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Joe Gibbs Racing announces 2019 crew chief realignment

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On Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing announced a crew chief realignment for the 2019 season for four of its teams.

Chris Gabehart will take over for Mike Wheeler as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief in the Cup Series. Wheeler and Hamlin parted ways following the season finale at Homestead. Gabehart spent the last three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief for JGR earning a total of nine wins during that time. Last year, he was the crew chief for the Xfinity No. 19 team of Brandon Jones.

Eric Phillips will also move from the Xfinity series to Cup as the car chief for Hamlin. He earned eight wins during three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief on the No. 18.

Jeff Meendering will fill the crew chief spot on the Xfinity No. 19 vacated by Gabehart and will be paired with Jones.

Meendering returns to JGR after two years with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 00 car.

Ben Beshore moves from his current role as engineer on Kyle Busch‘s car to fill the role of crew chief on the Xfinity No. 18. This team typically fields multiple drivers during the season.

“With such a short offseason it’s important to start work toward the 2019 season immediately and we are proud with the teams we have assembled now, both in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and in the Xfinity Series,” said owner Joe Gibbs in a press release. “With Chris Gabehart joining Adam Stevens, Chris Gayle, and Cole Pearn on the Cup side we believe we have the right leaders in place to benefit our entire organization.”

Former driver Mark McFarland will become team manager and crew chief for JGR’s K&N Pro series and ARCA car. In 31 starts in the Xfinity series, McFarland scored one top 10 at Talladega in 2006 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“In addition, we take a tremendous amount of pride in our accomplishments in the Xfinity Series and are excited to have Jeff Meendering and Ben Beshore join Jason Ratcliff to lead our efforts there, as well as bolster our developmental program in ARCA with the addition of Mark McFarland,” Gibbs said.

Noah Gragson wins Snowball Derby for Kyle Busch Motorsports

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Noah Gragson took the lead from Harrison Burton with a handful of laps remaining in the 51st annual Snowball Derby to give Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) back-to-back wins in the prestigious Super Late Model race.

Last year, Kyle Busch scored the victory. 

Ty Majeski held on to finish second ahead of Jeff Choquette. Conor Okrzesik and Casey Roderick rounded out the top five.

It appeared to be Burton’s race to lose. He chased down Majeski with 25 laps remaining and held the top spot for five laps before a caution waved for Kale Bryant’s spin. Most of the leaders pitted under that caution, but Burton chose to stay out on old tires.

Burton faded to 10th in the final rundown.

With 16 laps remaining, Majeski was instrumental in the final caution. He and Bubba Pollard spun after making contact in Turns 1 and 2. The incident put an end to Pollard’s Snowball Derby bid for the 13th time. Pollard finished 11 laps off the pace in 26th. Last year, he finished third. KBM kept their drivers in contention with fast work in the pits and on the track.

On Lap 90, Noah Gragson came in running third and left with the lead. KBM teammate Raphael Lessard came in fifth and left second.

The Snowball Derby started during the day time and ended under the lights for the first time in its history.

When the lights came on about the Lap 175 mark with Choquette, Lessard, Gragson, Pollard, Majeski and Burton were in the top six and they remained in contention until the final laps.

On Lap 213, Majeski took the lead from Choquette just before Stephen Nasse backed hard into the wall. Nasse had charged from the back to challenge for the top 10 by lap 100, but a mistake in the pits cost him a chance at victory.

After the incident, Nasse confronted his pit crew for leaving two tires loose on the last pit stop.

NASCAR Truck series driver Stewart Friesen started 14th, but sustained right front damage on a caution following an early restart. He retired in 34th on Lap 58.

The 2018 K&N East champion Tyler Ankrum started 24th and finished eighth.

Steven Wallace, son of Rusty Wallace, suffered a mechanical failure and stalled on the pace laps of the last chance qualifier. He was unable to continue.

Samantha Busch suffers miscarriage

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In a Twitter video posted Friday afternoon, Samantha Busch, wife of Kyle Busch, revealed she has suffered a miscarriage.

The news comes eight days after the couple announced their second pregnancy. They were expecting a baby girl in August after a successful in-vitro fertilization procedure. That process resulted in the birth of their son Brexton in 2015.

They announced in October their intent to try have a baby girl through the process and have been documenting it.

In the video, Samantha Busch emotionally explains how she learned of the miscarriage.

“So, today around 11 o’clock my stomach started hurting,” Busch recounted. “I stood up and I was bleeding. Then we went to the doctor. I was passing a lot of clots and bleeding. They did an ultrasound and they said my cervix was still closed and she was in there but I was in the beginning of a miscarriage.

“Yeah, we knew from the beginning that sharing this that there was always the possibility that this could happen. I guess with how Brexton was how our numbers looked I never thought it would happen. Obviously, it’s really hard to share. It’s just heartbreaking.”

In October, Samantha Busch told NBC Sports why they had decided to document their experience.

“If we only showed the good times, and we only showed when it was a success and went well, that’s not fair to all the women that have (not had stories that have gone like that),” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and it is a little scary to know that things may come up down the road that may not be as easy as last time, but for all those couples out there that need to go through this or have gone through this and need to know that they’re not alone and need to understand that this can happen to anybody, I think it’s important to start from the beginning this time.’’

After the birth of Brexton, the couple founded the the Bundle of Joy Fund that gives grants to couples who need such IVF treatments to have children.

Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

Best of NASCAR Awards banquet

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NASCAR’s annual Awards Banquet gave the sport an opportunity to not only crown a champion but also pay tribute to all the drivers, manufacturers and stakeholders that made the season successful.

“To the NASCAR fans, love me or hate me, I just love your passion,” 2018 NASCAR Cup champion Joey Logano said when he received the ultimate honor in stock car racing. “That is one of the biggest things for me, is passion. Whether you’re booing or cheering, it’s pretty good. We all do it for you guys.”

Here are some of the highlights:

Champion: Joey Logano

“(Wife Brittany Logano) is my rock,” Logano said. “I knew this was when I was going to have a hard time. Family means a lot to me, alright? We have so many long talks at night. I’m not always smiling. I know it looks like I smile a lot, and I do when I’m happy. She’s there at my lowest points, it really brings me back up. She’s an amazing mother to our child and what an amazing year, to be able to have Hudson now and now a championship.”

Logano was introduced by Make-a-Wish recipient Gavin Grubbs.

Champion Car Owner: Roger Penske

During his time on stage, Roger Penske acknowledged the other owners in the series who challenge him and Team Penske to be better, including the owner of the closing Furniture Row Racing.

“One last comment, very important to me and this is congratulations to Barney Visser … Martin Truex (Jr.), Cole Pearn, you’ve brought so much to this series over the last several years.”

Second-place Martin Truex Jr.

“Looking forward to the future, for sure – but definitely the end of an era with Furniture Row … thank you Barney (Visser) for all you’ve done for me and this sport.”

Truex’s Furniture Row Racing Era ended with one championship, 17 wins, 56 top fives and top 10s in more than half of Truex’s 191 starts with that organization.

Third-place Kevin Harvick

“Our road to the championship round certainly had some challenges along the way, but our team performed when it mattered the most and believed in each other,” Harvick said.

“I want to thank the fans – and especially all the No. 4 fans for all the support this year,” Harvick continued. “And all you haters: I still see you.”

Fourth-place: Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch took to the stage with the comment, “This sucks. Worst of the best,” before congratulating Logano on his championship. Busch noted several highlights of the season including tying his career-best number of victories and passing the 50-win mark.

Busch offered a shout-out to Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth who most likely ran their final Cup races during the 2018 season.

“I wanted to make mention of Matt again this year in case he’s really retiring this time,” Busch said. “I think we’ve all kind of seen this story before with another Roush guy, Mark Martin years ago. I don’t know. Maybe this time’s true. Time will tell.”

Most Popular Driver Award

Dale Earnhardt Jr. handed over the award that he won 15 consecutive times to Chase Elliott.

Bill Elliott won the award a record 16 times (1984-88, 1991-2000 and 2002). Dale Earnhardt Sr. won in 2001.

“So cool that it stayed between Earnhardt and Elliott for so long,” Elliott told Earnhardt as he accepted the award. “I am glad though that you quit a year before you broke Dad’s record.”

MORE: Chase Elliott wins NMPA most popular driver award

Other Notable Moments

Ryan Blaney joked that he had sent Jimmie Johnson a Christmas card in return for his gift at the Charlotte Roval. In that race, Johnson’s contact with Truex Jr. on the final lap opened the door for Blaney’s second career win.