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2023 NASCAR CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND


Ryan Blaney secures first NASCAR Cup title as Ross Chastain wins at Phoenix

James Gilbert/Getty Images

 

November 5, 2023

 

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

  

AVONDALE, Ariz. – For the first time in 10 years of the elimination Playoff format, the NASCAR Cup Series champion failed to win the title race—not that it mattered one bit to 2023 champion Ryan Blaney.

 

When he took the checkered flag in second place in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race, the driver of the No. 12 Ford gave Team Penske its second straight title in NASCAR’s premier series and gave Ford a sweep of Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images  Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Oh, and as Blaney was pulling away from Kyle Larson and William Byron over a 31-lap green-flag run to the finish to claim his first Cup championship on Sunday, Ross Chastain secured his second victory of the season.

 

In a fierce battle for the title against 2021 champion Kyle Larson, Blaney edged ahead of the Hendrick Motorsports driver on Lap 292 and secured second place behind Chastain, who grabbed the top spot from Denny Hamlin after a restart on Lap 282.

 

Chastain crossed the finish line 1.230 seconds ahead of Blaney, whose elation wasn’t dulled one iota by the runner-up result—given the bigger prize he won by finishing second. 

 

“Unbelievable year, unbelievable Playoffs for us,” said Blaney, who won last week at Martinsville to advance to the Championship 4 with Larson, Byron and Christopher Bell. “To win back-to-back Cup titles for (team owner Roger) Penske, that's so special. Having my family here, winning my first Cup title, I got emotional in the car. I'm not a very emotional guy.

 

“You never want to count yourself out. I mean, I think in the summer we were struggling a little bit, but we never gave up. We just went to work. I've said that all week, like, this group goes to work, and they figure out problems. That's why they're such an amazing group to be with, with the Team Penske folks, 'cause they just put their head down and do the work, accept the challenge.”

 

Bell fell out of the race on Lap 108, but Blaney, Larson and Byron came home second, third and fourth. Blaney’s margin over Larson at the finish was 2.243 seconds. Though Larson beat Blaney off  pit road during the final caution for Kyle Busch’s spin in Turn 3 on Lap 275, Larson couldn’t hold off Blaney’s superior car.

 

“Yeah, his car was really fast,” Larson acknowledged. “Really the last few months. Yeah, especially here today. Our pit crew and pit road really kept us in the game. We weren't the greatest on the track, but I was just hoping for pit stops 'cause I knew the way our team executed… the way our pit crew can execute a fast pit stop, I knew that was going to be our only shot really to win.

 

“They did everything in their power to give us the winning job done there. Huge thank you to them. I needed to come out the leader on that restart. Ross got a really good start from the second row. Was hoping I could get clear of Denny and get the lead, have Ross kind of protect for me behind me.

 

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images Sean Gardner/Getty Images

“I'm not sure if it would have made a difference.”

 

Byron took off from the pole position and won the first 60-lap stage wire-to-wire but not without a challenge from third-place starter Kevin Harvick and a charge from Chastain, who was eighth on the grid to start the race.

 

Over the final three laps of the stage, Byron used the high line through the corners to hold off Harvick, who finished second. Chastain was third after 60 laps, 0.584 seconds behind the stage winner at the green/checkered flag.

 

First off pit road from stall one, Byron opened a lead of more than a second after the break. Larson, Blaney and Bell all improved their positions on pit road and soon were running fourth, fifth and sixth with Byron in the lead and Harvick and Chastain in front of them.

 

On Lap 86, Bell made a deft pass of Blaney for fifth. Lap 93 brought a dramatic change at the front of the field, as Harvick surged to the outside of Byron in Turns 1 and 2 and cleared him down the backstretch. Byron dropped another spot to Chastain and traded third with Blaney, who secured the position on Lap 107.

 

“Once the track rubbered in, we got really tight,” Byron said. “Especially when we lost the lead on track, we just had a big balance shift and got tight back in second through fifth, just couldn't gain a lot of speed through (Turns) 1 and 2, just kind of having to really over-slow the car, get it to the bottom.

 

“That's all we had there.”

 

On Lap 108, Bell’s race fell apart. Complaining of brake issues, he crashed hard into the outside wall in Turn 3 when his right front rotor exploded and was eliminated from the race in 36th place, leaving Blaney, Byron and Larson to battle for the championship. 

 

“Well, I mean that was my first time I’ve ever exploded a rotor in my career,” Bell said after a mandatory trip to the infield care center. “So, yeah, I was surprised, but early on in the race I had a little bit of brake fade, and the second run it just kept getting worse and worse. I don’t know. Just obviously a disappointing way to end. 

 

“It stings to not have a shot at the end of it, obviously. We were all four really close, and we all four showed strengths at different times.” 

 

Bell’s accident caused the second caution and provided a welcome opportunity for pit stops and adjustments. After the subsequent restart on Lap 117, Chastain passed Harvick for the lead and stayed out front for 54 consecutive laps until Buescher passed him for the top spot on Lap 171.

 

Buescher pulled away to win the second stage, which ended on Lap 185. Byron finished fourth and held the edge in the championship battle over Blaney in sixth and Larson in seventh.

 

As the laps counted down, however, the race came to Blaney.

 

Chastain led a race-high 157 laps to 95 for Byron. Harvick finished seventh after leading 23 laps in his final season as a full-time driver NASCAR Cup Series driver.

 

“We built a team here at Stewart-Haas Racing,” Harvick said. “We built so many things from the bottom up. I think the hard work is something that people recognize. As you guys have seen through the week, I'm a pretty emotional person. I’ve just done a really good job of hiding that.”

 

For his part, Chastain enjoyed competing against Harvick in his final race almost as much as he enjoyed winning.

 

“Racing him early in the race was bucket list, little kid in me,” said Chastain who won for the first time at Phoenix and the fourth time in his career. “Racing that 2005 (NASCAR) game, I drove as the 29 GM Goodwrench car (Harvick’s first Cup car with Richard Childress Racing). Now I'm driving a Chevy for GM to Victory Lane, a Camaro.

 

“I am beside myself that we were able to do that. That last caution we were really tight. It saved us. (Crew chief) Phil Surgen and this group at Trackhouse, all of our GM support staff, sim staff, everybody came up with a way to make this thing turn, and we drove off into the sunset.”

 

NASCAR Cup Series Race - NASCAR Cup Series Championship

Phoenix Raceway

Avondale, Arizona

Sunday, November 5, 2023

 

                1. (8)  Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 312.

                2. (15)  Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 312.

                3. (4)  Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 312.

                4. (1)  William Byron (P), Chevrolet, 312.

                5. (9)  Chris Buescher, Ford, 312.

                6. (2)  Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 312.

                7. (3)  Kevin Harvick, Ford, 312.

                8. (6)  Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 312.

                9. (19)  Michael McDowell, Ford, 312.

                10. (5)  Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 312.

                11. (16)  Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 312.

                12. (21)  Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 312.

                13. (28)  Aric Almirola, Ford, 312.

                14. (12)  Ryan Preece, Ford, 312.

                15. (31)  Brad Keselowski, Ford, 312.

                16. (20)  Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 312.

                17. (23)  Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 312.

                18. (17)  Joey Logano, Ford, 312.

                19. (22)  Carson Hocevar(i), Chevrolet, 312.

                20. (7)  Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 312.

                21. (11)  Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 312.

                22. (10)  Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 312.

                23. (24)  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 312.

                24. (26)  Chase Briscoe, Ford, 312.

                25. (18)  Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 311.

                26. (25)  Harrison Burton, Ford, 311.

                27. (34)  JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 311.

                28. (33)  Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 310.

                29. (35)  Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 310.

                30. (14)  Todd Gilliland, Ford, 309.

                31. (29)  Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 308.

                32. (32)  AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 308.

                33. (36)  BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 306.

                34. (30)  Ryan Newman(i), Ford, 305.

                35. (27)  Austin Cindric, Ford, 301.

                36. (13)  Christopher Bell (P), Toyota, Accident, 108.

 

Average Speed of Race Winner:  108.827 mph.

Time of Race:  2 Hrs, 52 Mins, 1 Secs. Margin of Victory:  1.230 Seconds.

Caution Flags:  4 for 27 laps.

Lead Changes:  18 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   W. Byron (P) 1-92;K. Harvick 93-111;W. Byron (P) 112;K. Harvick 113-116;R. Chastain 117-170;C. Buescher 171-188;W. Byron (P) 189;R. Chastain 190-240;M. Truex Jr. 241;D. Hamlin 242-251;C. Briscoe 252-253;R. Chastain 254-257;R. Blaney (P) 258;R. Chastain 259-260;R. Blaney (P) 261;R. Chastain 262-276;W. Byron (P) 277;D. Hamlin 278-281;R. Chastain 282-312.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  Ross Chastain 6 times for 157 laps; William Byron (P) 4 times for 95 laps; Kevin Harvick 2 times for 23 laps; Chris Buescher 1 time for 18 laps; Denny Hamlin 2 times for 14 laps; Ryan Blaney (P) 2 times for 2 laps; Chase Briscoe 1 time for 2 laps; Martin Truex Jr. 1 time for 1 lap.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 24,4,1,23,5,17,19,43,20,12

Stage #2 Top Ten: 17,1,4,24,19,12,5,23,6,43

Cole Custer claims NASCAR Xfinity title after electrifying overtime restart

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

November 4, 2023

 

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

 

AVONDALE, Ariz. – After an overtime restart that saw title contenders engage in a breathtaking three-wide battle down the backstretch, Cole Custer deftly negotiated a tightly bunched pack of cars to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship race and the series title on Saturday at Phoenix Raceway.

 

The victory was the third of the season for Custer, who returned to full-time Xfinity Series racing this year after a lackluster three-year stint in the NASCAR Cup Series that produced a single victory.

 

But Custer proved his mettle after slipping from first to third in the running order moments after the final restart. Championship 4 driver John Hunter Nemechek held a fleeting lead but couldn’t turn his No. 20 Toyota in Turn 1 and lost the top spot to title contender Just Allgaier.

 

Custer steered his No. 00 Stewart Haas Racing Ford to the inside of Allgaier’s Chevrolet as the three championship hopefuls raced side-by-side down the backstretch before Custer emerged with the lead. A lap later, Custer crossed the finish line 0.601 seconds ahead of charging Sheldon Creed and another 0.007 seconds ahead of Allgaier to win for the first time at Phoenix and the 13th time in his career.

 

“I thought it was over,” said Custer, who had two previous runner-up finishes in the series standings. “I mean, went from first to third, and I was able to shift the car all night. And Doug Yates horsepower worked out, pulled me off the corner. I can't believe we won that thing after going back to third on that restart.

 

“Man, I can't say enough about these guys (his Stewart Haas team). We started the year off and it was a struggle, and we had to kind of dig deep with each other, really talk about how to get better and to see how much this group has grown through the year.

 

“I've been waiting to hear (congratulations from Xfinity Series director) Wayne (Auton) on the radio for a few times now, so I'm pumped.”

 

Allgaier spun underneath Nemechek on Lap 3 and worked his way back to the front from 38th in the running order, but Custer had the superior car on short runs and proved it after the final restart.

 

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

“I don't know if I'll get another shot at it again next year,” said the 37-year-old Allgaier. “We at least will have a shot at it, but I don't know if we'll make it. But so proud of the effort of this team and what we were able to accomplish. The restart was fantastic. I thought we did everything right.

 

“The 20 (Nemechek) kind of missed the bottom and drove all the way up, and honestly, I was afraid I was going to run into the back of him. When I tried to turn back down the hill, it just was enough to let the 00 (Custer) get back to my inside and ultimately getting down into Turn 3...

 

“I don't know, I'm going to replay this one back in my head a couple times. I drove in there pretty deep and just kind of washed up. The 00 had the turning car all night, and we were just a little bit too free.”

 

Riley Herbst ran fourth on Saturday, followed by title contender Sam Mayer. Nemechek, a series-best seven-time winner this season, suffered a flat tire after the final restart, slammed the outside wall and finished 28th.

 

“Drove in, and it didn't turn,” Nemechek said of Turn 1 after the final restart. “I don't know if we had a right front (tire) start going down or what exactly it was, but just drove in and didn't turn.

 

“Toyota GR Supra was really fast, but drive down, it doesn't turn, it's not a very good thing. Then once we got pinched in the fence there off of (Turn) 2, it kind of hurt the right sides even more. I think we had a right rear start going down, as well.

 

“It sucks to end up where we finished. Had a really strong effort all day. Proud of this whole 20 crew. Proud of this whole group. Just sucks to end our season this way, but overall, a really successful season for this 20 team, Joe Gibbs Racing. Was proud to be behind the wheel of this 20 car all year, and seven wins is a lot to be proud of.”

 

In a race that produced eight cautions for a total of 46 laps, Custer led 96 of 202 laps to 66 for Nemechek.

 

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Josh Berry, Austin Hill, Chandler Smith, pole winner Sammy Smith and Kaz Grala completed the top 10.

 

NASCAR Xfinity Series Race - NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship

Phoenix Raceway

Avondale, Arizona

Saturday, November 4, 2023

 

                1. (7)  Cole Custer (P), Ford, 202.

                2. (5)  Sheldon Creed, Chevrolet, 202.

                3. (8)  Justin Allgaier (P), Chevrolet, 202.

                4. (9)  Riley Herbst, Ford, 202.

                5. (16)  Sam Mayer (P), Chevrolet, 202.

                6. (15)  Josh Berry, Chevrolet, 202.

                7. (2)  Austin Hill, Chevrolet, 202.

                8. (6)  Chandler Smith #, Chevrolet, 202.

                9. (1)  Sammy Smith #, Toyota, 202.

                10. (24)  Kaz Grala, Toyota, 202.

                11. (20)  Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 202.

                12. (18)  Jeb Burton, Chevrolet, 202.

                13. (14)  Parker Retzlaff #, Chevrolet, 202.

                14. (13)  Rajah Caruth(i), Chevrolet, 202.

                15. (19)  Brett Moffitt, Ford, 202.

                16. (30)  Parker Kligerman, Chevrolet, 202.

                17. (21)  Kyle Weatherman, Chevrolet, 202.

                18. (11)  Ryan Sieg, Ford, 202.

                19. (17)  Dawson Cram, Chevrolet, 202.

                20. (25)  Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 202.

                21. (12)  Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 202.

                22. (4)  Myatt Snider, Toyota, 202.

                23. (34)  Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 202.

                24. (38)  Anthony Alfredo, Chevrolet, 202.

                25. (26)  Josh Williams, Chevrolet, 202.

                26. (27)  Ryan Ellis, Chevrolet, 202.

                27. (28)  Joey Gase, Ford, 202.

                28. (3)  John Hunter Nemechek (P), Toyota, 202.

                29. (29)  Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 202.

                30. (33)  Timmy Hill(i), Ford, 200.

                31. (37)  Joe Graf Jr, Ford, 200.

                32. (32)  Blaine Perkins #, Chevrolet, 200.

                33. (36)  Stefan Parsons(i), Chevrolet, 194.

                34. (10)  Connor Mosack, Toyota, Accident, 180.

                35. (31)  Chris Hacker(i), Chevrolet, Suspension, 178.

                36. (35)  JJ Yeley, Ford, Accident, 101.

                37. (23)  Derek Kraus(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 84.

                38. (22)  Kyle Sieg, Ford, Vibration, 14.

 

Average Speed of Race Winner:  90.527 mph.

Time of Race:  2 Hrs, 13 Mins, 53 Secs. Margin of Victory:  0.601 Seconds.

Caution Flags:  8 for 46 laps.

Lead Changes:  12 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   S. Smith # 1-11;A. Hill 12-32;J. Nemechek (P) 33-52;C. Custer (P) 53-90;J. Nemechek (P) 91;C. Custer (P) 92-108;J. Nemechek (P) 109-126;S. Creed 127-130;J. Nemechek (P) 131-156;C. Custer (P) 157-183;J. Nemechek (P) 184;D. Hemric 185-188;C. Custer (P) 189-202.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  Cole Custer (P) 4 times for 96 laps; John Hunter Nemechek (P) 5 times for 66 laps; Austin Hill 1 time for 21 laps; Sammy Smith # 1 time for 11 laps; Sheldon Creed 1 time for 4 laps; Daniel Hemric 1 time for 4 laps.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 20,00,16,21,1,18,7,9,19,25

Stage #2 Top Ten: 00,1,20,21,16,9,8,2,7,98

 

--30--

 


Championship 4 driver William Byron wins pole for NASCAR Cup title race

 

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

November 4, 2023

 

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

 

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Championship 4 driver William Byron won the pole for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway, keeping alive the possibility of preserving a remarkable streak.

 

In each of the three title races at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert, the pole winner has gone on to win the race and the championship—Chase Elliott in 2020, Kyle Larson in 2021 and Joey Logano last year.

 

In the final round of Saturday’s time trials, Byron navigated the irregular-shaped track in 27.150 seconds (132.597 mph) to claim the top starting spot by 0.018 seconds over Martin Truex Jr. (132.509) mph, who was eliminated from the Playoffs last Sunday at Martinsville.

 

Making his final qualifying run as a full-time Cup Series driver, Kevin Harvick earned the third starting spot with a lap at 132.421 mph. Championship 4 contender Larson, Byron’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, qualified fourth at 132.397 mph.

 

“My team is really going to like this,” said Byron, who won his fourth Busch Light Pole Award of the season, his first at Phoenix and the 12th of his career—and earned the right to select advantageous Pit Stall No. 1.  

 

“It’s going to be fun. All my family and friends are here, all my friends from high school. It’s going to be fun to hang out with them over tonight and just enjoy. This is a great opportunity. I want to be here every year. It’s really fun to be a part of, and we need to take advantage of it.”

 

Championship 4 drivers Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney, who were the fastest two title contenders in Friday’s practice, failed to make the final round of qualifying and will start 13th and 15th, respectively.

 

“I needed about another tenth-and-a-half (of a second)—I don’t know,” said Blaney, who earned his spot in the final four with a victory last Sunday at Martinsville. “I mean, the car didn’t feel bad, just not as much speed as everyone else. I think our race car is good for (Sunday). So, we’ll see what happens.”

 

Larson can win a second championship on Sunday. For the other three Playoff drivers, a title would be the first. Larson was reluctant to put too much stock in qualifying speed.

 

“I think we all saw the practice sheets yesterday,” Larson said. “I think the 12 (Blaney) and the 20 (Bell) looked a step better than especially me and even William a little bit. Was honestly surprised that they didn't make the final round there.

 

“So, no, I'm not counting out Blaney or Bell at all. It's a long race, so they'll overcome wherever they start. I'm sure they'll drive through the field. The final four guys, most everybody respects or shows a lot of respect to on the racetrack and gives a lot of space.

 

“I think they'll find their way to the front pretty quickly.”

 

Bubba Wallace claimed the fifth spot on the grid, followed by Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Ross Chastain, Chris Buescher and Tyler Reddick, who spun and slapped the Turn 4 wall during his run in the final round.

 

Notes: Harvick ran the fastest lap of the day in the first round (27.067 seconds, 133.003 mph)… Cole Custer qualified 31st in relief of Brad Keselowski, who flew home to Charlotte to be with wife Paige, who went into labor with the couple’s third child. Keselowski is expected to return for Sunday’s race.

 

NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying - NASCAR Cup Series Championship

Phoenix Raceway

Avondale, Arizona

Saturday, November 4, 2023

 

                1. (24) William Byron (P) @, Chevrolet, 132.597 mph.

                2. (19) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 132.509 mph.

                3. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 132.421 mph.

                4. (5) Kyle Larson (P) @, Chevrolet, 132.397 mph.

                5. (23) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 132.261 mph.

                6. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 132.139 mph.

                7. (43) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 131.540 mph.

                8. (1) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 131.454 mph.

                9. (17) Chris Buescher, Ford, 131.109 mph.

                10. (45) Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 128.769 mph.

                11. (54) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

                12. (41) Ryan Preece, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                13. (20) Christopher Bell (P) @, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

                14. (38) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                15. (12) Ryan Blaney (P) @, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                16. (99) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                17. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                18. (8) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                19. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                20. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                21. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                22. (42) Carson Hocevar(i), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                23. (48) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                24. (47) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                25. (21) Harrison Burton, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                26. (14) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                27. (2) Austin Cindric, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                28. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                29. (7) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                30. (51) Ryan Newman(i), Ford, 0.000 mph.

                31. (6) Cole Custer(i), Ford, 0.000 mph.

                32. (16) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                33. (77) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                34. (15) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 0.000 mph.

                35. (31) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                36. (78) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.


Phoenix Championship Weekend Saturday Notebook

 

Notebook Items:

  • Veteran Denny Hamlin is at peace with solid 2023 season
  • Chase Elliott has learned a lot this year
  • Ross Chastain is looking ahead
  • The Force is with Bubba Wallace
  • Aric Almirola bids farewell to fulltime
  • Brad Keselowski is on baby duty

 

November 4, 2023

 

By Holly Cain

NASCAR Wire Service

 

Veteran Denny Hamlin is at peace with solid 2023 season

 

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Perpetual NASCAR Cup Series championship favorite Denny Hamlin will not be among the four drivers competing for the 2023 title Sunday afternoon in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – a mechanical failure in the previous round essentially doomed his hopes for a title.

 

But the three-time Daytona 500 winning veteran and outspoken competitor arrived in Phoenix feeling at least “at peace” with his situation although obviously disappointed. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won three races and is ranked fifth in the title standings – tops among those that didn’t qualify for the big trophy run.

 

The 42-year-old 18-year series veteran won three races, had 14 top-five finishes and 18 top-10 runs along with four pole positions – the most he’s earned in a decade. Only one driver – Kyle Larson – has led more laps this season than Hamlin’s 984. But a parts failure resulting in a 30th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago ultimately put him in a deficit that proved too much to overcome.

 

Last season he missed out on the Championship 4 because of the “Hail Melon” final lap move by Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain that propelled Chastain into the final foursome.

 

“I think it was kind of a microcosm of my whole career honestly," Hamlin said of missing out on a championship chance this season. “I feel like every year there’s been some sort of kink in the Playoffs that has either kept us from moving on or kept us from winning a championship.

 

“I wish we didn’t have mechanical failures, I wish it weren’t part of our sport, I wish we all had the same equipment, and it was durable and nothing ever broke and if you ran bad, it was your fault. I wish that’s the sport we had, but it’s not. I had a crazy 00.1 percent chance of what happened happening (at Homestead), and it did. I can only control what I can control but to me, I don’t lose any motivation behind it because I’m still going to try to win every week, but there is a luck factor behind it.

 

“All of our teams had the same issue, but there’s didn’t do what mine did and so it’s crummy. I wish there was a larger sample size for sure, but there’s not and I’ve just got to live with it."

 

As for the season, Hamlin said he’d give his team a B-plus.

 

“Certainly, we could have more race wins. Three race wins, I’ll certainly take that, but it’s probably not up to our standards.  .. it was stupid stuff that happens.

 

“If we get five-plus wins I put it at A-minus because we didn’t make the Final Four, but I feel very satisfied and content with the result of what we put on the race track and that’s why every single week we’re a contender you have to beat. We’re not hit or miss every now and then and disappear for 15 races and then all of a sudden come back. It was a steady season for us from beginning to end and I thought we put together a nice one.”

 

CHASE ELLIOTT LEARNED A LOT THIS YEAR

 

It was certainly not the “typical” season for longtime fan favorite and 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He missed seven races total - recovering from a broken leg and serving a one-race suspension - and was never able to make up enough points to qualify for the super-competitive 16-driver Playoff field.

 

That’s not to say the season wasn’t productive, however. He said the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team still learned a lot and remains perhaps more motivated than ever.

 

Despite missing the races, Elliott, 27, was still successful enough to climb to 17th in the season standings – the first position outside the 16-driver playoff field. His seven top-five finishes and 15 top-10 efforts are both more than three Playoff drivers who competed in every race. The 18-time winner would like to continue a five-year streak of winning at least one race a season.

 

“You’re always wanting to be better," Elliott said of missing the first Playoff of his eight-year fulltime career in the series.

 

“I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the things I need to do better. I know I’ve learned a lot about myself and areas I want to improve in. Will try to tackle a lot of that this weekend, and get a head-start on things we want to improve o for next year. Hopefully tomorrow goes well and we can end it on a positive note."

 

“It’s not where I want to be, so I’m not happy with it. I want to be better. I feel like I have a really, really strong team and guys working hard every week to give me the thigs I want and need and that’s all you can ask for. I just want to continue on that path and continue to work hard like we have been, and I think the hard work and resilience of not quitting and giving up will eventually get us where we need to go."

 

ROSS CHASTAIN IS LOOKING AHEAD

 

A year ago this week, Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain was preparing to make his Championship 4 debut at Phoenix Raceway after a sensational headline-making rally the week before in the Martinsville, Va. cutoff race.

 

The 30-year-old comes to Phoenix Raceway this week, however, ranked ninth in the championship standings, 21 points behind eighth place Chris Buescher and 36 points behind Buescher’s Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing teammate Brad Keselowski. The driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet won at Nashville this summer, has nine top-five finishes and his 483 laps led on the year is seventh best among all drivers.

 

There is a decidedly different feel this championship week, but one that Chastain said has only motivated him more.

 

“I haven’t really looked back, just been week-to-week because there’s only one off-week all year," Chastain said. “There’s definitely a lot of times as we’re preparing that I’ve flashed back and remember last year because last year was the first in a lot of firsts for me, lot of first time competing week in and week out, first time in Playoffs, first time with all those nerves and all those things. So, this year I was having some flashbacks, even this weekend I had flashbacks since I flew out here about what I went through last year and the difference is this year is really just observing, not getting too excited or too down, just observing what I did last year and what I did this year."

 

THE FORCE IS WITH BUBBA WALLACE

 

Bubba Wallace is hoping to close out what he considers his most accomplished season with a victory on Sunday, and he expects to be a “force” to be reckoned with.

 

His No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota will have a Star Wars theme for this week’s season-ender and Wallace got to meet with Star Wars star Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the famed Star Wars series of movie blockbusters. While Wallace appreciated the opportunity, he also enjoyed it because his best friend, fellow NASCAR Cup Series driver and member of the weekend’s Championship 4 Ryan Blaney is a huge Star Wars fan.

 

"My boss is MJ, so. ..” a smiling Wallace said of team owner, NBA superstar Michael Jordan when he asked if he was starstruck meeting Hamill.

 

“When he [Hamill] did say, ‘May the force be with you always,’ now that was pretty cool. I’ve heard that line and everybody and his mother says it but when he does, that’s pretty special."

 

Wallace is hopeful that the “force” may be with him for this weekend’s season finale as he is still racing for his first trophy of 2023 despite upping his game overall by qualifying for his first Playoff berth. He has nine top-10 finishes and tied his previous best mark of top-five showings with five. And he earned his second career pole position this Fall at Texas. He has only one top-10 (10th in 2018) in 11 Phoenix starts.

 

“Definitely being talked about more for our performances and race results, and not so much the negative headlines," Wallace said of 2023. “That’s good so we just need to continue to build on that. I definitely learned a lot about who I am as a driver and just trying to be a better team leader and it’s starting to click more and more. Just got to get the wick lit earlier in the season and get on a hot streak and keep that flame going."’’

 

ARIC ALMIROLA BIDS FAREWELL TO FULLTIME

 

Longtime NASCAR Cup Series competitor Aric Almirola will be making his final start this weekend as a fulltime competitor. The Tampa native formalized the news last weekend and said he may still make occasional starts in various series, but his primary focus now is being a dad and husband.

 

Almirola, 39, who has three career wins – at Daytona, Talladega, Ala. and New Hampshire – qualified for five Playoff runs highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the 2018 championship standings.

 

“I originally thought that I might be sad, but I’m not sad - I’m happy it happened," Almirola said Saturday before qualifying. “When I flew on the plane for five hours, I was thinking and enjoying re-living the last six years at SHR [Stewart-Haas Racing] and 12 years being a fulltime Cup driver – all the ups and downs and everything in between.

 

“It’s been such a journey. And through that process of sitting and thinking about it all and knowing this will be the last one of doing it fulltime, I felt a sense of gratitude really, not sad at all. Just happy it happened."

 

The Florida native said what he’ll take away from his career is less about the victories and more about the people he met. He’ll celebrate it all Saturday evening with dozens of friends and family in Phoenix to watch his final fulltime start.

 

“If I wouldn’t have made it in racing, I’d probably still be in Florida running my grandfather’s body shop and the people around me and the dynamic of what my family looks like would just be so different form today," he said. “I wouldn’t have met my wife, wouldn’t have had my kids, wouldn’t have had the friendships and relationships I have because of God allowing me to become a race car driver so I feel incredibly grateful and an overwhelming sense of being blessed.

 

“The friendships, the relationships will last way past the driving.”

 

BRAD KESELOWSKI IS ON BABY DUTY

 

Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing owner/driver Brad Keselowski will miss Saturday’s pole qualifying session for the best of reasons. The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion returned to Charlotte to be with his wife Paige, who went into labor Saturday with their third child, and first son.

 

Cole Custer, who is competing for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, will qualify Keselowski’s No. 6 RFK Ford Mustang.

 

“The expectation is that Brad will return to Phoenix Sunday” to compete in the season-ender. He is currently seventh in the championship standings and racing for his first win of the year.

 

Keselowski actually tweeted a “thank you” to Custer from the hospital, “Just made it to the hospital. Appreciate the good news."

 

 


Eckes wins thrilling CRAFTSMAN Truck race at Phoenix, Rhodes banks second career championship

 Chris Graythen/Getty Images

November 4, 2023

By Holly Cain

NASCAR Wire Service

 

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Cautions, re-starts, retribution, extra laps and high-action marked Friday night’s NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway. And that was just the final 50 laps.

 

In the end, ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes claimed his second series championship in the last three years with a hard-earned fifth-place finish in the No. 99 Ford while McAnally Hilgemann Racing’s Christian Eckes raced to his fourth win of the season by a slight .421-seconds over rookie teammate Jake Garcia in four dramatic overtime periods.

 

That’s the conclusion to an evening that featured 12 caution periods, 29 laps of overtime competition and plenty of high-stakes racing – especially among the four championship contenders that earned a chance to settle the season title.

 

Perhaps indicative of the night, Rhodes’ finish and ultimate trophy haul wasn’t secure until the checkered flag with championship runner-up Grant Enfinger giving it his all in the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet coming off Turn 4 in an all-out pursuit to the very end.

 

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Both Rhodes and Enfinger had survived close calls in the overtime laps. Rhodes collided with Zane Smith racing for the lead – hitting Smith’s truck when it appeared Smith missed a shift out front in the second overtime restart. Enfinger had close calls in two of the four extra-lap periods and still was able to pull off that final push forward; ultimately finishing one position behind Rhodes in the standings.

 

The Regular Season Champion and race polesitter Corey Heim finished 18th after contact from fellow Championship 4 driver Carson Hocevar with 30 laps of regulation remaining in the scheduled 150-lap race.

 

“I can’t even believe it," the 26-year-old Kentucky native Rhodes said of his dramatic title win. “It’s just so awesome, man. To go 25 laps into overtime, do you know what that feels like? It’s crazy. I didn’t think we were going to make it. I thought we were going to pop a tire, that anything that could have gone wrong was going to go wrong.

 

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

“Grant [Enfinger] almost got me. But hats off to him, he ran a great race. I wouldn’t’ want to race against anybody else for the championship. He raced me clean, and I respect the heck out of him for it."

 

“I saw him," Rhodes said of Enfinger’s final push forward in the last corner. “He went for everything, but he ran me clean, and I thank him for that. That’s what these championships are all about."

 

Enfinger, whose GMS Racing team is closing shop at the end of the season, was especially gutted to come so very close to his first championship.

 

“I don’t know," Enfinger said of doing anything differently on that last lap.

 

“Obviously we got loose there at the end," he continued. “Maybe if he didn’t have such a good run down the backstretch, we’d be able to make that pass. It’s a shame the championship came down to a race like that with 15 green-white-checkers or whatever it was. I feel like we did everything we could to win this and just got used up."

 

The other two championship contenders, Heim and Hocevar had a more contentious situation on-track. Heim, whose 47 laps out front in the No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota were second most laps led on the night, was actually leading the championship-eligible drivers when Hocevar hit him going into Turn 2 with 30 laps remaining. The contact sent Heim’s Toyota into Stewart Friesen’s Toyota which hit the wall and brought out a caution. Hocevar continued on and Heim had to pit for repairs and went down a lap.

 

Heim viewed the hit as intentional and later in the race, collided with Hocevar bringing out another caution period. Heim insisted his car just wasn’t steering properly at the time, while Hocevar said he had fully expected the payback. It was enough to sideline Hocevar’s No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet which was credited with a 29th-place finish from the garage.

 

“My only goal was to try slow him down," Hocevar said. “I didn’t want to do that at all. With my track record, I can’t sit here and say I didn’t mean to. I just messed up. I was trying really hard to slow him up and just messed it up.

 

“I feel bad I robbed him of that and feel sorry for that," an apologetic Hocevar added of Heim’s championship chances. “I just messed up."

 

The 21-year-old Heim had a streak of 15 consecutive top-10 finishes coming into the race and was considered the favorite by many. He had three wins on the season in only his first fulltime year of competition.

 

“It was a great year, a phenomenal year for us and our worst finish in like six months," a disappointed Heim said. “Really put together a good race and really hoped the guys would race clean, I have a lot of respect for everybody in the field. But clearly, I don’t anymore. It is what it is, it’s part of racing.

 

As for the later contact with Hocevar, Heim said it was purely coincidental, “It wasn’t retaliation. I had no side force, he put it on my door, and I wrecked [into him]."

 

“I’ve been racing Carson for a long time, racing since I was eight or nine years-old," Heim said later. “That’s kind of just what he does. He’ll wreck you and apologize and do it again the next week. So that’s not going to be the last time he does it and certainly the first time he’d done it. I’ve known him for a long time. … it is what it is. I completely expected it."

 

As for his victory, the 22-year-old Eckes tried to reconcile the championship race win with having just been eliminated from Playoff contention. He had a win (at Kansas) and a pair of runner-up finishes (Indianapolis Raceway Park and Bristol, Tenn.) during the Playoff stretch but was eliminated after finished of 19th and 20th in the two races leading into the championship finale.

 

“Those two races that killed the whole Playoffs pretty much and that’s just kind of the nature of it," Eckes said. “I didn’t do my job last week and really the week before either.

 

“That gets us out and that puts us in this situation, but it’s motivating for next year and it was motivating for this race too.

 

“This one kind of stings, I know it’s a win, but the stupid mistakes the last two weeks of a near perfect Playoffs cost us a championship," Eckes added.

 

“It’s kind of hard to be happy right now, but overall, just super proud of everybody for the year that we’ve had and just ready for 2024.

 

Chase Purdy, Jesse Love and Rhodes rounded out the top five. Enfinger, Dean Thompson, Kaden Honeycutt, Tanner Gray and Nick Sanchez completed the top 10. It was a career best finish for the runner-up Garcia as well as Love and Honeycutt.

 

NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Race - NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Championship

Phoenix Raceway

Avondale, Arizona

Friday, November 3, 2023

 

                1. (8)  Christian Eckes, Chevrolet, 179.

                2. (14)  Jake Garcia #, Chevrolet, 179.

                3. (5)  Chase Purdy, Chevrolet, 179.

                4. (10)  Jesse Love, Toyota, 179.

                5. (6)  Ben Rhodes (P), Ford, 179.

                6. (17)  Grant Enfinger (P), Chevrolet, 179.

                7. (15)  Dean Thompson, Toyota, 179.

                8. (27)  Kaden Honeycutt, Chevrolet, 179.

                9. (25)  Tanner Gray, Toyota, 179.

                10. (3)  Nick Sanchez #, Chevrolet, 179.

                11. (28)  Matt Crafton, Ford, 179.

                12. (9)  Rajah Caruth #, Chevrolet, 179.

                13. (31)  Lawless Alan, Chevrolet, 179.

                14. (2)  Ty Majeski, Ford, 179.

                15. (23)  Hailie Deegan, Ford, 179.

                16. (32)  Christian Rose, Ford, 179.

                17. (34)  Spencer Davis, Ford, 179.

                18. (1)  Corey Heim (P), Toyota, 179.

                19. (35)  Nick Leitz, Chevrolet, 179.

                20. (36)  Tyler Hill, Toyota, 179.

                21. (26)  Colby Howard, Chevrolet, 179.

                22. (19)  Tyler Ankrum, Toyota, 178.

                23. (12)  Taylor Gray #, Toyota, 177.

                24. (20)  Stewart Friesen, Toyota, 175.

                25. (4)  Zane Smith, Ford, Accident, 172.

                26. (21)  Sean Hingorani, Chevrolet, Accident, 167.

                27. (7)  Jack Wood, Chevrolet, Accident, 162.

                28. (16)  Derek Kraus, Chevrolet, Accident, 156.

                29. (13)  Carson Hocevar (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 146.

                30. (24)  Stefan Parsons, Chevrolet, Accident, 128.

                31. (11)  Bayley Currey, Chevrolet, Accident, 128.

                32. (22)  Daniel Dye #, Chevrolet, Accident, 128.

                33. (18)  Jake Drew, Toyota, Accident, 100.

                34. (29)  Conner Jones, Ford, Accident, 100.

                35. (33)  Marco Andretti, Chevrolet, Accident, 54.

                36. (30)  Chris Hacker, Toyota, Accident, 53.

 

Average Speed of Race Winner:  72.797 mph.

Time of Race:  2 Hrs, 27 Mins, 32 Secs. Margin of Victory:  0.421 Seconds.

Caution Flags:  12 for 77 laps.

Lead Changes:  10 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   T. Majeski 1-48;C. Heim (P) 49-95;C. Eckes 96-121;N. Sanchez # 122-126;Z. Smith 127-154;C. Eckes 155;Z. Smith 156-162;C. Eckes 163-168;C. Purdy 169-176;C. Eckes 177-179.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  Ty Majeski 1 time for 48 laps; Corey Heim (P) 1 time for 47 laps; Christian Eckes 4 times for 36 laps; Zane Smith 2 times for 35 laps; Chase Purdy 1 time for 8 laps; Nick Sanchez # 1 time for 5 laps.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 98,11,38,99,2,4,19,42,23,17

Stage #2 Top Ten: 11,38,98,19,17,99,4,23,35,42


NASCAR Cup Championship 4 Crew Chief Notebook

 

Notebook Items:

  • Kyle Larson’s contact with the Phoenix wall is par for the course
  • A Christopher Bell championship would be cathartic for his crew chief
  • Johnathan Hassler could lead team Penske to a second straight Cup championship
  • Heat for title race on Sunday is a concern for crew chief Rudy Fugle

 

November 3, 2023

 

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

 

Kyle Larson’s contact with the Phoenix wall is par for the course

 

AVONDALE, Ariz. – “No big deal,” said crew chief Cliff Daniels after Kyle Larson brushed the wall lightly during Friday’s NASCAR Cup Series practice at Phoenix Raceway, where the series title will be decided in Sunday’s championship race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

 

“We have a small paint mark, which I think happened on the straightaway,” Daniels said. “Didn't even happen like going off a corner. That's no big deal, thankfully.”

 

Larson was 11th fastest in the 50-minute Cup practice session and fourth among the Championship 4 competitors behind Ryan Blaney (third overall), Christopher Bell (fourth) and William Byron (seventh).

 

Daniel’s took Larson’s slight mishap with a sense of humor.

 

“I want to say there's maybe been 10 times this year we've re-vinyled a right rear quarter panel,” Daniels said. “This is perfect. We will be re-vinyling our right rear quarter panel tomorrow morning—right in line where we need to be.”

 

In all seriousness, Daniels doesn’t mind Larson’s penchant for finding the limits of his race car.

 

“I've got no problem with him pushing hard again,” Daniels said. “I genuinely think this happened on the straightaway. This isn't exactly an overstepping the edge type of situation.

 

“Yeah, he always pushes the car really hard, especially in practice, which is great for us, right? It lets us know what kind of speed he can extract out of it, what kind of adjustments we need to make. Today was certainly the case.”

 

A Christopher Bell championship would be cathartic for his crew chief

 

On the morning of last year’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix, the driver Christopher Bell, crew chief Adam Stevens and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team learned of the death of organization co-owner Coy Gibbs, son of founder Joe Gibbs.

 

Gibbs’ passing in his sleep—after his son Ty Gibbs had just won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship—cast a pall over the entire team. Coy Gibbs’ nephew Jackson Gibbs was a tire changer on the No. 20 crew.   

 

“We got the news, and then we had to figure out if Jackson was going to be willing and able to participate,” Stevens said. “It just took him completely away from prepping for the race, focusing on changes and doing all that stuff that we do every week to worry about your teammate…”

 

Even as the drivers were riding in their trucks during driver introductions, the situation was uncertain. But Bell raced and finished third among the Championship 4 drivers.

 

“It was awful,” Stevens said. “Not just for me and my team, obviously. So that will be a big relief to kind of have a calendar year in between that and this weekend, have a little bit of healing for the Gibbs family. Hopefully, we can bring the trophy home.”

 

Bell is racing for the title for the second straight season. This is Stevens’ seventh trip to the Championship 4, two of which ended with titles for Kyle Busch in 2015 and 2019.

 

Johnathan Hassler could lead team Penske to a second straight Cup championship

 

To borrow a famous Yogi-ism, the 2023 season could be déjà vu all over again for Team Penske—with a different driver.

 

Last year, Joey Logano started the season strong, suffered a slump after winning at World Wide Technology Raceway in June and finished with a victory in the championship race at Phoenix.

 

Logano won three times last year, including a victory at Las Vegas in the Round of 8 and closed with the championship.

 

This year, Ryan Blaney already has three victories to his credit, including the elimination race in the Round of 8. On Friday, he was third fastest in NASCAR Cup Series final practice—best among the Championship 4 drivers.

 

So, could a title be in the offing for Blaney?

 

There's certainly some parallels, for sure,” acknowledged Jonathan Hassler, Blaney’s crew chief. “Certainly, a lot of differences as well. If you look at the season on a whole, as a company last year we had a lot more speed. 

 

“Maybe not the wins, but we had a lot more speed throughout the year. We certainly had to work tooth and nail and grind it out to find speed here late in the year. Some similarities and some differences as well.”

 

Admittedly, the seasons would mirror each other to a greater extent if Blaney captures the championship.

 

Heat for title race on Sunday is a concern for crew chief Rudy Fugle

 

Unseasonably warm temperatures at the start time for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race could cause problems from crew chiefs and their drivers.

 

“Yeah, for sure, it's going to heat the tires up,” said Rudy Fugle, crew chief for Championship 4 driver William Byron. “With as much downforce on the car when the tires get hot, you're going to lose control and the cars are going to lose handling a whole lot quicker into the run.

 

“Tires get overheated, say Lap 40, (and with) more downforce, it's going to be Lap 25. It just speeds up the ill handling and how the cars change over the run.

 

“It will be pretty big, as warm as it is. It's probably seven, eight degrees ambient warmer than it normally is this time of year. We'll definitely be dealing with that.”

 

--30-- 


 


 

NASCAR Cup Championship 4 Crew Chief Notebook

 

Notebook Items:

  • Kyle Larson’s contact with the Phoenix wall is par for the course
  • A Christopher Bell championship would be cathartic for his crew chief
  • Johnathan Hassler could lead team Penske to a second straight Cup championship
  • Heat for title race on Sunday is a concern for crew chief Rudy Fugle

 

November 3, 2023

 

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

 

Kyle Larson’s contact with the Phoenix wall is par for the course

 

AVONDALE, Ariz. – “No big deal,” said crew chief Cliff Daniels after Kyle Larson brushed the wall lightly during Friday’s NASCAR Cup Series practice at Phoenix Raceway, where the series title will be decided in Sunday’s championship race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

 

“We have a small paint mark, which I think happened on the straightaway,” Daniels said. “Didn't even happen like going off a corner. That's no big deal, thankfully.”

 

Larson was 11th fastest in the 50-minute Cup practice session and fourth among the Championship 4 competitors behind Ryan Blaney (third overall), Christopher Bell (fourth) and William Byron (seventh).

 

Daniel’s took Larson’s slight mishap with a sense of humor.

 

“I want to say there's maybe been 10 times this year we've re-vinyled a right rear quarter panel,” Daniels said. “This is perfect. We will be re-vinyling our right rear quarter panel tomorrow morning—right in line where we need to be.”

 

In all seriousness, Daniels doesn’t mind Larson’s penchant for finding the limits of his race car.

 

“I've got no problem with him pushing hard again,” Daniels said. “I genuinely think this happened on the straightaway. This isn't exactly an overstepping the edge type of situation.

 

“Yeah, he always pushes the car really hard, especially in practice, which is great for us, right? It lets us know what kind of speed he can extract out of it, what kind of adjustments we need to make. Today was certainly the case.”

 

A Christopher Bell championship would be cathartic for his crew chief

 

On the morning of last year’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix, the driver Christopher Bell, crew chief Adam Stevens and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team learned of the death of organization co-owner Coy Gibbs, son of founder Joe Gibbs.

 

Gibbs’ passing in his sleep—after his son Ty Gibbs had just won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship—cast a pall over the entire team. Coy Gibbs’ nephew Jackson Gibbs was a tire changer on the No. 20 crew.   

 

“We got the news, and then we had to figure out if Jackson was going to be willing and able to participate,” Stevens said. “It just took him completely away from prepping for the race, focusing on changes and doing all that stuff that we do every week to worry about your teammate…”

 

Even as the drivers were riding in their trucks during driver introductions, the situation was uncertain. But Bell raced and finished third among the Championship 4 drivers.

 

“It was awful,” Stevens said. “Not just for me and my team, obviously. So that will be a big relief to kind of have a calendar year in between that and this weekend, have a little bit of healing for the Gibbs family. Hopefully, we can bring the trophy home.”

 

Bell is racing for the title for the second straight season. This is Stevens’ seventh trip to the Championship 4, two of which ended with titles for Kyle Busch in 2015 and 2019.

 

Johnathan Hassler could lead team Penske to a second straight Cup championship

 

To borrow a famous Yogi-ism, the 2023 season could be déjà vu all over again for Team Penske—with a different driver.

 

Last year, Joey Logano started the season strong, suffered a slump after winning at World Wide Technology Raceway in June and finished with a victory in the championship race at Phoenix.

 

Logano won three times last year, including a victory at Las Vegas in the Round of 8 and closed with the championship.

 

This year, Ryan Blaney already has three victories to his credit, including the elimination race in the Round of 8. On Friday, he was third fastest in NASCAR Cup Series final practice—best among the Championship 4 drivers.

 

So, could a title be in the offing for Blaney?

 

There's certainly some parallels, for sure,” acknowledged Jonathan Hassler, Blaney’s crew chief. “Certainly, a lot of differences as well. If you look at the season on a whole, as a company last year we had a lot more speed. 

 

“Maybe not the wins, but we had a lot more speed throughout the year. We certainly had to work tooth and nail and grind it out to find speed here late in the year. Some similarities and some differences as well.”

 

Admittedly, the seasons would mirror each other to a greater extent if Blaney captures the championship.

 

Heat for title race on Sunday is a concern for crew chief Rudy Fugle

 

Unseasonably warm temperatures at the start time for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race could cause problems from crew chiefs and their drivers.

 

“Yeah, for sure, it's going to heat the tires up,” said Rudy Fugle, crew chief for Championship 4 driver William Byron. “With as much downforce on the car when the tires get hot, you're going to lose control and the cars are going to lose handling a whole lot quicker into the run.

 

“Tires get overheated, say Lap 40, (and with) more downforce, it's going to be Lap 25. It just speeds up the ill handling and how the cars change over the run.

 

“It will be pretty big, as warm as it is. It's probably seven, eight degrees ambient warmer than it normally is this time of year. We'll definitely be dealing with that.”

 

--30-- 


 

Championship 4 Media Day: Xfinity & CRAFTSMAN Truck Notebook

 

Notebook Items:

  • Justin Allgaier beat long odds to race for a NASCAR Xfinity Series title
  • Cole Custer brings cool confidence to Xfinity Championship race
  • Corey Heim hoping to turn regular-season dominance into CRAFTSMAN Truck Series title
  • Carson Hocevar won’t be unprepared for Truck Series Championship race
  • Jamie Little making TV history

 

November 2, 2023

 

By Holly Cain and Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

 

Justin Allgaier beat long odds to race for a NASCAR Xfinity Series title

 

AVONDALE, Ariz. – As Justin Allgaier sat in his No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet during a 28-minute red-flag period late in last Saturday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, he calculated his odds for winning the event and qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4.

 

He might as well have been playing roulette, trying to hit a single number.

 

“Sitting under the red flag at Martinsville truly was probably the best thing that ever happened,” said Allgaier, who was fifth in the running order at the time. “I looked at the odds of making the final four. I gave myself a five-percent chance, and that’s probably being a little bit generous.”

 

But Allgaier hit the number when Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Hill and Sheldon Creed took each other out of the running with a bumping-and-rubbing overtime battle for the lead. Allgaier found an opening to the inside off the final corner and beat Creed to the finish line.

 

“I don’t know if there’s any destiny in it, but in order to win a championship, you’ve got to be in the final four,” Allgaier said. “And if the five percent doesn’t happen last week at Martinsville, I don’t even have a shot at it, right?

 

“I think that’s truly something for me that does go a long way. Whether we win or we don’t win, this year has been phenomenal. We’ve had fast race cars. Shoot, I’ve made more mistakes in 2023 than I’ve made probably in entire career combined—pit road speeding penalties and just dumb stuff.

 

“But when I look at the cars we’ve brought to the race track, this is arguably the most speed week-in, week-out, and a lot of it just comes down to preparation for me.”

 

A case in point was last Saturday at Martinsville, where Allgaier did not have a winning car—until he did.

 

“I knew we weren’t in position to win the race,” Allgaier said. “We didn’t have the car to win the race. But my team stayed relevant. They stayed behind me, they kept pushing me, and we had a five-percent chance, and we came out with a win. 

 

“And the Red Sea parted—listen, at the end of the day, everything had to be exactly as it was, and it worked out in our favor, and I can’t be more thankful for that… we’re kind of playing with house money. When I sat under that red flag and I knew we didn’t have a shot at it, it kind of changed my perception of the season, and it’s all for the better. I feel like I come here with a new invigoration to be successful and to win races, and it’s good.”

 

Further buoying Allgaier’s confidence is the preparation of the track. Gone this year is the resin treatment that has made Phoenix top-lane dominant in recent seasons.

 

“We’re getting back to the old Phoenix, and I’m excited,” Allgaier said. “Hot, slick, all the things that I want it to be, so we’ve got it all.”

 

The 37-year-old Allgaier has two victories in 26 starts at Phoenix. Collectively, his Championship 4 competitors—John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer and Sam Mayer—are winless at the track.

 

“When we leave here,” Allgaier said, “I’d just like everyone else’s win column to stay zero still and ours to have one more.” 

 

Cole Custer brings cool confidence to Xfinity Championship race

 

Even at just 25-years old, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer is used to the NASCAR championship weekend vibes and expectations. 

 

A two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series championship runner-up – in 2018 and 2019 – Custer brings a strong title resume into Saturday afternoon’s finale. And he earned this opportunity the hard way – on fire, rolling backwards across the finish line last week in a wild Round of 8 finale at Martinsville that was good enough to secure a title bid.

 

“I think if we can make it through that (Martinsville finish) as a team, we can do anything," Custer allowed with a smile.  

 

And as much as he likes his chances on Saturday, the two-race winner this season concedes he expects stout competition amongst himself and the other championship contenders, John Hunter Nemechek, Sam Mayer and Justin Allgaier.

 

Custer has finished sixth or better in four of the six races leading into Saturday’s championship contest. Twice – at Bristol and Homestead-Miami – he’s led at least 100 laps in the No. 00 SHR Ford and did not win. His 20 top-10 finishes mark the third time he’s earned at least 20 top 10s in a season. And only one other driver (Nemechek) has bettered Custer’s season-to-date 490 total laps led.

 

“It’s been an extremely proud year for me, just because I think we built things," Custer said of his team. “We started the year off and weren’t exactly where we wanted to be, but we were a young team with a lot of young guys and were able to really build it through the year and communicate well and through that turned ourselves into a championship team.

 

“I think it just comes with experience, knowing what to expect (in the title race), knowing not to get too riled up through the weekend. You’re going to be up at times, and you’re going to be down at times, but knowing that you’ve just got to put it together for that last run. I’m confident we’re going to have a fast car and should be able to compete for a win there.

 

“At the end of the day, it’s a pretty equal playing field," Custer added. “We’ve all been fast through the year, and all been fast in the Playoffs it just a matter of how that last run plays out.

 

“It seems like it’s always the top four racing each other there at the end, and I’m planning on winning it.”

 

Corey Heim hoping to turn regular-season dominance into CRAFTSMAN Truck Series title

 

NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Regular Season Champion Corey Heim insisted Thursday morning there is no absolute clear-cut championship favorite among the four drivers racing for the big trophy Friday night. But of course. … he certainly likes his chances.

 

Despite one fewer start than the rest of the full-time field – Heim missed the Gateway race because of illness – the driver of the No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota leads the series in top fives (12), top 10s (19) and stage wins (seven). He brings a streak of 15 consecutive top-10 finishes to Phoenix. And his 564 laps led is double that of any other full-time competitor.

 

The 21-year-old Georgia native – who is competing in his first full-time season – has only a single previous Phoenix start; leading five laps and finishing seventh last year driving for Kyle Busch. But he’s been preparing for this race since locking himself in early in the final round of the Playoffs.

 

“I’ve heard it go both ways, so I don’t know, but I think we’ve earned that (favorite) label," Heim said. “I guess it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day until you win it. I feel like we have just been so rock solid and consistent since the springtime. We’ve done a good job of executing every week and we show up with fast Toyota Tundra TRD Pros.

 

“I feel like ever since around Martinsville when our first win happened, we kind of knew that we were capable of it. It was just a matter of executing from that point."

 

Since his maiden national series victory at the Martinsville half-miler in April, Heim has led laps in all but one race (Talladega) and finished outside the top five only three times. It’s the kind of track record that has helped generate confidence and expectation. 

 

Heim said he’s got plenty of family coming in from all over the country to support him this week, and he’s been relying on other Toyota Racing Development (TRD) drivers such as John Hunter Nemechek and Christopher Bell, who have had championship experience, for tips on the sim and what to expect this weekend.

 

“It was nice to be able to kind of spread out some of my studying and really just sit on it and study on it for six weeks and show up and knowing what I need to do, and that has been really big for me," Heim  said. “I understand the circumstances and with this being my first fulltime season and my first Playoffs, being able to sit on it and under the circumstances and the pressure has really let me just come here and feel a lot better about it. 

 

“It would be a lot different if I just won my way in at (the last race) Homestead or something and had a week and a half to think about it. But I feel like I’d be more unprepared and coming in with a lot of pressure on me.

 

“But to be able to sit on it and study on it for six weeks and show up, kind of know what I need to do, was really big for me.”

 

Carson Hocevar won’t be unprepared for Truck Series Championship race

 

Carson Hocevar doesn’t consider his flat tire an omen. He’d prefer to think of it as bad luck that’s now behind him.

 

“A few days ago, I hit a curb with my truck and got a flat,” Hocevar said during a question-and-answer session with reporters during Championship 4 Media Day at Phoenix Raceway.

 

Hocevar wasn’t referring to the No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet he’ll drive in Friday night’s NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Championship race at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert (7 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

 

The 20-year-old driver was happy the flat tire happened with his personal truck and not on the race track.

 

“We got it out of the way, hopefully,” Hocevar said.

 

The incident with the truck was a minor inconvenience during a week in which Hocevar has been running simulations to prepare for Phoenix, not only for his own Truck Series effort but also for the NASCAR Cup Series teams at Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron qualified for the Championship 4 on the Cup side.

 

“We’ve done at least a hundred runs of sim just on Phoenix alone from the start of the Playoffs till now,” said Hocevar, who will graduate to the Cup Series in a Spire Motorsports car next year. “I’ve done hours and hours. I’ve done Cup sim these past few weeks for Phoenix, with HMS to run for the final four.

 

“I’ve done days with (trainer) Josh Wise where we don’t even work on the race car—we just work on myself. And obviously, with Niece, we’ve worked since the beginning of the year even, just working on Phoenix alone…

 

“I think we’ve gotten it a little bit better just in the last two days.”

 

Now, if Hocevar can just keep all four tires up, he expects to be a contender for the Truck Series title before he makes the jump to Cup.

 

Jamie Little making TV history

 

Longtime broadcaster Jamie Little will make history this weekend when she calls the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series championship race for FOX Sports 1 Friday night at Phoenix Raceway. The longtime racing reporter will handle the play-by-call call – capping a 12-race run in the role this season. It’s the first time a woman has called the television play-by-play for any national motor sports series. Little will be joined in the booth by two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip and former NASCAR Cup Series driver Phil Parsons.


 

 

NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 car owners are eager for Phoenix

 

October 31, 2023

 

By Holly Cain

NASCAR Wire Service

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - This year’s championship-eligible team owners Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske – have 22 NASCAR Cup Series championships among their teams. One of their drivers has hoisted the season’s most prized trophy for the last five consecutive years and 14 of the last 18 seasons.

 

As representatives from each organization spoke to the racing media on Tuesday afternoon, there was an unmistakable vibe that this is not their first time in the game. However, the excitement, anticipation and hope anticipating Sunday’s Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) was equally as obvious.

 

They are energized about the weekend and each team – from Hendrick Motorsports to Joe Gibbs Racing to Team Penske – has high expectations and championship plans. Once again.

 

They are so used to competing against one another for the sport’s marquee trophy, they can practically interview each other. And on Tuesday, they did.

 

“We always text each other and congratulate each other after we win," NASCAR Hall of Fame owner Rick Hendrick reminded fellow Hall of Famer Gibbs on the national teleconference featuring the three championship-eligible team principles.

 

“If I happen to win," Hendrick continued, “are you going to text me and congratulate me Sunday?”

 

“I will be forced to, I feel like I need to do that, so yes I will," a smiling Gibbs replied. “The problem is I’ve been having to text a whole lot more than you have.

 

“I appreciate you," he added with a smile. “Let’s go get it. Let’s have a good one."

 

Fans and competitors can expect a good one, all right. This weekend’s championship matchup is absolutely too tough to call with four drivers – all 31 years old or younger – competing for the 2023 title. And compelling cases can be made for any of the four.

 

Mathematically, Hendrick boasts the best chances for a trophy hoist fielding two of the Championship 4 Round drivers – 2021 series champion, 31-year-old Kyle Larson and this year’s winningest driver, 25-year-old William Byron.

 

For the second straight season, Gibbs will look to 28-year-old driver Christopher Bell to bring the NASCAR Cup Series trophy back to his team. And it’s up to 29-year-old Ryan Blaney – who earned a walk-off win of sorts last weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway - to try and secure a second consecutive championship title for Team Penske, who won last year with Blaney’s teammate Joey Logano.

 

Hendrick, the 14-time NASCAR Cup Series championship owner, certainly likes his chances this weekend. Larson, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won at Phoenix two years ago to claim the 2021 championship and Byron won at the one-mile track the last time the sport competed there, just this Spring.

 

Larson is a four-time race winner this season and Byron’s six trophies are double what he’s earned any other single season.

 

“We’re just happy to be in the race," Hendrick said. “We’re happy to have two good cars going out there to race for the championship. Both cars have been good all year. I hope that one of ‘em can win. I don’t see that either one has any more advantage over the other guy.

 

“I think our guys are prepared," Hendrick continued. “We’re going to go out with the best cars we have. A lot of attention to detail. We’ll try to execute a race without any mistakes – that’s what you got to do. You have to have good pit stops. Cautions have to fall the right way. You can be a dominant car and not win this race, so we’ve just got to run the race.

 

“When you start the year, you want to try to get cars to the Championship 4. When you can get one or two, you’ve had a great year."

 

Although the series Regular Season Champion - Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. – was eliminated last week in an epic Round of 8 elimination race at the Martinsville, Va. short track – the remaining competitors all bring winning records and strong credentials. Not only are all four drivers considered the sport’s best of the up-and-coming; there’s a good case to be made they are no longer “coming.” They are here.

 

“I just think this happens to be - and I know everybody is writing about it, talking about it – it’s a younger group for sure in the Playoffs," said Gibbs, whose team is the only one in the sport to qualify at least one car in the Championship 4 since this elimination format was introduced 10 years ago.

 

“There’s so much on the line," Gibbs said of this one crowning race to decide the season title. “I go all the way back to when we raced under the other format where it was just year-long, whoever had the most points, won.

 

"Really what happened there sometimes it’s pretty much over before even the last race. I think what NASCAR did, which certainly, I think, increased fan effort and excitement about our Playoffs, certainly fits with TV and everything else that takes place.

 

“The way it’s designed right now, it does add to the pressure," Gibbs said of the Championship 4 format, “I think that the fans really do enjoy it because there is that much pressure. You got three weeks to make it happen."

 

The Penske organization is renowned in all forms of auto sport – from NASCAR to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship to IndyCars – but as with Hendrick’s Byron, this is Blaney’s first appearance in the Championship 4.

 

He’s won three races – two in the Playoff portion of the schedule – and with his decisive victory last weekend at Martinsville, he certainly brings momentum to the championship weekend; his first opportunity – a “breakthrough win “ to hoist his sport’s most celebrated trophy.

 

“It’s given him self-confidence," said Team Penske Vice Chairman Walt Czarnecki. “I looked up something the other day. He’s [Blaney] been in the final eight four times previously, but he’s never entered the last elimination race above the cutline. That happened this year. That was part of that confidence building. And of course, to win at Martinsville really put him over the top.

 

“I had several people comment to me about his demeanor after the race in the interviews, on the stage. Someone said, ‘he looks like a champion.’ And he really did."

 

It’s actually an apt description of all four young talented drivers who after a season of success – some new-found and some long-standing – look to provide a thrilling exclamation point to 2023.

 

Perhaps Hendrick spoke for all three of these long-standing championship teams, “The way this thing plays out, you got to go run one race. Once they strap in the car, everybody that’s got a car in this race is going to do the very best they can to take the best car they’ve got with all the information that they can gather to be ready for this race."

 

“I hate to have to race those two, ‘cause they definitely are going to be hard to beat," Hendrick said of his fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers, Gibbs and Penske. “And I’m not surprised at all that they’re there."

 

 
 

 

     

 

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