NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series

Long: Kyle Busch’s ride of a lifetime makes him forget past losses, if only briefly

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The 25-foot blue-and-white fishing boat is awarded annually to the race winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Every year since NASCAR debuted its playoff format in 2014, the Cup champion also has won the season finale to receive the $125,000 boat.

But with a boat comes the need to name it.

A couple of hours after becoming only the second active driver with more than one Cup championship, Kyle Busch was asked what he might call his new boat.

After pondering it briefly, he suggested “Should Have Been 18” — as in he should have also won the 2018 championship.

For a driver who thought he would have had three, four or five series titles by age 34, it is the defeats like he suffered in this race last year that sting the most.

Busch admitted earlier this week that even if he won Sunday night, he might not be able to enjoy it because his goals are so much higher.

“Trust me, there ain’t going to be anybody happier than me if we cross the finish line first on Sunday, for at least the first 10 minutes,” he said Thursday.

Busch was happy for longer than that but his celebration seemed muted. This polarizing driver who sang on his radio “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” in March at Auto Club Speedway when he won his 200th career NASCAR national series race, simply said “Awesome work. Awesome year. Thank you boys” after capturing his 56th career Cup race and second championship.

“The thing with Kyle,” wife Samantha said, “sometimes he’ll listen to motivational speakers and all that. They say, ‘This is your job and you’re here to win and you’re here to perform and you’re here to be the best, so like congrats when you do it, but know that there’s always another goal.’

“I think that is it with Kyle, “Awesome I did one, now I want two.’ It’s not that he’s not proud of it … he just knows that he always has to keep setting that bar higher to push him and his team. I don’t think (the celebration) was sedate. I think it was confidence. ‘We came here to do what we were supposed to do.’ ”

While he smiled after winning, there wasn’t the unbridled exuberance. Admittedly, Busch was crowded almost immediately after exiting his car on the frontstretch and didn’t get to do his customary bow to the crowd. He also didn’t get to throw son Brexton in the air, which was the first thing the 4-year-old asked him to do when he got to his dad, until about four hours after the race.

Busch had suggested that Brexton get into the bowl of the championship trophy but his son demurred, saying he was too big for that (A few hours later, Busch coaxed Brexton to sit in the bowl for photos). Had Busch won last year’s championship, he could have had matching photos.

Seeds of Sunday’s triumph go back to last year’s disappointment when Busch fought an ill-handling car and wasn’t a factor as Joey Logano passed Martin Truex Jr. late to win the championship.

“I felt like not necessarily the car we brought but some of the approach that we had coming into it wasn’t right for my team, wasn’t right for Kyle, and I wanted to remedy that situation in the best way possible, and that’s to get here, number one and number two, perform at a high level,” crew chief Adam Stevens said.

When Busch experienced a similar loose condition with his car in his opening laps of Saturday’s practice, he had a flashback to last year’s Miami race.

“Oh, hell, here we go,” Busch said he thought.

“And then we worked on it. Adam did some really good adjustments to it early on in practice to get us to the tight side where I was really, really good at being able to rip it off the wall and had good rear security. I was like, OK, now we’re tight but we found both sides of it, so at least we’re not stuck with what we had like we did last year.”

But even if he felt good going into the race, few outside his team did.

The driver considered one of the most naturally talented in the sport, was viewed by many as an underdog. After opening the season with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes, including three wins, and later capturing the regular-season championship, he was inconsistent in the playoffs.

That he also hadn’t won in his last 21 races, while his teammates won nine of those events, gave many reason to question if Busch could challenge Kevin Harvick or Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Truex for the crown.

Busch was good Sunday but the race fell his way as the title contenders faltered one by one.

“That whole race went according to plan for a change,” Stevens said.

Truex saw his title hopes fade when his team made an egregious error, mixing a left- and right-side tire team before putting them on the car. Truex had to return to pit road on Lap 122 of the 267-lap race to fix the problem.

“I’ve never had that happen,” he said after finishing as the championship runner-up for a second year in a row. “I don’t even know what to say.”

Truex fell a lap down, later got back on the lead lap and while he would lead for five laps, it was only during a green-flag pit cycle.

“Ultimately it was the loss of track position that bit us,” he said.

Hamlin’s race soured after crew chief Chris Gabehart made an aggressive call for a piece tape the length of a forearm be put on the front grille to change the handling. What it did was prevent enough air from getting to the engine to cool it. The oil temperature pegged. So did the water temperature.

Hamlin feared the engine would blow. His team called him to pit road on Lap 221 while he ran third. Water and steam shot out of the hood like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Hamlin was never a factor after that, finishing 10th.

“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” said Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart.

Kevin Harvick’s team game planned for a late-race caution, something that has happened all but one previous year in the playoff format. This time, though, there was no caution over the last 101 laps. And Harvick had no shot, placing fourth.

That left Busch, who had been so frustrated with his winless drought that when reminded last weekend at ISM Raceway that the champion also won the season finale — and he hadn’t won in five months — he responded by saying: “Thanks for the reminder.”

While Busch downplayed the doubt of others  — “I try to tune a lot of things out,” he noted. — Samantha said such things fueled him.

“You know Kyle likes to prove people wrong,” she said.

He did Sunday. While he seemed subdued, Busch admits there was a moment he was emotional as he joined seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson as the only current drivers with more than one series crown.

“I do remember taking the white flag and crossing underneath that and I had some tears rolling down my eyes for the last lap and was just like, ‘Come on, man, we’ve still got to finish this thing, don’t be such a sis.’ ” 

The best moment for Busch, though, came later. After his wife hugged him, his son hugged him and his brother Kurt hugged him, Busch got back into his car to drive it to Victory Lane with Brexton.

“Brexton actually came to me,” Busch said. “I don’t know if he got the idea from somebody else or if he just remembered it from Keelan (Harvick) doing it with Kevin, and said, ‘Dad, can I go for the ride with you?”

NASCAR approved the request.

“That was really, really special for Brexton, for me and Brexton to be able to take in that moment and go for a ride around the track,” Busch said. “At first he was sitting down on the floorboard, and I was like, You can’t see anything, man. I was like, ‘Stand up a little bit.’

“So he then was kneeling and holding on to the roll bar and stuff, and that was really, really cool. And I was smiling the whole damn time and looking over at him and making sure that he was having fun, enjoying that moment. We were waving at the camera that was in there and stuff. It was a lot of fun. I’m thankful for that.”

And in that moment, there was no thought of chasing five, six or seven championships, no thought about losing the title in 2018, no thought of anything else.

In that moment, it was just a father and a son going on a ride together.

It’s just that this trip ended in Victory Lane.

Miami winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kyle BuschViewed by many as the underdog despite winning the regular-season championship, Busch found the right time to end a 21-race winless streak and collect his second Cup championship.

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).

Matt CraftonHe doesn’t care if there are those bothered that he won the championship without winning a race. He’s a three-time champion in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Beau Reddick He’s not due to arrive until Jan. 17, but the future son of Tyler Reddick and girlfriend Alexa De Leon had his name determined by a bet. If Reddick won the Xfinity title, then he could name the baby. Reddick did and that means when his son arrives, he will already be a winner. 

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.

LOSERS

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.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps addresses short tracks, 2021 schedule

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR President Steve Phelps vowed Sunday morning that the racing at short tracks will be better in 2020.

That was among the key points Phelps discussed in his state of the sport news conference before Sunday’s season-ending Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Phelps also explained what will be the key points to setting the 2021 schedule, more information on the NextGen car that will debut in 2021 and the interest of other manufacturers.

One of the key points Phelps stressed was the racing at short tracks.

While drivers have complained about how difficult it is to pass, at many tracks, those concerns have been greater at some of the short tracks. Martinsville Speedway had only three lead changes each in its races this year as Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in winning in the spring and Martin Truex Jr. led 464 laps to win the playoff race last month.

Also of concern is the racing at ISM Raceway, which will host the championship races next year for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series. While that suburban Phoenix track has renovated its facilities, the racing has raised questions.

Here’s what Phelps said on a variety of subjects:

On the status of ISM Raceway hosting the championship race beyond next year:

Phelps: We need to make sure we are working with our industry, our teams, our (manufacturers) and Goodyear, to make sure that the racing we have in Phoenix both in the spring as well as our championship next year is as good as it can be.

We’re going to announce that 2021 schedule, as you said, in the spring, probably around April 1st, which is a self‑imposed deadline that we have for ourselves. Could that change forwards or backwards a little bit? It could.

Our promise to our fans, and we’ll do it right here, is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks. I think we’ve overdelivered on the intermediate tracks, and we will make sure that when we get to Phoenix in the spring, and some of the other racetracks that are short tracks, that they’re going to have better racing.

On how NASCAR will make the racing better at short tracks in 2020:

Phelps: We’re going to work with our teams in order to figure out how we do that, work with our OEMs to figure out how we do that. Everyone knows I’m not an engineer, I’m not going to play one now.

I am confident, having spoken to people who are far smarter than I am in this space, that there are things we can do. And I think our teams are excited about trying to partner with us to figure out what that looks like.

On if they could just cut the spoiler to enhance the racing at short tracks and when a decision might be made:

Phelps: There are people far smarter than I am that could figure that out. Yes, could we go to something that is a lower downforce package and do we think that will probably be one of the answers that we could look at to be successful on the short tracks? Yes.  Whether it’s cutting off the spoiler, other opportunities for us to take some of the downforce off there, those are things that we’ll explore. No specific timing.

On when NASCAR will announce what sponsors it has in its new model that will see the Cup series known as the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020:

Phelps: This is about our championship, and we wanted to keep it about that. We also wanted to make sure we were making sure we were true to Monster (Energy) and their three years. Monster has been a phenomenal partner for us. They’ve had significant success with their sponsorship and entitlement.

We have moved to a different model. I’m not going to get into what the announcement is, but we’ll have some announcements in Nashville around that new sponsorship model that we’re super excited about.

On cap costs for NASCAR teams as Formula 1 recently announced it would do for 2021:

Phelps: I think reasons to go to this new car, one is to take what is great racing, will be great racing in 2020, to create better racing.  I think this new car will do that, this Next Gen car.

Another component certainly is around relevance. Our (manufacturer) partners were here looking at the showroom car or the street car versus what our racecar will look like. It’s going to be extraordinary. We are going to put the ‘stock’ back in stockcar.

The last component of that is to try to make sure that the costs associated with the car are not such that they just continue to escalate on that car.  Whether we are going to have a cost cap moving forward, I don’t know.  It is not an easy thing to do.  We want to make sure that we have competitive racing.  When the race starts, we want as many folks and drivers to win that race as they can.

Lots of work to do on what we would do, whether we would have a cost cap or not. But it is something that we continue to work with our race teams on to make sure that we are having competitive race teams and race teams that are profitable.

On why there might be a question to do a cost cap:

Phelps: We’re going to see, right? We’re going to see how it works with F1.  A little bit of a wait‑and‑see approach on that.

It is not an easy thing to do, right? How are you going to make sure the costs are being captured fairly and smartly across the race teams? It is a slippery slope. It doesn’t mean that it’s not a good step or it doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there. It means that we’re going to study it very closely. We’re going to study what they’re doing, continue to work with our teams and (manufacturers) to make sure whatever we do moving forward makes the most sense for our sport.

On the 2021 schedule:

Phelps: We’re having a lot of discussions right now on the 2021 schedule. We’re looking at three things when we’re looking at that race schedule. We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service.

There are a lot of discussions that are going on both internally and then with other owners of racetracks. We need to obviously work with Speedway Motorsports, work with the three independent tracks that we have, then the tracks that we own as NASCAR now.

Again, we’ll look through that same lens. I think it’s important to do that. This is the first time I’ll go back to the fans. It really is about the fans. We need to make sure we are putting on compelling racing and having full grandstands when we do that.

On status of the NextGen car, which is scheduled to debut in 2021:

Phelps: So, yes, the car is on schedule, as I said.  With that said, we’re going now through an RFP (request for proposal) process, RFPing different parts of the car. There are parts that fans don’t frankly care we’re competing, and other parts fans care we’re competing. Also our OEM partners, certain things they want to compete at, certain things they don’t care about.

We’re in the RFP process. We’re on the track already at Richmond. We have another test coming up in a couple of weeks.

When the teams will take delivery of that car, probably in the July timeframe of when the cars will start to be delivered. I have to give a shout out to, again, really the entire industry because they’re working collaboratively, working together. NASCAR runs the process, but there are teams that are involved, OEMs that are involved, and that’s how we’re going to be successful moving forward.

With respect to those that are in the RFPs to build the car, I don’t want to get into specifics about where that is. There would obviously need to be a separation between that race team and whatever either part or the vehicle itself that’s being put together.

If there is a team that is interested in competing for what that’s going to be, it would have to be kind of removed from what that organization is, if that makes sense.

On a new engine:

Phelps: I do think for a new engine, that engine will have some type of electrification, some hybrid that will be part of it.  It’s kind of a follow to the question, in fact, I know for a fact we will not have a new OEM unless we change our engine.

This engine is going to sound significantly the same as whatever the current engine is.  We’re not going to have a bunch of electric cars going around. That’s not what this is about. It’s about having a relevant engine to our OE partners, both the existing Ford, Chevy and Toyota, as well as whoever the new OEs that we’re looking at.

Some form of hybrid, some form of electrification is going to be required, whether it’s stored engine or whatever that might be is down the line. But ideally creating a single engine package as opposed to taking an engine and kind of choking the horsepower down, is something that I believe we will ultimately get to.

What that looks like frankly will be a discussion between ourselves and our existing OEs because we need to make sure we are taking care of them first and foremost before we get a new OEM into the garage. They have been incredibly supportive of that.

We’ve had a couple of different partners come to the racetrack.  We had some last week. We had a group that came when we were at Talladega. Each of the OEs showed them what they do, this is what Ford does, this is what we do at GM, this is what we do at Toyota. That’s incredibly helpful.  They, too, want to be able to compete on the racetrack with other OEs.

Who has the edge? Here’s what the title contenders say

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — There are no Cinderellas in today’s Cup championship race. The four drivers racing for the title were the best throughout the season.

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch combined to win 21 of the 35 races this season (60%), including some of the sport’s biggest races: Hamlin won the Daytona 500, Harvick won the Brickyard 400 and Truex won the Coca-Cola 600.

As they enter today’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, each driver was asked by NBC Sports what gives them the edge over the other three title contenders.

This is what they said:

Denny Hamlin: “I think I possess the want. I can assure you there will be no other driver that wants it as bad as I do.”

Kevin Harivck: “I think we have the full attention of our whole organization in one car, and we’ve been there and we’ve done that. Even when you look at the other three teams, our group has been together a long time; we’ve been on the same team for a long time; we have the stability and the experience as a group within the same organization for six years now. So that stability and experience pays off, in my opinion.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s hard to know. I mean I feel like this of all the years, I feel like this is the most up in the air because Homestead is such a different racetrack than anything we’ve been on this season and one of the great parts about this race and this format is Homestead, we haven’t been here since last year. The tires are different, the cars are different, you don’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns, so I think my advantage is my team and our ability to no matter what happens throughout the weekend, our ability to hit it for the race and know what we have to do and not afraid to make changes. Not afraid to swing for the fences. I think that’s our advantage, that’s how we win races. Usually when we win, we don’t have a great practice. We get together and we have serious conversation and the boys go to work and sometimes they hit it out of the park, hopefully this is another one of those days.”

Kyle Busch: Martin’s been really, really good these last few years with Cole Pearn, I’ve been good with Adam Stevens, Kevin Harvick’s been really, really good with Rodney Childers, and of course Denny’s got the new guy on the block with Chris Gabehart, so you know it’s interesting with the crew chief and driver dynamic the way that it’s kind of been but overall it just comes down to how you always work together and it’s anyone’s race really, so I don’t know that anybody has a leg up.”

NBC’s coverage begins with NASCAR America at 1:30 p.m. ET today. Countdown to Green airs at 2 p.m. ET. Race coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET. NBCSN also will have NASCAR Hot Pass that will provide in-depth coverage of the championship contenders at 3 p.m. ET.

Drivers have their say: Entourage, advice, and what to expect in Cup finale

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NBA great Michael Jordan will be a part of Denny Hamlin’s entourage for Sunday’s Cup championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A UFC title contender asked Kyle Busch for advice Saturday heading into his championship bout.

Kevin Harvick just can’t wait to race.

All four Cup title contenders met the media for the last time before Sunday’s season-ending race (3 p.m. ET on NBC). They spoke minutes after completing Saturday’s final practice session that saw Busch post the fastest lap, Hamlin have the best average over 10 consecutive laps and Martin Truex Jr. record the best average over 15 consecutive laps.

Saturday marked the first time Cup cars have been on track after Friday’s practices were rained out. 

Now, the focus turns to the race.

“As soon as that starts, you’re like,’ Thank God,’” Harvick said. “’I can do what I normally do.’”

Entering the weekend, drivers wondered if this package might race differently at Homestead-Miami Speedway. They got their answer Saturday.

“I think the line is probably not that much different,” Harvick said. “It’s just following behind cars is way worse than what it has been before. You’re going to have to be versatile in where you can run on the racetrack, be able to run bottom, middle and top because you can’t run behind another car.”

No matter where one needs to run, Truex was encouraged by his car in practice.

“Good we were able to make three long runs,” he said. “Typically for me personally, if the car is pretty close, I’ll run a bunch of laps right away. That’s definitely a good sign. The guys did a good job being prepared, making a lot of good assumptions.

I feel pretty good. I definitely feel like we can get better. Just like every other weekend, how do you get better, can you do the right things, make the right changes tonight for tomorrow, then you go race and see how it plays out. Feeling pretty good about things.”

A key issue will be restarts and if competitors can challenge from the inside lane since the top lane is the preferred line.

“I think it depends on where the leader restarts,” Busch said. “If the leader chooses the bottom, takes the bottom, I think the bottom will roll. If the leader chooses the outside, takes the outside, I think the top will roll a spot. Too hard to predict right now.

If you’re third, the guy goes off in the corner in front of you, hugs the line, doesn’t give you any air, you’re screwed. If the guy on the outside kind of hugs the guy on the inside, if you’re in fourth, you’re screwed. There’s no air. You got to have a middle ground.  There’s got to be separation for air to be able to get to the front of your car.”

None of the championship 4 drivers had any serious issues in the session. Hamlin missed the entrance of pit road at the end of one run and had to make an extra lap.

“This is the first year (I’ve) really kind of just gone by marks on the racetrack for pit entry,” Hamlin said. “I hadn’t had a mark here. Obviously a different package slows down differently and whatnot. Just went too far.”

Why didn’t Hamlin have a particular mark picked out to use for his entry to pit road?

“I’m just a feel and visual” type of driver, he said. “I don’t have a specific spot where I stop. I just kind of do it off of feel. But just had a different process.”

No one seemed to mind that qualifying was canceled to run this practice session. By doing so, Hamlin will lead the field to green and have the No. 1 pit stall.

“It’s that good karma for giving up that pit box last year,” Hamlin said. “It all comes back around.”

Hamlin won the pole for last year’s race but didn’t pick that advantageous stall, allowing Busch, who was racing for the title, to have that stall.

Oh, that UFC fighter? Colby Covington will fight for the welterweight title Dec. 14 in Las Vegas. He sought Busch’s advice for the proper mindset entering a championship event.

“Don’t give a shit about who you’re fighting, go kick their ass,” Busch said.