking at what advantage are you gaining by doing that? There’s something to be said in all these series for drivers who aren’t in that series being able to run and try things. Maybe more openness to that would help some situations. It’s very difficult from where I sit aside from the financial perspective to do something productive and give them a chance where it’s not a boondoggle but a real chance to experience it.”

Beyond being a great experience, lest we forget the NASCAR-Formula 1 ride swaps of Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya at Indy in 2003 and Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton at Watkins Glen International in 2011 were terrific exposure opportunities, too, and they helped attract nontraditional media.


NASCAR should sit down with Bubba Wallace for splashing Powerade in Alex Bowman’s face after Sunday’s race. It was a regrettable move (even if it instantly became stock footage for all future promotional feud reels), particularly with innocent bystanders also being sprayed (a sticky situation for Pepsi endorser Jeff Gordon to be unwillingly doused with a chief rival’s product).

But when executive vice president Steve O’Donnell announced he would be talking to Wallace … shouldn’t he have added that NASCAR officials also will be sitting down Bowman, who wrecked Wallace without compunction solely for having the temerity to wave his middle finger at him (because Wallace had crashed Bowman on the first lap)?

Yes, Bowman was sitting on the ground in a semi-prone position that left him mostly defenseless. But he wasn’t undergoing any medical treatment beyond having water poured on his head, and Wallace took no action that could have hurt Bowman.

The harm that Bowman potentially could have done to Wallace at speed during the race was far greater. Even in a low-speed corner, hooking a car in the right rear to send it driver’s side into a wall and then boasting about it with impunity afterward sends a message that’s about as positive as confronting a competitor in distress postrace.


Speaking of discussions involving Bowman and Wallace, we may never learn what was briefly said between the two after the Roval.

But upon a slo-mo, Zapruder-esque review (and help from some lip-readers) of multiple camera angles of the video above (watch at the 1:11 and 1:36 marks), it would seem to be a less than friendly greeting from Bowman punctuated by a vulgarity.

That’s not meant to excuse Wallace’s reaction, but the context probably should be considered in any full analysis (by NASCAR, media, fans, etc.) about what happened.


In the new Dale Jr. Download podcast, the eponymous host makes another plea to repave Bristol Motor Speedway with asphalt (as it was in its pre-concrete days).

Marcus Smith, chairman of the company that owns Bristol and the guest on the podcast, tries to placate Earnhardt by saying, “Maybe we’ll have a dirt race at Bristol one day.

“Wow!” Dale Jr. says. “Dirt race at Bristol!”

“I’m going to call it the Dale Jr. Invitational,” Smith replies.

That’s pretty funny stuff … though are we sure Smith is kidding about his plans for a track that once played host to a World of Outlaws race?

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‘s future is cloudy. Richard Childress Racing is replacing him in its No. 8 Chevrolet with Tyler Reddick next season and Hemric hasn’t announced what he’ll do next year.

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.

Truck Series Championship 4 Outlook

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Two past champions and two drivers who won their first Gander Outdoors Truck Series races this year are primed to battle for the championship Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Led by defending champion Brett Moffitt, the Championship 4 consists of Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen.

There are no upstart phenoms in this group of drivers, where the average age is 33. The veterans came out on top. But who will be the last one standing?

Here’s a breakdown of each driver.

Matt Crafton (No. 88 Ford for ThorSport Racing)

Wins: None

Career Playoff wins: Two

Miami Record: Three top fives in 18 starts, including his win in 2014 to claim his second championship.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Crafton did everything he needed to short of winning a race this season to make the title race. He enters Miami with three top 10s in the playoffs and only one DNF through 22 races.

Outlook: It’s entirely possible Crafton could claim his third Truck Series title this weekend without having won a single race this season. In fact, he hasn’t won since the 2017 race at Eldora. The last time a national series driver won a title without a win was Austin Dillon with his Xfinity championship in 2013. Crafton will try to do it as the only Ford driver going against three Chevrolets.

“Just beat the other three guys,” Crafton said Friday night. “At the end of the day, just go out there and just make your truck the best you can in practice and Homestead’s always such an interesting one just because you have so much tire wear, you get so much tire falloff and you get one set of tires in practice. You have one shot to get the balance of your truck good. … But at the end of the day we know what trucks we’ll be racing for a championship.”

 

Brett Moffitt (No. 24 Chevrolet for GMS Racing)

Wins: Four (Iowa, Chicago, Bristol, Canada)

Career Playoff Wins: Four (two this season)

Miami Record: Will make his second Truck start at the track following his win there last year to claim the title. Finished 31st and 36th in his two Cup Series starts.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Led the final 27 laps at Bristol and survived three restarts in that span to fend off Chandler Smith and Chastain for the win.

Outlook: Could become the second Truck Series driver to claim back-to-back titles, following Crafton’s 2013-14 reign. Regardless of the outcome Friday, Moffitt won’t have to worry about his career prospects. After proving GMS Racing’s decision to go with him over Johnny Sauter was the right one, he’ll be back in the No. 24 next season.

“I think it’s a different type of pressure,” Moffitt said Friday. “Last year (was) ‘What if I don’t get the opportunity again?’ type of pressure. Where this year is I need to perform for those who gave me this opportunity and that’s the Gallagher family and everyone at GMS. They’re working as hard as they possibly can to give me fast Silverados week-in and week-out. Anything short of winning a championship will be a disappointment for all of us. We feel like we have the best opportunity to do it. We feel like we have the best people to do it.”

 

Ross Chastain (No. 45 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports)

Wins: Three (Kansas, Gateway, Pocono)

Career Playoff Wins: None

Miami Record: Best finish in five Truck Series starts is eighth in 2013 while driving for Brad Keselowski Racing. Finished 16th last year with Niece Motorsports.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Got a late start on the points race after he switched his points declaration from Xfinity to Trucks after eight races in the Truck season. Checked off every box mandated by NASCAR to become playoff eligible, earning two wins in the process and scrapped his way into the Championship 4 without a playoff win.

Outlook: Chastain has everything to prove and nothing to lose Friday night. Eleven months since he lost a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series, Chastain has a shot at his first NASCAR title. Chastain will compete full-time in the Xfinity Series in 2020 with Kaulig Racing.

“Bet ya’ll didn’t expect to see me here … A dream come true,” Chastain said after he finished ninth in Phoenix. “My team owner Al (Niece) just said it best, he said ‘Why stop now?'”

 

Stewart Friesen (No. 52 Chevrolet for Halmar Racing)

Wins: Two (Eldora, Phoenix)

Career Playoff Wins: One

Miami Record: Three starts with finishes of seventh and fourth the last two years.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): After a penalty at the start of the Phoenix race for beating the pole-sitter to the start-finish line, Friesen bounced back and held off Brandon Jones to claim his first win on asphalt and advance to the Championship 4.

Outlook: Friesen and Halmar Racing didn’t compete in NASCAR until 2016. They’ve won their first two races this season and are one race away from a championship. Like Brett Moffitt last year, we can’t help but speculate it’s because of the mustache.

“We’ve got our favorite truck we’re running next week that we’ve gotten a lot of time under our belt with,” Friesen said following his win. “It’s going to be a tough race, obviously. It gets tough to pass at Homestead. The tire falloff is huge. It falls off lap-to-lap. You can go out and start a run, you’re wide open for a lap. Then it backs up, backs up, backs up. Then you get right up on the boards. You got to work that air bubble and there’s a lot of stuff you can manipulate at Homestead to help yourself out that I’ve learned the last (three races there). It’s a gritty race track paved with the aggregate of the area. It looks like you’re racing on sea shells, that’s what it is. That’s what the pavement plants have there. It’s cool and it’s exciting. ”

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Matt Tifft, Front Row Motorsports part ways so Tifft can ‘focus on my health’

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Front Row Motorsports and driver Matt Tifft announced Wednesday they have decided to end their agreement so that Tifft can focus on his health.

Tifft, a rookie in the Cup Series, said he can’t commit to racing in 2020 following his seizure at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 26.

Tifft has been replaced by John Hunter Nemechek in the No. 36 Ford for the last two races and this weekend’s season finale in Miami.

Tifft, 23, had surgery to remove a tumor in his brain on July 21, 2016. Tifft said on Nov. 3 at Texas Motor Speedway that scans of the area where the tumor was located looked good. Tifft has shared his process since the seizure on social media.

Jeff Dennison, senior director of sales and marketing for Front Row Motorsports, said then Tifft had a two-year agreement with the team and it planned to honor that.

Statement from Matt Tifft:

“I’ve made the decision to focus on my health and there is no rush or timetable to get back behind the wheel. Because of that, I can’t commit to racing full-time in 2020. I can’t say when I’ll be ready to race again, but I believe I will come back. I love this sport, the people, and I would like to be a part of it next year in some capacity.

“I want to thank Bob Jenkins, Jerry Freeze and the entire Front Row Motorsports organization for allowing me to live my dream of racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. They are great people and it’s been awesome to race there. I look forward to what’s next in racing when the time is right.”

Statement from Bob Jenkins, Owner, Front Row Motorsports:

“Matt has always shown us a lot of determination and courage. He’s a fighter and I believe, like him, that he’ll return to driving. For now, we support Matt and his need to focus on his health and his family. Racing will be there when it’s time. We want to thank Matt and his family for being a part of Front Row Motorsports and helping us continue to grow.”

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Who is the championship favorite by the numbers? Miami’s tale of the tape

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The odds for the four championship contenders in NASCAR’s premier series have Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. virtually listed as co-favorites.

The statistics indicate why.

Across a bevy of numerical criteria, there isn’t much separation among the drivers in the championship round of the 2019 playoffs.

The staff at Racing Insights, which provides in-depth statistical analysis of NASCAR for NBC Sports and other media outlets, ranked the drivers 1-4 in 16 categories and listed Harvick as its favorite by the numbers, just ahead of Truex, Busch and Hamlin.

Courtesy of research compiled by Racing Insights, here’s the tale of the tape for Sunday’s championship battle on the 1.5-mile oval of Homestead-Miami Speedway.


CAREER STATISTICS:

Driver                Age       Starts    Poles     Wins     Top 5     Top 10   Laps led  Avg. finish


Kyle Busch          34          533        31          55          199        295       17,311         13.65

Denny Hamlin      38          505        33          37          161        258       10,143         13.65

Kevin Harvick       43          681        31          49          205        361       13,993         13.01

Martin Truex Jr.    39          512        19          26          101        204         8,803         15.76


HEAD TO HEAD IN 2019:

Truex was the highest finisher of the four drivers in 12 of the past 35 races (including four of the past 10 races). Busch was the highest finisher 10 times (none in the past 11), Hamlin seven times (four of the past six) and Harvick six (once in the past seven).


CHAMPIONSHIP EXPERIENCE:

Harvick (2014, ’15, ’17, ’18, ’19) and Busch (’15-19) each have reached the final round at Miami in five of the six years since this structure began in 2014. This is the fourth appearance for Truex (’15, ’17, ’18, ’19) and second for Hamlin (’14, ’19).


BEST CAREER ON 1.5-MILE TRACKS:

Harvick has the most victories (16) and pole positions (13) and best average finish (12.28), beating out Busch (13 wins, nine poles, 13.47), Truex (12 wins, seven poles, 13.39) and Hamlin (nine wins, six poles, 14.09)


BEST ON 1.5-MILE TRACKS IN 2019:

Truex and Hamlin have two wins apiece, but Truex gets the nod on average finish (8.3 to Hamlin’s 11.9). Harvick (one win) is second in average finish (8.7) ahead of Busch (10.5), the only contender without a win on 1.5-mile tracks this season.


BEST AT MIAMI:

Hamlin has two wins while the other three also have one apiece. Harvick easily leads in average finish (6.56) with 16 top 10s and 10 top fives in 18 starts ahead of Hamlin (10.57 average finish and nine top 10s in 14 starts), Truex (10.79 average finish and nine top 10s in 14 starts) and Busch (17.43 average finish and seven top 10s in 14 starts).


BEST IN 2019 PLAYOFFS:

Based on wins, Truex has been tops by winning three of the first nine races for a 6.22 average finish that puts him ahead of Hamlin (two wins, 8.78 average finish) and Harvick (one win, 6.11 average finish). Busch is winless with a 12.11 average finish.


BEST IN 2019 SEASON:

Truex has the most wins (seven) over Hamlin (six). Busch (four wins) has the most top 10s (26) and best average finish (9.17), putting him ahead of Harvick, who also has four wins but does have the most poles (six, twice as many as Hamlin).


BEST DRIVER/CREW CHIEF PAIRING:

The combinations of Kyle Busch-Adam Stevens and Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers each have 26 victories, but Busch and Stevens have a better winning percentage (16 percent in 163 starts vs. 13.3 percent for Harvick-Childers in 211 starts). Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn have 24 wins in 178 starts (13.5 percent) while Chris Gabehart and Denny Hamlin have won six of their 36 starts together (35 this season; one in 2017).


FASTEST PIT CREW:

Kyle Busch’s No. 18 ranked first during the season (14.083 seconds per four-tire stop) and playoffs (13.718). Harvick had the sixth-fastest crew this season (14.39) and 10th in the playoffs (14.357), Truex’s was eighth in the season (14.606) and seventh in the playoffs (14.145), and Hamlin’s was 10th in the season (14.687) and ninth in the playoffs (14.336).


FEWEST MISTAKES BY PIT CREW:

Limiting errors to speeding, tire and safety violations and driving through too many stalls (and omitting penalties involving damaged cars), Harvick’s team had the least number of penalties for errors with five, followed by Truex (six), Busch (seven) and Hamlin (nine).