AJ Allmendinger

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.

Editor’s note: Still need tickets for the races? Click here

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.

Kyle Busch to compete in Rolex 24 in 2020

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PLANO, Texas — Kyle Busch will compete in next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, Toyota Racing announced Monday.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona is scheduled for Jan. 25-26.

Busch will be one of the drivers for AIM Vasser Sullivan and drive the Lexus RC F GT3 car.

“I’d like to thank everyone at Lexus Motorsports and AIM Vasser Sullivan and Toyota for this opportunity,” Busch said. “To have the chance to run in such an iconic race as the Rolex 24 is certainly something I’ve thought about and wanted to do. My partnership with Toyota and the history we’ve had together has been incredible. I would love to continue that history and maybe get my Daytona Rolex to add to my trophy collection.”

This will mark Busch’s debut in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Rolex 24. He will compete in the GTD class.

“We’re thrilled to have a racer of Kyle’s caliber join AIM Vasser Sullivan to open our 2020 season at the Rolex 24 at Daytona,” said Jimmy Vasser, co-owner of the team. “Kyle has proved he can compete and win in many forms of motorsports and we look forward to having him drive the Lexus RC F GT3 at Daytona.”

Busch will participate in the 2020 Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 3-5 to prepare for the race.

Busch follows several NASCAR drivers who have competed in the event, including Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and AJ Allmendinger, among others.

The only other time Busch has competed on Daytona’s road course was in 2009 when he co-drove a Lexus with Scott Speed for Chip Ganassi Racing and finished 10th in the Brumos Porsche 250, the night before the July Cup race there.

Busch, the 2015 NASCAR Cup champion, seeks to advance to the championship race in the Cup Series for the fifth consecutive year.

Xfinity playoff primer ahead of Texas Motor Speedway

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After its second weekend off in three weeks, the Xfinity Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend to continue the Round of 8 in its postseason (8:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

It does so after a first-time winner and a post-race scuffle at Kansas Speedway.

Brandon Jones shook up the Round of 8 with his Kansas win, which came after his elimination from the playoffs.

He was the second non-playoff driver to find victory lane in the playoffs, following AJ Allmendinger‘s win at the Charlotte Roval.

The eight remaining playoff members only have two races left to secure a spot in the championship four, either through wins or points.

Here’s how the playoff field looks ahead of Saturday night’s race.

Drama at the Top

The “Big 3” of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick have seemingly been racing among themselves most of the season.

After combining to win 19 of the first 30 races, only 12 points separate the three drivers heading into Texas. But the fourth driver in the standings, Justin Allgaier, is 35 points behind Reddick.

Then Custer and Reddick got into their pit road scuffle, adding a nice dose of drama to their championship battle.

Custer enters the weekend trying to defend his win in last year’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, which was his first victory of 2018.  Since then he has seven wins, two of them coming on 1.5-mile tracks (Chicago and Kentucky).

Bell and Reddick each have one win on 1.5-mile tracks this season. Bell enters the weekend with three straight finishes outside the top 10, the longest stretch of his career.

Bell said his team will “100%” be more conservative this weekend than they would be otherwise.

“This weekend winning would be ideal, but we need to go there and we need to survive,” Bell said Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “SiriusXM Speedway. “I think if we go there and survive and have a day like we should, we’ll be close to be locked in on points going into Phoenix then we can attack hard at a place we know we’re very capable of winning at.”

Reddick finished second at Texas in the spring and is the most recent winner on a 1.5-mile track.

“With the PJ1 (Texas) put down in the spring, it really opened up the second, third and even fourth lane in that compound up off the bottom groove when the balance of the cars would change,” Reddick said in a media release. “You don’t see a lot of tire fall-off there, but it’s similar to Kansas where you have a balance change in your car throughout a run. You have to stay on top of that to run well, and I think moving around throughout the race will be important. The pace will be very fast this weekend with the cooler temperatures we will have there.”

Cutting it Close 

While there’s a massive gap between him and the “Big 3,” Allgaier doesn’t have much wiggle room with the drivers behind him in the standings.

Allgaier, who is winless in the last 38 races, enters the weekend with only two points separating him and Chase Briscoe, the first driver below the cutline.

Briscoe, who placed fourth at Texas in the spring, will try to bounce back after he was involved in a controversial wreck with Bell and the lapped car of Garrett Smithley at Kansas while Briscoe led. He rebounded to finish third.

“Honestly, my confidence level is super high right now,” Briscoe said in a media release. “We have had one of the fastest cars, if not the fastest, the last three races. We keep knocking on the door of another win, but things just haven’t been falling our way when it comes down to it. I expect to have a great car once again at Texas and I think we’ll be able to put together a better weekend than we had in the spring for sure.”

Running out of Time

Two of the last three drivers in the standings are JR Motorsports’ Michael Annett (-12 points) and Noah Gragson (-17).

Sitting at the very bottom of the standings is Team Penske’s Austin Cindric, who is 30 points back from the cutline.

The gap is the result of a miserable Kansas race for Cindric, who was involved in three accidents and had multiple flat tires.

The only Xfinity regular outside the “Big 3” with more than one win this year, Cindric is in dire need of another win if wants to make the championship four.

Here are the playoff standings ahead of Texas.

Friday 5: Bowman Gray’s Madhouse represents what NASCAR’s future could be

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As the NASCAR community caravans to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, many will drive by Winston-Salem, North Carolina on the way to the Cup Series’ shortest track.

Although one can’t see Bowman Gray Stadium from the roads that many teams, media and fans will take to Martinsville, its impact on the sport can’t be overlooked.

Bowman Gray Stadium, which recently completed its 71st season of racing, could be the most important track to NASCAR.

As the sport looks to 2020 and beyond, NASCAR is carving a schedule that increases the chance for conflict and controversy — exactly what made Bowman Gray Stadium a must-see for fans, inspired the TV show “Madhouse” and stocks Google searches with stories and videos of altercations and cars ramming each other.

This could be the future of the Cup Series.

Call it a return to its past.

Beating and banging is nothing new in NASCAR. It’s part of Dale Earnhardt’s legacy. It’s why fans long for North Wilkesboro. It’s how some measure the present.

But NASCAR is putting in motion a plan that could increase the likelihood that the chaos often seen at Bowman Gray could become more common in Cup.

While next year’s Cup schedule features the same six short track races as this year, those tracks will have greater significance in the playoffs.

The Bristol night race moves into the playoffs for the first time and is the opening round’s elimination race. It will be held the week after Richmond, marking back-to-back short track playoff events for the first time. Don’t think there won’t be some contact and tempers?

And to raise the intensity, NASCAR moved Martinsville Speedway to the final race before the championship race next year.

Look at what Joey Logano did last year at Martinsville when it was the opening race in the Round of 8. Knocking Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the final lap to win guaranteed Logano a spot in the championship race in Miami. Logano went on to win at Miami to claim his first Cup title.

Aric Almirola said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week that “Martinsville is always kind of a place where you have to get rough when you need, but I do feel like that Joey opened Pandora’s box there. … I think anybody else that is in the Round of 8 that saw that and sees that if they have an opportunity to win at Martinsville, don’t be nice. You have to take that opportunity.”

Imagine what it will be like next year when Martinsville is the last chance to get into championship race (which will be held at ISM Raceway, a track more conducive to beating and banging than Homestead-Miami Speedway).

Desperate times call for desperate measures. That could lead more contact on the track, which would could lead to an altercation with drivers and crew members on pit road after a race.

Isn’t that what many fans want to see? Drama, conflict and controversy.

Fans could see that again Sunday at Martinsville (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and even more likely next year with its place in the playoffs.

Yes, it could be just like a Saturday night at Bowman Gray Stadium.

“The first year moving here, I went to Bowman Gray,” AJ Allmendinger said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week. “I was like what is this place? This is insanity … but this is awesome. I love this place.

“I love seeing the races there, the videos that go with it because it’s true passion and a little bit of craziness mixed in.”

And the future.

2. A faster approach

Although Corey LaJoie says he hasn’t signed anything with Go Fas Racing for next year — “we’re working toward making that happen,” he said last weekend at Kansas Speedway — he is seeking to add partners so the team can purchase better engines for some races next year.

Corey LaJoie (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Faster you can make that horse that I sit on every week run a little faster, it hopefully puts me in the conversation the next couple of years for a race-winning ride,” he said.

“It costs money to go fast. It’s a matter of trying to get more and more of that money, because upgrading the engine package is substantial, especially stretched out for majority of the year.”

LaJoie said the focus is on upgrading engines with plans for the team to purchase some cars from Stewart-Haas Racing.

The key will be money. As it is for any driver and team.

“Bringing funding is the name of the game,” LaJoie said. “You can act like it doesn’t exist, but it does. The first thing they say is, ‘We’d love for you to drive for us.’ The second question is ‘How much you got? Because I’ve talked to this guy and he’s got $2 million and this guy has a million and a half. What are you bringing to the table?’ Bringing helmets and seats isn’t what moves the needle. You have to have actual cash money.”

3. Chasing a record

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 16 wins this season are two short of the modern-era record of 18 set by Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. NASCAR’s modern era is from 1972.

It seems likely JGR will tie the mark with four races left. JGR drivers have won the past four short track races: Kyle Busch won at Bristol in April, Martin Truex Jr. swept the two Richmond races this year, and Denny Hamlin won the Bristol night race in August.

Also, consider Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance at short tracks since 2009.

JGR drivers have won 31 of the 65 races at short tracks since that time. The next three teams: Hendrick Motorsports (10 wins), Team Penske (10) and Stewart-Haas Racing (seven) combine for 27 wins in that stretch.

4. A new look

The Kannapolis Intimidators are no more. The minor league baseball team, which took its name from Dale Earnhardt, announced previously that this would be its last season with that name. A team official told NBC Sports in February why it was changing the name that it had used since 2001.

Kannapolis Cannon Ballers logo (Photo: Kannapolis Cannon Ballers)

“Dale’s always going to be the Intimidator, Vince Marcucci, assistant general manager of the team told NBC Sports in February. “We’re not trying to get away from (it). I don’t think that’s the right way to put it. But, like, own our own brand. Because we don’t own the Intimidators. (Earnhardt’s widow) Teresa has the rights to that.

“So for speed and flexibility as we try to do creative things in the future, we’re going to need something we own ourselves.”

The team will be known as the Cannon Ballers.

But there still be an homage to Earnhardt. The mascot will have a bushy mustache like Earnhardt did. Also, in the logo, the B in Ballers is shaped like a 3 for Earnhardt.

5. Streaking

Kyle Busch seeks to tie Jimmie Johnson this weekend for second on the all-time list of most consecutive top-five finishes at Martinsville Speedway.

Busch has placed in the top five in each of the past eight races at Martinsville. Johnson had a streak of nine top-five finishes in a row from Oct. 2005 – Oct. 2009.

Jeff Gordon holds the record at the track with 11 consecutive top-five finishes. The streak began in April 2005 and ended in March 2010.

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David Hoots joins NASCAR America’s MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET

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Get ready for a second edition of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week.

Marty Snider and AJ Allmendinger will be joined by former NASCAR official David Hoots at 5 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.

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.