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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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JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 hauler experiences fire on way to Kansas

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JTG Daugherty Racing announced on social media Thursday morning that the hauler for Ryan Preece‘s No. 47 Chevrolet experienced a fire on its way to Kansas Speedway for this weekend’s Cup race.

The team announced Friday morning that it was using Chris Buescher’s No. 37 backup car as the pirimary car for Preece.

In a statement, team owner Tad Geschickter said both its hauler drivers were “OK.”

He said the team is “assessing the damage to our trailer and race cars and will have more information as it becomes available.”

MORE: Kaulig Racing hauler involved in accident on way to Kansas

Roush executive: Time with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had ‘run its course’

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Steve Newmark, the president of Roush Fenway Racing said the news that Chris Buescher will replace Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 17 in 2020 resulted in a “day of mixed emotions” for the team, later adding that its nearly decade-long relationship with Stenhouse had “kind of run its course.”

Newmark provided some details of the timeframe of Stenhouse’s eventual departure and Buescher’s return to the organization Wednesday night in a 30-minute interview with host Claire B. Lang on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Jack’s Garage.”

Some of the highlights of the interview:

–Newmark said the team’s direction (which was “difficult on a lot of fronts”) on choosing Buescher was finalized Tuesday night and led to a “flurry” of activity Wednesday, which began with the team informing Stenhouse of its decision. The team released the news publicly at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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–After a Wednesday night tweet by Buescher alluded to Roush exercising “an option” to return to the team where he raced before four years with Front Row Motorsports and JTG Daugherty, Newmark clarified that Roush retained “some residual rights that were triggered in certain instances.”

Newmark said the team was focused over the summer on improving Stenhouse’s results to make the playoffs, not in finding a replacement. But Newmark said “interesting circumstances” came up in recent weeks that led them to pursue Buescher.

“I think even we weren’t aware that those instances were going to arise here,” Newmark said. “But because of how things unfolded at JTG, it ended up we got a call recently from Chris and his representative saying, ‘Hey, as a heads up, these conditions happened, and we’re giving you notice that some of the rights that you had under this residual option are available.’

“At that point, we’ve always been interested in Chris and always continued that relationship. There have been discussions at the board level, and Jack really has put his heart and soul into trying to figure out what the best path for this organization is. And we spent some time the last week exploring different options and how to put this together and the implications.”

–Newmark told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that the decision to go with Buescher “wasn’t predicated on any one factor,” but he cited Ryan Newman‘s success in qualifying the No. 6 car for the playoffs in his first year with Roush as among the factors.

“Ryan has 11 top 10s, and that whole team has put together start-to-finish races, and he’s averaging finishes of about 13.5,” which is his best average since putting up that same number in 2015.

Newmark also cited Buescher’s performance over the summer, with 16 consecutive starts where Buescher finished inside the top 20.

“So his racing style is conducive to how we’re constructed on our end,” Newmark told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “When Chris was with us, he was one of the drivers that Ford relied on for simulators, just because of the quality of his feedback and the input he provided.

“I think all of those factors just went into saying ‘This is the right time to give Chris a chance and to see if we can put a team around Chris and have him in a position where he can excel similar to what Ryan Newman did this year.'”

The hiring of Buescher will end a seven-year run for Stenhouse in the No. 17 where he has two wins and failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons.

“At the end of the day, we, as in Roush Fenway, didn’t do our jobs and didn’t fulfill our obligations to extract the most out of the 17 program,” Newmark told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think there was a lot of potential there with Ricky as a talented driver and overall, and we just weren’t able to put everything together to make it as successful as quite frankly (owner) Jack Roush expects it to be, which is competing for wins and champions. That’s on our shoulders and that’s obviously a tough decision to make. We determined it just kind of (had) run its course and it was probably time to make a change.

“On the flip side, there’s obviously quite a bit of excitement about bringing Chris back into the fold. It really is a homecoming, of course. He signed with us when he was 16 years old, 10 years ago, and had our last championship (Xfinity in 2015) and I think he’s always been someone we view as your quintessential Roush Fenway driver in how he approaches racing and everything he does. I think there’s a lot of excitement to have him back in the fold because we think he can excel with the organization going forward.”

JTG Daugherty owner: Team was in ‘final strokes’ of deal with Chris Buescher

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JTG Daugherty Racing car owner Tad Geschickter said Wednesday that the team was in “the final strokes” of a contract extension with Chris Buescher before Buescher’s move to Roush Fenway Racing in 2020 to replace Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Buescher’s departure leaves JTG with an opening for next season with the No. 37 car.

“We were in the final strokes of the contract when learning that Chris has gone in a different direction,” said Geschickter said in a statement. “We appreciate all of the efforts from Chris through the past three seasons at JTG Daugherty Racing. When the dust settles, we will begin the process of searching for our next driver to fill the No. 37 seat for the 2020 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.”

“Tough day for us,” co-owner Brad Daugherty said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Sirius Speedway.”

Daugherty said that the team had only recently found out that Buescher could be moving to another team.

“We had somewhat of an idea the last day and a half that this possibly could happen,” Daugherty said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We didn’t understand why it would happen, working very hard, going back and forth trying to get all of our numbers together, trying to get the contract done. We get to today and find out he’s going to go in a different direction.Totally caught us off guard because we were already building stuff for next season as everybody else does, getting ready and preparing.

“We were in the full throes of trying to put something significant together and thought we had it done, pretty close to it, and things changed. Just like that.”

Buescher has been with JTG Daugherty Racing since 2017. His contract expires after this season.

“This catches you really by surprise this late in the year, especially,” Daugherty said. “You’re trying to be as professional as you possibly can about how you handle these situations. I don’t ever blame any athlete if he thinks he’s putting himself in a situation that is going to be better for him and his family, got no problem with that. it’s just for us, it’s always the timing. Getting this late in the season when you have commitments, it makes it very, very difficult to swallow this easily. … We’ll just say it’s a very, very difficult time go though this thing, but we have very smart people who work at our company.

“We’ll figure it out. We just wish the timing could have been different, a little more flexible toward us, but it’s not working out this way. Chris will move on and do his thing. We’ve put a lot of time and resources into Chris. We think we helped him become a better race car driver. As he moves on, we’ll look for the next young man or young woman that wants to get into our race car and try to help us continue to build what we’re trying to accomplish, which is winning races on (the track) and being successful off (the track) business wise.”

As to what type of driver the team will look for to take over the No. 37 car, Daugherty told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio:

“We like to give people a chance. We’ve done that with Ryan Preece. … You always like to have, since Ryan is a rookie, a veteran to go with that. I think that’s what helps make us work.

“I think it would be difficult to have two guys in the series or someone in the series with Ryan who doesn’t have any experience. That would be just absolutely, that would be miserable at times. We’re going to look. We would like to find someone with some experience we can continue to grow. We’ve taken good steps with that 37 car this year, really positive steps. We’d like to continue that. We don’t want to go backwards. It’s a tough situation to be in as an owner and a team, but we’re pretty resilient and we’ll figure it out. We’re going to give somebody a heck of an opportunity.”

Buescher issued a statement Wednesday night:

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. out at Roush next year; Chris Buescher in No. 17

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Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday afternoon that this season will be the last in the No. 17 Ford for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who will be replaced by Chris Buescher.

Stenhouse, in his seventh season driving the No. 17, has failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons with the team. Stenhouse enters Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) 23rd in the points. He finished 18th in the points last year. He won two races in 2016 to qualify for the playoffs and finished a career-high 13th in the points. He is winless in 83 races.

Buescher returns to Roush, where he won the 2015 Xfinity championship but left to drive for Front Row Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing the past three seasons. Buescher enters this weekend 20th in points. He finished a career-high 16th in points in 2016 for Front Row Motorsports, earning a playoff spot with his Pocono win. That remains his lone Cup victory. He’s winless in 115 races. Buescher is one of three drivers to make the playoffs in their rookie season, joining Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.

Stenhouse had a contract with the team through 2021, but contracts often have performance-related clauses and other outs that can permit drivers and teams to vacate the remaining terms of a deal.

JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Tad Geschickter issued the following statement.

“We were in the final strokes of the contract when learning that Chris has gone in a different direction. We appreciate all of the efforts from Chris through the past three seasons at JTG Daugherty Racing. When the dust settles, we will begin the process of searching for our next driver to fill the No. 37 seat for the 2020 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.”

With today’s news, Stenhouse will not appear on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET today as previously scheduled.

Here’s the release from the team:

Roush Fenway Racing has announced that Chris Buescher will make his return to the team, taking the wheel of its No. 17 NASCAR Cup Series Ford in 2020. The team will part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at the conclusion of the 2019 season.

“We can’t say enough about Ricky and his contributions to Roush Fenway Racing,” said team co-owner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Roush. “We’re proud to have been a part of Ricky’s development from ARCA to Xfinity and ultimately the Cup Series. He has served as a great representative to our partners, while helping to accumulate numerous accolades, wins and multiple championships on the racetrack. We wish him well as he enters the next chapter of his career.”

Buescher, a product of Roush Fenway’s development driver program, returns to the team that he led to a NASCAR Xfinity Series (NXS) title in 2015.

“We are certainly excited to have Chris back in the fold at Roush Fenway Racing,” said Roush. “He has a long history with our organization and we’ve always been a big fan of Chris and his racing style. We have watched his progress with great interest over the last couple of seasons and we are looking forward to having him in the No. 17 as we continue to grow our program next season.”

Buescher first joined Roush Fenway as a development driver in 2009, winning the 2012 ARCA Series championship in a partnership with Roulo Brothers Racing, before making his NXS debut for Roush Fenway in relief of Trevor Bayne in 2011. He moved to full time in the NXS in 2014, and in 2015 brought home Jack Roush’s eighth NASCAR Championship; dominating the series while leading the NXS standings for 24 consecutive weeks.

Stenhouse has piloted the No. 17 car for the past seven seasons after taking over for Matt Kenseth in 2013.

Buescher drove the No. 34 Ford during his Cup rookie season in 2016, racing his way into the playoffs via a victory at Pocono. He has served as the driver of the No. 37 Cup entry for the past three seasons and is currently 20th in the NASCAR Cup point standings.