2019 Cup Rookie of the Year battle an unconventional three-man race

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Before Tuesday, the known Cup Series rookie class for 2019 consisted of Daniel Hemric and Ryan Preece after both drivers were announced as moving up to Cup on Sept. 28.

On Tuesday, Matt Tifft threw his hat in the ring when he revealed he will compete for Front Row Motorsports next season, driving the No. 36 Ford.

Hemric will drive Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Chevrolet and Preece will drive JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 Chevrolet.

Together, the three drivers comprise an unconventional rookie class. A class that, compared to recent years, is older, lacks championships and hasn’t visited Victory Lane as often in NASCAR’s national series.

This class will be the first since 2015 to not include a driver who won a title in one of NASCAR’s lower national series. Brett Moffitt won Rookie of the Year that season in a class that included Matt DiBenedetto and Jeb Burton.

Experience is another factor.

Both Tifft and Hemric make their transitions to Cup after two full-time seasons in the Xfinity Series. They were teammates at RCR this season. Tifft drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017.

Preece is the outlier in multiple ways.

The accomplished modified racer from Berlin, Connecticut, will be full-time in Cup after not being full-time in any NASCAR series since 2016. He’s also the only one of the three drivers with a NASCAR win.

After he competed full-time for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 2016, Preece made 19 starts over the next two seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. The opportunity was a result of a gamble on himself that led to his first career win in his second start with the team.

Preece’s 2017-18 record

  • Starts: 19
  • Wins: 2
  • Top fives:  11
  • Top 10s: 14
  • Laps Led: 218

 

Age is another unusual aspect. Going against the recent trend of NASCAR’s “Youth Movement,” Preece and Hemric will be 28-years-old when they start their rookie campaigns. Tifft turns 23 in June.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2013 was the last Rookie of the Year who was 25 or older.

Hemric, who calls Kannapolis, North Carolina, home, piloted RCR’s No. 21 Chevrolet from 2017-18 in Xfinity and made his first two Cup starts this season

Despite no wins, Hemric powered his way into the Championship 4 each season.

Hemric goes to Cup having earned five runner-up finishes, the most for a Xfinity driver without a win. He also won a series-leading nine stages this season.

Hemric’s 2017-18 Xfinity record

  • Starts: 66
  • Wins: 0
  • Top fives: 23
  • Top 10s: 36
  • Lap led: 510

MORE: Daniel Hemric’s journey to NASCAR aided by Xfinity mechanic

Like Hemric, Tifft will take the green flag in the Daytona 500 without a NASCAR win to his name, but he proved he can run with the leaders.

The native of Hinckley, Ohio, who two years ago underwent brain surgery to remove a low-grade tumor, has made 102 combined NASCAR starts in Xfinity and the Truck Series.

Of Tifft’s nine Xfinity top fives, six came this season. Four have come on road courses including a second-place result this year at Road America.

He made the playoffs in each Xfinity season.

Tifft’s 2017-18 Xfinity record

  • Starts: 66
  • Wins: 0
  • Top fives: 8
  • Top 10s: 32
  • Lap Led: 49

Should Preece, Hemric or Tifft manage to win a race in 2019 and go on to claim the Rookie of the Year title, they’ll be first to do so since Joey Logano in 2009.

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AJ Allmendinger uncertain when, where he’ll race next

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — AJ Allmendinger, making his final start for JTG Daugherty Racing Sunday, says he is not sure when and where he’ll race again after this weekend.

“As of right now, I have zero races planned,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “I’ve got nothing. Maybe there are races that crop up over the course of the season. I’ll say for sure, let’s go 95 percent sure, that I definitely won’t be racing a full season in anything.”

The 36-year-old Allmendinger is being replaced by rookie Ryan Preece next season in the No. 47 car Chevrolet.

Allmendinger said he’d like to run the Xfinity and Cup road course races next year. His lone Cup win came in 2014 at Watkins Glen. His two Xinity wins also came on road courses – Road America in 2013, Mid-Ohio in 2013.

“If I could put together a deal to run all the road courses or most of the road courses in Xfinity and Cup, that would be fun,” Allmendinger said. “It’s me, so if there’s a chance to race anything I’ll go do it. We know the way the situation is in the sport, need sponsorship and everything happened pretty late so a lot of stuff was being filled up. Even the stuff that’s not announced we know is full.”

Sunday will be Allmendinger’s 371st career Cup start.

“I think mentally right now with zero races on board I have to prepare that it could be my last race,” Allmendinger said. “Do I expect it to be my last race ever? No, but as I stand right now to prepare for it mentally, I have to get ready for that. There’s a chance it might be.”

He debuted with Red Bull Racing in 2007. He drove for Team Penske in 2012 before losing that ride after 17 races when NASCAR suspended him for violating its Substance Abuse Policy. Allmendinger later said he was given a pill from a friend that he thought was an energy supplement but was the prescription drug Adderall. He later returned to Team Penske to win those Xfinity races. 

He also won the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona and finished third in the Champ Car Series in 2006, winning five races.

How does Allmendinger look back upon his career?

“There’s not a lot of people in this world who can say they’ve won a Cup race, Xfinity races, a Rolex race outright, they’ve won Champ car races and might have won an Indy 500 if my seat belt didn’t come off,” he said.

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.

Xfinity practice report from Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – John Hunter Nemechek had the fastest lap in Friday’s final Xfinity practice at ISM Raceway.

Nemechek had a lap of 133.072 mph. He was followed by Christopher Bell (132.402 mph), Austin Cindric (131.858), Ryan Preece (131.752) and Matt Tifft (131.685).

First practice

Christopher Bell was the fastest in the first two Xfinity practice sessions Friday at ISM Raceway.

Bell had a lap of 132.304 mph. He was followed by Ryan Preece (132.110 mph), Cole Custer (131.699), Matt Tifft (131.690) and Daniel Hemric 131.670.

Click here for practice report

The final Xfinity practice session will be from 4:35 – 5:25 p.m. ET on NBCSN

JTG Daugherty Racing reveals changes for this weekend, next year

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Changes are taking place this weekend and next year at JTG Daugherty Racing.

Ernie Cope, JTG’s competition director, confirmed to NBC Sports Friday that Chris Buescher’s car has a Hendrick Motorsports engine this weekend.

The organization uses Earnhardt Childress Racing engines — AJ Allmendinger’s car has an ECR engine in its car this weekend — but will switch to Hendrick engines next year.

The team will have a Hendrick engine in its car only this weekend before switching over next season, Cope said.

“The reason we did it is just because the wiring and everything is different,” Cope told NBC Sports of getting acclimated to the differences with the Hendrick engines. “We just didn’t want to go into Atlanta (next year) not knowing … it was worth doing. We found a lot of little things that we needed to get. It was definitely worthwhile doing. Now we’re going to go into the winter time fix all the little bugs instead of next spring.”

Also, Cope confirmed to NBC Sports the team’s driver-crew chief pairings for next year.

Trent Owens will go back to the No. 37 team and be Buescher’s crew chief next season. Tristan Smith will be rookie Ryan Preece’s crew chief next year.

“We’re basically putting Chris’ team back together,” Cope said.