NASCAR teams, drivers prepare for Championship Round

by Justin Nguyen

From eight to four, twelve to four, and sixteen to four. As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series, and Gander Outdoors Truck Series descend on Homestead-Miami Speedway for their final race weekend of the 2019 season, the media cycle has run wild with headlines galore. Across each series, twelve drivers seek to claim their respective championships, while others prepare for their final starts in their current rides and new beginnings in 2020.

With the 2020 championship races set to take place at ISM Raceway as part of a major schedule revamp and Dixie Vodka slated to assume title sponsorship of the Homestead rounds, 2019 will mark the final Ford Championship Weekend.

Truck Series: Ford EcoBoost 200

Championship Four

NASCAR’s third tier will kick off the championship weekend with the Ford EcoBoost 200. Of the four drivers vying for the title, it is an even split in success.

Stewart Friesen enters the final round with momentum as he comes off last week’s win at ISM to secure a championship spot. In July, he took his first career Truck win at Eldora Speedway to clinch a playoff berth. Across the six playoff rounds, he has a top ten in all but one (nineteenth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway).

Like Friesen, Ross Chastain has a chance to win his first Truck title. The watermelon farmer and NASCAR driver has enjoyed a busy season racing in all three national series at a frequency that has nearly made him full-time in the Cup level. Although he began the year racing for Xfinity points, a strong run of success in which he scored top-ten runs in the first nine Truck races prompted him to make the jump to Truck points. Despite being the first driver to suffer a disqualification under NASCAR’s new policy, Chastain’s three-win season parlayed him into a strong playoffs only briefly hindered by a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brett Moffitt and Matt Crafton have both won Truck championships, the former seeking his second straight and the latter his third. Moffitt, currently in his first season with GMS Racing, was relatively quiet before scoring his first win of the year in bizarre fashion, claiming victory at Iowa Speedway after Chastain’s disqualification. Regardless, two straight wins to kick off the playoffs have since bore fruit.

Crafton’s ThorSport Racing team found itself in a bind when his team-mates Johnny Sauter and Grant Enfinger, the latter the regular season champion, were unceremoniously eliminated after one round when engine failures doomed them. The 2013 and 2014 champion, on the other hand, has seen a whirlwind of a playoffs with three top tens, and even ran his first Cup points race since 2015 at Martinsville Speedway.

Silly Season

With the new season right around the corner, various drivers are either moving around the Truck Series or moving up. Playoff driver Tyler Ankrum, who surprised with a win at Kentucky Speedway to make the postseason despite missing the first three races due to age restrictions and having to start-and-park to maintain eligibility, will migrate from DGR-Crosley to GMS Racing in 2020.

For Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton, the 200 will be their final starts for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Although Gilliland scored his first Truck win at Martinsville, missing out on the playoffs effectively ended his hopes of remaining with KBM. Burton, who is currently twelfth in points, will move up to Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series. Gilliland and Burton will be replaced in the #4 and #18 by Canadian Raphaël Lessard, who ran five Truck races in 2019, and newly-crowned ARCA Menards Series champion Christian Eckes, respectively.

Jesse Little‘s JLL Motorsports team is slated for its final race under the banner. The team has run part-time in 2019, with Little’s best run being thirteenth at Texas Motor Speedway. For 2020, Diversified Utility Group LLC president Logan Puckett has acquired the team’s assets and will rebrand it to Diversified Motorsports Enterprises. Although Little will continue his part-time involvement with the team, he will be moving to the Xfinity Series full-time with JD Motorsports in 2020.

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Xfinity Series: Ford EcoBoost 300

Championship Four

Before last weekend’s ISM race, Justin Allgaier had spent much of the 2019 season as a master of consistency in all but the win column. Despite being one of the top drivers in the Xfinity Series with twenty-three top tens and fifteen top fives, it wasn’t until the ISM round that he recorded his first win of the year to qualify for the Championship Round. Although he has finished in the top ten in points every year from 2009 to 2013 and since his return to NASCAR’s second feeder in 2016, he is seeking his first Xfinity title.

On the other hand, Allgaier’s three championship opponents comprise NASCAR’s rising stars as they are slated to move into the Cup Series in 2020. Christopher Bell leads all Xfinity drivers with eight wins, including the playoff opener at Richmond Raceway and a second win at Texas Motor Speedway.

Tyler Reddick, the defending Xfinity champion in his first year with Richard Childress Racing, has the most top fives and top tens with twenty-three and twenty-six, respectively; he is the only driver to hit the twenty-top-five barrier in 2019. Although he took the checkered flag five times in the first twenty-six races to win the regular season title, he failed to visit Victory Lane so far in the playoffs.

While Bell and Reddick top the charts in wins and top tens, Cole Custer has dominated Xfinity qualifying with six poles. Now in his third Xfinity season, his win count has dramatically jumped; after a combined two wins in 2017 and 2018, he has the second-most in 2019 with seven.

Silly Season

With them slated to join the Cup Series, the 2019 Ford EcoBoost 200 will be the final races as Xfinity drivers for Bell and Reddick as they join Leavine Family Racing and RCR’s Cup stable, respectively; although Custer has been reported as also joining them, no official announcement has taken place. Bell’s #20 seat will be filled by Burton, while Reddick’s replacement has yet to be revealed.

The race will also be the last with the thirty-eight-driver grid. In August, NASCAR announced the Xfinity field would be reduced by two, resulting in thirty-six competitors per race. For the Ford stable, the Ford Mustang will receive a redesign in 2020, with Homestead as their last featuring the current rounder and scoop-less nose.

Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Cup Series: Ford EcoBoost 400

Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 is not only the final race of the 2019 season, but the final under the Monster Energy Cup Series name. With NASCAR not picking up Monster Energy‘s title sponsorship option for 2020, the premier series will shift to a multi-tiered, multi-sponsor system. Although further details of how the model will work have not been disclosed, Monster will remain involved in the sport.

Championship Four

NASCAR fans will likely get a sense of déjà vu when they look at the Championship Four as three of the four were also in the final round in 2018.

The lone exception is Denny Hamlin, who booked his trip to Homestead with a win in the penultimate round at ISM and knocking out 2018 champion Joey Logano. Hamlin, the lone driver of the final four to not yet win a title, began the 2019 season with a bang by winning the Daytona 500, and continued his campaign with five more wins, including two in the playoffs. This will be his first time in the Championship Round since the format’s introduction in 2014, and he faces his best shot at a title since his runner-up finish in 2010. In an amusing twist, the 38-year-old will seek his thirty-eighth career win on 18 November 2019 (18/11/19, all JGR numbers currently in the title battle), with his birthday taking place the next day.

Two of his fellow title contenders are also his allies. JGR driver Martin Truex Jr. is currently in his first year with the team after Furniture Row Racing‘s demise, and he leads all drivers with seven wins. After opening the playoffs with back-to-back wins, he recorded his seventh to open the Round of 8, and is now looking to take his second career Cup title after first winning in 2017.

Two years before Truex’s first championship, JGR team-mate Kyle Busch won his maiden Cup title. In 2019, Busch has proven himself to be NASCAR’s most polarising but successful driver with victories across all three national series and a Cup-leading twenty-six top tens.

The lone non-JGR driver in the final four, Kevin Harvick seeks his first title since 2014. After a slow start to the 2019 season, a strong summer stretch led to him scoring top tens in all but one playoff race, including a win at Texas. Harvick’s twenty-five top tens are second behind Busch, while his six poles lead the Cup Series.

Silly Season

NASCAR’s so-called “Silly Season” has been in full force in recent months, and many Cup drivers will see the 400 as their last race with their respective teams.

Longtime veterans David Ragan and Paul Menard will run their final races as full-time NASCAR drivers before their retirements. Ragan’s replacement in the #38 Front Row Motorsports machine has not been announced, while Matt DiBenedetto – who was ousted from his ride at LFR for Bell – will take over Menard’s #21 Wood Brothers Racing car. Although he will not run the 400, FRM’s Matt Tifft will not return to the team in 2020 due to health problems; his successor has also not been revealed, though speculation has surrounded his substitute John Hunter Nemechek.

With Reddick moving up, Daniel Hemric will be in his final race with RCR in the #8, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buescher will contest their last with Roush Fenway Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing before they make a “swap” in taking the other’s rides.

While Stewart-Haas Racing has made no announcement, reports have suggested Custer will replace Daniel Suárez in SHR’s #41 for the 2020 season.

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