NBC Sports Staff

Power rankings: NASCAR driver/crew chief combinations

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NASCAR Talk continues its offseason Power Rankings, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Today, we present our picks for the top driver/crew chief combinations in the sport.

There are a few surprises, for sure. Most notably: 2019 Cup champion Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did not take the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

We’re asking fans to give their take on our picks (choose from Cup, Xfinity or Trucks). Do you agree or disagree – and why? Take our poll at the bottom of these rankings.

The top driver/crew chief rankings:

1. Martin Truex Jr./Cole Pearn (29 points): Among the sport’s gold standard, if not the standard other driver/crew chief pairings are measured. A series-high 23 wins have come in the last four seasons, including one championship in 2017 and back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019.

2. Denny Hamlin/Chris Gabehart (25 points): In his first season as a Cup crew chief, Gabehart brought a second wind to Hamlin’s career after the latter went winless in 2018. Hamlin put together his best year in almost a decade in 2019 with six wins, 19 top five and 24 top-10 finishes.

3. Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens (24 points): This is the only current driver-crew chief combo with multiple Cup titles. Stevens and Busch have been to the Championship 4 all five years they’ve been together. Sure, it wasn’t easy in the playoffs this year but they still claimed the championship.

4. Kevin Harvick/Rodney Childers (23 points): Were fast when they first got together in 2014 and have not slowed since. They have collected 26 wins in their six years together, earning the championship in 2014 and only missing the Championship 4 round once since (2016). If it wasn’t for occasional inconsistency and slumps, the No. 4 team likely would be ranked higher.

5. Christopher Bell/Jason Ratcliff (13 points): Though they will move to the Cup Series in 2020 without any Xfinity championships, they tormented the competition in the Xfinity Series the past two years, winning 15 times. Placed in the top five in 38 of 66 races.

6. Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe (12 points): The longest-tenured active combo in Cup at nine years. The duo has 29 wins, one championship and won three or more races in seven of those nine seasons together. The No. 2 team would have placed higher in these rankings except it has reached Championship 4 round just once (2015) since NASCAR went to an elimination playoff format in 2014.

7. Joey Logano/Todd Gordon (11 points): Did not have a strong playoffs but remained in contention for a Championship 4 spot until the penultimate race at Phoenix by grabbing stage points. The duo has 21 wins, one championship and one runner-up in seven years together. Have earned at least one win in each season they’ve been together but haven’t had more than three wins in a single season since 2015.

8. Chase Elliott/Alan Gustafson (7 points): Gustafson is underrated in his ability to build a team. After a slow start together, they’ve managed to produce back-to-back three-win seasons. Granted, the third round (finishes of 36th, 32nd and 39th) sealed Elliott’s hope of making the Championship 4, but this is a team that has laid a strong foundation.

9. William Byron/Chad Knaus (6 points): Only one of our voters selected Byron/Knaus. While this first-year pairing didn’t lead to a win for Byron, there was a tremendous amount of growth this season with five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Knaus’ veteran ability and patience and mentoring has paid dividends, leading to even higher expectations for this pairing in 2020.

10. Cole Custer/Mike Shiplett (5 points): After Custer earned just one win in each of his first two full-time Xfinity seasons, Shiplett provided a supercharge to Custer’s career. They earned seven wins and finished second in the championship race to Tyler Reddick in 2019. There has been no announcement whether Shiplett will follow Custer to Cup in 2020.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Newman/Scott Graves (4 points), Kyle Larson/Chad Johnston (3 points), Tyler Reddick/Randall Burnett (2 points), Matt Crafton/Carl Joiner (1 point).

Bump and Run: Debating driver of the year for Cup, Xfinity, Trucks

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Who is your driver of the year in Cup?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Starting with his second Daytona 500 victory, he put together the best start-to-finish season of his career. Kyle Busch is a worthy champion, but many of the big moments in the 2019 season will be remembered as Hamlin’s.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. While his playoffs were underwhelming, he came through to triumph in Miami to win the championship. The title capped a season where he won the regular-season crown, captured five wins, scored 17 top-five finishes, had a series-high 27 top-10 finishes, won a series-best 12 stages and led a series-high 1,582 laps.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr. He won the most races (seven), the most races in the playoffs (three) and fought back to a second-place finish in Miami after his bizarre pit road miscue with his tires. While he didn’t win a title, he did pad the numbers he’s accumulated over the last four years, including his series-leading 23 wins (edging Kyle Busch by one).

Jerry Bonkowski: Sure, he struggled far too much, especially in the second half of the season, but when you win the regular season championship and the overall championship, it’s hard to vote against Kyle Busch.

 

Who is your driver of the year in Xfinity?

Nate Ryan: Tyler Reddick. Not because of his championship but the way that he did it. Becoming the first to win consecutive titles with different teams spoke volumes. 

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He had the most wins (eight), most laps led (2,003), most stage victories (22) and most top-two finishes (13).

Daniel McFadin: Tyler Reddick. I almost went with Cole Custer, who went from winning one race last year to seven this season. But Reddick showed you can win a championship and still vastly improve the next season, and he did it with a different team.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m going to go against the grain and pick Christopher Bell over two-time champ Tyler Reddick. I felt Bell was slightly more consistent, plus he had more wins than Reddick. Cole Custer had a very good season as well, but I think in the whole big scheme of things, my driver of the year was Bell.

 

Who is your driver of the year in Trucks?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch. In his incessant drive for perfection, this season (albeit heavily truncated) might be the closest he ever gets.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. Five wins in five starts. Led 575 laps, which was better than any other driver in the series except Ross Chastain. Busch ended with a 1.0 average finish. ‘Nuff said.

Daniel McFadin: Ross Chastain. He got a late start on the points race after he switched his declaration from Xfinity to Trucks after eight races has passed. Then he went on to make it to the Championship 4 despite not winning a playoff race.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though he came up a little short for a second straight championship, I’m picking Brett Moffitt. He was strong down the stretch, led all drivers in top fives (13) and was tied for most wins (4) with Austin Hill among series regulars.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch ends the season No. 1

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The 2019 season is over and Kyle Busch is the NASCAR Cup champion. And not surprisingly, the younger Busch brother also ends the season as No. 1 in this week’s Power Rankings.

Busch received 39 of 40 possible points to take the No. 1 spot, followed by the other three Championship 4 contenders: Martin Truex Jr. (35 points), and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (tied for third place with 28 points each).

The biggest surprises in this week’s standings were Xfinity Series champ Tyler Reddick in fifth and Gander Outdoors Truck Series champ Matt Crafton in sixth.

Here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Finally gets that second title. Last week: Second.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (35 points): Inexcusable pit mistake left him as the championship runner-up for the second year in a row. Last week: Fourth.

(tie) 3. Denny Hamlin (28 points): Came so close to his first championship, only to be fall short yet again. Could this be the closest he’ll get? Last week: First.

(tie) 3. Kevin Harvick (28 points): Needed a bit more help than he got going against the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut. Still, a very strong season regardless. Last week: Third.

5. Tyler Reddick (18 points): It’s hard enough to win one championship, but back-to-back championships with two different teams? Last week: Unranked.

6. Matt Crafton (14 points): Wins the championship without even winning a race (in fact, his last win was more than two years ago). Thrived on his underdog status. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Blaney (12 points): Finished 11th or better, including a win at Talladega, in five of the last six playoff races. Last week: Fifth.

(tie) 8. Joey Logano (11 points): Ends year with four consecutive top 10s, but he fell short in making it to the championship round and defending last year’s title. Last week: Eighth.

(tie) 8. Erik Jones (11 points): Ends season with four top 10s in last five races. That bodes well for next season. Last week: Seventh.

10. Christopher Bell (6 points): Missed his chance to add an Xfinity title to his Truck championship. Still, with eight wins, had an outstanding season. Up next: a promotion to the Cup Series. Last week: 10th.

Others receiving votes: Kyle Larson (5 points), Clint Bowyer (5 points), Cole Custer (4 points), Austin Hill (2 points), Brad Keselowski (1 point), Brett Moffitt (1 point).

Bump and Run: How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win?

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How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win in his career?

Nate Ryan: He says he wants five, and I think he’s young enough to get there and has the chops to make Championship 4 consistently. It’s impossible to predict how many, though, because of the one-race showdown — as his 2019 title (which he won despite not having the best car) underscores. As long as he keeps putting the No. 18 in position, he should win at least one and probably two more before he turns 40.

Dustin Long: Three. This winner-take-all format just makes it so difficult for anyone to collect several series titles in a row. In the future, the gold standard for drivers will be three titles and Busch will get there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Busch can at least get to four titles before it’s all said and done. Repeating in this format is hard, he’s the first to do it in six years. But given that Busch has been in the Championship 4 in all but one year under the elimination format is evidence enough for me that if anyone can get more than two it’s him.

Jerry Bonkowski: At 34 years old and having won two titles in the last five years, I think it’s very possible Busch can win another two, maybe even three more championships in his career. Even though he’s now raced full-time in Cup for 15 years, he is so competitive that I don’t see him retiring for at least another 10 years. There’s lots of championship opportunities to be had in that period of time.

What will you most remember about the Cup championship race years from now?

Nate Ryan: The fastest car didn’t win because its pit crew put the tires on the wrong side. And the next strongest contender to the champion took itself out of the running because it asked a team member to do something extraordinarily difficult during the 12-second frenzy of the season’s most critical pit stop.

Dustin Long: The mistake by Martin Truex’s team with the tires and how sedate Kyle Busch’s demeanor seemed to be after he won his second series title. After being declared an underdog by many and ending a 21-race winless streak, one expected Rowdy to celebrate in a manner that would have included a bit more directed to those doubters.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.‘s tire mishap. In almost 25 years of watching and six years of covering NASCAR I can’t remember that happening in a race. For something so fluky to hamper Truex’s championship chances is remarkable. It proves anything can happen in a winner-take-all race.

Jerry Bonkowski: It was one of the calmest, most relaxed times I’ve ever seen Kyle Busch. He knew what was on the line and went out and simply did it. He didn’t get overly aggressive or tried to overdrive his car. He merely was patient, waited for the right opportunity, grabbed it for the taking at the right time and sailed on into the history books. One other thing: while the other three Championship 4 drivers and crew chiefs constantly talked about why they deserved to be the champs in interviews during the week leading up to the race, Busch and Adam Stevens were fairly quiet, didn’t fret about the 21-race winless streak and let their actions ultimately do the talking for them that needed to be done. That’s the way to do it.

Who wins a championship first: Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman or William Byron?

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as next year.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Think Toyota’s advantage carries over to next year with many other teams more focused on preparing for the NextGen car in 2021. Hamlin will finally get his moment as a champion.

Daniel McFadin: It’s a tossup between Hamlin and Elliott. Aside from Hamlin’s winless season in 2018, he and Elliott at this point feel like the only drivers who can put together consistent seasons worthy of a championship. Elliott’s steadily improved over the last three years, winning six times, while Hamlin just produced his best year in a decade. My gut says Hamlin.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be the hardest question we’ve had all year because it could just as easily be phrased “who among these drivers will never win a championship?” You may be surprised at my answer, but I’m going with William Byron. I think another year or two with Chad Knaus and he’ll be ready to be considered a true championship contender. I’m less optimistic that any of the others will win a title any time soon.

Xfinity practice report from Miami

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Championship contender Tyler Reddick led a rain-shortened opening practice for the Xfinity Series Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Reddick paced the field with a lap of 165.674 mph. Four of the top five were title contenders: Christopher Bell was second with a lap of 165.178 mph, Justin Allgaier was fourth at 164.704 mph and Cole Custer was fifth at 163.820 mph. Austin Cindric was the only driver in the top five not racing for a championship. He was third on the speed chart with a lap of 164.815 mph.

Click here for practice results

Allgaier had some drama early in the session.

David Starr and Allgaier made contact after Starr drifted up the track and hit the left side of Allgaier’s car. Allgaier completed only five laps before the incident.

“Just disappointing,” Allgaier told NBCSN. “I’m pretty laid back this weekend. I’ve focused a lot on just going out there and doing our thing and be patient and felt like we were doing that. (Starr) had kind of committed to the bottom. I was going to go to the bottom and then he kind of started moving up. I thought he will still give me plenty of room on corner exit. He ran right into the side of us. Disappointed to tear my car up.”

Final Xfinity practice was canceled by rain Friday. The series races Saturday.