Daniel McFadin

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Friday 5: Youth movement expanding in NASCAR

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While the focus during the offseason is on which drivers will fill what seats in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks, there’s also a lot taking place for younger drivers seeking to reach NASCAR’s top levels someday.

Toyota Racing Development spends the end of the year evaluating talent and seeing what roles those drivers can have in the coming season.

“When I look at kind of that 16- to 21-year old group … there’s some pretty fantastic talent in that group,” Jack Irving, whose duties at Toyota Racing Development include overseeing the organization’s driver development program, told NBC Sports earlier this month. “(Also) we’ve literally tested 14- and 15-year olds that I’m extremely excited about in the same way.”

The question is where might that talent go if it remains in Toyota’s pipeline.

Toyota has five Cup seats with three filled by drivers who competed in the championship race this season — 2019 champion Kyle Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who placed fourth in the points. Toyota’s other two Cup seats are filled by budding stars Erik Jones (23 years old) and 2020 Cup rookie Christopher Bell (24).

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 Xfinity lineup includes Brandon Jones, who turns 23 in February. This will be his third consecutive season with JGR. Joining him is Riley Herbst, who turns 21 in February, for his first full season with the team, and 19-year-old Harrison Burton for his rookie campaign.

Kyle Busch Motorsports will have 18-year-old Raphael Lessard compete full time in 2020 after running five races for the team this past season. The team also will have 19-year-old Christian Eckes, who won the ARCA title this past season, drive full time. He made eight starts in 2019 and four starts for the organization in 2018. A third truck will feature several drivers. Chandler Smith, who doesn’t turn 18 until June and is limited in what tracks he can run before then, likely will run some races for the team.

Then there’s Derek Kraus, the 18-year-old who won the title in what is now known as the ARCA West Series. There’s also 18-year-old Hailie Deegan, who finished third in points in the ARCA West Series and shows signs of climbing NASCAR’s ranks. And Ty Gibbs, the 17-year-old grandson of car owner Joe Gibbs, who won twice in ARCA and once each in what is now ARCA East and ARCA West Series in 2019. Many others are in the pipeline, which stretches to the formidable Keith Kunz Motorsports midget teams.

As each season nears an end, the work increases for Toyota Racing Development to evaluate drivers and where they will race for next year. The competition can be intense.

“I think there is a point here somewhere quickly where you get pushed pretty hard to start winning and competing,” Irving said, “to compete for top five in all the races and not have wrecked cars and do all these things and then also be a good teammate and a good person and all those kinds of things that you don’t necessarily always talk about that are pretty important for what we do from a structure perspective.”

Another key factor can be how a young driver ends a season, even if it doesn’t end in a championship.

“You typically want to see them under pressure, so the end of the season really does matter in the whole scheme of things,” Irving said. “If they’ve had a tough season, how are they finishing? If they’re having a good season, then how are they finishing?

And there’s more that is examined.

“We typically go through an analytics run through with the group,” Irving said. “A few of us will get together and kind of go through … some of the things from the coaches, some of the things from the engineers who work with them and what they’ve done with the team, so we’ll start talking to the individuals in the team, if it’s the team owner, if it’s crew chief, car chief.”

It’s all about seeking to find the next talent for the Cup Series.

2. New Generation

Based on what driver lineups that are set for next year, the 2020 Daytona 500 could see half the field age 29 and younger.

Drivers who will be age 29 and under as of next year’s Daytona 500 (Feb. 16) and have rides announced are:

Age 22: William Byron, Cole Custer, Quin Houff

Age 23: Erik Jones

Age 24: Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick

Age 25: Christopher Bell

Age 26: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace

Age 27: Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson

Age 28: Matt DiBenedetto

Age 29: Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Ryan Preece

One also can add Corey LaJoie (age 28), Ross Chastain (27), Parker Kligerman (29) with the expectation they will each be in a Cup car for next year’s season-opening race. That would put the list at 20 drivers age 29 and under in next year’s Daytona 500. And there could be even more, including Daniel Suarez, who turns 28 in January, and John Hunter Nemechek, 22.

Compare that to 2015 when there were 13 drivers age 29 and under in that year’s season opener.

3. 99 Club

Five drivers completed at least 99% of the 10,255 laps run this season in Cup, the first time any driver has reached that mark since 2015.

Joey Logano led the way, completing 99.67% of the laps (10.221). That’s the highest percentage of laps completed by a driver since 2010 when Matt Kenseth ran 99.93% of the laps. Kenseth ran all but eight of the 10,778 laps run that year.

Also completing more than 99% of the laps this Cup season were Paul Menard (99.63%), Ty Dillon (99.18%), champion Kyle Busch (99.14%) and series runner-up Martin Truex Jr. (99.00%).

4. Ticket deals

With all the sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many tracks also have announced special deals for tickets to NASCAR races this coming season.

NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin has compiled what deals many tracks have starting today. You can find the information here.

5. Banquet week

The NASCAR Awards Show, which will celebrate Kyle Busch’s championship, takes place next week in Nashville, Tennessee. Festivities will be Dec. 3-5 with the Awards show taking place Dec. 5.

NBCSN will air Burnouts on Broadway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 4. and replay it at 7 p.m. ET Dec. 5. NBCSN will air the Cup Awards show from 8-10:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 5 with a replay immediately afterward.

The Xfinity Awards show will air from 9-11 p.m. ET on Sunday (Dec. 1) on NBCSN.

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.

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.

Bump and Run: Who will win the Cup championship trophy?

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Who do you think will win the Cup championship Sunday in Miami and why?

Nate Ryan: It just feels like Denny Hamlin‘s year.

Dustin Long: I’m sticking with the pick I made before the playoffs of Denny Hamlin winning the title. Two wins and six top-five finishes in the playoffs shows this team is strong enough to win the title and Hamlin has erased any doubts of him handling the pressure on such a big stage. Come Sunday, NASCAR will celebrate another first-time Cup champion.

Daniel McFadin: Denny Hamlin. His hiccup at Texas aside, it’s felt like momentum’s been on his side this year starting with his Daytona 500 win, propelling him to his best season in nearly a decade. Hamlin just feels at ease this year, no matter what’s thrown at him. His performance on Sunday exemplified that.

Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin. If there’s been one hallmark this season, it’s that he’s risen to the occasion when he needed to the most. I just get the feeling that after so many shortcomings in his career, this will finally be the year Hamlin comes through. All three of his challengers are former past champions. Now it’s the Virginia kid’s turn to shine in the Florida sun and earn his long overdue first championship.

Who do you think will win the Xfinity championship Saturday in Miami and why?

Nate Ryan: Christopher Bell. His team has had the most time to prepare and took advantage by leaving its car chief in North Carolina to work on its Toyota for the title.

Dustin Long: A year after finishing second to Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer returns to Miami to capture his first series tittle.

Daniel McFadin: Tyler Reddick. He’s won in every way imaginable this year and usually done it when he didn’t have the best car. The only difference between a potential title this year and last season is that it won’t be a surprise.

Jerry Bonkowski: Sentimentally, I’d like to see Justin Allgaier win. He’s kind of been the Denny Hamlin of the Xfinity Series, having come so close so many times, but never cashing in. But it’ll take a near-miracle for Allgaier to beat Christopher Bell in his Xfinity swan song. So, I’m picking Bell.

What is the more remarkable achievement: Joe Gibbs Racing tying Hendrick Motorsports’ record in the modern era of 18 wins in a season or JGR putting three drivers in the Championship 4 race?

Nate Ryan: Having three-quarters of the championship field in such a treacherous playoff structure might not happen again.

Dustin Long: Winning 18 of 35 races (and five of the nine playoff races) in what is supposed to be the most competitive era of the sport is the more remarkable achievement. JGR doesn’t place three of its drivers in the championship race without that season-long dominance that helped its drivers build playoff points and continue that success in the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: The 18 wins. Putting three drivers in the final is impressive, but it’s not completely a surprise because Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have been three of the best drivers this year and make up 17 of JGR’s 18 wins. That they were able to reach 18 wins with Erik Jones only winning once is astounding.

Jerry Bonkowski: There wouldn’t be three JGR drivers in the Championship 4 if it wasn’t for their combined 18 wins (includes one win by non-finalist Erik Jones). The latter is obviously the most remarkable achievement.

Bump and Run: Does NASCAR need to make more judgment calls?

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Questions have been raised the past two Cup playoffs races about a driver spinning to create a caution. Does NASCAR need to do anything?

Nate Ryan: Establish some parameters and stick to them. Either everyone needs to know it’s OK to spin intentionally with a flat tire to cause a caution if it didn’t merit an initial yellow from the tower, or NASCAR needs to enforce its own rules on purposeful cautions with extreme prejudice. The best course of action is probably the former (for reasons that Tony Stewart and Kyle Petty have articulated well), but that message should be conveyed subtlely.

Dustin Long: The last thing NASCAR needs is an integrity issue in the playoffs, particularly with one race before the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship fields are set. In that light, it makes sense to do what some might say would be an overreaction and state that any driver that causes a caution that seems suspicious on any level will be dealt a minimum two-lap penalty. The topic at ISM Raceway or in the championship races in Miami can’t be about cautions that alter those races but the racing on the track.

Daniel McFadin: Only if NASCAR can determine the spin wasn’t done in an effort to prevent further damage to the driver’s car and others. Logano and Wallace had tires going down. If they keep going and don’t (allegedly) spin on purpose, it’s possible the tires cause significant damage to their cars, resulting in debris being distributed on the track and possibly damaging other cars.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR has to remain vigilant and penalize drivers if there is enough reasonable suspicion that the spin was intentional. For example, with Bubba Wallace at Texas, it appeared he indeed had a tire going down. I didn’t see that as an intentional action, but something he couldn’t control. NASCAR did not think it was intentional, too, and as a result did not penalize him. If a driver intentionally spins, or gives the appearance he did so, NASCAR should have a driver pit his car immediately and have its pit officials examine tires to see if indeed there was an issue with the tires that led to the spin.

 

Which driver among those outside a transfer spot — Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott — do you believe has the best chance at ISM Raceway to advance to the championship race?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Still feels as if it’s his year.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Not going to bet against him and crew chief Chris Gabehart after all they’ve accomplished this season.

Daniel McFadin: Ryan Blaney. While Kyle Busch won the spring race, Blaney led 94 laps, including 44 in the final stage before he was overtaken by Busch and finished third. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin.

 

What do you make of these playoffs? Joey Logano scored his first top five of the playoffs at Texas but is in position to make it to the championship race, while Denny Hamlin has one win and five top fives and could fail to advance to the title race.

Nate Ryan: They’ve reaffirmed the importance of playoff points in the first two rounds, but also that they still can’t save a driver from a poor finish n the third round.

Dustin Long: Unpredictable. The playoffs have provided a roller-coaster of emotions and storylines. Kyle Busch benefitted from a strong regular season and remains in contention despite an underwhelming playoffs. The Hamlin-Logano storyline has added to the playoffs in the last couple of weeks. Who would have thought that the title race could have the same four drivers as last year?

Daniel McFadin: Chaos! I love it. These playoffs have followed no script you could have predicted before they started. Two playoff drivers got their first wins of the season during the postseason and they’re among the final eight. It’s not like last year where it was assumed the “Big 3” of Busch, Harvick and Truex would make it and they did. While Harvick and Truex are in, there’s genuine tension over whether Busch can do the same. I can’t wait to see how it goes down.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I believe in the sport’s integrity, I admit some fans may be turned off if Logano reaches Miami and Hamlin doesn’t based solely on wins this season or overall performance during the playoffs. And if Logano wins another championship while guys with more wins – Martin Truex Jr. (7 wins), Kevin Harvick (4 wins), Hamlin (5 wins) and/or  Kyle Busch (4 wins) fall short again – the Cinderella storyline can only go so far before it turns off more fans, as well.