Championship 4

Starting lineup for NASCAR Cup championship race at Miami

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It’s not unusual to have a starting lineup set by the NASCAR rule book and owner points if situations like weather preclude qualifying from taking place.

But it’s a rarity when the starting lineup is set due to qualifying being rained out – and without even one lap of practice being turned beforehand.

That’s what happened Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Rain washed out several segments of the day, including both NASCAR Cup practice sessions.

The Championship 4 drivers — Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch — will start the race in the first four positions at the front of the pack.

Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race will be televised live at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

Click here for the starting lineup.

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Justin Allgaier ‘peaking at the right time’ ahead of battle vs Xfinity ‘Big 3’

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By Justin Allgaier‘s own definition, 2019 has been a “terrible” and “miserable” year for the Xfinity Series driver.

That’s not the kind of descriptive words you would expect to hear from one of the four drivers who will compete for the Xfinity title Saturday in Miami (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

But in the immediate aftermath of his win last weekend at ISM Raceway – which snapped a 39-race winless streak – that’s exactly how the JR Motorsports driver summed up the previous 31 races.

He did so while referring to his career-best stretch of 16 straight top-10 finishes.

“I still view this as a terrible year,” Allgaier said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. Right, but compared to last year we just executed better. We had speed when we needed it. And things fell our way. The definition of luck is when opportunity meets preparation. The weekends we’ve been prepared, the opportunity hasn’t been there. The weeks we’ve had the opportunity, we may not have been prepared. Today we had both.”

The veteran missed out on the Championship 4 last year, a result of a “miserable” experience in the playoffs where he was eliminated in the second round despite five wins in the regular season.

Now he’s back in the final round for the third time in four years and feels he and his No. 7 team are “peaking at the right time” as he prepares to face off against the “Big 3” of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and defending champion Tyler Reddick.

Together the “Big 3” have won 20 of 32 races this year.

“A lot of the story lines this year have been surrounding the other three contenders and they’ve been really strong and they’ve won a lot of races,” Allgaier said in a media release. “You can’t count us out. We’re going into this weekend with a new mentality and a new energy and we’re going to have a shot at winning a championship.”

Allgaier admitted Saturday he could have “easily” made the championship round had he finished second at ISM Raceway. But going to Miami with a win on his record has a dynamic impact on his mindset.

“If I would have gotten chased down by Cole (Custer) at the end and gotten passed, mentally that’s going to defeat you, right?” Allgaier said. “I think winning a race definitely makes next week a lot more enjoyable, and I think it puts us more in the conversation for maybe having an opportunity to go for a championship.”

Just like it was difficult for him to break the “Big 3’s” dominance in the regular season, Allgaier acknowledges the task before him Saturday if he wants to give JR Motorsports its third consecutive Xfinity title and its fourth in six years.

Reddick and Custer have won the last two races in Miami. Allgaier has never finished better than sixth in nine Xfinity starts on the 1.5-mile track.

“It’s going to be hard to beat them, there’s no question about it,” Allgaier said. “So I’ve got to do a better job of figuring my program out and what I can do to be a better asset to our team.

“I’ve been in this scenario a couple of times. This week’s going to be full of studying. Because I know we’ve got three competitors that I’m racing against that equally are ready to compete next week. Mentally they’re ready, they’re physically ready, they’re (in) fast race cars. They’ve had the speed all year in their cars. They’ve made a lot of mistakes. But they’ve had the speed.”

But Allgaier insists after his “miserable” year there’s “no pressure” on him in his effort to finally break through for a NASCAR title.

“It’s funny because the last couple of years, the years I’ve put the most pressure on myself are the ones that have been the worst,” Allgaier said.

One sign of his mindset?

Right before he left victory lane Saturday, his crew chief Jason Burdett jokingly asked him what they were going to do the following weekend in Miami.

Replied Allgaier: “We’re going to have fun.”

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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.

Xfinity Series Championship 4 outlook

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What a difference a year makes in the Xfinity Series.

The series enters this weekend’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with only a slight change to its Championship 4 driver lineup but with a massive difference in their record. (Watch at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Last season, Miami arrived with the four drivers – Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, Daniel Hemric and Tyler Reddick – owning just nine wins among them. Hemric had none, Reddick and Custer each had one and Bell hoarded a rookie record seven victories.

Twelve months later only one name has changed in the final four, with Justin Allgaier entering the fray through his win last Saturday at ISM Raceway.

Together the four drivers have won 21 of the 32 races held this year, with 20 victories claimed by the “Big 3” of Bell, Custer and defending champion Reddick.

Here’s a more detailed analysis of the Championship 4 field.

Christopher Bell (No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing)

Wins: Eight (Atlanta, Bristol I, Dover I, Iowa I, New Hampshire, Road America, Richmond II, Texas II)

Career Playoff Wins: Six (including Kansas win in 2017 as part-time driver)

Miami Record: Has a DNF (engine) and an 11th-place finish in two Xfinity starts. Was plagued by a pit stop for a flat tire with 10 laps to go last year. Best finish of second in three Truck Series starts. Won the Truck Series title in 2017. Has been in the Championship 4 in each of his four full-time seasons in NASCAR.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): When Bell is on, he’s on. Twice this year – New Hampshire and Richmond II – he has led all but 14 or less laps.

Outlook: There was no sophomore slump for Bell. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver matched and exceed almost all of his major stats from 2018 and then added to them (he tied his total for top 10s). Notably, he led 1,968 laps compared to his 2018 total of 759. Can Bell get his coveted Xfinity title before making the jump to Cup in the offseason?

“I like where we are at, that’s for sure,” Bell said after his win at Texas two weeks ago. “There were a couple of places earlier in the year that the car drove really, really nice and we just weren’t able to compete with some of the other competitors, but right now, I feel like we can be a little off on balance and still be competitive. So that’s means whenever we hit it we are going to be really good.”

 

Cole Custer (No. 00 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing)

Wins: Seven (Auto Club Speedway, Richmond I, Pocono I, Chicago, Kentucky, Darlington, Dover II)

Career Playoff wins: Three (Won at Miami in 2017 when he wasn’t a Championship 4 driver)

Miami record: Three starts in Xfinity. Finishes of 17th, second (2018) and a win (2017). Started second in 2017 and led 182 laps on the way to his first career Xfinity win.

Championship-caliber moment(s): In an overtime shootout to decide the Pocono race in June, Custer capitalized on a bobble by Tyler Reddick in the final turn to pass him and take the win. He also delayed Kyle Busch earning his 200th national series win by a day when he beat him in March at Auto Club Speedway.

Outlook: Cole Custer is really good in Miami, leading 277 laps and finishing in the top two in his last two starts there. That was before he was paired with crew chief Mike Shiplett and stormed to a seven-win season this year. Watch out.

“I think we can go there and win,” Custer said after his runner-up finish Saturday at ISM Raceway. “There’s no reason why we can’t. Last year we led the most laps and this year we’re probably better, so I think we can go there and really compete for a championship.”

 

Tyler Reddick (No. 2 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing)

Wins: Five (Talladega, Charlotte I, Michigan, Bristol II and Las Vegas II)

Career Playoff wins: Two (one was as a part-time driver in 2017 at Kentucky)

Miami record:  Two Xfinity starts with finishes of fourth and a win last year to claim a surprise championship. In three Truck Series starts he never finished worse than sixth.

Championship-caliber moment(s): Held off a swarm of threats on the final lap to win at Talladega. Conserved enough fuel to ward off Christopher Bell and win at Las Vegas. Started last in the Bristol night race (due to inspection failures) and had a pass through penalty on the first lap and still managed to win the race. Reddick has won in every imaginable way this year.

Outlook: Reddick is a proven commodity at Homestead and he solidified that last year when he rode the high line against the wall to a championship no one expected him to claim. He’s also proved you can win a championship and arguably be the most improved driver the following year.

“Just had to play it safe at the end to make sure we had enough fuel to get to the checkered flag,” Reddick said after he finished third Saturday. “It’s definitely not the way we normally like to race, but we did what we had to do to get to Miami next week. That was the goal all season, and now we’re there. I’m proud to keep RCR’s streak of making the Championship 4 in the Xfinity Series alive for another year. We’ll be ready to race for the title next weekend, and I know my No. 2 team is up for the challenge.”

 

Justin Allgaier (No. 7 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports)

Wins: One (Phoenix II)

Career Playoff wins: One

Miami record:  In nine Xfinity starts since 2008, Allgaier’s best two finishes are sixth and seventh, coming in the last three seasons. He’s only led seven laps in those nine starts.

Championship-caliber moment(s): If you’re going to end a 39-race winless streak you might as well do it in the last race that can send you to the Championship 4. Allgaier’s Phoenix win put him into the title round for the third time in four years.

Outlook: The oldest driver in the Championship 4 by nine years, the 33-year-old Allgaier has a chance to put a dent into the “youth movement” narrative that’s driven the Xfinity Series for years. Should he hoist the championship trophy Saturday, he’d give JR Motorsports its third consecutive title.

“We needed this momentum. We’ve had an off year, no questions asked. Every time we think we’re going to be in a great shot to go win a race things have gone completely the opposite of what we thought,” Allgaier said Saturday. “I think we go into next week with a new mentality, a new energy and we got a shot at winning a championship.”

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Cup Series Championship 4 outlook

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This is it.

One race remains in the 2019 Cup season.

The Championship 4 has been set for Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. each will go for their second title, while Denny Hamlin goes for his first.

The title race is a matchup of three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers taking on Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick.

Here’s a breakdown of each driver’s season and their record at the 1.5-mile track, which will host its final championship race for the foreseeable future.

Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing)

Wins: Four (New Hampshire, Michigan II, Indianapolis and Texas II)

Career Playoff wins: 14 (one this year)

Miami record: Ten top fives in 18 starts. Finished in the top five in last five starts, which includes winning the race and title in 2014.

Championship-caliber moment(s): Capitalized on Bubba Wallace’s spin during green-flag pit stops at Texas to return to the front of the field, where he led 119 laps and won the playoff race for the third year in a row.

Outlook: Aside from Martin Truex Jr., last year’s Championship 4 drivers were quiet in the playoffs until Harvick’s win at Texas. The SHR driver is validating his nickname “The Closer” when he needs to. Can he do it again Sunday?

(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.”

 

Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing)

 Wins: Seven (Richmond I, Dover I, Coke 600, Sonoma, Las Vegas II, Richmond II and Martinsville II)

Career Playoff wins: Nine (three this year)

Miami record: Five top fives in 14 starts, including his race win to claim the title in 2017 and his second-place finish last year.

Championship-caliber moment(s): After his disappointing loss at Martinsville in 2018, Truex took care of business in dominating fashion last month, leading 464 laps in a statement win.

Outlook: A win Sunday would give Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn a championship in their first season at Joe Gibbs Racing. But they don’t need a second championship to prove their place with the team.

“It’s going to be interesting for sure,” Truex said  “I feel like we’re here for a reason, and that’s because (the JGR teams) all work together so well, and hopefully we’ll do that the same this week and throughout the weekend … and then Sunday let the best team win.”

 

Kyle Busch (No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing)

Wins: Four (Phoenix I, Auto Club Speedway, Bristol I and Pocono II).

Career Playoff wins: Seven (none this year)

Miami record: Finished sixth or better in last four starts there, including his 2015 win to claim to the title.

Championship-caliber moment(s): Essentially needed to finish ahead of Joey Logano Sunday at ISM Raceway. After Logano’s problems, Busch stayed in the top five raced his way into the Championship 4.

Outlook: It’s been about five months since Busch, winless in his last 21 races, won a Cup event, but thanks to his solid regular season and his second-place finish at ISM Raceway, he has a chance to get a second title.

“(We’ll) fight as hard as we can, do the best job we can, exactly what we did today,” Busch said.  “Today we just weren’t good enough. Next week we’ll just have to make sure that we are.

“Somehow, some way, if it works out, it was meant to be. If it doesn’t, then it’s not. Hopefully the sun will come up for another day.”

 

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing)

Wins: Six (his most since winning eight in 2010)

Career Playoff wins: Nine (two this year)

Miami record: Two wins and four top fives in 14 starts. Last win was in 2013, the last season before the introduction of the elimination playoff format. Only Championship 4 driver with multiple wins in Miami.

Championship-caliber moment(s): His win Sunday after he entered the race 20 points behind the cutoff to advance. Had he finished second, he’d have missed out on the chance at his first Cup title.

Outlook: In the midst of his best season in almost a decade, Hamlin rides a wave of momentum to Miami. However, every Cup title in the elimination era has been decided by the race winner in Miami. Hamlin hasn’t finished better than seventh in his last five starts there.

“I’m just more content with what I’ve accomplished in the series,” Hamlin said. “I don’t need validation of a championship. I think that the outside world feels like I need that to validate my status, whatever it is. But doesn’t change who I am.  Doesn’t change how I treat people. If I don’t win this year, I’m going to work just as hard for 2020.

“There are many, many more opportunities ahead of me. This is not my last opportunity to win a championship.”