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NASCAR drivers play in the snow

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Charlotte, N.C. gets an average of slightly more than four inches of snowfall per year, so when a rare winter storm rolls in and dumps 10 or more inches in spots, NASCAR drivers and their families take advantage of the event.

 

Viewers guide to Miami Championship Weekend

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Sunday will be a life-changing day for one driver. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano will race for the Cup championship in Miami (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and NASCAR Hot Pass on NBCSN).

Harvick, Busch and Truex look to become the 16th driver in NASCAR history to win multiple Cup championships. Logano seeks his first series title.

“It’s just one of the greatest joys in the world,” Busch said of winning a NASCAR Cup title.

While one will celebrate Sunday, the other three will experience what Busch calls “one of the greatest defeats in the world.”

Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:

FAMILIAR FACES

Kyle Busch races for a championship for the fourth consecutive year after failing to advance to the title race in 2014, the first year of the elimination format.

Kevin Harvick makes his fourth appearances in the championship race in five years. This is reigning champion Martin Truex Jr.’s third appearance. Joey Logano also makes his third appearance.

The four drivers have combined to win more than 60 percent of the races this season — the first time the Championship 4 drivers have won more than half the races in a season in the elimination format. They also rank first through fourth in top fives and laps led this year. This is clearly the best four for the title this season.

FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT

When one races around each other enough, things happen and drivers never forget.

Joey Logano upset Martin Truex Jr. by bumping him out of the way on the last lap to win at Martinsville last month. Had Logano not won that day he would not have advanced to the championship race.

Logano said he was doing what he had to win that day. Asked how he’d retaliate, Truex said: “I’m just not going to let him win (the title). I’m going to win it.”

Logano and Busch have their history in this race. Busch was upset with how Logano raced him at the end of the race last year.

“He held me up,” Busch said of Logano after last year’s title race. “He was there blocking every single chance he got. Got a real buddy there.”

Of course, it was March 2017 at Las Vegas when Kyle Busch walked up to Joey Logano and threw a punch at him for a last-lap incident between the two.

Harvick bumped Busch out of the lead with seven laps to go to win at New Hampshire in July. Said Busch after the race: “I’m not sure he (Harvick) had to do it, but he did. It’s fine. How you race is how you get raced.”

MUST-WIN SITUATION

In the first four years of this format, the champion had to win the race to claim the crown.

Logano is still haunted by the 2016 race. He restarted third on the inside line behind Carl Edwards with eight laps left. Logano dived low to get by Edwards, who blocked. They made contact, triggering a multi-car crash. While Logano was able to continue, he could not get to the lead again and finished fourth.

“Every time I watch that race, I get so mad I slam my laptop closed,” Logano said. “That moment will forever be burned into my mind of how close we were to winning a championship that day, but we’ve got another opportunity to right that, so here we go.”

The streak of a champion needing to win the race at this 1.5-mile track is likely to continue. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 16 of the last 20 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

LAST RIDE TOGETHER

Sunday’s race marks the final race for Furniture Row Racing. The team, based in Denver, Colorado, is shutting down after this season.

Furniture Row Racing, owned by Barney Visser, made its Cup debut in 2005. The team did not compete in every Cup race until 2010. Furniture Row Racing scored its first Cup victory in 2011 when Regan Smith won the Southern 500. That was the organization’s only win until Martin Truex Jr. won in 2015 at Pocono. Truex has won 17 races with the team.

“We understand it’s here, (this) week is our last week, but it’s cool that we’re going to Homestead with a chance to win it in his last race,” Truex said.

Said Visser: “For me personally, my emotions are all over the board. I am sad not to be able to continue. I am going to miss the guys for sure, miss this whole thing. I don’t know what it’s going to feel like exactly when it’s over. And I don’t know what the emotions will be like when the Daytona 500 rolls around next year and we’re not in it. I just don’t know how emotional it will be. I am afraid it will be enormous.”

The team’s hauler left the shop late Tuesday night for its trip to Miami. It was an emotional time for the team.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was (Tuesday) night when we loaded up,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “I think we’ve just been head down, kind of pushing super hard, trying to do everything we can to get ready for this weekend, and once it was in the truck and saw the lift gate up, there was a lot of tears shed and a lot of sad faces, and I think all of us really realized that that was the last time we were going to do it together as a group.”

NEW (OLD) FACE ON THE PIT BOX

Tony Gibson, who is nicknamed “Old Man,” will be Kevin Harvick’s crew chief again this weekend in place of Rodney Childers, who was suspended the final two races by NASCAR for an infraction found on Harvick’s winning car at Texas.

That the 54-year-old Gibson is on the pit box is a story itself. He suffered a blood clot July 6.

“I was actually just driving home from work and just had a real, I just could not get my brain to function with my hands and my feet, and I could not drive any further and knew something was wrong,” Gibson said. “Just wasn’t sure, and ended up going to the emergency room and put me in for observation that night, and then about one in the morning they came back and they had done several scans and told me I had a blood clot in my vertebral artery.”

He said he was in the hospital for a little more than a week before being released. As the blood clot dissolved, it caused a mini stroke. He returned to the hospital. Gibson said he lost about 85 percent of the hearing in his left ear and most of the function in his left eye. He’s been doing rehab and returned to work Aug. 20.

Gibson has an appointment scheduled with his neurologist Friday but will miss it because he will be in Miami, leading Harvick’s team.

“I was very lucky, and I don’t take that for granted,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of people out there that are way worse than me, so it’s just something that I’ll overcome and I’ll get used to it and go on.”

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

There will be many changes after Sunday’s race, particularly among drivers.

Matt Kenseth does not have plans to race next season, so Sunday’s race looks to be his final Cup race.

Daniel Suarez will run his last race for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. after this season. Suarez has not announced where he’ll drive next year but is expected to sign with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Kurt Busch will drive his final Cup race for Stewart-Haas Racing. His seat is expected to be filled by Suarez. Busch is expected to move to Chip Ganassi Racing and replace Jamie McMurray, who has an offer from car owner Chip Ganassi to drive in next year’s Daytona 500 before moving to a position in the front office.

Ryan Newman will run his final race for Richard Childress Racing and move to Roush Fenway Racing to drive the No. 6 car next season. Newman will be replaced by RCR Xfinity driver Daniel Hemric.

Matt DiBenedetto will drive his final race for Go Fas Racing. DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing to drive the No. 95 next year. Go Fas Racing has not announced a driver for next year.

AJ Allmendinger will drive his final race for JTG Daugherty Racing this weekend. He will be replaced by rookie Ryan Preece next season in the No. 47 car. Allmendinger has not announced plans for next year.

This also will be the final weekend seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson races with crew chief Chad Knaus. They’ve been together since Johnson’s rookie year in 2002 but will split after this season. Knaus will be the crew chief for William Byron next year. Kevin Meendering will be Johnson’s crew chief next year.

PIT CREW CHANGES

Kevin Harvick’s team announced this week that it is changing its rear tire changer.

Chris McMullen, who had been teammate Aric Almirola’s rear tire changer all season, moves to Harvick’s team this week and replaces Michael Johnson.

The move was made because Almirola was eliminated from title contention last weekend at Phoenix. McMullen becomes the team’s third rear tire changer this season. Daniel Smith had the role until health issues forced him out. Johnson took over at the Southern 500.

That’s not the only team that has made changes in the playoffs. After teammate Ryan Blaney was eliminated last month at Kansas, his jackman, Graham Stoddard, went to Joey Logano’s team.

“That group has been stellar,” crew chief Todd Gordon said of the revamped unit. “If you look at Martinsville, I would give them a fair amount of credit for putting us in position to win that race.”

Kyle Busch’s team changed fuelers before last weekend’s race at Phoenix. John Eicher moved over from Erik Jones‘ team in a temporary role. He filled in for Matthew Tyrrell, who stayed home on baby watch. Crew chief Adam Stevens said that he had not heard as of Wednesday if Tyrrell’s baby had arrived but said that Tyrrell would be in Miami with the team and resume his fueling duties.

Martin Truex Jr.’s team has had the same pit crew since Richmond, the second playoff race. Clay Robinson had been a backup front tire changer at Joe Gibbs Racing and moved over to Truex’s team, which gets its pit crew from JGR.

ONE LAST CHANCE

Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson, drivers who each won last year, have a final chance to score their first victory of this season.

Johnson has scored at least one win in 16 consecutive season, which is tied for the third-longest streak in series history (Richard Petty has the record at 18 consecutive seasons).

Hamlin has scored at least one victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which ranks 13th on the all-time Cup list.

Larson has finished runner-up six times this year but has yet to win. He’s had at least one win in each of the past two seasons.

NEW TIRE

Cup and Xfinity teams will have a new left-side tire this weekend compared to what was run in Miami last year.

The left-side tire features a construction update. It is the same left-side tire teams ran at Chicagoland in July. The multi-zone right-side tires have not changed since last year. Cup and Xfinity teams have run this combination of left- and right-side tires at Auto Club Speedway in March and at Chicagoland Speedway in July.

“Because of the high wear we see, these compounds provide the endurance and tread wear needed for Homestead’s track surface, while at the same time giving the cars enough grip,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

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. Former champion Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Justin Haley and Noah Gragson will compete for the title.

The Xfinity Series will race Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Hemric will compete for the crown. Custer won this race last year but was not eligible to win the championship, having been eliminated from title contention earlier in the playoffs.

The 23-year-old Bell, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, won the Truck series title last year.

Dale Jr. Download: Did Roger Penske change opinion on last-lap contact?

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It was the shot heard around the racing world Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Joey Logano moved Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap for the win.

And it reminded Dale Earnhardt Jr. of another last-lap shot three years earlier at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Regan Smith, driving for JR Motorsports, bumped Alex Tagliani of Team Penske out of the lead for the Xfinity Series win in the Aug. 15, 2015 race.

“Really what (Smith) did, he just pushed (Tagliani) off the road; there was no question what happened,” team owner Roger Penske told Claire B. Lang on SiriusXM after the race. “I guess if that’s the way these guys want to play, we’ll remember that. There will be another time.

“That, in my mind, didn’t give me the reason I’d hire a guy like Regan Smith, because he pushed a guy off on the last lap,” Penske added. “He should have raced him clean.”

During his weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast (video above starting around the 5:00 mark), Earnhardt was struck by how Penske’s opinion seemed markedly different when Team Penske’s Logano moved Truex in a fashion that wasn’t entirely dissimilar, causing Truex to brand it a “cheap shot.”

“(Truex is) a racer and should know better than to say that,” Logano’s car owner Roger Penske retorted after Logano’s victory advanced him to championship race in Miami. “That was as clean a shot as you can have in a race like this.”

Earnhardt was amused by the differing views.

“Roger said, ‘Well, Martin knows better, being a race car driver. That was probably the nicest shot he could have expected to get at a race like this,’ ” Earnhardt said. “(Penske was) saying Martin should be ashamed of saying (it was a cheap shot) being the race car driver he is … that he got handled with kid gloves.

“But! Do you remember Mid-Ohio? Pushing (Tagliani) out of the way in the last corner? You know what Roger said about that? I will never hire a driver that will win a race that way. So all right, think about that. It depends on who’s doing it. If it’s your favorite driver, boy, you’re all for it. If it’s your favorite driver getting bumped out of the way, it’s (expletive). Even if you’re Roger Fricking Penske.”

Whether Logano’s move was clean or dirty seemingly depended entirely on one’s perspective.

“He just ran in the back of me and knocked me out of the way,” Truex said on NBCSN after the race. “Short track racing, but what comes around, goes around. He just took a cheap shot at the end there.”

After Martinsville’s race, Denny Hamlin may have summed it up best: “It depends on who is doing it. If it’s your favorite driver, you love it. If (it’s not), it’s dirty.”

Some of the times that haunt a driver most are when he’s too nice, according to Earnhardt.

“I’ve been a nice guy,” Earnhardt said. “There’s a lot of those moments in my career that I certainly regret. … You relive every race that you didn’t win. What you could have done differently. What you should have done. There’s moments when I know… if I’d been more aggressive. Or I could have run over the guy. So when I see Martin doing that I’m like ‘Argh, Martin come on, don’t do this again. ‘ ”

In the video above, Earnhardt also described a battle between himself and Kevin Harvick in the April 3, 2011 race at Martinisville when he unsuccessfully tried to move Harvick in the closing laps after yielding the lead.

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Ryan Blaney tops first Cup practice at Kansas, Kyle Larson wrecks

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Ryan Blaney posted the fastest single lap in the first practice session for the Kansas Cup race with a speed of 192.130 mph. Blaney enters the weekend 22 points below the cutoff line.

He beat Kyle Busch (191.768 mph) by .053 seconds.

Kevin Harvick (191.761), Joey Logano (191.632) and Chase Elliott (191.421) round out the top five

Kyle Larson‘s weekend continues to worsen. With 15 minutes remaining in Friday’s practice session, he got loose and made heavy contact with the wall. Larson will have to roll out a back up car and drop to the back of the field to start the race. Larson (189.288) was 20th on the speed chart at the time.

Regan Smith was the only driver who posted 10 consecutive laps. His average speed was 182.606 mph.

Click here for complete results

MORE: Kyle Larson loses 10 points, car chief suspended for Talladega penalty
MORE: Kyle Larson’s team loses appeal 

Leavine Family Racing signs Matt DiBenedetto, joins Toyota for 2019

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Leavine Family Racing announced that it will field Toyotas and has hired Matt DiBenedetto for next season.

DiBenedetto will not join the team early. Car owner Bob Leavine said that Regan Smith will finish the season in the No. 95.

“There is no rush to get him in there,” Leavine said of DiBenedetto, noting his confidence in the driver and also allowing DiBenedetto finish the season with Go Fas Racing.

Levine said the team signed DiBendetto to a 2-year deal. Levine said the team’s deal with Toyota is “the same with JGR …  two years with a third-year option. Hopefully, a long time but that is what it is on paper.”

Leavine said the crew chief, engineer and car chief positions have yet to be determined.

As part of the partnership, Joe Gibbs Racing will be aligned with Leavine Family Racing. JGR will provide cars to the team. As part of its current deal with Furniture Row Racing, JGR provides the chassis but Furniture Row Racing hangs its own bodies. JGR also will provide the pit crew for Leavine Family Racing, same as Joe Gibbs Racing has done for Furniture Row Racing. Toyota Racing Development will provide engines and technology to the team.

“Our vision is to get better from where they are today,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development.

Car owner Bob Leavine and Matt DiBenedetto at the announcement that Leavine Family Racing will drive for the team in 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Leavine Family Racing debuted in 2011, running four races with David Starr. The team never ran more than about half a season until 2016 when it switched from Ford to Chevrolet and ran a full season with Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon splitting duties.

The move to Toyota means the organization will have been with all three Cup manufacturers within a decade.

Leavine Family Racing replaces Furniture Row Racing in the Toyota camp beginning next season. Furniture Row Racing will cease operations after this season.

Furniture Row Racing had won two races before joining Toyota and being aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2016. The organization has since won 16 races (15.7 percent of all the races run in that time) and a championship with Martin Truex Jr. He is among the 12 drivers racing for a championship this season.

Leavine Family Racing has never won a Cup race. The team has had Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith driver for it this season and is 25th in the owner standings.

DiBenedetto moves to the best ride he’s had in Cup. The 27-year-old is in his fourth season in Cup. He is 30th in the points, which would be his best career finish.

He drove for BK Racing in 2015-16 before moving to Go Fas Racing in 2017. He announced in September that he would not return to Go Fas Racing after this season.

DiBenedetto made his Xfinity debut in 2009 at age 17 at Memphis for Joe Gibbs Racing. DiBenedetto drove six Xfinity races for the team in 2010. He ran in the K&N East Pro Series in 2011 before returning to Xfinity in 2012 to start and park seven races. He made six Xfinity starts in 2013 and never finished any of those races. In 2014, he ran 29 Xfinity races, starting and parking in more than a third of those starts.