Column By: REID SPENCER & HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – Business as usual. That’s the attitude and spirit all four of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion contenders professed after their final 50-minute practice session to prepare for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin were the first, second and third quickest in the practice. The fourth member of the championship quartet – Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick was ninth fastest.
All of the drivers seemed satisfied with their time on track and after spending days in South Florida meeting media and sponsorship obligations, they are all ready to race for the big trophy.
“It’s just business as usual,” Harvick confirmed with a smile.
“You can’t really stay on the same path for all the things they force you to do. You can’t really bin your normal routine and you have to know that coming into the week with all things that are just way out of normal from what you would do a weekend where you have the choices of things you could do and how you would schedule them.
“You have to know that coming into the week and just deal with all the extra things and the extra people that come with the week.”
Bad weather on Friday forced an alteration to the weekend schedule. It forced the cancellation of the Cup Series practice scheduled for Friday afternoon, so NASCAR instead decided to replace Saturday’s scheduled qualifying session with a 50-minute practice session and set the starting grid according to owner championship points.
So Hamlin will start his No. 11 JGR Toyota on pole alongside Harvick’s No. 4 SHR Ford. Truex and Busch will start from the second row. The 2018 champion Joey Logano will start fifth.
Three of the four – Harvick (2014), Busch (2015) and Truex (2018) – are former Cup champion, all winning the Homestead race en route to their titles. Hamlin is the only multiple Homestead race winner among the championship eligible group, winning the race in 2009 and 2013. But he is still seeking his first Cup title.
The practice session was relatively smooth for the Championship 4. Truex and Harvick ran the most laps (47), Busch, the fewest (44). Busch led practice with a speed of 168.966 mph, just ahead of Truex (168.460 mph) and Hamlin (168.277).
“I felt pretty close,” Truex said. “We were able to make three long runs. Typically for me, personally, if the car is pretty close, I’ll run a bunch of laps right away. That’s definitely a good sign. The guys did a good job being prepared, making a lot of good assumptions.
“I feel pretty good. I definitely feel like we can get better. Just like every other weekend, how do you get better, can you do the right things, make the right changes tonight for tomorrow, then you go race and see how it plays out.
“Feeling pretty good about things. Hopefully we can get a little bit better. … Like I said, we talked about it during the week, you got to keep doing what got you here, right?”
CHEVROLET LOOKS TO ENHANCE PERFORMANCE WITH NEW CAR, YOUNG DRIVERS
The Chevrolet camp boasts the only active driver who has won more than one championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
In fact, Jimmie Johnson owns a record-tying seven Cup titles, and in the process accomplished the record feat of winning five in a row from 2006 through 2010.
Both Johnson and Chevrolet, however, have fallen on hard times of late. Johnson has been stuck on 83 victories at NASCAR’s highest level since the spring Dover race of 2017. His winless streak has reached 94 races.
For the third straight season, no Chevy driver has qualified for the Championship 4 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but that’s an issue the manufacturer already has begun to address. Rather than wait for the next generation of Cup car in 2021, Chevrolet will race a new model—the Camaro ZL1 1LE in 2020.
“In the production side of our world, that’s our highest performing production car,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “Similar to the ZL1 (the current Chevrolet race car), but it has kind of higher performance elements to it from aero to chassis, and so we’ve incorporated those into the 2020 car…
“Listen, we’re a performance sport, so there’s no excuses here. We’ve got to do better. We expect to do better. If you look at the history of Chevrolet, 39 manufacturer’s championships, 31 drivers, but that’s all history. We’re interested in the next chapter, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Campbell also pointed out that drivers in the next generation of Chevrolet stars are still learning the ropes in NASCAR’s premier series.
“If you look at the drivers, we’ve had some amazing young drivers that turned into winning drivers that turned into championship drivers that then retired, and so we have a younger crew,” Campbell said. “If you take Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch out of the average age, our average age is like 26 years old.
“So what’s exciting is at one point Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the young guys. We’ve got the young guys now. It’s an amazing thing to watch how they’re progressing. Some of the drivers have been to these tracks one, two, three times, four times. So every time they go, they’re learning a lot more.”
SUCCESS HAS BEEN THE HALLMARK OF TOYOTA’S BANNER 2019 SEASON
With 43 victories in NASCAR’s three major series—including a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series-best 18—Toyota Motorsports has certainly had a season for the ages. Toyota drivers qualified for all three championship races this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway including three – Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin – in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale.
“Obviously this has been a fantastic season for us across all three series,” said Ed Laukes, Group Vice President of Marketing for Toyota Motor North America. “We’re really excited about, first of all, Christopher (Bell) running today, but this whole thing started in Daytona, as you all know.
“In the spirit of what happened at the Joe Gibbs organization, having J.D. [Gibbs] pass and then having the three Gibbs drivers win in Daytona really started off what we would say, was a magical season for us. And hopefully we’ll be able to finish it off next year.”
With Ford and Chevrolet motorsports executives sitting alongside him for their annual meeting with motorsports media on the eve of the Homestead-Miami season finale, Laukes praised his teams and talked about the group’s motivation going forward. There are only seven Toyota cars in Sunday’s race field – compared to 16 for Ford and 17 for Chevrolet. But the numbers are clearly in Toyota’s favor from the sheer number of race victories in 2019 to having three members of the Championship 4.
After snapping a 12-year Chevrolet win streak in 2016, Toyota wrapped up its third manufacturer title in the last four years with Hamlin’s victory at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway last week.
“In reflection, I started in this job in 2007 and we were looking through some of the statistics and in 2007, Chevy won 26 races and Rick Hendrick’s team won 18, so for us to even get to that point from 2007 to 2019, where we not only can match [the Cup win total] but potentially pass the pinnacle of Hall of Fame Rick Hendrick and the legacy that he has within NASCAR is really special.
“The manufacturer’s championship is obviously a piece of personal pride for us that we push all the time, so whether it’s in any one of the three series, it’s a big deal for us, so we’re pretty excited.
COLE CUSTER IS EMBLEMATIC OF FORD’S DRIVER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM
Cole Custer’s performance on the race track—specifically, seven victories this year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series—helped earn the 21-year-old from Ladera Ranch, Calif., a full-time ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
But Custer also has been learning a great deal in an environment fans can’t see, as part of the driver development program conducted by Ford Performance.
“We have started putting a lot of focus on our driver development over the last several years,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford performance Motorsports. “A lot of the things that we can bring to the party is simulator time, which gives them extra time not just to practice driving the car and getting familiar with different tracks but to also practice and be more effective at their communication or evaluation skills, what do they feel in the car, how do they communicate that back to the crew chief and then make changes.
“So you can go through all of that in the simulator to try to advance and prepare them.”
That sort of training already has added to Custer’s body of knowledge.
“Some of the other things that we’re doing over the last two years have been using our IMSA program with the Mustang GT4 cars to put our truck drivers and our Xfinity drivers into getting them more seat time, first of all, getting them more road course time and more data analysis, again, more feedback, more training, more communication, and specifically for Cole Custer, he’s been doing that for the last two years, as well. So that helps develop him as an individual.
“We’ve seen Cole… for a lot of reasons beyond those, Cole has matured and grown a lot over these last two years, and we’re excited to see him taking that step up to Cup next year.”