Jesse Little

Silly Season Scorecard: Post-Miami edition

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NASCAR’s championship weekend in Miami has come and gone and with it came a flurry of driver announcements from teams about the 2020 racing season.

Among them was the news that Cole Custer is being promoted by Stewart-Haas Racing to the Cup Series, where he will take over the No. 41 Ford driven by Daniel Suarez this year.

Here’s a look at all the official driver announcements made so far for next season.

OPEN RIDES ANNOUNCED FOR 2020

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

No. 36: Front Row Motorsports announced Nov. 13 it was parting ways with Matt Tifft so he could focus on his health following his seizure at Martinsville in March. Tifft said he could not commit to racing in 2020.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing announced on Nov. 1 a multi-year extension with Kurt Busch.

No. 6: Roush Fenway Racing announced Oct. 30 that Ryan Newman would return to the car as part of the news that Oscar Mayer would sponsor the No. 6 through 2021.

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer was announced Oct. 17 as returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for a fourth season.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after this season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 15 Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

JTG Daugherty Racing: It was announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Preece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher. The team said that an announcement on car number and sponsor would come later.

Rick Ware Racing: JJ Yeley will drive one of the team’s three full-time rides.

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

Daniel Suarez — The driver revealed Nov. 14  he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2020 after one season driving the No. 41.

Corey LaJoie – The driver hasn’t announced his plans for 2020, but he said in October he and Go Fas Racing were “working toward” him returning to the No. 32 Ford. The team announced on Nov. 1 it would enter a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing next year and that “2020 driver negotiations are still ongoing.”

Xfinity Series 

Ross Chastain – Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 he would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, joining Justin Haley.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Announced Oct. 17 Harrison Burton will drive its No. 20 Toyota full-time in 2020. Announced Oct. 31 Brandon Jones would return for a third year in the No. 19. Revealed Nov. 5 it would field a third full-time entry with Riley Herbst in the No. 18.

JR MotorsportsJustin Allgaier will return to the team for a fifth year in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The No. 8 car will be driven by Daniel Hemric for 21 races, Jeb Burton 11 races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for one race. Noah Gragson will also return for a second season in the No. 9 car, while Michael Annett returns for a fourth year with the team in the No. 1 car.

Richard Childress Racing — Has not announced its driver plans for 2020, but Richard Childress said after Tyler Reddick claimed the Xfinity title that it would field a full-time entry.

Stewart-Haas Racing – The team has not announced plans for the No. 00 Ford with Cole Custer moving to Cup or whether Chase Briscoe will return to the No. 98.

JD MotorsportsJesse Little will compete full-time for the team.

Truck Series

GMS RacingDriver lineup will include Brett Moffitt, Sam Mayer, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum

Kyle Busch MotorsportsRaphael Lessard will drive the No. 4 full-time while Christian Eckes will drive the No. 18 full-time.

Hattori Racing EnterprisesAustin Hill will return to the No. 16 Toyota for a second year.

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Ryan: NASCAR must take steps to make Phoenix title-worthy in 2020

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Let’s start with the positives for ISM Raceway: Outside of its racing, everything last weekend showed the 1-mile oval on the west side of Phoenix is championship ready.

Its fan enthusiasm – two consecutive sellouts in the Round of 8 finale and an enormous village of campers deserving of its own zip code in the Valley of the Sun – is firmly established as nonpareil in NASCAR’s premier series.

The community and local media support is deserving of the big-event status that often has been lacking during an 18-year run in South Florida for the season finale of the Cup Series.

And $178 million in renovations have delivered striking vantage points from gleaming new grandstands while offering an efficiently inviting infield with the 21st-century ambiance and amenities that too much of racing lacks.

This racetrack is ready to play host to the title-deciding race … provided that its 1-mile ribbon of asphalt can deliver the goods.

That, though, was the biggest question leaving Phoenix last weekend and facing all tracks of a mile and shorter next season when the low-horsepower, high-downforce package enters its second season.

“They’ve got to figure out something for this race because it’s going to be a letdown if it’s like that and it’s the championship race,” third-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. “Hopefully, they can figure something out. I thought it was a start. They just need to keep doing their homework on it.”

Said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson: “As a fan, we need our short tracks to be better. To be what they were. They were the best races, honestly. Obviously with this package, they’re not well suited.”

There is no doubt the 2019 rules have been conducive to better racing (and particularly restarts) on the 1.5-mile ovals that make up the bulk of the schedule (and once the bulk of the playoffs). They weren’t really needed for Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which already had a reputation for outstanding racing because of its progressive banking and high tire wear.

Any championship venue should strive to meet the gold standard that has been set over the past 18 years in Miami.

But how can NASCAR take steps toward achieving that in 2020? There would seem few options for modifying ISM Raceway, whose footprint seems more than set after several years of capital improvements culminated in last year’s overhaul. NASCAR already has declared its horsepower and downforce specs largely will remain in place for next season.

And perhaps given the sudden groundswell for rotating the championship round, this largely will become a moot point if the title race’s stay is short-lived at ISM Raceway.

But here are a few suggestions for potentially enhancing Phoenix – and the 750 horsepower package on all smaller tracks — are percolating in the industry for next year, though:

Soften the tires: This seems the lowest-hanging fruit for improving the racing because of its simplicity. To avoid failures, Goodyear has erred on the side of producing bulletproof tires that ensure durability but undermine the disparity in speeds that is needed for optimal passing numbers.

That isn’t possible with tires that can run 3,000 laps without replacement (which was the estimate at Martinsville). Brad Keselowski noted the tires at Phoenix probably could have lasted 1,000 laps, which is why much of the 312 laps seemed like slot car racing. When there is no reward for tire management, it adversely impacts cars being able to move forward and backward.

“That really changes the dynamics because you get some guys that put a lot of camber in the car and take off on the short run and fall off on a long run,” Keselowski said. “You get some guys that drive really hard on soft tires and wear them out, and that creates comers and goers, but when you have such a hard tire, one that doesn’t fall off, you’re not going to see that.”

If degradation is factored in, the racing should improve but with some accompany headaches.

“A tire really soft with a lot of fall off makes for great racing,” Alex Bowman said. “At the same time, it makes for tire failures, and it’s hard for a tire manufacturer to be like, ‘Hey we’re going to bring this tire and if you run it too long, it’s going to fail, so don’t do that.’ It’s much easier for them to bring a hard tire with a ton of durability and very little falloff that doesn’t fail so they don’t get any flak for a tire failing. If you were a tire manufacturer, what would you do? Everyone’s kind of in a box. They want to bring the best product they can to the racetrack. To them, that’s one that doesn’t have failures.”

At some point, though, the PR concerns of a tire supplier must be outweighed by the negative ramifications on the quality of racing. What good is it to have flawless tires in races that no one wants to watch?

One potential compromise solution: Soften the tires with an emphasis on the left sides, which at least create fewer problems for teams (i.e. crashes, heavy impacts and body damage) when they fail.

Chop the spoiler: NASCAR officials have opened the door to reconsidering tweaking the cars to help racing on shorter tracks next year, and the most obvious play would be reducing the 8-inch spoiler that keep cars glued to the track and creates a larger aerodynamic wake that makes the handling of trailing cars less stable.

But while it theoretically should ameliorate the current downforce woes, the cause-effect is more complex than with simply softening the tire. Changing the height of the spoiler will affect the balance of the cars and perhaps be unworthy of the tradeoff.

Teams also are likely to spend more money on R&D if the spoiler heights aren’t static. This is a less important rationale given that cars are already much different from the 550 horsepower package (tracks 1.33 miles and longer) vs. the 750 hp (1.33 miles and shorter) because of the downforce and drag.

Work on the traction compound: ISM Raceway marked the first time that one of the tracks formerly owned by International Speedway Corp. attempted to apply PJ1 without consultation with Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks (which had been using it the past three years). From the outset, the traction compound intended to add a lane seemed to have been applied too high on the track.

“I think it would have been a lot better race if they would have got it low enough,” Kevin Harvick said. “It was just way too high I thought. It was closer in one and two. I mean, it was still probably 3 or 4 feet. Probably needed to come down just a little bit in that end. The other end, it was 7 or 8 feet. It was way too high.”


Beyond simply improving the racing at shorter tracks in 2019, NASCAR already had its challenges at ISM Raceway. While the 1-mile track has become a darling of ISC because of its location and fan support, the competition in Cup (or lack thereof) has produced controversy before.

In the April 21, 2007 debut of the Car of Tomorrow at Phoenix, passing was so nonexistent, Denny Hamlin (who lost the lead on Lap 99 and never regained it) declared the new chassis was “mission failed” if the goal had been to improve the action. NASCAR’s decision to throw four debris cautions during that same race led Tony Stewart to accuse the sanctioning body of officiating tantamount to pro wrestling in one of the biggest controversies of the three-time series champion’s career.

In the March 3, 2013 race at Phoenix, Hamlin was fined $25,000 for merely suggesting the Gen 6 car was less conducive to passing.

So, this isn’t the first time the racing at Phoenix has been in the crosshairs.

“The racing specifically at Phoenix has looked like (Sunday) for 15 years,” Steve Letarte said on the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “I know people don’t want to hear that. There were moments of great racing at times. There was not good racing at times. Fuel mileage races. Long green-flag runs. That’s Phoenix. I feel we all just have to appreciate what we get. Can it be made better? Yeah. It always could.”

But the stakes never will have been higher for NASCAR to have gotten it right by this time next year. The 2020 finale will be coming on the heels of at least five and quite probably six instances in which the reigning champion also will have won the race in a dramatic showdown with his rivals.


The two Joe Gibbs Racing teams that were locked into the championship round with more than a race remaining in the playoffs took the opportunity to have critical team members skip the race last weekend.

Christopher Bell’s team left car chief Chris Sherwood in North Carolina, while Martin Truex Jr.’s team sent car chief Blake Harris back Saturday after helping prepare the No. 19 Toyota. Truex still finished sixth at Phoenix with what he described to NBC Sports as “half a team and an old car” as the team elected to focus on preparing its Camry for Miami.

“Blake went home to get some work done, getting the Homestead car prepped and ready,” Truex said. “Blake was here for practice (Friday), got all his stuff done here, and we could substitute someone. We couldn’t really substitute anybody (Friday) for him. He’s a big part of our team.

“Obviously that’s why he’s going back to work on that car. Just make sure it’s all good. Checks and double checks.”

Bell demurred when asked about Sherwood’s absence, joking “I’ve been told he’s not feeling well this weekend. I’m just telling you what I’m told.”

There should be no apologizing for or hiding the strategy, though. It’s a smart play, especially considering that two of the past three Cup champions (Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano) won the title after winning Martinsville and ostensibly having extra time to prepare.


With Front Row Motorsports now facing two vacant rides next season after the announcement that Matt Tifft’s career is on hold indefinitely, the interim driver in the No. 36 Ford would be an obvious candidate.

John Hunter Nemechek, who finished on the lead lap in 21st during his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway, said before Sunday’s race at Phoenix that he would be open to racing full time in Cup in 2020 but “there are a lot of unknowns right now.

“Anytime you’re in a race car, it’s an audition,” Nemecek said. “Everyone has their eyes on you. If you can do something, great. It’s only going to help you. If you do something bad, it’s only going to hurt you. I feel like (the debut) being a solid day, it may have turned some heads, it may have given Front Row some stuff. But overall, I don’t feel it’s an audition. I’m here to fill in for Matt and hope he gets a speedy recovery.”


John Hunter Nemechek’s progress underscores the importance of up and coming drivers selling themselves to teams with sponsors as a package deal. His main backer is Fire Alarm Services, which he eventually hopes to bring with him to Cup after having sponsorship in the Xfinity and truck series.

Corey LaJoie said recently that he has four to six sponsors in tow (much of it through business to business deals that guarantee product sales instead of traditional consumer sponsors that value exposure). LaJoie said packaging at least $1 million in sponsorship is the goal in shopping himself to more elite Cup teams.

In the Xfinity Series, Jesse Little’s move into a full-time ride at Johnny Davis Motorsports comes with a several sponsors that backed him in the truck series … and a few that he has yet to sign.

“It was a commitment on my part that I’m going to find this money that I told the team that I would bring,” he said. “I’ll get to work over the next month and a half, and once the season starts, it’ll be a constant journey of finding deals here and there. Instead of saying, ‘This is what I’ll commit to right now,’ I made the decision to go out on a limb and say ‘I think I can get that (funding).’”

Little, who will be driving and hunting money full time while also completing an information technology degree at UNC Charlotte, said he consulted with LaJoie and Ross Chastain before making a leap similar to what they have done.

“They said it was well worth it,” Little said. “As long as you’re willing to take the risk, sometimes it’s what it takes.”

Truck practice report at Miami

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Championship contender Stewart Friesen posted the fastest lap in Friday’s final Gander Outdoors Truck Series practice session at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Friesen led the way with a lap of 165.320 mph. He was followed by Jesse Little (165.239 mph) and Christian Eckes (164.124).

Friesen was the only one of the four championship contenders in the top 10. Matt Crafton was 18th (160.901 mph), Brett Moffitt was 27th (159.250) and Ross Chastain was 28th (159.193).

Click here for practice results

Truck teams are limited to six sets of tires for today. The track wears tires, bringing speeds down. Teams save their tires for qualifying and the race.

Truck qualifying is scheduled for 4:35 p.m. ET today. The race is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET today.

FIRST PRACTICE

Grant Enfinger posted the fastest lap in the first of two practice sessions Friday for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Enfinger paced the field with a lap of 168.010 mph. Next was reigning series champ Brett Moffitt, one of the four championship contenders in tonight’s race, with a lap of 167.639 mph. Austin Hill was third with a lap of 167.162 mph.

Championship contender Ross Chastain ranked fourth (167.141 mph). Moffitt and Chastain were the only title contenders in the top 10. Matt Crafton, seeking his third series crown, was 11th on the speed chart at 165.042 mph. Title contender Stewart Friesen was 13th on the speed chart at 164.404 mph.

Click here for practice results

Truck teams will have another practice and then qualifying before tonight’s season-ending race.

JJL Motorsports announces new team owner

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JJL Motorsports, Jesse Little‘s Gander Outdoors Truck Series team, announced Tuesday it has sold its assets to Logan Puckett, president of Diversified Utility Group, a turnkey general contractor specializing in fiber optic telecommunications construction.

The company will sponsor Little in Friday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Puckett will re-brand the team as Diversified Motorsports Enterprises in 2020 with plans to compete part-time with Little as its primary driver.

Little, 22, has made eight starts in the Truck Series this year in his No. 97 Ford.

More: Jesse Little to compete full-time for JD Motorsports in 2020

The team announced in early September that its assets were up for sale.

“I’m honored to represent Diversified Utility Group this weekend at Homestead,” Little said in a press release. “Logan has been so excited about the opportunity to enter the Truck Series as an owner in 2020, but to have his company be a part of our last race under the JJL Motorsports banner as a sponsor is even more awesome.

“Hopefully we can have a good performance for him on Friday night before looking ahead to 2020.”

Said Puckett: “I am really looking forward to taking over an outstanding program that JJL has put together as it provides a great foundation to build on and hopefully grow. I think the growth potential is what excites me the most.

“I am certainly looking forward to the challenge that this provides, and I hope that I can bring some value to the team and ultimately it would be awesome if I can bring value to the sport as a young owner with a fresh outlook.”

 

Jesse Little to join JD Motorsports for 2020 Xfinity season

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Jesse Little will move up to the Xfinity Series in 2020 and drive full-time for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller, the team announced.

The 22-year-old Little, son of former Cup driver Chad Little, has been competing in a part-time effort in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series the past five seasons. His team, JJL Motorsports, announced in September it will close at the end of this season.

Little has made 30 Truck starts and two Cup starts. He has not run in the Xfinity Series.

“I am beyond excited to have the privilege to race full-time in 2020 for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller in the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” Little said in a statement from the team. “It’s something I have honestly dreamed about since I can remember. They are a successful, established team that I can’t wait to begin working with. I hope to represent Johnny, the JDM brand, and especially all their partners to the highest satisfaction.”