Analyzing Cup Championship 4 contenders

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Will it be a first-time Cup champion or a repeat winner? The continuation of a legacy? Or the end of countless heartbreak?

Sunday’s Cup Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC), lacks a heavy favorite with Kevin Harvick not advancing.

The storylines, though are just as fascinating.

Chase Elliott seeks to follow his Hall of Fame father’s footsteps and win his first championship. Denny Hamlin, the oldest Championship 4 contender this year at age 39, also seeks his first crown. For the first time, Team Penske has placed more than one car in the title race. Former champs Brad Keselowski (2012) and Joey Logano (2018) each seek their second title and join an exclusive group of multi-time series champions.

“The big thing from talking to dad that I feel like he’s kind of mentioned is just enjoy these moments because these aren’t things you can take for granted,” Elliott said of conversations with 1988 champion Bill Elliott. “You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right?”

For the first time in the seven years of the playoff format, the Championship 4 race will not include Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. All three have been in the title race each of the past three seasons (2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019).

“I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times,” Logano said of his fourth title race appearance. “That’s great. It shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that. But the trophy is what it’s about.”

Here is how the Cup Championship 4 contenders compare:

CHASE ELLIOTT

Age: 24

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Crew chief: Alan Gustafson

Wins: 4 in 2020 (10 in career)

Charlotte II

Daytona Road Course

Charlotte Road Course (playoffs)

Martinsville II (playoffs)

Speeding Penalties in 2020: 3 (Darlington I, New Hampshire, Talladega II)

Championship notes: Making his first Championship 4 appearance. He could become the third youngest Cup champion if he wins the title. Only Bill Rexford (age 23 in 1950) and Jeff Gordon (age 24 in 1995) would have won titles at a younger age. Crew chief Alan Gustafson has three wins with three different drivers at Phoenix (Kyle Busch in 2005, Mark Martin in 2009 and Jeff Gordon in 2011).

PHOENIX

— Elliott is winless in nine Cup starts at Phoenix.

— His best Cup finish at Phoenix is second in the Nov. 2017 race.

— He finished seventh in the March race, leading a race-high 93 laps. A loose front left wheel forced him to pit from the lead on Lap 156 of the 316-lap race. He lost a lap but got back on the lead lap less than 40 laps later.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Elliott says: I feel like when we’ve been at our best, I feel like we’ve competed with the best in the series. I think if we do the right things, make the right calls throughout the week, the right adjustments and tweaks on the car from that first race, there’s no reason why I don’t think we can go and have a shot.”

Gustafson says: “I think each one of the crew chiefs have their strengths, each one of the teams have their strengths, and they’re all different. Each competitor has a different area that they excel at. It’s going to be all about who can optimize their strengths the most, shield their weaknesses the most. It’s going to be an interesting part of the dynamic. I think everybody kind of has tendencies, they have strengths and weaknesses. I think we all know what those are. We’ll do the best we can to compete and take advantage of them.

Nate Ryan’s analysis: NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was unusually emotive after the Martinsville victory because his team seized the moment as never before. The normally taciturn Elliott says he is letting himself enjoy that validation, and he seems to be in a relaxed yet focused frame of mind for a title pursuit.

Dustin Long’s analysis: A championship by Elliott in the final race for Jimmie Johnson as a full-time Cup competitor could be viewed as the passing of the torch from one champion to the next. NASCAR has been known for its storybook finishes and what a way it would be to end the 2020 season. Team must avoid mistakes to have that chance.

DENNY HAMLIN

Age: 39

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Crew chief: Chris Gabehart

Wins: 7 in 2020 (44 in career)

Daytona 500

Darlington II

Miami

Pocono II

Kansas I

Dover I

Talladega II (playoffs)

Speeding Penalties in 2020: 4 (Las Vegas I, Charlotte II, Richmond, Talladega II)

Championship notes: Hamlin is the only driver who was in last year’s Championship 4 race to make it back this year. If he wins the race to claim the title, it will tie his career-high for victories in a season. In the four races since his Talladega playoff win, Hamlin has not finished better than ninth. 

PHOENIX

— Finished 20th in the March race after his car was damaged in an incident between Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski.

— In a must-win situation last November, he triumphed at Phoenix to advance to the championship race.

— Has 13 top-five finishes in 30 career Cup stats at Phoenix.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Hamlin says: I don’t think that our competition underestimates us at all. I think that our results haven’t been very good over the last 10 weeks, but I think our performance has been good. They are not mutually exclusive. I think when you have so many elements that goes into your finishing position, you have to have all of them aligned for it all to come together to equal one. But I think our on‑track performance has been ‑‑ I think through the playoffs, we’ve led as many laps as ‑‑ we average it all out, we’ve led as many laps and won as many races ‑‑ maybe not won as many races but been in contention to win as many as we have all year. I think it’s unlikely anyone considers us an underdog, especially our competition.”

Gabehart says: “You certainly got to learn from your mistakes and your successes, right? That’s part of getting better. It’s definitely not in my mind. I’m not concerned of making those same issues again (too much tape added to Hamlin’s car in last year’s finale). I can tell you we’ve learned from them. For better or worse, we’re going to put our best foot forward, give Denny the best platform we can as a race team to go out and perform, then we’re going to let him perform. I’m looking forward to that opportunity. I think we’ll have a great shot at it.”

Nate Ryan’s analysis: If he comes up short of a first championship again, Hamlin already has a prepared concession speech that admirably looks at the bright side. No one would refuse being in the company of Mark Martin and Junior Johnson. But titles remain career-defining, and Hamlin desperately wants this one.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Once viewed as a leading title contender, Hamlin comes into this race with little momentum. This team overcame the odds to win at Phoenix last year to make the title race and will need another such performance to win this year’s title.

 

BRAD KESELOWSKI

Age: 36

Team: Team Penske

Crew chief: Jeremy Bullins

Wins: 4 in 2020 (34 in career)

Coke 600

Bristol I

New Hampshire

Richmond

Speeding Penalties in 2020: 3 (Bristol I, Atlanta, Martinsville II)

Championship notes: Brad Keselowski has won the last two races (New Hampshire and Richmond) that used the tire compound that will be run this weekend at Phoenix. Keselowski led 53.6% of the laps in those two races. He will have the same car at Phoenix as he raced at New Hampshire and Richmond. The 2012 champion would become the 17th driver in series history to win multiple titles if he does captures the crown Sunday.

PHOENIX

— He is winless in 22 career Cup starts at Phoenix.

— Finished 11th and won the second stage despite being involved in an incident with Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin in the opening stage of the March race. Led 82 laps.

— Has one finish better than 10th in the last six Phoenix Cup races.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Keselowski says: I tried my best to treat Martinsville as though it was Phoenix. In that sense, it was a cutoff race, points were really close. I think I was only a few points behind Denny Hamlin, and I knew if I beat Denny Hamlin in points I would be okay to move on to next week, which was ultimately going to come down to stage points and the finish where this week is just the finish. Ultimately I treated the race weekend as though I was in Phoenix competing for the championship. It felt a little bit like a dress rehearsal, and certainly learned a few things about me. I learned probably be careful on pit road towards the end of the race and don’t let your aggressiveness get to you, and beyond that, the resiliency that this team has to keep pushing when it counts.”

Bullins says: “Seems like there’s one strategy that’s predominantly going to be the one that’s the right play. Usually when you see somebody off sequence, you’re trying to make something happen, recovering from a penalty or something like that. I think the strategy part of it should be pretty straightforward honestly. Cautions at the wrong time or things like that might change that.”

Nate Ryan’s analysis: The mantra might be “Why not us?” but the No. 2 team answered a more important question – is this it for Keselowski at Team Penske? – long earlier this year. A career renaissance earned the driver a one-year contract extension. A championship could go even further to solidify his standing.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Provided he can avoid problems, he’ll be the champion. No one has beat his car in the last two races it has run with the tire compound that will be used this weekend. Game. Set. Match. Keselowski.

 

JOEY LOGANO

Age: 30

Team: Team Penske

Crew chief: Paul Wolfe

Wins: 3 in 2020 (26 in career)

Las Vegas I

Phoenix I

Kansas II (playoffs)

Speeding Penalties in 2020: 2 (Coke 600, Bristol I)

Championship notes: Victory at Kansas made Logano the first driver to secure a spot in the Championship 4. That gave his team two weeks to focus on its Phoenix car. This is the fourth title race appearance for the 2018 champ. He’s made the Championship 4 in 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20. Logano would become the 17th driver in series history to win multiple titles if he does captures the crown Sunday.

PHOENIX

— Won the March race, the final race before the season was paused 10 weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic. Led 60 laps. Was his second win in the first four races working with crew chief Paul Wolfe.

— Finished 12th or worse in four of the last seven Phoenix races.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Logano says: I think the experience is there, the speed is there. I think the mentality of the way we race is there. I truly believe that we’re the favorites to win this thing. Like I said, that’s important to me to feel that way. I feel like I have real things to back that up, which is good.”

Wolfe says:  “All the Penske cars have been fast at all the short tracks. Brad has been pretty dominant at a couple of those races. We have a lot of confidence going to Phoenix. At this point in the season I can’t think of a better place to go to take a shot at this championship than Phoenix.”

Nate Ryan’s analysis: Proclaiming himself the favorite under similar circumstances certainly worked two years ago, but it speaks well of Logano’s confidence that he willingly volunteered himself again. Many athletes say they love performing under pressure, but there are few who make it seem as believable as Logano.

Dustin Long’s analysis: While the storylines center on Chase Elliott (first time in title race), Denny Hamlin (can he finally score his first crown?) and Brad Keselowski (strength with this package/tire), it’s easy to overlook Joey Logano. Just like so many did in 2018 … when he won the championship.

Milestones in reach for NASCAR Cup drivers in 2023

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While the countdown to the start of the 2023 NASCAR season in February continues, here’s a look at some of the milestones Cup drivers could reach in the upcoming season:

AJ Allmendinger

Allmendinger returns to drive the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing in 2023. He’s scheduled to make his 400th career Cup start March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, a race he nearly won last year.

Aric Almirola

Almirola is 26 laps away from leading 1,000 laps in his Cup career.

Ryan Blaney 

Blaney is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start Sept. 24 at Texas in the playoffs. Texas was the site of his last Cup win, which came in the All-Star Race in May.

Chase Briscoe

Briscoe is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Kyle Busch 

Busch needs one win to set the NASCAR record for most consecutive seasons with a win. He is tied with Richard Petty with 18 entering the 2023 season, which will see Busch drive for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch is 92 laps away from leading 19,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is 34 starts away from tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for 23rd on the all-time list of most career starts at 676. Busch is scheduled to tie Earnhardt’s mark Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the playoffs and surpass the mark the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the playoffs.

William Byron 

Byron is scheduled to make his 200th career Cup start July 16 at New Hampshire.

Chase Elliott

Elliott is a win from scoring a victory in six consecutive Cup seasons.

He is 100 laps away from leading 5,000 in his Cup career.

Justin Haley

Haley is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is two wins away from 50 career Cup wins. That would tie him with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 13th on the all-time victory list. 

Kevin Harvick

Harvick is scheduled to make his 800th career Cup start April 23 at Talladega.

He is 15 starts from tying Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list for most career Cup starts at 805. Harvick is scheduled to tie Gordon’s mark June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway and is scheduled to move ahead of Gordon on June 11 at Sonoma.

Harvick is 99 laps away from leading 16,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is five top fives away from having 250 in his Cup career.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is scheduled to make his 500th career Cup start June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway.

He is 93 laps away from 9,000 career laps led in Cup.

Kyle Larson

Larson is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start March 19 at Atlanta.

He is four top 10s away from 150 career top 10s.

Joey Logano

Logano is one win from having a Cup victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which would tie him for 13th on the all-time list with Denny Hamlin.

Logano is one top five away from 150 career top-five finishes.

He is nine starts away from tying Richard Petty for 19th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 513. Logano is scheduled to reach that mark April 16 at Martinsville and surpass it April 23 at Talladega.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick is nine top 10s away from 50 career top 10s.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse is scheduled to make his 400th career start in the season finale at Phoenix.

He is five top 10s away from 50 career Cup top 10s.

Daniel Suarez

Suarez is one top 10 away from 50 career top 10s in Cup.

Martin Truex Jr.

Truex is 16 starts from tying Jeff Burton for 10th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 628. Truex is scheduled to reach that mark at June 11 at Sonoma and surpass it June 25 at Nashville.

Bubba Wallace

Wallace is scheduled to make his 200th Cup start June 25 at Nashville.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.