MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Although Jimmie Johnson is not a part of the championship discussion this weekend, his shadow towers over the Cup Series and could play a role in how this generation’s drivers are judged.
All four drivers are members of the Johnson generation, a fraternity of talented racers who had the misfortune of competing during Johnson’s reign. Hamlin and Busch have each raced their entire Cup career against Johnson. Harvick started running Cup full-time in 2001, a year before Johnson.
In that time, they’ve seen Johnson win a record five consecutive titles from 2006-10 to go with crowns in 2013 and ’16. He’s also collected 83 series victories, which ranks sixth on the all-time wins list.
“Definitely behind in wins and championships,” said Kyle Busch, who has 55 career Cup victories. “Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at. If I end with one (championship), that’s going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever.
“But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable. But when you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”
Johnson’s success won’t keep Harvick, Busch and Truex out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after their career ends. One Cup championship has been a gateway to immortality. Mark Martin, who never won a Cup title, showed that there’s still room in the Hall of Fame. Should Hamlin never win a series crown, he likely is headed to the Hall with his 37 career victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs.
While Johnson’s career is measured against Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, how should those who raced against Johnson be viewed since they have fewer titles?
One consideration is to look at the Championship 4 appearances by each driver.
This is Harvick’s fifth title race appearance in six years. Busch is making his fifth consecutive championship race appearance. Truex is racing for a title for a third consecutive year.
“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.
“Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead. Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend.”
Said Truex: “I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship). I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.”
2. Picking the right strategy
The strategy for Sunday’s race would seem easy for the Cup title contenders. Set the car up for a short run. Since the winner-take-all format in 2014, four of the five title races have had cautions in the last 15 laps, setting up a short run to the finish.
Last year, Joey Logano, whose car was set for the short run, passed Martin Truex Jr., whose car was set for a long run, with 12 laps left to win the race and the championship.
Kevin Harvick warns it’s not quite that simple with strategy, especially for a race that starts in the afternoon and ends at night under cooler track conditions.
“The only problem with short runs is you got to stay on the lead lap during the day,” Harvick said of when track conditions are warmer and more challenging to a car’s handling. “So you have to have some good balance and good adjustability built into your car.
“The short run has definitely been what’s won this race over the past few years, but having … the proper track position to take advantage of that short‑run speed is still necessary in the first half of the day. I don’t think these cars are going to race like what we have raced here before.
“I just don’t see the characteristics being exactly how they have been in the past for the amount of laps and things that have happened when your car is good and when your car goes to falling off and things like that. I think that those numbers are going to change. I don’t know exactly what that number will be as far as the crossover and falloff, but we’ll just have to see.”
3. End of the road
This weekend marks not only the end of the season but the end of a journey for Ross Chastain.
He’ll race for a Ganders Outdoor Truck Series championship tonight and run in Sunday’s Cup season finale. When the weekend ends, he will have competed in 77 races across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That equals the number of races Kyle Busch ran in those series in 2006. Busch topped that total three times, including 2009 when he ran 86 races across those series.
“Yes, I’m tired,” said Chastain, who will compete in 23 Truck, 19 Xfinity and 35 Cup races this year. “The best part about it is that if I had a bad race, I had another one in a couple days, I would forget about it. … Now the bad part was when we had a good race, I didn’t have any time to celebrate.
“I don’t know what the future will hold on that. I don’t know if we’ll hit this many races for years to come. There’s a reason nobody does it.”
“I’m a big yes man,” said Chastain, who ran 74 races across all three series last season. “If any NASCAR team owner calls me, stops me at the track and says, ‘I want you to drive for me.’ I’m like, Of course. I’ve begged all these guys for years. Now that they say yes, I’m like, Of course, yes.”
Here’s a look at the most races run in a season in recent years (Note: Chastain’s stats are entering this weekend in Miami)
To end the season, Chastain will have a different type of motorhome for the weekend. He borrowed one from a friend and made the 3 1/2-hour drive from Ft. Myers, Florida to Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Plugged in, got air‑conditioning, water, everything,” Chastain said. “Yeah, you go in and you turn and there’s a door and there’s a bathroom. Most campers and buses, there’s a bedroom. There’s no bedroom. The bedroom is the living room. It’s small. Yeah, it’s cool.”
While the Cup driver and owner titles will be determined Sunday, the manufacturer’s crown was claimed last weekend at ISM Raceway by Toyota, which won the crown for the third time in the last four years.
The manufacturer championship is overlooked by many but not those at Toyota.
“That championship I wish garnered more than it does,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “You can make no mistake, for Toyota that’s an important championship. That’s one that resonates all the way back to Japan.
“The culture of racing internationally is a little different than with NASCAR, which is a driver-centric sport and always has been and will be, and that’s great. But everywhere else we race, it’s manufacturer-centric. It’s Toyota against Porsche, Audi or somebody.”
5. A new view
Derek Kneeland, who has been Kyle Larson’s spotter, will be Tyler Reddick’s spotter next year in Reddick’s rookie Cup season.
“What brought it all into perspective for me is when I was running part‑time at Ganassi (in 2017), I would go up and sit or stand next to Derek during practice, the races, really get an understanding of his vantage point, what he sees, how he communicates, how well of a job he did,” said Reddick, who races Christoper Bell, Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier for the Xfinity title Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
“That brought it all together for me when I was doing those races when I did have him, when I was in the racecar, it gave me a better understanding of how hard that job is and how good he was at it.
“It just came about that he wasn’t going to return (to work with Larson) next year. He was having a lot of fun working with me. Everyone at RCR really enjoyed how well of a job he did at Talladega to get our first win of the year, week in, week out.”
Two past champions and two drivers who won their first Gander Outdoors Truck Series races this year are primed to battle for the championship Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).
There are no upstart phenoms in this group of drivers, where the average age is 33. The veterans came out on top. But who will be the last one standing?
Here’s a breakdown of each driver.
Matt Crafton (No. 88 Ford for ThorSport Racing)
Career Playoff wins: Two
Miami Record: Three top fives in 18 starts, including his win in 2014 to claim his second championship.
Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Crafton did everything he needed to short of winning a race this season to make the title race. He enters Miami with three top 10s in the playoffs and only one DNF through 22 races.
Outlook: It’s entirely possible Crafton could claim his third Truck Series title this weekend without having won a single race this season. In fact, he hasn’t won since the 2017 race at Eldora. The last time a national series driver won a title without a win was Austin Dillon with his Xfinity championship in 2013. Crafton will try to do it as the only Ford driver going against three Chevrolets.
“Just beat the other three guys,” Crafton said Friday night. “At the end of the day, just go out there and just make your truck the best you can in practice and Homestead’s always such an interesting one just because you have so much tire wear, you get so much tire falloff and you get one set of tires in practice. You have one shot to get the balance of your truck good. … But at the end of the day we know what trucks we’ll be racing for a championship.”
Brett Moffitt (No. 24 Chevrolet for GMS Racing)
Wins: Four (Iowa, Chicago, Bristol, Canada)
Career Playoff Wins: Four (two this season)
Miami Record: Will make his second Truck start at the track following his win there last year to claim the title. Finished 31st and 36th in his two Cup Series starts.
Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Led the final 27 laps at Bristol and survived three restarts in that span to fend off Chandler Smith and Chastain for the win.
Outlook: Could become the second Truck Series driver to claim back-to-back titles, following Crafton’s 2013-14 reign. Regardless of the outcome Friday, Moffitt won’t have to worry about his career prospects. After proving GMS Racing’s decision to go with him over Johnny Sauter was the right one, he’ll be back in the No. 24 next season.
“I think it’s a different type of pressure,” Moffitt said Friday. “Last year (was) ‘What if I don’t get the opportunity again?’ type of pressure. Where this year is I need to perform for those who gave me this opportunity and that’s the Gallagher family and everyone at GMS. They’re working as hard as they possibly can to give me fast Silverados week-in and week-out. Anything short of winning a championship will be a disappointment for all of us. We feel like we have the best opportunity to do it. We feel like we have the best people to do it.”
Ross Chastain (No. 45 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports)
Wins: Three (Kansas, Gateway, Pocono)
Career Playoff Wins: None
Miami Record: Best finish in five Truck Series starts is eighth in 2013 while driving for Brad Keselowski Racing. Finished 16th last year with Niece Motorsports.
“Bet ya’ll didn’t expect to see me here … A dream come true,” Chastain said after he finished ninth in Phoenix. “My team owner Al (Niece) just said it best, he said ‘Why stop now?'”
Stewart Friesen (No. 52 Chevrolet for Halmar Racing)
Wins: Two (Eldora, Phoenix)
Career Playoff Wins: One
Miami Record: Three starts with finishes of seventh and fourth the last two years.
Championship-Caliber Moment(s): After a penalty at the start of the Phoenix race for beating the pole-sitter to the start-finish line, Friesen bounced back and held off Brandon Jones to claim his first win on asphalt and advance to the Championship 4.
Outlook: Friesen and Halmar Racing didn’t compete in NASCAR until 2016. They’ve won their first two races this season and are one race away from a championship. Like Brett Moffitt last year, we can’t help but speculate it’s because of the mustache.
“We’ve got our favorite truck we’re running next week that we’ve gotten a lot of time under our belt with,” Friesen said following his win. “It’s going to be a tough race, obviously. It gets tough to pass at Homestead. The tire falloff is huge. It falls off lap-to-lap. You can go out and start a run, you’re wide open for a lap. Then it backs up, backs up, backs up. Then you get right up on the boards. You got to work that air bubble and there’s a lot of stuff you can manipulate at Homestead to help yourself out that I’ve learned the last (three races there). It’s a gritty race track paved with the aggregate of the area. It looks like you’re racing on sea shells, that’s what it is. That’s what the pavement plants have there. It’s cool and it’s exciting. ”
Rice says faith has helped him through such challenging times. His voice softens when he talks about how he found out Harrison had suddenly died. Rice got a call from Harrison’s phone at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a day after the New Hampshire Xfinity race.
‘When I picked up the phone and it was not Nick, it changed my life,” Rice said.
On the phone was one of Harrison’s friends. He told Rice that Harrison had been found dead.
According to told Fox Carolina, the North Carolina Highway Patrol said the hauler was traveling westbound on I-40 in McDowell County when it went off the right side of the road near mile marker 93. It went through a guard rail and down an embankment before stopping in the woods.
Rice said the team still planned to field two cars in Saturday’s race.
Kaulig also will field the No. 11 Chevy of Justin Haley in Saturday’s race.
UPDATE: Kaulig Racing announced Thursday morning its hauler drivers had been released from the hospital and were recovering at home. It said the team had been “working diligently through the night to prepare an additional primary for Kansas, with help from our technical alliance partners at (Richard Childress Racing).”
Thursday afternoon the team confirmed that RCR’s No. 21 Xfinity Series hauler is transporting Chastain’s new primary and backup cars to Kansas, where it is expected to arrive around 8 a.m. Friday.
Both hauler drivers have been released and are recovering at home. Thank you to all for your comments, prayers and concern. Our guys have been working diligently through the night to prepare an additional primary for Kansas, with help from our technical alliance partners at RCR.