richard childress racing

Daniel Hemric claims Cup Series Rookie of the Year honors

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On his way out the door, Daniel Hemric gave Richard Childress Racing a parting gift.

Hemric closed out the 2019 Cup Series season – and his three-year tenure with the team – by winning Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

The 28-year-old driver finished 12th Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway and ended his rookie year 25th in the point standings. That was one spot ahead of Ryan Preece, who finished 27 points behind him.

The other major rookie, Matt Tifft, ended the year 31st in the standings, but missed the last three races following a seizure at Martinsville Speedway last month.

Hemric’s finish in Sunday’s race was his best since he also placed 12th in the Bristol night race in August. He finished the season with one top five (fifth in spring race at Talladega) and one other top 10 (seventh in July race at Pocono). He also earned a pole at Kansas.

“It’s pretty special to say the least,” Hemric said. “I wish we were able to win Rookie of the Year and have a couple more solid finishes throughout the year than what we had, but about five or six weeks ago, myself and Preece somehow ended up tied with four or five races to go, so we knew we had to buckle down.  And really proud of this group for doing that.”

Hemric’s Rookie of the Year honors come after Richard Childress Racing – for whom Hemric raced two years in the Xfinity Series in 2017 and 2018 seasons, as well as his first Cup campaign in 2019 – announced in September the driver wouldn’t return to its No. 8 Chevrolet in 2020. Tyler Reddick will take his place in the car.

On Wednesday, JR Motorsports announced Hemric would drive its No. 8 Chevy in 21 races next year in the Xfinity Series.

“It’s tough for (his team), obviously, with me announcing my plans over the last couple days, a lot of those guys’ future is unknown,” Hemric said. “It’s easy for them to lay down, and they didn’t.  They kept continuing to put their best effort in every single week. For the last three weeks, we were able to string three decent races together, tonight being one of our best of the year.”

Hemric’s achievement comes the night after Reddick won the Xfinity Series title for RCR and at the tail end of the team’s 50th anniversary year.

“I don’t want that to get lost in things,” Hemric said. “50 years RCR has been in existence, and what Richard and (his wife) Mrs. Judy and that organization has done for countless numbers of people throughout our industry, they’ve changed lives and done it in bulk.

“To be able to see Reddick do what he did, between himself and his crew chief, Randall (Burnett), and that whole group last night, the job they did was exceptional all year, to bring RCR another Xfinity Series championship.  And at the beginning of every year we all set a certain amount of boxes that we all want to check, and we were able to check off a couple of those throughout the year, and tonight was a big one we wanted to accomplish.”

Hemric, who remains winless in five full-time seasons competing in NASCAR’s three national series, described his looming move to JRM as a “kind of a breath of fresh air.”

“I’m really pumped up starting right to getting to work on that deal,” Hemric said. “Having runs like tonight make me go into the offseason knowing I can compete and race at this level.

“It’s the little things when you have a season like we’ve had that get you over that emotional hump.”

One of those moments happened Sunday.

“I passed a seven‑time champion (Jimmie Johnson) on the last lap of a 60‑lap run at Homestead,” Hemric said. “Those are little victories you find in the light at the end of the tunnel in years like this.”

As to his eventual competition in the Xfinity Series, Hemric put them on notice.

“There’s no gray area,” Hemric said. “They know why I’m coming there.  They know my goal is to get back to this level, and I feel like it’ll be a full force effort to get me back.”

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Cole Custer to replace Daniel Suarez at SHR in 2020

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Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez in the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series for 2020, according to a report Thursday by motorsport.com that cites multiple unnamed sources.

Stewart-Haas Racing confirmed the move Friday morning. 

Suarez confirmed in a video message on Twitter that he will not be back with Stewart-Haas Racing after this season.

“I was as shocked as you guys are, late last night,”  Suarez said. “Guys, I can promise you that I worked my heart out to make this happen and to try to put everything together. The team did as well. We were not able to put all the funding and sponsor together right on time … we just ran out of time. I’m extremely disappointed for the outcome. It is the way it is sometimes. I’m sure something else will be waiting for me.”

Stewart-Haas Racing issued a statement Thursday night:

Car owner Gene Haas issued a statement Friday: “I was asked last year about this time what Cole needed to do to earn his place in the NASCAR Cup Series, and I said he needed to win. Well, Cole has done that – a lot. He showed that he’s ready to compete at the next level and we’re giving him that opportunity.”

Custer said in a statement Friday: “This is the moment I’ve worked for ever since I first started racing. I’ve learned a lot in these last three years in the Xfinity Series, and to be able to stay within Stewart-Haas Racing will make a steep learning curve a little less steep. I know the people, the culture and what’s expected of me. I’m ready for this challenge.”

Custer’s promotion means that the Big 3 in the Xfinity Series — Custer, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell — each will move to Cup together and compete for rookie of the year honors next season. Reddick will drive for Richard Childress Racing and Bell will be with Leavine Family Racing.

Bell is looking forward to the rookie battle.

“It’s really cool to see the three of us excel at the Xfinity level and now have our opportunity in Cup,” Bell said Thursday. “I look forward to racing the same two competitors on Sundays now and it will be with a bunch of other great race car drivers mixed in.”

Suarez, 27, joined Stewart-Haas Racing this season after having spent the past two years in Cup with Joe Gibbs Racing. Suarez has failed to make the Cup playoffs each season. 

Asked two weeks ago at Texas about his contract situation, Suarez said: “We are not in the perfect situation. I wish two months ago we were done with all this stuff. You never know. Fortunately or unfortunately, who knows, I have been in this situation for the last couple of years. Everything will be fine. We just have to work out a couple of things sponsor wise and hopefully everything will fall in place.”

Custer, 21, is in his third full season in Xfinity. He finished second in the championship race last year and is in the championship race this year again with Reddick, Bell and Justin Allgaier. Custer has seven Xfinity wins this season and nine in 103 career series starts.

Friday 5: With pressure on, time for Denny Hamlin to perform

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For all that Denny Hamlin has accomplished, what he does this weekend at ISM Raceway could alter the narrative for one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers without a Cup championship.

Among the favorites to win the title when the playoffs began in September, Hamlin is in danger of seeing his championship hopes end with Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hamlin trails rival Joey Logano, a driver he’s feuded with in these playoffs and over the years, by 20 points for the final spot in the Championship 4 field despite a stellar season that ranks among the best in Hamlin’s 14 seasons in Cup.

Hamlin is in this position after a crash last weekend at Texas dropped him from a transfer spot. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way into the championship race at ISM Raceway, winning that event in 2014 and then claiming the title a week later.

While the pressure is on now, Hamlin professed before the playoffs began “pressure doesn’t get to me, nothing like it probably did 10, 12 years ago.”

Hamlin’s best chance for a title before this season came in 2010 when he led the points going into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway but had to make an extra pit stop for fuel late. That allowed Jimmie Johnson and Harvick to close the points gap.

Miami weekend started with the press conference for the title contenders. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin. Harvick said of Hamlin: “He definitely seems like the most nervous.”

While Hamlin still led going into Miami, he had a poor qualifying effort and an incident early in the race that doomed his title hopes, allowing Johnson to win his fifth consecutive title in a row.

That late-season collapse will always be a part of Hamlin’s history. He made the championship race in 2014 but hasn’t been back since.

If he doesn’t advance this year, it does not diminish the two Daytona 500 wins, two Southern 500 victories and 36 career Cup victories, but it leaves a gap for a driver who likely is Hall of Fame bound (just maybe not as soon as others without a championship). Only Junior Johnson (50 Cup wins) and Mark Martin (40) have more Cup wins than Hamlin and also not a title.

“I’ve seen it all,” Hamlin told NBC Sports before the playoffs of his postseason disappointments. “Any way I can get taken out of a championship battle, I’ve had happen.

“But I know as long as I prepare each week, the way I’ve been doing, as long as I do the work during practices, give the right feedback like I’ve been doing, we’re going to be fine. That makes me rest easier than anything.”

Those experiences help Hamlin, who will turn 39 the day after the title race. While it’s easy to wonder what might have been, Hamlin says he’s moved past that in regards to 2010.

“It probably took a year to get over that,” Hamlin said earlier this week at Toyota’s national headquarters in Plano, Texas. “After that, you’re so week-to-week, you can’t let stuff linger, and if you do, you’re not doing your job 100 percent.”

Few thought Hamlin would be in this position based on his season and his playoffs. His five wins trail only teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the most this season. Hamlin has finished third or better in 10 of the season’s 34 races. In the playoffs, Hamlin has a win and five top-five finishes in eight races. Yet, that might not be good enough after finishing 28th at Texas.

Hamlin, the NBA fan, can look to LeBron James and the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers for inspiration this weekend.

Hamlin says his favorite moment in sports came in the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that year. Golden State led the best-of-seven series three games to one before Cleveland rallied to force a seventh game.

Late in that series-deciding contest came the play that Hamlin says “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“(Andre) Igoudala fast break at the end of the game, and LeBron chasing him down,” Hamlin said. “If (Igoudala) makes that basket, it’s over. LeBron chases him down, beats it off the backboard, and they (later) go down and score and change the whole game.

“Anyone down 3-1, they always talk about the odds and statistics of how impossible it is to come back, but that was the moment that someone just wanted it more.”

Such is the position Hamlin is in. Can he provide a memorable moment Sunday?

2. A NEW APPROACH

Austin Dillon’s 13th-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface, but it was significant in other ways.

Dillon’s result marked one of his team’s better finishes on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

“I feel like we need to try to find a baseline that we can kind of go to, and we haven’t had that this year,” Dillon said before the race. “We have had some fast cars but haven’t been able to race very well with them. We’re trying to kind of tune our cars to more a race-style setup. (At Texas) and Homestead we’re going to try to develop a little more of that baseline.”

The Richard Childress Racing cars were set up with less downforce easier in the season, giving them more speed in qualifying, but when they fell into the pack during a race, the cars were more unstable and harder to drive.

Dillon qualified in the top 10 in eight of the nine 1.5-mile races before Texas, including a pole at Chicago, but never finished better than 10th in any of those races. He showed that speed also at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in March, winning the pole but failing to score any stage points despite the favorable track position and pit stall.

At Texas last weekend, Dillon qualified 21st, his worst starting spot at a 1.5-mile track this year. He joked ahead of qualifying that if they were any better than 15th to 20th, “we will have tricked ourselves.”

The point being is the team put more downforce in the car to make it more stable in traffic, knowing it would hurt the qualifying speed.

“It’s been pretty obvious where our cars are and what they’ve had,” Dillon said of the setup. “There’s a happy medium in there. You see some of the guys that make it work and the other teams that don’t even try to run that concept. The Chevys that are fast don’t seem to be doing what we were doing.”

Another change is that crew chief Danny Stockman will give way to Justin Alexander after this season. Alexander was at Texas and will be with at the track the final two races to assess the team.

3. LOOKING AHEAD

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishes the season with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s looking ahead to 2020 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

Stenhouse joins JTG in a virtual swap that sees Chris Buescher taking over Stenhouse’s ride in the No. 17 next year.

Stenhouse says he’s begun preparing for his ride by talking to Ernie Cope, competition director at JTG Daugherty Racing, and team owner Tad Geschickter after races.

Stenhouse says he’s discussed with Cope and Geschickter “the things that they fought through (with the car) in the weekend, kind of compare that to what I’m feeling and then also just looking at the potential that they have.

“I thought both their cars had really good short-run speed at Martinsville. We had better long run speed. Going over there it’s like, ‘Alright, how do we get that long-run better and keep that short-run speed?’ I look at Kansas … we raced around (Buescher) a lot and felt like in the end they were probably a little bit better overall.

“I’m interested to see how Phoenix goes. We ran decent there in their spring, but (JTG Daugherty Racing’s) short track stuff, I feel like, seems better than what we have right now and that’s an area that I feel like needs to get better.”

Until Stenhouse finished last after a crash last weekend at Texas, he had placed in the top 20 in six consecutive races, his longest stretch since 2017 when he won two races and made the playoffs.

“I am focused on making sure we finish the job here,” Stenhouse said of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. “We’ve had some solid runs. We haven’t had any stellar runs, but we’ve had solid runs since the announcement came out in Charlotte. Just looking to continue that … and end on a decent note.”

4. BETTER HELP

One of the issues with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, is that its pointed nose made it more challenging to push as compared to the Fords and Toyotas, which each had flatter noses.

While Chevrolet won at Daytona (Justin Haley in July) and at Talladega (Chase Elliott in the spring), the nose on the Camaro ZL1 1LE that Chevy teams will use in 2020 should prove beneficial at those tracks.

“It was definitely a challenge for us being able to push like some of our competitors were doing,” Elliott said. “I think all the drivers wanted (a flatter nose). We’re just lucky that Chevrolet saw it and wanted to make an effort and try to make it a little better. I think they did. We’ll see when we get to Daytona how it affects things, but I certainly think with all the pushing and how aggressive restarts are … hopefully that helps us.”

Cars pushing one another could become more important at those tracks in 2020. The Talladega playoff race showed more cars could form a two-car tandem and pull away briefly from the pack. With the rules stable for next season, teams will have more time to maximize that, and the tandem could play greater role in those races next year.

5. LAST CHANCE

Chevrolet will need a big day Sunday from Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott to avoid missing the Cup championship race for a third year in a row.

Chevrolet last had a team racing for the Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh series crown.

In 2017, the Chevy teams of Elliott and Johnson were eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway. Last year, Elliott was eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway.

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Crew chiefs for Chris Buescher, Tyler Reddick named for 2020 Cup season

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Luke Lambert has been tapped by Roush Fenway Racing to serve as crew chief for Chris Buescher and his No. 17 Ford in 2020, the team announced Tuesday.

Lambert will join the team after working with Daniel Hemric on Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet this season.

“We are certainly excited to have Luke Lambert joining our organization and taking over the reins of the No. 17 program,” team owner Jack Roush said in a press release. “Luke has a strong engineering background and also the ability to energize and lead a team. We look forward to pairing him with Chris next season and seeing what they can do on the track.”

With two races left in the season, Lambert and rookie Hemric have two top 10s, including a fifth-place finish at Talladega.

Lambert has 258 races as a Cup crew chief since 2011 with one win in 2017 with Ryan Newman.

He also served as Elliott Sadler‘s crew chief in the Xfinity Series in 2012 where they won four races together.

Taking over for Lambert on RCR’s No. 8 Chevy next year will be Randall Burnett, who will be paired with Tyler Reddick. They work together in the Xfinity Series.

Reddick and Burnett have five wins together this season. Reddick is third in the standings ahead of Saturday’s Xfinity elimination race at ISM Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Burnett has been with RCR since 2017.

Justin Alexander returning to be Austin Dillon’s crew chief in 2020

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Richard Childress Racing announced Monday that Justin Alexander will return to the No. 3 team to be Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2020, taking over for Danny Stockman.

The team announced that Stockman will remain with the organization in a role to be announced.

Alexander took over as Dillon’s crew chief before the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, a race Dillon won. Alexander also was Dillon’s crew chief through the 2018 season, which included Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory.

Stockman, who won championships in the Xfinity and Truck series with Dillon, took over as Dillon’s Cup crew chief this season. Dillon is 23rd in points heading into this weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN). Dillon has three top-10 finishes in the last 24 races.