Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

Martins Motorsports adds sponsorship to No. 44 Xfinity car

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Martins Motorsports announced Tuesday that it has renewed a partnership with Gilreath Farms Red Angus for the 2020 Xfinity Series.

Gilreath Farms and AAN Adjusters, which also is owned by Ken Gilreath, will be the primary sponsor of the No. 44 Xfinity car for 25 races this season. Gilreath Farms sponsored Martins for a race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2018 when Martins drove for BJ McLeod Motorsports.

“Having Gilreath Farms Red Angus on the car again is special,” Martins said in a statement. “This is really where my partnership with Ken started in 2018, so to see his commitment to us this year…I mean I’ve said it before, it completely changes our entire outlook for this season. It’s really special.”

The first race for the Red Angus Chevrolet will be at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Truck Series playoffs expands to 10 teams

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The playoffs for the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series will expand from eight to 10 drivers in 2020, NASCAR announced Tuesday.

Two teams will be eliminated after the first round and four eliminated after second round.

How each round of the playoffs will unfold:

Round of 10: World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Bristol Motor Speedway

Round of 8: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Martinsville Speedway

Championship 4: Phoenix Raceway

“Expanding the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series playoff field to 10 is a win-win for drivers, teams and, most importantly, the passionate fans who support our Gander Trucks,” Truck Series Managing Director Brad Moran said in a statement from NASCAR. “This will only increase the competitive intensity this series offers, as more drivers and teams vie for one of the most coveted championships in all of racing.”

Had there been 10 drivers allowed in last year’s playoffs, ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes and Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Harrison Burton would have gotten those spots. KBM did not have any drivers in the playoffs.

The first two races of the playoffs, at Gateway and Canada, will feature the new pit road rules for standalone races in the Truck and Xfinity Series.

Reports: Daniel Suarez to drive for Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Multiple reports state that Daniel Suarez will drive the No. 96 Cup car for Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020.

The team has not made any an announcement.

Toby Christie reported Friday at tobychristie.com that a deal was done for Suarez to drive the full Cup season for Gaunt Brothers Racing. Motorsport.com reported Monday that Suarez would join Gaunt Brothers Racing for the full season.

Suarez would replace Parker Kligerman, who confirmed to NBC Sports on Friday that he would not return to the No. 96 car this season.

This would be the fourth Cup season for Suarez. He drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017-18 before being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. Suarez moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 and was replaced after the season by rookie Cole Custer.

Suarez continues to seek his first Cup win. He has eight top-five and 32 top-10 finishes in 108 Cup starts. He won the 2016 Xfinity title, a year after winning rookie of the year honors in that series.

Gaunt Brothers Racing debuted in 2017, running one race with D.J. Kennington. The team ran 22 races the following year between Kligerman, D.J. KenningtonJeffrey Earnhardt and Jesse Little. The team ran 15 races last year with Drew Herring running once along with Kligerman’s 14 starts.

HighPoint to sponsor Chase Briscoe in multiple Xfinity Series races

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Chase Briscoe will have a new sponsor in 2020 in HighPoint.com, a customer service and technology solutions company, Stewart-Haas Racing announced Tuesday.

Briscoe, who returns for a second full-time Xfinity Series season with SHR, will have HighPoint as a primary sponsor on his No. 98 Ford for 10 races. The Sparta, New Jersey-based company will make its debut with the Feb. 15 season opener at Daytona.

For all other races, HighPoint will be an associate sponsor.

“Even though we race stock cars, there’s nothing stock about what we do,” Briscoe said in a press release. “The science of our cars is impressive, but the technology that goes into building our Ford Mustangs and then making them perform is even more advanced. Our IT needs are pretty complex, and we demand a lot from our technology every day, whether it’s at the shop or at the track. HighPoint is more than just a sponsor – they’re a partner that helps us perform.”

As part of the deal, HighPoint will be the team’s official IT solutions provider.

“Walk around our race shop during the week and the garage area on a race weekend and you’ll see how our race cars and our entire industry relies on technology,” Mike Verlander, SHR’s vice president of sales and marketing, said in a press release. “From engine diagnostics to fuel-mileage calculations, our business is dependent on service and technology solutions. Every company needs what HighPoint provides, and we’ll work diligently to facilitate those introductions.”