Joe Gibbs Racing — The organization started the year with a 1-2-3 finish, led by Denny Hamlin, in the Daytona 500. The organization ended the year with a 1-2-3 finish, led by Kyle Busch, in the season finale in Miami. Busch’s victory also gave the organization 19 victories this season, breaking the record for most wins in a season in the modern era (since 1972).
Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer — As Tyler Reddick was on the NBC Sports Peacock Pit Box after winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series championship, runner-up Cole Custer went over and to offer his congratulations. Custer and Reddick then engaged in a conversation about their thrilling battle as if they were standing alone in the garage. The moment gave fans an unfiltered look into their dramatic battle from each driver’s vantage point.
Martin Truex Jr.’s team — To put a right-side tire on the left side and a left-side tire on the right side is inexcusable. For it to happen in the championship race and play a role in costing Truex the title is something that will hang over this team for a very long time.
Chevrolet’s Cup playoff performance — For the third consecutive year, the Cup championship race did not include a Chevrolet team. Chevy’s top finisher in Sunday’s season finale was eighth. Chevy’s Tyler Reddick did win the Xfinity title.
Hendrick Motorsports engines — For the third time in the last four races, a Hendrick motor had an issue. Sunday, Kyle Larson, whose team gets its engines from Hendrick, and William Byron each were eliminated by engine issues. Last month at Martinsville, Chase Elliott had an engine fail early in opening practice, forcing him to start that race at the back of the pack.
Bump and Run: Who will win the Cup championship trophy?
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.
Friday 5: Kyle Larson focused on Texas and ‘best chance to get a win’
Kyle Larson hinted in September at what was to come in the Cup playoffs, but it was easy to overlook with the focus on Joe Gibbs Racing’s stable and if anyone could keep all four JGR drivers from advancing to the title race in Miami.
Even though Larson had yet to win at that time, he said in Las Vegas that he felt his cars were better than what he had in 2017 when he entered that postseason second in points and with four wins.
“I think this is as good of a shot, minus I don’t have as many playoffs points as that year,” Larson said a few days before this year’s playoff opener.
Larson was eliminated in the second round in 2017 but is among the eight remaining playoff drivers this year.
While Denny Hamlin won two weeks ago at Kansas, the most recent 1.5-mile track before this weekend, Larson led 60 laps before some sloppiness on pit road by him and his team and contact with a lapped car led to a 14th-place finish.
Even after that finish, Larson remained upbeat.
“Texas will be our best chance to get a win,” he said of the Round of 8 races at Martinsville, Texas and ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
Larson survived Martinsville, notable as one of his worst tracks. He finished ninth but scored the sixth-most points in that race thanks to crew chief Chad Johnston’s call not to pit shortly before the end of stage 2. That move gave Larson the lead and he finished the stage in second, collecting nine points.
After finishing the race, Larson said on the radio to his team: “Survived. It’s what we needed to do.”
A key for Larson will be have a clean race. He overcame a pit road penalty to finish eighth at Las Vegas. He was penalized one lap for pitting outside the box at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and placed 13th. A penalty for an uncontrolled tire at Kansas played a role in him finishing 14th.
While Larson acknowledged after Kansas that he had a points deficit to overcome, he noted “a win could fix all that.”
It could this weekend for him and his Chip Ganassi Racing team.
Gossage explained to NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan his hesitation with the traction compound previously:
“I was like, look, the asphalt will come in in time. You just got to stomach out the first couple of years. That kind of thing. I don’t know. I just didn’t see the need to do it. Others did and wanted to do it, and you’ve got to trust your people and listen to what they say. I’m talking from experience and pure gut instinct. They’re talking to me about all these friction coefficients and these devices they use to measure it. And so there’s a difference there.
“Most of the time they’re right when they use those devices. Sometimes they’re wrong. The key is to know when science is right and when your gut is right.”
Asked if the traction compound seems like a crutch that detracts from more important things, Gossage told Ryan:
“I look at it like there’s so much noise from a few people, the vocal minority, about so many things related to the sport, that it’s hard to know when to stick your fingers in your ear and ignore it. Because you want to listen to fans. It’s another one of those judgment things you’ve got to make. Yeah, I hear all the time from the detractors, and I thought Kansas was a watershed moment in NASCAR, but you hear these detractors, and you want to say, ‘Look, we’re not running a stock car off the showroom floor with an 8-inch bias-ply treaded tire anymore.’
“That’s not what we do. That’s not what this sport is. It’s evolved. It’s changed. The forward path is not a bad thing. It’s a tough line to straddle to stay in the old days where certain things were great because the way they were, and you also have to advance or die. So what do you listen to and who? The good old days for me are different from the good old days for you and somebody else. If I listen to most detractors, the good old days … the first Cup race I saw in person, Darrell Waltrip beat Bobby Allison by a lap. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. Well if you did that today, they’d tear the place down. So you got to grow.”
As for Kansas being a “watershed moment,” Gossage said: “I thought Kansas was the first time where all the things that the playoffs bring about in every sport: Intrigue. Intensity. Mayhem. Nerves. Who’s in, who’s out. On and on. Great things. That was the story. That is what each playoff race needs to be like.”
3. Right tracks at the right time
Kevin Harvick enters this weekend at Texas having finished in the top 10 each of the past 10 races there, tying Greg Biffle for the longest steak of consecutive top 10s at that track.
No other drivers have had more than six consecutive top 10s at Texas. Since the track was repaved and reconfigured in 2017, Harvick has a 3.2 average finish in five races. He won two of those races.
But this is just the beginning for Harvick with some of his best tracks.
After Texas, the series heads to ISM Raceway. Harvick has 12 consecutive top-10 finishes going into that race.
The season finale is in Miami and Harvick has scored 11 consecutive top 10s there.
4. Moving closer to record
Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Martinsville gave Joe Gibbs Racing its 17th victory of the season.
The record for wins in a season by one organization in the modern era (since 1972) is held by Hendrick Motorsports, which won 18 of 36 races in 2007.
JGR has three races left to tie or surpass Hendrick Motorsports’ accomplishment.
5. F1 announces cost cap for 2021
Formula 1 announced several changes this week for the 2021 season, including a cost cap. That’s something that could be in place in NASCAR by 2021.
The F1 cost cap will limit teams to $175 million for the calendar year and is based on 21 races. The cap will not include wages for drivers, the team’s three highest paid personnel, marketing costs and travel costs. A NASCAR team cap is not expected to include driver salaries.
Auditors will be appointed to provide independent oversight of the F1 teams. Penalties for exceeding the cap could be a financial penalty, loss of constructors and/or driver points, ban for a certain number of races, limitations on testing and/or reduction of the team’s cost cap. In the most serious cases, penalties also could include exclusion from the World Championship.
This has been something team owners have been working on with NASCAR and will be interesting to see in what ways a NASCAR cap might mirror the F1 cap and other ways it might not.
For the first time in F1 history, financial rules will be enshrined in the new regulations
“We’ve never been in this position before,” he said after his series-high seventh win of the season. “Every time we’ve made the final four we’ve pointed our way in. We’ve never won in this round, so it’s new territory. It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. I said that earlier in the year when the playoffs started. You can’t just go from the regular season to we’re going to change our mindset for the playoffs. You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here.”
DEPOSITS AND WITHDRAWALS
Denny Hamlin has stated multiple times this season about not doing anything outlandish on the track that would incite a competitor, particularly in the playoffs.
Sunday, Hamlin and Logano made contact shortly after a Lap 456 restart. Hamlin later took the blame for the contact. After discussing the incident on pit road, Logano shoved Hamlin, triggering a scuffle on pit road.
With two races left in this round, Hamlin is second in the standings. He is 10 points ahead of Logano, who holds the fourth and final transfer spot.
If one could go inside the mind of Kyle Busch after a playoff race, the symbols represent a clean version of what he might be thinking. Busch, the regular-season champion, has had a miserable playoffs. He has finished outside the top 10 in four of the seven races.
Kevin Harvick was unspectacular throughout much of Sunday’s race but finished seventh. Ryan Blaney was strong all race before finishing fifth.
They’ll look for better results this weekend at Texas. Harvick is 14 points behind Logano for the final transfer spot. Blaney is 15 points behind Logano.
TIME TO GO TO WORK
Everyone knew Martinsville could be a rough race for Kyle Larson, who has not mastered that tough half-mile track.
A good call by crew chief Chad Johnston allowed Larson to score nine points in stage 2 when he had been running outside the top 10 before a late caution. While the field pitted, Larson stayed out for track position. Still, points might not be enough to get him to the championship race in Miami. He’s seventh among the eight remaining playoff drivers and is 24 points behind Logano.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
Chase Elliott opened the previous round of the playoffs by finishing last at Dover when his engine failed after eight laps.
He started the Round of 8 at Martinsville by suffering an engine failure after five laps of opening practice. In the race, Elliott’s car suffered a broken axle on Lap 180 while he was fifth. He finished 36th and is 44 points out of the final transfer spot, meaning he is essentially in a must-win situation the rest of this round.
As for the mechanical issues with his Hendrick Motorsports team recently, Elliott conceded: “I’m concerned.”
Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet suffered an engine failure within the first five laps of the first practice Saturday at Martinsville Speedway.
It’s the second engine failure of the 2019 playoffs for Elliott, who made only eight laps at Dover International Speedway in the Round of 12 opener. Despite that 38th-place finish, the Hendrick Motorsports driver squeaked into the third round of the playoffs with a runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway.
“I don’t think they’re related,” Elliott said after practice Saturday morning. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Anytime you have two engine problems in four weeks, that’s not good for sure.
“I do know we’ll do a diligent job of trying to figure out what the problem is. The worst thing that can happen is you don’t know why or what broke. If we can find (what caused it), I’m sure we’ll get it corrected.”
Because of the engine change, Elliott will start at the back of Sunday’s 500-lap race at Martinsville. He finished second in the March 24 race at the 0.526-mile oval.
“We broke a motor five laps in, obviously an unfortunate way to start the day for sure,” Elliott said. “Just one of those things. It is what it is. Everyone is working hard to get the car put back together and get some practice in, and at this point, that’s the most important thing.”
Due to a mechanical issue in first practice, the No. 9 team will change engines.