Who has the edge? Here’s what the title contenders say

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — There are no Cinderellas in today’s Cup championship race. The four drivers racing for the title were the best throughout the season.

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch combined to win 21 of the 35 races this season (60%), including some of the sport’s biggest races: Hamlin won the Daytona 500, Harvick won the Brickyard 400 and Truex won the Coca-Cola 600.

As they enter today’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, each driver was asked by NBC Sports what gives them the edge over the other three title contenders.

This is what they said:

Denny Hamlin: “I think I possess the want. I can assure you there will be no other driver that wants it as bad as I do.”

Kevin Harivck: “I think we have the full attention of our whole organization in one car, and we’ve been there and we’ve done that. Even when you look at the other three teams, our group has been together a long time; we’ve been on the same team for a long time; we have the stability and the experience as a group within the same organization for six years now. So that stability and experience pays off, in my opinion.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s hard to know. I mean I feel like this of all the years, I feel like this is the most up in the air because Homestead is such a different racetrack than anything we’ve been on this season and one of the great parts about this race and this format is Homestead, we haven’t been here since last year. The tires are different, the cars are different, you don’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns, so I think my advantage is my team and our ability to no matter what happens throughout the weekend, our ability to hit it for the race and know what we have to do and not afraid to make changes. Not afraid to swing for the fences. I think that’s our advantage, that’s how we win races. Usually when we win, we don’t have a great practice. We get together and we have serious conversation and the boys go to work and sometimes they hit it out of the park, hopefully this is another one of those days.”

Kyle Busch: Martin’s been really, really good these last few years with Cole Pearn, I’ve been good with Adam Stevens, Kevin Harvick’s been really, really good with Rodney Childers, and of course Denny’s got the new guy on the block with Chris Gabehart, so you know it’s interesting with the crew chief and driver dynamic the way that it’s kind of been but overall it just comes down to how you always work together and it’s anyone’s race really, so I don’t know that anybody has a leg up.”

NBC’s coverage begins with NASCAR America at 1:30 p.m. ET today. Countdown to Green airs at 2 p.m. ET. Race coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET. NBCSN also will have NASCAR Hot Pass that will provide in-depth coverage of the championship contenders at 3 p.m. ET.

Richard Childress Racing names crew chief for No. 21 Xfinity car

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday that Andy Street has been promoted to crew chief for the No. 21 Xfinity car that will feature drivers Myatt Snider, Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala this season.

Street has been with RCR for 16 years. He joined the team as a design and test engineer. He served as an engineer in Cup, scoring 10 wins with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Most recently, Street’s role was as an engineer in the Xfinity Series. His duties included R&D work as a design engineer specializing on chassis and suspension systems.

“Andy is a brilliant design engineer, who has spent a lot of time and effort at RCR over the past 16 years,” said Andy Petree, vice president of competition, in a statement from the team. “When Andy stepped into the Xfinity Series crew chief role in Richmond Raceway last fall, I was very impressed with how he went about the weekend running and leading the race team. He proved he is worthy of this role. He’ll be the perfect complement to both Justin Alexander and Randall Burnett because of his engineering background and having worked with both of these guys on the R&D side of the company.”

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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