At age 30, Busch is the youngest champion since Brad Keselowski won the title three years ago at age 28. Those two and 25-year-old Joey Logano, who together accounted for 12 victories in 2015, will be joined by two more potential stars in the 2016 season.
Chase Elliott, the son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott and just shy of his 20th birthday, will replace Gordon in the No. 24 Chevy of Hendrick Motorsports. Ryan Blaney, the son of former World of Outlaws champion and veteran NASCAR driver Dave Blaney, last week was named the driver for the Wood Brothers Ford at age 21. The legendary Wood Brothers team returns to a fulltime schedule next year under sponsorship from Ford.
Kyle Larson, the 23-year-old driver for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, is knocking on the door of his first Sprint Cup victory. He finished fifth at Homestead in the Sprint Cup race after winning Saturday's Xfinity Series race. Waiting in the wings, meanwhile, is Erik Jones. He clinched the Camping World Truck Series championship Friday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway at age 19. After a stop in the Xfinity Series next season, he is expected to be quickly promoted to the Sprint Cup by Joe Gibbs Racing.
Earlier this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr., 41, said that Gordon's decision to retire at age 44 was not a surprise and that he expects others to retire in their mid-forties. Three-time champion Tony Stewart has already added his name to the list, announcing his retirement at the end of the 2016 season at the age of 45. Another nearing that benchmark is the 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who is 43.
Stalwarts Kevin Harvick, who finished second to Busch in this year's championship after winning it last year, and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson are still in their "NASCAR prime" at age 40.
One thing that might help younger drivers in the 2016 season is the arrival of the low downforce package to be used on the intermediate speedways. All drivers will be adapting to the new rules package, which may benefit those who are not used to any other approach. Stewart's difficult season in 2015 was a tribute, in part, to cars with less downforce – and there will be less still next season.
Will the new package produce better racing as intended by NASCAR and endorsed by manufacturers, teams and drivers? The most important endorsee is Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Unlike in 2015, Goodyear is prepared to test extensively with the new low downforce cars to produce new tires that work well with them. When the company was able to test prior to this year's experiment with lower downforce at the Darlington Raceway, the result was more overtaking.
The fact NASCAR has better data on how to adjust front splitters, the radiator pans and rear spoilers to get the best balance for cars, coupled with testing by Goodyear, should produce more interesting races on the tracks that comprise the majority of the schedule.
One major off track development continues to be the gorilla in the room when it comes to 2016.
The Race Team Alliance continues to negotiate with NASCAR over the issue of creating better financial stability for teams. Thus far, the word leaking out is that a relationship between the teams and the sanctioning body may be defined as a "charter."
But what benefit results from holding a "charter" with NASCAR in the Sprint Cup remains to be seen. It could well mean sharing TV revenue as well as some guarantees about starting positions. In any event, manufacturers and teams are already making moves that result from a scramble to get the most out of any new arrangement.
The switch by the Furniture Row Racing team, whose driver Martin Truex Jr. was a championship contender at Homestead, to Toyota from Chevy is one sign of manufacturers trying to better position themselves. In addition to joining Toyota, the Furniture Row team will work in conjunction with Joe Gibbs Racing. And, the team is expected to add cars after the 2016 season. In other words, Toyota is positioning itself in the aftermath of the departure of Michael Waltrip Racing to have as many "chartered" cars as possible.
Likewise, Ford's backing of the Wood Brothers for a full season in 2016 can be cast in the same light. With Roush Fenway Racing still in the doldrums, it remains unclear what other moves might be made by Ford. Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, has said his Ford team wants to expand to four cars from the current two – another likely result of the talks between the RTA and NASCAR.
What will become of Roush Fenway Racing in 2016? The former powerhouse struggled through a miserable season in 2015 despite the hiring of engineering and management guru Mark McArdle, who has helped lead revivals at Furniture Row and at Richard Childress Racing. One significant problem for the Roush team was in the driving department after having lost Kenseth and Carl Edwards to Joe Gibbs Racing. The combination of veteran Greg Biffle and the youthful Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne has not produced much in the way of results.
Look for Roush Fenway Racing to continue to struggle in 2016 in a race series where there are no silver bullets. A silver lining was the Xfinity Series championship won Saturday at Homestead by Roush Fenway driver Chris Buescher, who beat Chase Elliott by 15 points. He clinched Roush Fenway's third Xfinity driver's title in the last five years; Stenhouse Jr. won it in 2011 and 2012.
Diversity as well as youth is also on the doorstep of NASCAR's premier series. This year, two graduates of the sanctioning body's diversity program competed for the rookie of the year honors in the Xfinity Series. African-American Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. was edged for the rookie honors by Mexican Daniel Suárez. The two drivers, along with Buescher, are candidates to eventually move up to the Sprint Cup despite a field crowded with talent.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- I first saw Jeff Gordon race in November of 1992, but I barely noticed him.
My eyes were glued to the television for the final race of the season, but my interest had nothing to do with Gordon's debut in NASCAR's premier series.
No, the primary focus was the three-way battle for the championship between Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and privateer Alan Kulwicki.
And, oh, yes, there was the small matter of King Richard Petty taking the green flag in a Cup race for the final time.
A wreck took Allison out of contention, leaving Kulwicki to battle Elliott for the title, with Kulwicki earning the crown by leading one more lap than Elliott did -- even though Elliott won the race.
A crash on Lap 96 took Petty out of the race in 35th place, hardly a fitting end for a driver who had accumulated 200 victories and seven championships while rewriting the NASCAR record books.
No one can be blamed for paying no attention when a crash knocked Gordon out of the event after 164 laps of his maiden race in the Cup series.
But, in retrospect, no one can deny that the 1992 season finale was perhaps the most important watershed event in the history of the sport. It was the only time all three titans of NASCAR racing -- Gordon, Petty and Dale Earnhardt -- ever competed against each other in the same event.
At the time, no one would have dreamed that the 1992 finale would be the jumping-off point for a career that would see Gordon start a record 797 straight Cup races over 23 years, win 93 events -- third-most all-time -- and four championships.
And on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Gordon's career ended with considerably more fanfare and attention than it had begun.
The day started with an emotional meeting with his mother and continued with a throng of fans who followed Gordon's every move as he worked his way through the garage.
IndyCar legend Mario Andretti, who also has a Daytona 500 win and a Formula One championship to his credit, was basking in Gordon's limelight. At the start of the Ford EcoBoost 400, Gordon's team owner, Rick Hendrick, relinquished his seat on Gordon's pit box so Andretti could get an up-close view of the start of the race.
Megastar Lewis Hamilton, who recently wrapped up his third F1 championship, made the rounds with Gordon after driver introductions, as Gordon paused for a seemingly endless succession of last-race photos with the famous and not-so-famous.
Former President of the United States Bill Clinton, who shares some of Gordon's charitable interests, wished the driver good luck in a post on Twitter.
At long last, after a rain delay of approximately 90 minutes, Gordon brought a hiatus to the hoopla when he strapped into the No. 24 Chevrolet and took the green flag. In the early going, the No. 24 car was strong. And when Gordon passed eventual race winner Kyle Busch for the lead on Lap 36, the enthusiastic din from the grandstand was audible above the roar of the engines.
But when the sun went away in the late afternoon, so did Gordon's title chances.
"I actually felt like, when I got ahead of Kyle, that we actually pulled away from him," Gordon said. "I kind of got excited and got my hopes up there, but then Kevin started coming on pretty strong, and then we had that restart (on Lap 54, where Gordon lost five spots).
"I knew when those guys got by me I just didn't quite have what they had. I was just lacking a couple little things. And then the sun started going down, and (the track) really started changing and we lost a bunch of positions and just couldn't gain them back."
After dropping out of the top 10, Gordon fought his way back to sixth at the finish and ended his last season third in the final standings, still without a championship under the Chase format.
But there is no shame in Gordon not going out on top of the sport.
Because he did.
The first Toyota driver to win a championship since the Japanese company joined the Sprint Cup in 2007, Busch had to come back from a broken leg and foot sustained in a crash on the eve of the Daytona 500. He took the title on the night when one of NASCAR's greatest champions, Gordon, was among the contenders.
If that weren't enough, with fellow Chaser and defending champ Kevin Harvick running in second, the 30-year-old Busch had to win the race to win the championship, a victory that gave him five for the season.
"There are certainly a lot of things in life that I don't know that you'll ever fully understand, and this year is certainly one of those for myself," Busch said. "But it's so great to be in this spot right now and to count the blessings that we have. I can't say enough and thank the good Lord above."
The colossal finish capped an incredible season. Team owner Joe Gibbs keeps calling it one of the great sports stories -- and a three-time Super Bowl champion who once coached John Riggins should know. There will be some grumbling, however, around the water cooler on Monday.
Injuries forced Busch to miss 11 races out of 36, and he needed medical dispensation from NASCAR to be eligible to make the Chase. The naysayers doubt the champion should be a driver who missed nearly one third of the season. The overall toughness of running a full schedule of always demanding NASCAR races has been the way a champ was decided in the past.
Critics might uncharitably add that Busch's crash in the Xfinity race at the Daytona International Speedway in February began due to the driver's own error -- even though properly placed SAFER barriers might have saved him from such serious injuries.
Drivers such as seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher or three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip have been knocked out of contention by a broken leg. Seven-time champion Richard Petty was taken out of contention by a displaced cervical vertebra -- otherwise known as a broken neck -- the year Dale Earnhardt Sr. won his first championship. Why should Busch be different?
However, times change, and NASCAR's championship is now configured more along the lines of America's other major sports leagues with its Chase format. If a quarterback in the NFL misses much of the regular season, he has to rely on his team to give him a chance to get back on the field while still in contention for the postseason. And that is what the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team, led by rookie crew chief Adam Stevens and substitute driver David Ragan, did.
Once Busch returned from a rigorous rehabilitation that likely would have stymied most mortals, the car was competitive. Stevens even acknowledged that the team improved because Busch's extraordinary driving abilities sometimes masked performance problems in the chassis. While racing puts so much emphasis on the driver, it remains a team sport.
By now, even all the armchair quarterbacks have recognized that Busch's experience of not being able to race left him a changed man -- more appreciative, more patient behind the wheel and less likely to get bent out of shape by setbacks such as crashing in the Xfinity race the day before the Sprint Cup finale.
Once back from his injuries, Busch first did the unthinkable by winning shortly after his return to establish his Chase credentials, then winning three in a row and managing to finish in the Top 30 in the points at the end of 26 races, a criteria the NASCAR decided not to waive. Learning to stand on his feet again despite enough pain to make him pass out or getting up at 4 a.m. to take care of his newborn son Brexton might be seen as easy by comparison.
Busch, though, says it was the other way around. Heavy braking with his rehabbed left foot en route to victory on the road circuit in Sonoma, Calif., this summer was a cakewalk by comparison. He needed pep talks from friends such as Tony Stewart to see him through while on the sideline.
"I guess you're a lot tougher than you really realize whether it's physically or mentally," he said. "But I had to put everything I had into rehab and everything I had into being able to walk and to get through everything that I was going through. My wife was there to power me through, and my dog, Lucy, was barking at me to get me through it, too."
The biggest motivation was the impending arrival of the firstborn child for Busch and wife Samantha.
"I was just trying to get prepared for my son's birth and make sure that I could be there for the hospital trip and be able to stand and support Samantha and not worry about being in a wheelchair and stuck on the side of the room, you know?"
Counting the birth of his son, good things are arriving in threes for Busch, whose driver Erik Jones won the Camping World Truck Series championship on Friday night for Kyle Busch Motorsports. It could have been a quadruple play. Busch's Toyota was leading the Xfinity Series race on Saturday afternoon before a pit-road violation put him into mid-pack. Busch then crashed trying to get back to the front.
Ordinarily, Busch might have been sulky after such a turn of misfortune following Friday night's big success. However, he arrived back at the track ready for championship business with no crying towels or wheelchairs in sight.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon's farewell included every memorable moment he could have dreamed of with the exception of his elusive fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
With some 300 family, friends and invited guests in town, Gordon said he was having "the time of my life" with the anticipated touch of "insanity."
Pre-race was all that and more, with daughter Ella accompanying him on stage for driver introductions, Mario Andretti and Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton admiring his car, and rival pit crews saluting him as he drove pit lane on his way to the track for a final time.
During the pre-race driver's meeting, Gordon received a standing ovation from his fellow drivers and crew chiefs. NASCAR played a 75-second reflective video of his career and NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton thanked him for his contributions to the sport, calling Gordon a "true champion."
"Drivers are so competitive," Gordon said. "For them to show, publicly, their appreciation for another competitor just doesn't happen that often and it was extremely special." He said his most "surreal" moment was hearing fans chant his name as he climbed into his car for final practice.
But when the festivities were over, the hard truth was that Gordon did not have the handling or speed in his Chevrolet to keep pace with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
"We just had a tough time getting the balance," he said. "My car would be good for two laps, then kind of go haywire and other cars would start attacking me."
Harvick's 2015 theme
Last year's championship experience taught Kevin Harvick that he'd likely have to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim back-to-back Sprint Cup titles. His car was strong enough to lead 46 laps, but didn't have enough to catch Busch on the final restart.
"The 18 car just had us beat all night, for the most part," Harvick said. "We kept throwing stuff at it but never really found anything that helped the car. As the night went on, it seemed the 18 got better and we never got any better.
"It's been a great couple of years. After last year, when we had everything go our way, I've learned not to be greedy. I know we're disappointed about finishing second tonight, but that's been kind of the theme of the year -- finishing second."
Although he set career highs in top-fives (23), top-10s (28) and laps led, Harvick also settled for second place in 13 races this season.
Truex on fire
The left rear quarter of the Furniture Row Chevrolet was on fire when Martin Truex Jr. left the pits after his pit stop on Lap 138. Other than not getting a full tank of fuel, this was not Truex's problem.
After qualifying 11th, Truex knew that crew chief Cole Pearn was going to have to take a big swing in making adjustments to make his car competitive. In the end, the adjustments were never quite enough. Although able to run in the top 10, Truex had faded to ninth, 15.9 seconds off the pace, by Lap 125.
That didn't stop Pearn from taking his shots. The No. 78 team rolled the dice, taking only two tries to take the lead with 96 laps to go. Unfortunately for Truex, Brad Keselowski powered by him on the restart, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick soon followed, and 15 laps later, Truex was back in 11th place, 7.5 seconds off the pace and last among the Championship 4 contenders.
"We never could quite hit on anything to get the car to do the things we needed it to," Truex said. "But I'm super-proud of the season. We came here and really tried everything we knew to put out our best performance. It just wasn't in the cards."
Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, a two-time winner at HMS, began leaking rear-end grease from a faulty clamp on Lap 13, forcing him to the garage. Although Hamlin went three laps down, fought his way back to the lead lap. He finished 10th in the race and ninth in series points.
Seven-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson dropped to 35th after being ordered by NASCAR to repair illegal alterations to his right rear quarter panel on Lap 58. Johnson battled back to fifth with 100 laps to go and finished ninth.
Brett Moffitt earned Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Moffitt, 23, finished 31st Sunday in his 31st race of the season. He finished eighth for Michael Waltrip Racing at Atlanta but spent the bulk of his season gaining experience with Front Row Motorsports and ended up 34th in points.
Waltrip bids farewell
Gordon wasn't the only NASCAR veteran dealing with the melancholy feelings of farewell Sunday. At the far end of the Sprint Cup garage sat the blue and white Aaron's Dream Machine, emblematic of owner/driver Michael Waltrip's decade-long quest for success. Michael Waltrip Racing which began competing full-time in 2007, is closing its doors.
On the surface, it seemed like business as usual, with Waltrip, in his bright blue polo greeting fans, posing for pictures and signing autographs as his cars rolled through inspection.
"Business as usual on the outside," Waltrip mused. "But today's been a lot of hugs and thank-yous and (about) appreciating what we built and what we did for a long time."
MWR won seven Sprint Cup events and guided Clint Bowyer to a second-place finish in the 2012 series standings. MWR fielded cars for David Ragan and Bowyer this season.
"We stumbled and tripped and we won and we nearly won a championship," Waltrip said. "You think about all that stuff. It's a different (kind of) day -- a little hard. You reflect on the beginning and how special it was to have the ability to start something from nothing and be the custodian of Toyota's (effort) -- coming to the sport and helping them with that. Not only helping them on the track but helping fans understand that Toyota was great for NASCAR."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race -- Ford EcoBoost 400
Sunday, November 22, 2015
1. (3) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267, $351906.
2. (13) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 267, $290375.
3. (8) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267, $232541.
4. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 267, $184058.
5. (23) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 267, $162383.
6. (5) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 267, $153801.
7. (19) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267, $139051.
8. (15) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 267, $111890.
9. (12) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, $129101.
10. (1) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267, $109090.
11. (7) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 267, $82040.
12. (11) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 267, $107860.
13. (22) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 267, $111206.
14. (10) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267, $117801.
15. (21) Greg Biffle, Ford, 267, $112573.
16. (4) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267, $112315.
17. (6) Ryan Blaney(i), Ford, 267, $76040.
18. (26) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267, $120415.
19. (18) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267, $93615.
20. (20) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 266, $112048.
21. (17) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 266, $86940.
22. (16) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 266, $86590.
23. (25) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 266, $94448.
24. (35) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 266, $85990.
25. (28) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 266, $104010.
26. (33) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 265, $96498.
27. (38) David Ragan, Toyota, 265, $104254.
28. (40) Cole Whitt, Ford, 265, $88398.
29. (36) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 265, $103654.
30. (39) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 264, $77690.
31. (42) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, 264, $76990.
32. (41) David Gilliland, Ford, 264, $90312.
33. (29) Michael McDowell, Ford, 264, $72565.
34. (31) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 264, $72365.
35. (34) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 263, $72165.
36. (30) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 263, $79940.
37. (37) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, 263, $71711.
38. (43) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 262, $66730.
39. (32) Josh Wise, Ford, 247, $62730.
40. (9) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 241, $78130.
41. (14) Aric Almirola, Ford, 209, $91666.
42. (27) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, Accident, 104, $58730.
43. (24) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, Accident, 45, $81388.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 131.755 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 02 Mins, 23 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.552 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 7 for 30 laps.
Lead Changes: 18 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: 0; J. Logano 1-19; Kyle Busch 20-35; J. Gordon 36-44; K. Harvick 45-90; K. Larson 91-92; J. Logano 93-138; Kyle Busch 139; C. Edwards 140-144; J. Logano 145-151; C. Edwards 152-154; Kyle Busch 155-168; M. Truex Jr. 169-171; B. Keselowski 172-214; Kyle Busch 215-216; B. Keselowski 217-257; Kyle Busch 258; B. Keselowski 259-260; Kyle Busch 261-267.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): B. Keselowski 3 times for 86 laps; J. Logano 3 times for 72 laps; K. Harvick 1 time for 46 laps; Kyle Busch 6 times for 41 laps; J. Gordon 1 time for 9 laps; C. Edwards 2 times for 8 laps; M. Truex Jr. 1 time for 3 laps; K. Larson 1 time for 2 laps.
Top 16 in Points: Kyle Busch -- 5,043; K. Harvick -- 5,042; J. Gordon -- 5,038; M. Truex Jr. -- 5,032; C. Edwards -- 2,368; J. Logano -- 2,360; B. Keselowski -- 2,347; Kurt Busch -- 2,333; D. Hamlin -- 2,327; J. Johnson -- 2,315; R. Newman -- 2,314; D. Earnhardt Jr. -- 2,310; J. Mcmurray -- 2,295; P. Menard -- 2,262; M. Kenseth -- 2,234; C. Bowyer -- 2,175.
"This championship is for my wife, my family, everyone who sacrificed so much this year to get me here," Busch said after the victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "(Crew chief) Adam Stevens is my hero."
Championship competitor Kevin Harvick finished second, while Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.
"Well, I didn't need that last caution," Larson said. "It probably cost me or Brad a win, but it did make it somewhat exciting at the end. Disappointed that we didn't get the win because I really thought we were about two to three laps away from passing Brad for the lead (before the final caution). I don't know. We will just go back next season and try to fight for some more wins."
Jeff Gordon, also a title contender, wrapped up his Sprint Cup driving career with a sixth-place finish. The fourth championship candidate, Martin Truex Jr., wound up in 12th.
"To drive for one of the best car owners, if not the best, and drive the best race cars and work with the best people, and that's why I have the wins and championships that I have and why we did what we did here, today, in the final race, battling for a championship," Gordon said. "Ingrid (Vandebosch, his wife), she goes through so much, all the ups and downs and what goes along with this sport.
"We both said going into this race what an amazing experience this has been this year, the last nine years of our lives together and this day, surrounded by friends and family and the people that matter most and work hard on this race team and all the love I've gotten from the fans and everybody in this sport. There's nothing better than that."
Team Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski were non-Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers who led laps. Keselowski was in front for a race-high 86 laps, while Logano led 72 in the 267-lap race.
"Unfortunately, we didn't win, and that's what we wanted to do," Logano said. "We had a fast Shell/Pennzoil Ford that led a lot of laps, so I'm proud of the laps we led. We had a few good runs and made an adjustment that just took it out of the track, and by the time we got it back, we lost too much track position. We had a bad pit stop under green and lost more there, so it was too little, too late. We couldn't redeem ourselves after a couple mistakes tonight."
Keselowski took the lead on a restart just past lap 170. After a green-flag cycle of pit stops around lap 215, Keselowski cycled back to the front and led until Busch got by for the top spot on a restart with seven laps remaining. Soon after, Harvick also overtook Keselowski for second.
"We led a lot of laps," Keselowski said. "The last four races, we have run pretty strong, maybe not as strong at Phoenix as we wanted, but three of the four races, we were really strong, and we just didn't have enough to close it at the end. I was really proud of my team tonight, really happy with what they were able to give me, and we were able to take a run at it, we just didn't quite have enough at the end on that final restart to hold those guys off."
Early on, all four championship contenders ran in or near the top five. Truex, though, gradually faded to the back of the top 10, and after a lap-46 yellow flag, Gordon joined him there as he struggled with handling issues. Both also dropped a few positions outside the top 10 at times.
Busch and Harvick, on the other hand, ran inside the top five throughout the race, both of them leading laps, 46 for Harvick, 41 for Busch.
Busch was the first of the two title contenders to lead, taking the top spot by getting off pit road first on lap 19.
"We were just struggling all night, to be honest with you, with our Budweiser/Jimmy John's Chevy," Harvick said. "We had a lot of trouble getting up off the corner and putting the power down. And the longer the run went, the looser that we would get up off the corner. ...
"It's fun to be able to run like this. You always want to win, but I've learned not to get greedy. After last year, I felt like we had everything go our way, and tonight, it didn't go our way."
Truex got back up front with a two-tire pit strategy during a caution on lap 169. However, when the race returned to green, he was overtaken by several cars that took four tires and drifted back outside the top 10.
Matt Kenseth finished seventh, Kurt Busch was eighth and Jimmie Johnson ninth. Pole sitter Denny Hamlin rebounded to finish 10th after going two laps down early because of a gear-oil leak that brought out the first yellow flag of the race inside the opening 20 laps of the race.
NOTES: Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the season because of injury. ... Richard Petty presented Gordon with a retirement gift of 93 dollar bills, one for each of Gordon's wins, to go with the money clips he gifted all drivers upon his own retirement in 1992. Petty's final race was Gordon's first. ... The Ford EcoBoost 400 was the final race for the two-car Michael Waltrip Racing team. ... Matt Kenseth returned to action Sunday after a two-race suspension. ... Kevin Harvick won the 2014 Ford EcoBoost 400. ... Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday after leading more than half of the 200-lap race.
Denny Hamlin started on the pole, with Joey Logano alongside on the front row.
Four drivers -- Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. -- are racing for the 2015 Sprint Cup. Busch started closest to the front in third. Gordon will start fifth, Truex 11th and Harvick 13th. Harvick is the reigning Sprint Cup champion.
The race also marks the end of Gordon's career as a driver. The four-time champion claimed his last Sprint (then-Winston) Cup title in 2001.
NOTES: Richard Petty presented Gordon with a retirement gift of 93 dollar bills, one for each of Gordon's wins, to go with the money clips he gifted all drivers upon his own retirement in 1992. Petty's final race was Gordon's first. ... The Ford EcoBoost 400 was the final race for The two-car Michael Waltrip Racing team. ... Matt Kenseth returned at Homestead-Miami Speedway after a two-race suspension. ... Kevin Harvick won the 2014 Ford EcoBoost 400. ... Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday after leading more than half of the 200-lap race.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Team owner Joe Gibbs sees Daniel Suarez as a big part of the future -- not only for NASCAR but for his team.
Part of the equation is about the 23-year-old's talents as the driver who just earned Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Suarez moved up to fifth in the final series standings with his sixth-place showing in Saturday's Ford EcoBoost 300 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But a lot of it is about how Suarez got to that point, advancing through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program to become a factor in both the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series this year.
"It's exciting for our sport," Gibbs said. "I don't think I've been in any business meeting the last five years where (somebody) didn't say 'We've got to reach the Hispanic market.' It's a big deal for us to have Daniel on board.
"It helps me from the standpoint that I want to be a good partner in every part of NASCAR. We've been heavily involved in the (Drive for) Diversity program with a number of different guys. We think it's good for our sport. I know it is. I think our sport belongs in every part of the market in America and I think this is a big step."
Suarez is the first Hispanic driver and second Drive for Diversity product to win Sunoco Rookie of the Year in one of NASCAR's national series. Although he didn't win an Xfinity race, he won three poles, had 18 top-10 finishes and placed second to Joey Logano at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"It's been a long journey so far, but a very fun one," Suarez said. "We had a goal early in the year to get the Rookie of the Year, be strong and try to contend for some wins. We didn't win, but we were close several times. We ran in the front. I don't think it was a surprise to see the ARRIS No. 18 in the front, which for me was something really good."
Suarez, has been fast ever since arriving on the scene from Monterrey, Mexico, where he was accustomed to open-wheel racing and road courses, not ovals. He was Rookie of the Year in NASCAR's Mexico Series in 2010. Advancing to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East for Rev Racing, he placed third in the 2013 standings with nine top-10 finishes.
But he has also had a lot to learn -- from mastering English to mastering how to handle NASCAR's race cars and tracks.
"These cars are different," he said. "They are so aero-dependent and to move around the racetrack, I'm not used to that. When I was racing in Mexico, you used to start in one line and I was used to staying in that lane. So all this is new to me." Saturday's race was a tribute to how far Suarez has come. After qualifying on the front row, he dropped to 16th, a lap down, after his team was penalized for a loose tire in the pits.
Clawing his way back into contention, he was one of only 10 finishers on the lead lap. His sixth-place finish enabled him to bump veteran Elliott Sadler (13th) from the fifth and final seat at Monday night's Xfinity championship banquet.
Still, Suarez, who gained additional experience by driving 13 races for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, knows he has a long way to go.
"There is a huge difference between racing fast, racing in the front and winning a race," he said. "And this is one of the steps I have to make for next year.
"This was one of my goals for this year. I didn't get that one. So in the offseason I am looking forward to working as hard as possible with my team to take that next step and win races."
As for a chance to drive in the Sprint Cup Series, Suarez believes that will come in time.
"I feel if I’m in the right place and with the right people to make that step at the right time," he said. "But for now we need to focus on what we're doing right now."
His owner will be watching closely.
"We are really proud of Daniel," Gibbs said. "He has done a fantastic job both on and off the track and I know ARRIS and Toyota are extremely excited to have him earn this honor.
"He has been consistent throughout the year but also showed improvement each week and that really showed up as he returned to tracks for a second time. He has put a lot into this and I'm just thrilled for him and his family, the team, and everyone that supports him, both here and back in Mexico."
NASCAR News Wire
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Kyle Larson took out a season of frustration on the NASCAR Xfinity Series field on Saturday in the season finale, tracking down Austin Dillon in the closing laps to win the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway by slightly less than a second.
Despite Larson's dominance in leading 118 of 200 laps, Chris Buescher ran a clean race, finishing 11th to clinch his first Xfinity Series title. Buescher came into the race needing to finish 13th or better to guarantee himself the championship.
After winning a pair of Xfinity Series races last season, Larson, 23, had visions of qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this year. Those hopes failed to materialize. He sits 20th in Sprint Cup points heading into Sunday's season finale (3 p.m. ET on NBC). And before Saturday, although managing three top-five finishes, the NASCAR Drive for Diversity alum had gone winless in 13 Xfinity starts.
But Larson's car out of the Harry Scott Jr. shop was so strong that by Lap 97 only three other cars were chasing him on the lead lap. Larson had opened a 6.7-second lead over early race leader Kyle Busch (who led 62 of the first 79 laps from the pole) when the race's third caution flag waved on Lap 117.
Busch's threat fizzled when he was penalized for having a loose tire in the pits, then crashed after contact with NASCAR Drive for Diversity alum Darrell Wallace Jr. on Lap 182. On the final restart, however, Larson slipped to fourth and had to recover with a late race charge to catch Dillon.
Both Larson and Dillon, seeking the speed of the outside line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, brushed the wall in the final laps.
"To win is really special, especially when you haven't won in over a year in a NASCAR national series," said Larson, admitting he wasn't sure he could catch Dillon, who led laps 180-195. “There's no other track that suits me like this track. I'm just really comfortable running up against the wall. I seem to always have good race cars when I come here.
"We've been frustrated a number of times this year. Some races, we haven't had the speed we had last year. Also, we've had a lot of races where we were pretty fast, then had something happen to us in the last run of the races. It's just been a really inconsistent year."
When it came time to celebrate, however, Larson drove directly to Victory Lane, respectfully leaving the burnout to the Xfinity Series champ.
"This is championship week, so congratulations to Chris Buescher," Larson said. "I wanted Chris to have his moment there."
Buescher, who won races at Iowa and Dover this season, came into the race with a string of nine consecutive top-10 finishes but played it safe throughout the day.
Crew chief Scott Graves did make a pivotal call, electing to pit while other title contenders remained on the track for the final 21 laps. That put Buescher in position to claim the free pass, which he did moments later when Busch hit the wall.
"We thought having fresh tires on it was going to put us in a better position," Graves said. "We knew if we could be in the 'Lucky Dog' situation ... we were basically going to be on even ground (with our competitors). With the number of laps that was left, we felt that was going to be our best option."
Buescher said, "Our Fastenal Mustang had good speed in it, but we just had to be careful out there. It's unbelievable for us to be able to pull it off. I'm not a 'points' racer. I don't like it. But it was important (to finish) what we've been fighting for since February and Daytona."
Chase Elliott, the defending series champion who is poised to take over the No. 24 Sprint Cup car for Hendrick Motorsports in 2016, finished eighth in the race and 15 points behind Buescher. Ty Dillon, seventh on Saturday, finished 18 points behind Buescher, and Regan Smith, ninth on Saturday, settled for fourth in points, 22 points back.
"We had an up-and-down season," said Elliott, who won three Xfinity Series races in 2014 but lamented his ability to win just once this year (at Richmond). "They just outran us, fair and square. No reason to be upset about that. We just need to do a better job."
Dillon posted his 25th top-10 finish of the season but failed to win a race. He finished in the top 10 in eight of his last nine races.
Smith, runner-up to Elliott last season, ended the season with 13 consecutive top-10 finishes.
While Buescher gave Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush his fifth Xfinity Series title, the owner's championship went to Team Penske's No. 22 Ford for a third consecutive season.
Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Alex Tagliani and Ryan Blaney -- who finished fifth behind Erik Jones (Toyota) and Brian Scott (Chevrolet) in the Ford EcoBoost 300 -- all made starts in the No. 22 this season.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- As it turned out, the final step in Chris Buescher's march to the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship was almost pedestrian.
None of his closest pursuers could mount a serious challenge for the victory in Saturday's Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In fact, Buescher, title runner-up Chase Elliott and fellow contenders Ty Dillon and Regan Smith all went a lap down to race winner Kyle Larson during a long green-flag run in the middle of the race.
Ultimately, Buescher got a free pass back to the lead lap and finished 11th, leaving him with a 15-point edge in the standings over Elliott, the defending series champion, and 18 over third-place Dillon, who finished seventh on Saturday.
With no real pressure from his competition, and with 18 points in hand entering the race, Buescher kept his car out of trouble.
If the pressure of an impending first NASCAR national series championship was weighing on him, Buescher didn't show it.
"I did a good job masking it, didn't I?" Buescher said after the race. "I was a little nervous. All things considered, that was exactly what we needed to do, and we knew that and knew we were capable of doing it.
"I'm glad we could pull it off for all the people that were on board all year, AdvoCare, Roush Performance, Cheez-It and all the fans. I know the weather wasn't ideal today (rain caused the fourth caution), but they hung in there with us and we made it through this thing and get to celebrate."
More than seven years earlier, Buescher left home to pursue a racing career, despite the reservations of his parents.
"I'm glad (my mother) let me," Buescher said. "I think she's OK with it now. I have to thank my parents so much for the opportunity to be here and leave home and do this. That was such an amazing race, just being careful.
"Our Fastenal Mustang had good speed in it. We just had to be careful out there. ... It's pretty amazing to be in this position."
Keeping his desire to race for victories in check, however, has been a difficult proposition for the young champion.
"I am not a points racer," Buescher said. "I don't like it. It's not the most fun way to run the last 10 races of the season, but it is important.
"This is what we have been fighting for since February at Daytona, and these guys (the team) have done such a great job and stuck in there with us all year and had no mechanical failures or DNFs. It's a huge accomplishment for our team."
Austin Dillon, who finished second to Larson on Saturday, wasn't surprised Buescher and his team exhibited that sort of race management.
"Chris is a smart race car driver," Dillon said. "I think that's what won him a championship. I noticed it earlier on in the year. I've noticed it from when he was driving ARCA against Ty (Dillon, Austin's brother). Him and Ty had good battles then, and Chris is always smart with his equipment.
"I think he knows the ability of the equipment, uses it to its ability every time, and finishes races well. So I think Chris is going to be good. He's smart. He doesn't tear up stuff. He's raced with less before, and it teaches you what you have in the car, so I think he's very good at managing his equipment and getting the best out of it."
Interestingly, even with a championship to his credit, Buescher hasn't settled his plans for next season.
"I'm optimistic about it," Buescher said. "I feel like we'll have something. ... I just don't have anything right now. We don't have everything planned out at the moment. It will be a couple weeks, I'm sure, before we get everything lined up and get a little bit closer -- not that I'm worried about it.
"I feel pretty confident that the guys back at the shop are doing everything they can to get sponsors on board and to try to put together a 2016 season, wherever that may be."
Team owner Jack Roush indicated Buescher would run some NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races next season. What's unknown is how many.
"We're still not sure what his arrangement is going to be next year," Roush said. "He will be involved in a Cup car to some extent, but whether it's a part-time program or a full program, we're still in the midst of finalizing the conditions.
"We've got a number of possibilities, but we're not ready to announce that today."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon, both of whom qualified in the top five for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC) expressed diametrically opposite views of the importance of time trials at the 1.5-mile track.
Busch, who will start third as he attempts to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in his first visit to the Chase's Championship Round, was pleased with his qualifying performance, though he doesn't think starting position is particularly meaningful at the wide, multi-groove track.
"Qualifying position doesn't matter much here," Busch said after Friday's time trials. "I think with the opportunity that this racetrack presents of being able to move around -- bottom, middle, top, and be all over the race track -- I think you definitely have enough time here through 400 miles to work your way to the front.
"It's not a race track like last week at Phoenix or even Loudon or something like that where it's pretty single file, hard to pass. This place is good. So I don't know that qualifying position has anything to say about what kind of race we'll see on Sunday."
Gordon, however, feels that, when the track rubbers in and drivers start racing near the outside wall, the preferred groove will narrow.
"I disagree with Kyle," said Gordon, who recovered from a lackluster opening lap in the first round of knockout qualifying to earn the fifth starting spot. "I think qualifying here is important. There's nice multiple grooves, but I started on the pole here last year, and I know that that kept us in the game and up front in a big way.
"Of course, pit selection has a lot to do with that. But once the groove moves up top, it's kind of hard to pass. Even though there are multiple grooves, you've got to do it in the first couple laps. I think that that would not have been good had we not gotten qualifying in (because of the threat of rain), but we did, and I'm happy about it."
Gordon's joy at his strong qualifying effort would pale in comparison with a fifth series championship -- and first under a Chase format. It would also give Gordon the rare opportunity to retire at the pinnacle of the sport.
"I mean, that's life changing," Gordon said of the prospect. "It's something that. ... I mean, I'm sure it's been done in some sport, but I don't think it's ever been done in this sport. Right now, I'm not even thinking and fathoming that.
"I'm just really happy about how we qualified, so I'm hoping that we can take that fast race car and do some more with it (in Saturday's practice) and Sunday, and we'll see what happens. But that's too much for me to think about. ... It would be the best one I ever did -- I can tell you that."
DRIVER LINEUP FOR ROLEX 24 ANNOUNCED
The Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway promises to be a monumental event for both Ford Motor Company and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing.
Against the backdrop of a newly completed Daytona Rising project -- featuring a spectacular makeover of the Birthplace of Speed -- the new Ford GT will make its competitive debut in the marquee endurance race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
The Ford GTs will complete in the full WeatherTech Championship schedule, as well as next year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
American Joey Hand and German Dirk Muller will drive the No. 66 Ford GT in Ganassi's move to the GT Le Mans division. Australian Ryan Briscoe and Englishman Richard Westbrook will pilot the No. 67 Ford GT.
Racing aficionados will understand the significance of the car numbers, which relate directly to the predecessor of the new Ford GT -- the Ford GT-40, which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 and 1967.
Additional drivers to fill out the teams for the 24-hour events will be announced later.
"I'm very proud to be part of this program," Hand said during the press conference introducing the drivers on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "I always wanted to drive for Chip and I got the opportunity last year, and now to be with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing is a big deal. Clearly, this is a big deal.
"This GT car is a great-looking car. Everybody seems to love it, and I think it's cool to see how Ford has kind of honored the history of the old GT-40 and now bringing the new technology of today. When you see the car it's cool-looking. It's got a great shape and great aerodynamic lines. It's gonna be a great race car for us and the testing has gone really well."
None of the four Championship Round drivers cracked the top five in final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice on Saturday. Reigning champ Kevin Harvick struggled with the handling of his No. 4 Chevrolet during Happy Hour and was slowest of the four, 26th fastest overall, with a fast lap at 169.972 mph. ... Gordon was the fastest of the Championship 4 and ninth overall at 173.321 mph, followed closely by Martin Truex Jr. in 10th at 173.232 mph. Kyle Busch was 17th on the speed chart at 171.418 mph. ... Joey Logano, eliminated from the Chase last Sunday at Phoenix, paced the final practice session at 175.404 mph. Gordon, however, posted the fastest 10-lap average among all drivers.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin stole the thunder from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' four Championship Round drivers, winning the pole for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
Outrunning Joey Logano and championship-eligible teammate Kyle Busch for the top starting spot, Hamlin toured the 1.5-mile speedway in 30.568 seconds (176.655 mph) in the third and final round of Friday's knockout time trials.
Logano (176.263 mph) will start beside Hamlin in the season finale, followed by Busch, the highest qualifier among the drivers competing for the series title. Chasers Jeff Gordon (175.291 mph) and Martin Truex Jr. (174.498 mph) will start fifth and 11th, respectively, with defending champion Kevin Harvick taking the green from the 13th starting spot.
Given the focus on the four contenders, Hamlin introduced himself as "Mr. Irrelevant" when he took the podium for the pole winner's press conference. But he did relish the prospect of winning what will be Jeff Gordon's last race in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
"Sitting back here and watching Jeff talk and everything, it's like, man, you know, I thought about it before, but I didn't think about like how awesome it would be to win his final race," said Hamlin, who won his third Coors Light Pole Award of the season, his first at Homestead and the 23rd
of his career.
"No disrespect to him, but, man, that would be awesome to win his final race. I hope he finishes third behind Kyle."
Harvick posted the fastest lap of the day (177.848 mph) in the opening round, but his fortunes and those of Gordon moved in opposite directions for the remainder of the session. Without benefit of a mock qualifying run in opening practice, Gordon slipped outside the top 24 on his first qualifying attempt but recovered to advance to the second round with a 17th-place effort on his second run.
Gordon was sixth fastest in the second round to advance to the final session.
"That was disappointing, and I think that really affected me, that first run," Gordon said. "I just didn't push the car hard enough, didn't realize how much more grip was going to be out there compared to practice, and I just wasn't aggressive enough. The car was fine. The car was good. I just needed to go faster mainly through (Turns) 1 and 2.
"I really did not think we could go faster than that. I didn't think the tires would have it in them. The fact that we were able to advance to the second round was huge. Kind of got me motivated and pumped up after that, and we made some adjustments, some big adjustments on the car, which we felt like we needed to do as you advance through the round and get the tires hot and air pressures start changing you know you've got to adjust the balance.
"The team did an excellent, excellent job of that in those last couple laps. That last one could have been a tiny bit better, but knowing that we had one extra lap on the tires, I'm very, very proud and happy with that run."
Harvick, on the other hand, failed to crack the top 12 in the second round by .002 seconds and will start deepest in the field of all the Chase drivers.
"Yeah, round one was really good for us, and then we went to round two and just really, really tight in the next two runs that we made," Harvick said. "We just never really recovered from what we did in the first round to make it repeat.
"All in all, I just think our balance was too tight. We'll work on the race car and go from there."
Note: Jeb Burton and Reed Sorenson failed to make the 43-car field.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying - Ford EcoBoost 400
Friday, November 20, 2015
1. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 176.655 mph.
2. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 176.263 mph.
3. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 176.062 mph.
4. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 175.347 mph.
5. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 175.291 mph.
6. (21) Ryan Blaney(i), Ford, 175.143 mph.
7. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 175.063 mph.
8. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 175.046 mph.
9. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 174.678 mph.
10. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 174.633 mph.
11. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 174.498 mph.
12. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 174.098 mph.
13. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 175.444 mph.
14. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 175.404 mph.
15. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 175.365 mph.
16. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 175.279 mph.
17. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 175.239 mph.
18. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 175.239 mph.
19. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 175.211 mph.
20. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 174.859 mph.
21. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 174.419 mph.
22. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 174.340 mph.
23. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 174.059 mph.
24. (15) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 172.651 mph.
25. (33) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 174.848 mph.
26. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 174.115 mph.
27. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 173.829 mph.
28. (9) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 173.723 mph.
29. (95) Michael McDowell, Ford, 173.650 mph.
30. (51) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 173.399 mph.
31. (26) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 173.199 mph.
32. (32) Josh Wise, Ford, 172.833 mph.
33. (7) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 172.750 mph.
34. (40) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 172.618 mph.
35. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 172.463 mph.
36. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 172.276 mph.
37. (83) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, Owner Points
38. (55) David Ragan, Toyota, Owner Points
39. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, Owner Points
40. (35) Cole Whitt, Ford, Owner Points
41. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, Owner Points
42. (34) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, Owner Points
43. (98) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, Owner Points
2 drivers failed to qualify.
44. (23) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, 170.084 mph.
45. (62) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 169.545 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Though the line that separates acceptable racing practices from on-track over-the-line aggression may not be defined in bold paint like the line that marks the start and finish of a race, NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France contends that drivers know exactly where it is.
"Do you know how many drivers have come to see (NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director) Richard Buck in the last two weeks, three weeks, four weeks?," France asked rhetorically during his annual "State of the Sport" press conference Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' winner-take-all Championship Round race (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
"Zero. Zero drivers have asked us for a clarification on the so-called line. And the reason that they don't ask is they know."
Questions about "the line" have arisen in the aftermath of Matt Kenseth's purposeful wreck of Joey Logano at Martinsville. On Nov. 1, Kenseth, nine laps down at the time, knocked race leader Logano's Ford into the Turn 1 wall in retaliation for an incident at Kansas Speedway two weeks earlier, when Logano spun Kenseth for the win with fewer than five laps left.
France, however, drew a clear distinction between the two incidents.
"They (drivers) know that circumstances late in a race, blocking -- although I'm not a fan of blocking -- that's part of racing," France said. "Blocking, contact, the short end of some of those exchanges that happen, are all part of it, and do not look to NASCAR to deal with that. They are part of racing.
"So the line is that if you intentionally, beyond part of racing -- and there's contact, and who came up, who came down, who was more aggressive than somebody else and so on -- if somebody is just intentionally banzaiing into some situation with the sole purpose of taking somebody out, we'll deal with that.
"We dealt with that in Martinsville, as a matter of fact. We'll deal with that at all times."
Kenseth, in fact, served a two-race suspension for the Martinsville incident. During the week between Phoenix and Kenseth's impending return in Sunday's season finale, France met with Kenseth and team owner Joe Gibbs individually at the Joe Gibbs Racing shop.
"We were very disappointed, as you know, with what happened in Martinsville," France said. "We reacted to that. We were coming down here to a championship weekend, and I wanted to make sure that that matter was behind us with Matt, with Joe Gibbs, and so on.
"I'm assured that it is. We had a good conversation about what had happened and what the thinking was, or whatever you want to call Matt's actions, and we talked about that. And it was a good conversation. Those kinds of conversations happen with us more frequently than not, so that's not a surprising thing. I felt good coming out of those meetings."
France also feels extremely positive about the format of the Chase itself.
"I was talking to (NASCAR Vice Chairman) Mike Helton the other day," France said. "I said, 'This might be the best thing we could have ever done for the quality of racing that we have ever done.' And he said, 'I think you're right.' And we both kidded ourselves, because he and I both were the ones that were, believe it or not, against going forward with this format for a number of years - advancing it to an elimination and winner-take-all scenario.
"But we got exactly what we want, which is great racing. Obviously, when you get great racing, you're going to get great moments. We love great moments as anybody in sports does."
BLANEY TO RUN FULL SEASON WITH WOOD BROTHERS
Ryan Blaney will run the full 2016 schedule of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events for Wood Brothers Racing, the team and Ford Motor Company announced on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"It has been a dream come true," said Blaney, who is running a partial schedule for the Wood Brothers this season. "Growing up in the garage with my dad (Dave Blaney) racing and seeing what he used to do when I was a kid and now being able to be a part of a full season in the Cup series and be with a couple great organizations like the Wood Brothers and Ford will be amazing."
Ford is solidly behind the legendary team's expansion to a full schedule.
"We have been talking about a full season for as long as I can remember, and I want to thank Ford Motor Company and Raj Nair, the group vice president of worldwide product development for Ford Motor Company, for standing up and taking this on," said Ford board member Edsel B. Ford II.
"It's something the Wood Brothers deserve. They have proven themselves. This is a historic team, and they have been part of our family for 65 years, and that is very important to me personally."
Jeremy Bullins will continue as Blaney's crew chief as the team ramps up as a full-time operation.
"I'm looking forward to next year. I can't thank Edsel and Dave (Pericak, global director, Ford Performance) and as Edsel said, Raj Nair. They made it happen. I believe we've been pretty good this year, and that gives us great momentum for next year. I can't thank Motorcraft and the Quick Lane boys enough for what they do for this car on the race track, and I'm just really excited about it."
In their 65-year history as NASCAR's oldest continuously operating team, the Wood Brothers have accumulated 98 victories, the last coming with Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500.
According to NASCAR officials, Blaney will be eligible to run for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2016 on a one-time exemption, even though he has 17 Sprint Cup starts to his credit, 15 this season. Blaney was not a candidate for the rookie award this year.
NASCAR, RISE TO PROMOTE DIVERSITY
NASCAR announced this week it has partnered with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a recently formed alliance of major sports leagues, associations, media networks and educators created to promote diversity and equality through sports.
NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France will help steer the new initiative, established by Miami Dolphins majority owner Stephen Ross, as a founding member of the RISE Board of Directors, serving alongside the commissioners of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, and other top sports executives.
Kenseth met face-to-face with Logano in hopes of settling their feud.
"We had a little discussion before practice with NASCAR and met with them a little bit," Kenseth said Friday.
Kenseth drew a two-race suspension for purposely wrecking leader Logano during an Eliminator Round race at Martinsville Speedway on Nov. 1 as part of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Kenseth was trailing by 10 laps and appeared to be retaliating against Logano, who had turned Kenseth with five laps remaining at Kansas two weeks earlier when they were battling for the lead.
Driver Erik Jones replaced Kenseth for Joe Gibbs Racing for the past two weeks.
"Everything will be fine there," Kenseth said. "I wish none of it would have happened obviously. There's probably certain things we'll never totally agree on, but I think long term it probably will be fine, and I think we will work it all out."
Kenseth said he appreciated meeting with NASCAR chairman Brian France on Monday.
"It's always nice to get face time with somebody and understand their point of view and have them understand yours," Kenseth said.
France agreed that his meeting with Kenseth was productive.
"It was a good conversation," France said Friday. "Those kind of conversations happen with us more frequently than not, so that's not a surprising thing. I felt good coming out of those meetings."
France said he is confident the attention can now be focused on NASCAR's title-deciding finale.
"We were very disappointed, as you know, with what happened in Martinsville. We reacted to that," France said. "We were coming down here to a championship weekend, and I wanted to make sure that that matter was behind us with Matt, with Joe Gibbs and so on. I'm assured that it is."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When you're a single-car team, competing for NASCAR's biggest prize, you have to work smart and do things a bit differently.
That's where Furniture Row's Cole Pearn comes in. The first Canadian NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Waterloo (Ontario). A former late model driver and three-time Canadian go-kart champion, his preferred participation sport is beer league hockey. It meshes perfectly with the Rocky Mountain lifestyle of his Denver-based race team.
More importantly, Pearn, 33, has meshed seamlessly as crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., putting the No. 78 in position to challenge the best from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing for NASCAR supremacy in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 Championship Round race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
Compared to the pit box resume of Jeff Gordon's crew chief Alan Gustafson or Kyle Busch's crew chief Rodney Childers, who seeks a second consecutive title with Kevin Harvick, Pearn might seem out of his element. But Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone points out that Pearn is hardly a novice.
In fact, the London, Ontario, native was an engineer for Kevin Harvick's car at Richard Childress Racing before accepting a supporting role at Furniture Row and serving as lead engineer under crew chief Todd Berrier. He has been part of the steady progression at Furniture Row, galvanizing his team and acting decisively.
"I'm going to take credit for Cole," Garone said. "Early on, I told Barney (team owner Visser) that this kid could be as good as there is in NASCAR as a crew chief. He's driven, he's a mechanical engineer and he just gets it. He understands processes and procedures, but he also understands when you just have to get down in the grease and flog when you have to get a car done. He sees both sides of it. I'm just thrilled to see him take the reins and be able to have success."
The opportunity presented by Sunday's Championship Round race, in his rookie season as crew chief, is definitely not lost on Pearn.
"Our shop foreman this week told me that the last time he'd been in this kind of position was 1992 and that really puts it in perspective," Pearn said. "You never know when the next time (will be). Especially with this (championship) format, anything can happen to take you out. I'm definitely just trying to enjoy the moment, stay focused and make the most of it."
Adam Stevens, hand-picked by Kyle Busch to become his pit boss, has been on a similar trajectory since his driving career flamed out. He studied mechanical engineering at Ohio University before joining forces with Petty Enterprises in 2002. Lured to Joe Gibbs Racing, he teamed with Busch to win 19 XFINITY Series races (and finish top five in 46 of 52 starts) in 2013-14.
Stevens could never have imagined how his first season as a Sprint Cup crew chief would unfold.
"It's been a wild year, starting with Kyle's accident (at Daytona)," said Stevens, 37, who paired with drivers David Ragan, Matt Crafton and Erik Jones before Busch returned to win four of his first nine starts. "We started off with high hopes ... then, before we even left Daytona, that was all taken away from us. To battle back from that, with all the wins that we've had along the way and good runs in competitive cars, is remarkable at this stage.
"I've been to Homestead the last three years in the championship hunt running for (the) Xfinity Series owner's championship, so I know a little bit about what that's about. And I had championship experience as a race engineer on the 20 Cup car in 2005 with Zippy (Greg Zipadelli) and Tony (Stewart). I'm not a complete stranger to it, but still, up there on the box and doing it for yourself is a whole different animal."
Busch knows he might not be racing for a championship if not for Stevens.
"It was tough to be at home, lying in my bed and watching other guys race my car," Busch said. "I can't say enough about Adam Stevens and the teamwork, being able to keep everyone together and focused and motivated for my return."
While Busch and Stevens may be only 24 races into their Sprint Cup alliance, Alan Gustafson comes at Sunday's race with a completely different perspective. With 11 years as a Sprint Cup crew chief, he knows Sunday will be his final race with Jeff Gordon.
Gustafson, 40, said there is "added incentive to send Jeff out on top, as we believe he deserves -- and we're working hard to do that. Jeff has been a huge part of the sport ... and a huge part of our company and our success."
Of course, there's also Gustafson's personal quest for his first Cup title.
"It would be a huge thing for me to win a championship," Gustafson said. "It's been my goal my whole career. I've been in this building, the 5/24 shop (at Hendrick) since its inception, and that's been the goal. I think it would set a nice culture or legacy standard to propel us into the future with Chase (Elliott). You never know if you'll get a chance to be back in this position again."
Childers is fortunate enough to have that encore opportunity with Harvick. They won at Homestead to capture the Sprint Cup crown in their first season together at Stewart-Haas Racing, and they have been dominant at times in 2015.
"We've had fast cars all year," said Childers, 39, who has finished in the top 10 in more than half (36 of 71) of his races with Harvick. "It's just been a fun season, and you know, we look forward to the opportunity of going down there and at least having a shot at it and being able to do something special."
Harvick, who benefitted from Childers' decision to take four tires late in last year's title-deciding race, appreciates his crew chief's judgment in critical situations.
"I think the confidence between myself and Rodney is, obviously, pretty high," Harvick said. "I believe in what he does. I believe in what my team does and, I think, that in the car, they believe in what I do. The chemistry on this team is so special. Through the Chase, I just believe that every step of the way, it's been just (a series) of character-building moments that have made us stronger."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- If the four men on the dais at the Diplomat Resort & Spa had been a vocal group, rather than the four Championship Round drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Jeff Gordon provided a ready name for the ensemble.
"He's the favorite," Gordon said, pointing at reigning series champion Kevin Harvick. "We're the sentimentals. That's all there is."
The "we" in this case referred to Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., all of whom will be attempting to dethrone the champion when Harvick & the Sentimentals race for the title in the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
Each of the "Sentimentals" has a story. Busch made the Chase after breaking his right leg and left foot in the Feb. 21 NASCAR Xfinity Series opener at Daytona, an injury that sidelined him for the first 11 Sprint Cup races of the season.
Truex drives for a single-car organization, Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Racing, and before this year has never been a title contender in NASCAR's premier series.
But if there is a true sentimental favorite in Sunday's decisive race, that honor goes to Gordon, hands down.
The Ecoboost 400 will be Gordon's final race in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the seat he has occupied for an iron-man record 796 consecutive events dating to the 1992 season finale.
The prospect of Gordon leaving the driver's seat for the FOX Sports broadcast booth at season's end already has conjured images of other rare athletes who have retired while at the pinnacle of their respective sports.
It's a short list. Super Bowl champs John Elway and Jerome Bettis come to mind. So do Rocky Marciano, who retired as undefeated heavyweight boxing champion in 1956, and Byron Nelson, who left full-time competitive golf at age 34 after accumulating enough money to buy the Texas ranch he had always wanted.
Arguably, a Gordon championship would be a bigger story than those of his predecessors because of the name recognition he has earned as an ambassador for NASCAR racing for more than two decades.
But don't think for a minute that Gordon will be satisfied simply to make the Championship Round and race for the title. Sentimental favorite or not, he wants to win it.
"If I could have scripted this thing in January or February, I don't think I could have scripted it quite the way it's going,” Gordon said Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day at the Diplomat. "I never dreamed that we could have an opportunity to be battling for the championship in my final race.
"Is there pressure? I mean, I feel like there's always pressure. By winning that race in Martinsville (Nov. 1) and putting us in this elite group, I mean, that right there just was an incredible moment and something I'll never forget. And knowing that we were just going to come down here and be a part of that four, that right there in itself is a win."
Clearly, though, Gordon hopes there's another, more significant win on the horizon. And those who might discount his chances should remember that Hendrick Motorsports cars won all three of the races in the Chase's Eliminator Round, which concluded last Sunday at Phoenix.
"If you don't think that our team is working extremely hard and very focused and determined to be a real factor in this thing on Sunday, then you're mistaken," Gordon said. "And so that part certainly puts pressure on.
"I mean, I think, yeah, there's a ton of pressure taken off all of us because we're just a part of it, and we know that we can't be worse than fourth when this thing is all over. But at the same time, there's definitely pressure because we all want it. We all want it really badly."
Gordon is 44, far older than the prime for athletes in most other major sports. In his retirement, he’ll have more opportunity to enjoy time with wife Ingrid, daughter Ella and son Leo. But Gordon also realizes that, because of his family, a championship this season might well be the most important accomplishment of his career.
"This one is so much different because (of) my final year, my final race, Ingrid and the kids," Gordon said. "Kids motivate you in a whole new way, and no matter what, we're going to go out and be happy and celebrate.
"But to do it as a champion, oh, my gosh, I just can't imagine anything that would be more emotional and more exciting and more gratifying than to look at my wife in the eyes and see that reaction from her when that race is over -- if we win it."
He was the highest-paid rookie -- the first bonus baby after Rick Hendrick paid him an unprecedented retainer of $750,000. He was the most TV-savvy driver since Darrell Waltrip. And he was the most unlike Dale Earnhardt of any driver in the field because he was more interested in running shoes and video games than cowboy boots and hunting.
Gordon was also one of the most ridiculed drivers in the garage. Writers made fun of his "learner's permit mustache" and Earnhardt dubbed him Wonder Boy.
When Gordon crashed regularly in his rookie season, there was some doubt if he would ever win a points race despite quickly proving his talent by winning a 125-mile qualifying race at the Daytona International Speedway at age 22 and finishing fifth in his first Daytona 500.
Soon enough, when the kid from northern California by way of Indiana did win, he won big. His first two victories in his sophomore season were the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400. Like so many great athletes, Gordon began making a big impact on NASCAR from the moment he set foot in the garage.
On Sunday, Gordon will go after the most unlikely of career endings in motor racing. He'll try to win his fourth series championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in his final race. His is one of four deeply resonant storylines among the finalists in the championship round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Gordon will have to beat defending champ Kevin Harvick, the hard-nosed kid from southern California who has been on his game all season. Gordon will have to shut down the comeback story of Kyle Busch, who has been uncharacteristically patient and smart after returning from serious leg and foot injuries following a midsummer hot streak.
And he'll have to beat sentimental favorite Martin Truex Jr., who spent last year battling career woes and his girlfriend's ongoing bout with cancer.
But all of the competitors will get another chance to win the Chase next season except Gordon.
"There's always pressure," Gordon said in the Thursday champions press conference. "I'm looking at it as going out in an exciting and fun way. By winning at Martinsville to put us in this, that was just incredible. That was a win right there.
"But if you think our team isn't focused on this race on Sunday, you'd be mistaken. We all want it really badly and we know it won't come easily. But as for pressure, we often have big races and big moments in races."
Whether Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team rise to the top of the heap for one last time in a race where the champion is expected to also be the race winner, the driver will move on in favor of a broadcast career after having brought NASCAR into prime time.
When the first multiyear blanket contract was signed with TV executives to the tune of $2.4 billion before the 2001 season, it was the presence of an accomplished young Gordon, as comfortable on the David Letterman Show as he was in the cockpit, who helped drive the deal as much as seven-time champ Earnhardt.
By then, a handsome, clean shaven Gordon had developed two major followings. There were the fans who loved him, who were mostly young and female, and there were the fans who booed him loudly because they favored the old-school approach.
"The King," Richard Petty, brought NASCAR out of the backwoods with his popularity, charisma and seven championships. "The Intimidator," Dale Earnhardt, divided and conquered by his extraordinary talent and willingness to run closely on superspeedways en route to seven championships.
Gordon won four championships by age 30 just by being himself and he broadened the NASCAR fan base because of his youth, Christian beliefs and an approach that was far more typical of California than the Southeast.
There was never anything plastic about Gordon, who was comfortable enough with himself to quickly adapt to stardom. After his fourth title in 2001, Gordon was asked if he consciously tried to build an image.
"I'm really doing what my heart and mind is leading me to do," he said. "I didn't plan the image. 'OK, I want to be this, this and this.' I didn't do that. I'm a nice guy. I've always been clean cut and my parents taught me not to swear and to respect people. To me, it's my personality and not an image."
Oddly enough, Earnhardt and Gordon became fast friends -- a friendship that survived Gordon putting the black No. 3 Chevy on its roof at Daytona en route to his first Daytona 500 victory, making the Man in Black wait yet another year to get his first.
Gordon had the skill and the guts to race Earnhardt at close quarters, which the older driver relished in his competitors. But out of the car, Earnhardt ribbed Gordon a lot, especially after he narrowly lost an eighth championship when Gordon won his first.
"They'll be drinking milk instead of champagne at the champions table in New York," Earnhardt said.
But Gordon was never a pushover. It was Gordon who pioneered the first payback during the Chase that took a driver out of the running when he deliberately crashed Clint Bowyer in 2012. Despite that incident and the occasional outbreaks of anger and shoving matches, the respect for Gordon's driving ability and his constant, successful effort to represent NASCAR well continues to bring him a lot of respect in the garage.
When the lights finally go dim at Homestead on Sunday evening, Gordon will have left his chosen sport better off than when he arrived as an awkward young man, albeit highly touted, who was simply looking to win races.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Chris Buescher isn't fond of points racing or being cautious. But when it comes to Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series Ford EcoBoost 300 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (2:45 p.m. ET on NBC), he might have to do a little of both.
Buescher leads Chase Elliott by 18 points, Ty Dillon by 22 and Regan Smith by 24 going into the race. With such narrow margins, Buescher will try to balance caution with aggression.
"You've got to be a little bit more careful, but at the same time, I've been pretty adamant about how much I hate points racing," Buescher said. "So I want to go have a good day, and I feel like this has been a good racetrack for us.
"I've only run one race there but had a lot of fun last year, first and foremost, and was able to get a top five out of it. So I feel like this should be a good weekend for us. We just have to continue doing what we've done all year."
While he'll try to race as usual while aware of his competitors, they'll be able to race with abandon.
"You always push yourself to want more no matter what, and you're never satisfied unless you're winning in this sport," Dillon said. "I think it's one of the only sports where there's 43 people playing or participating each week and there's only one winner, so that makes 42 losers a week. You're always wanting to be that guy winning, and I want to be a champion for my team and myself, so it's something that I'm going to continue to push for."
Elliott, who will replace retiring Jeff Gordon with Hendrick Motorsports next season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, said Buescher doesn't need any advice.
"He doesn't need my help," Elliott said. "He's done a good job, and those guys are deserving of the position they're in, and for the rest of us trying to catch up, I know at least I can speak for myself, that we need to do a better job and try to catch up. We have an opportunity to do that this weekend."
Buescher, a 23-year-old from Prosper, Texas, is one of four Roush Fenway Racing drivers -- Elliott Sadler, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ryan Reed are the others -- in the top 10 in the Xfinity Series standings.
"I've been under the radar all my life," Buescher said. "(I'm) not opposed to it, so I've been able to have good success coming up through various series and been able to accomplish a lot to get to this point. It's a little bit more of a quiet way to get there, but we're here. We've made it this far.
"It's going to be a good weekend. We've just got to go race. That's what we've been trying to do all my life. This is the scenario I've been working toward for many years."
NOTE: Daniel Suarez leads the NASCAR Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year standings by 40 points over second-place Darrell Wallace Jr. heading into the season finale. If Suarez clinches, he will become the first Mexican-born driver and second NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate to win the award in a NASCAR national series. Suarez and Wallace are also NASCAR Next alumni.
TV: Sunday, Nov. 22, 3 p.m. ET -- NBC (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: This is the race for all the marbles, the 2015 Sprint Cup championship. Four drivers will battle it out for the crown in the season-ending race: Four-time champion Jeff Gordon (who has not won a title since 2001), defending Sprint Cup champ Kevin Harvick, and two potential first-time champions: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. ... This will likely be one of the most watched and followed races not only this season, but for a long time as it marks the final race of Gordon's 23-year Sprint Cup career. He will retire as a driver after the race and will be replaced behind the wheel of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 2016 by 2014 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series champ Chase Elliott, son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. Gordon will join Fox Sports as a NASCAR analyst next season. ... Gordon will finish his career with a NASCAR record 797 consecutive starts. Heading into Sunday's race, Gordon has 93 career wins, 325 top-five and 474 top-10 finishes, as well as 81 poles. Some other interesting stats coming into this race: he has earned $151,801,848 in his career, has recorded 228,385 laps, has led 24,920 laps, has 0 DNQs, has an average starting position of 10.5 and an average finish of 12.5. Lastly, he has recorded 297,997.2 miles and 580 lead lap finishes in his career. ... Kevin Harvick is the defending winner of this race, having captured last year's event to seal his first career Sprint Cup championship. ... This will be the 17th Sprint Cup race held at Homestead-Miami Speedway. ... Matt Kenseth returns to action after missing the previous two races at Texas and Phoenix while serving a NASCAR-mandated suspension. With neither no longer in contention for the championship, will Kenseth be seeking more revenge against Joey Logano? You can best believe NASCAR officials will be watching those two drivers especially close. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday's race at Phoenix, a rain-shortened event that was stopped after 219 of the scheduled 312 laps.
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: FORD ECOBOOST 300, (200 laps, 300 miles), Homestead-Miami Speedway; Homestead, Fla.
TV: Saturday, Nov. 21, 2:45 p.m. ET -- NBC (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: This is it, the final race of the season, as well as the race that will determine the Xfinity Series champion. Four drivers remain in contention for the championship. Chris Buescher, who has led the point standings much of the season, comes into Homestead with what he calls a "comfortable" 18-point lead over No. 2-ranked Chase Elliott. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott is holding out hope he can rally to earn his second consecutive championship (last year's title was under the Nationwide banner). Elliott moves to the Sprint Cup Series next season to replace the retiring Jeff Gordon. The other two drivers still in contention for the title are Ty Dillon, who is ranked third, 22 points behind Buescher, while Regan Smith is ranked fourth, 24 points out of first place. ... This will be the 21st Xfinity Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. ... Matt Kenseth is the defending winner of this race. ... Kyle Busch put on a dominating performance in last Saturday's Xfinity Series race at Phoenix, leading 190 of the event's 200 laps. Busch extended his own wins record in the Xfinity Series to 76 with the Phoenix triumph.
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: FORD ECOBOOST 200 (134 laps, 201 miles), Homestead-Miami Speedway; Homestead, Fla.
TV: Friday, Nov. 20, 8 p.m. ET -- Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: The Camping World Truck Series championship will likely come down to a pair of 19-year-olds: Erik Jones or Tyler Reddick. No matter who wins, that driver would become the youngest champion in NASCAR history. ... Ironically enough, coming into Sunday's race, just 19 points separates points leader Jones and No. 2-ranked Reddick. Jones can clinch the championship if he places 15th or better, 16th with leading one lap and 17th with leading the most laps. ... Two-time defending Truck champ Matt Crafton still has an outside shot at the title, but it is a rather slippery slope. He would need for both Jones and Reddick to retire early and finish lower than 27th to win the title. ... Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. won this race last season. ... This will be the 20th Truck race at Homestead, the first coming in 1996 (winner: Dave Rezendes). ... Timothy Peters won last Friday's penultimate race at Phoenix, his second victory of the season. ... NASCAR Next development drivers Rico Abreu and William Byron made their first NASCAR national series starts last Friday at Phoenix. Both drivers struggled in their debuts: Abreu finished 28th, while Byron finished 31st in the 32-truck field.
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES: Season concluded last Sunday in Pomona, Calif.
THEN AND NOW: Last Sunday marked the final race of the 24-race 2015 season. Del Worsham won his first career Funny Car championship, and second championship overall, having previously won the 2011 Top Fuel crown. In adding the Funny Car title to his collection, Worsham became only the third driver in NHRA history to win championships in both Nitro categories, Top Fuel and Funny Car (the other two drivers to perform the rare double were the now-retired Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi). ... Also winning a championship was Andrew Hines, who won his second consecutive Pro Stock Motorcycle title. But even bigger was the fact Hines became the youngest driver in NHRA history to win five national championships, having earned his fifth last Sunday at the age of 32. ... Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) also won championships, but clinched their respective crowns two weeks ago at Las Vegas. ... With the conclusion of the season, NHRA bids adieu to ESPN and hello in 2016 to TV coverage by Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1. ... Here are the final standings in each of the four pro classes: Top Fuel: 1. Antron Brown, 2,692 points; 2. Tony Schumacher, 2,461; 3. Richie Crampton, 2,430; 4. Larry Dixon, 2,412; 5. Doug Kalitta, 2,388; 6. Shawn Langdon, 2,387; 7. Brittany Force, 2,363; 8. Steve Torrence, 2,342; 9. J.R. Todd, 2,307; 10. Dave Connolly, 2,303. Funny Car: 1. Del Worsham, 2,664; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,608; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,548; 4. Ron Capps, 2,490; 5. Matt Hagan, 2,418; 6. Robert Hight, 2,370; 7. John Force, 2,332; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 2,313; 9. Cruz Pedregon, 2,286; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,259.
Pro Stock: 1. Erica Enders, 2,712; 2. Greg Anderson, 2,492; 3. Allen Johnson, 2,443; 4. Chris McGaha, 2,442; 5. Drew Skillman, 2,433; 6. Vincent Nobile, 2,389; 7. Larry Morgan, 2,376; 8. Jason Line, 2,331; 9. Shane Gray, 2,299; 10. Jonathan Gray, 2,286. Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,608; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 2,565; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,550; 4. Matt Smith, 2,428; 5. Hector Arana Jr, 2,419; 6. Chip Ellis, 2,400; 7. Karen Stoffer, 2,376; 8. Hector Arana, 2,323; 9. Jim Underdahl, 2,220; 10. Scotty Pollacheck, 2,192. ... Fans seeking a drag racing fix won't have to wait too long: the 2016 season-opening race will be held in less than three months, Feb. 12-14 at Pomona, Calif.
As told to the NASCAR Wire Service's Reid Spencer, below is a first-person account from six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.)
By Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
I feel very fortunate to have been a fan of Jeff Gordon from the very beginning. He was somebody that I aspired to be. I watched him from his Midget and Sprint Car days all the way through, and when he hopped in that DuPont 24, it was much easier to follow him.
When you look at the doors that he has opened after his success, and owners thinking that drivers don't have to come from the South or come from stock cars, you can also put a ton of credit for our sport's growth on his shoulders. His rivalry with Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., and being so well-spoken and successful and at the peak of our sport ... it all formed a perfect storm for NASCAR. Our sport was really becoming national, and finally getting the national media attention that it deserved.
I think, in some respects, he and (Earnhardt) knew they needed each other. I can remember the banquet where Earnhardt pulled out a glass of milk to toast him. I can remember some really hard-nosed racing. They knew that the rivalry they had on the track was something special and real -- it wasn't a fabricated one.
At the same time, from Jeff's stories to me, he really admired Dale and looked up to Dale, not only for what he did in the car but the stuff off the track. Jeff was studying him and learning from him and making business decisions off of Earnhardt. There was a great deal of respect there.
As a fan and as a competitor, he's been a lot of fun to watch and a lot of fun to race against. He's been a great friend. He gave me my start. He was the driving force behind starting the fourth team (at Hendrick Motorsports) and putting me in that car. Through a few interactions at a test session and some racing, he saw something there ... I still today can't get it out of him, what he saw, and he still won't take a lot of credit for recognizing it and giving me my start. But I'm still blown away.
Of course, whenever you're talking about two competitors, it's not always smooth. It's like any relationship.
Through 2008, 2009, somewhere in there -- maybe even 2010 -- we had a couple of dust-ups on the track that led to some sit-down conversations with Mr. Hendrick and Jeff and I. Competition is a funny thing. I think it worked out for the best. One, Rick got us in line and, two, it helped us open a line of communication to talk and discuss things and to exist in our very complicated situation of he being an owner of the car, and the competitive desire for us to beat each other.
From my standpoint, it's been an honor to race against a guy I've looked up to and idolized and tried to mimic his career path. And winning championships while racing against him were extremely gratifying moments. I'm sure they were the exact opposite on his side.
But to have that guy hand-pick me, and he was my hero, and then to beat him at Martinsville, where he was so good, with him trying to beat the bumper off the car and going to the finish line side-by-side -- that was one of the proudest moments I've had behind the wheel.
Probably not his favorite moment, but it's mine -- because he's Jeff Gordon.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
If you've attended more than a handful of NASCAR races in your lifetime, you've seen the work of Sam Bass.
The prolific NASCAR artist is known for his work on program covers for NASCAR events -- and for the ornate guitars he paints as trophies and as mementos for special occasions.
Bass has been the artist of record for Charlotte Motor Speedway for three decades. His most recent cover featured "Jeff’s Last Ride," a tribute to four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who is leaving at the end of the season to embark on a television career in the Fox Sports broadcast booth.
What many don't know is that the careers of Gordon and Bass are inexorably intertwined. In fact, Bass designed the hallmark rainbow paint scheme for Gordon's DuPont Chevrolet, a vision that gave rise to the mystique of Gordon and his "Rainbow Warriors."
What’s even more interesting is how Bass got the job in the first place.
"In 1992, after the May race (at Charlotte), Ray Evernham (Gordon's longtime crew chief) came by my studio, which used to be up on the corner above the Simpson Race Products building," Bass told NASCAR Wire Service. "He was looking for a gift to give Jeff Gordon for his birthday.
"He picked out a print, and he asked me how much the print was going to cost. I said, 'It's not going to cost you anything -- I want you to have it. The only thing I ask is ... I know you guys just hired Jeff Gordon, and you're going to be his crew chief, and I would love a chance to design his race car.
"About a month later, he called me up and said, 'Well, here's your chance.'"
Bass submitted three designs that were presented at the Wilmington, Del., headquarters of DuPont, Gordon's sponsor, in competition with approximately 40 other designs. The company selected Bass' rainbow paint scheme.
"Little did I know then how that would change my life," Bass said. "It was really, really cool. I knew the minute I did it that it was different and unique. To that point, I actually thought it was so different and so unique that the guys in the body shop would never want to touch it.
"There wasn't a straight line on the car. It ended up being a base-coat white, fluorescent yellow, fluorescent green, fluorescent blue, the middle-tone blue and then neon red. It wasn't the easiest car to paint, but I remember being over at the shop the day they rolled the car out, and it was such a head-turner. We knew we had something."
The No. 24 team resurrected the original rainbow paint scheme at Bristol Motor Speedway in August, and Bass was thrilled to see it back on the track.
"That made me so proud," Bass said. "That's been a highlight of my whole year."
Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. all came out of a rainy desert day and night to make it out of the final race of the Eliminator Round in Phoenix with more than a little momentum.
Though he finished second to race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Harvick led 143 of the rain-shortened race's 219 laps. Busch proved he could continue to advance by showing patience discovered during his 11-race layoff for injuries and by not over-driving his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to finish fourth.
In his last race on the Phoenix mile, sixth-placed Gordon maintained the momentum needed to win his first title under the Chase format that started with a win at the Martinsville Speedway. And Truex shadowed his closest rival, Carl Edwards, well enough to insure his one-car team would make an appearance in the Final Four that nobody would have predicted in February – including the driver himself.
It was a weird race.
And after a highly unpredictable Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup thus far, why not finish up the penultimate round with a desert rainstorm that delays the start by over six hours and then ends the race early?
Little E won by virtue of the odd – but fair – rule that scores the leader during a caution by who gets to the start-finish line at the middle of the pit road first. Since the leaders were slowing on the back straight for the yellow caution lights, the fortuitous pit stop by Earnhardt Jr.'s Hendrick Motorsports team meant he could take on fresh tires and still get to the start-finish first while on the pit road. Then the rains came while the field was under yellow.
Earnhardt Jr.'s win with what appeared to be a Top 5 car may have been salve for losing by less than a foot at the Talladega Superspeedway when a caution ended the green-white-checkered finish early. And, he said, it helps continue one of his best Chase runs ever. "I'm proud of this Chase because we've sort of lived up to that potential we've always said we've had and we always showed in those first 26 races."
But Little E remains disappointed about the Talladega race, yet another major turning point in a career that now has 26 victories and no championship.
"It's a shame that we didn't win that race because it was pretty damn badass how we drove that race," he said. "The whole lead-up into Talladega was about dad's 15th anniversary and how he came from 20th or whatever with 10 laps to go and won. Well, I just about rivaled that race with that run we had at Talladega, but we didn't win, so nobody's ever going to remember that one."
The rain ended what little hope remained for the Penske Racing team. Brad Keselowski wasn't a contender during the race scheduled for mid-afternoon and run at night. The Penske hopes rested on Joey Logano being able to find his way around the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy of Harvick, which wasn't going to happen easily.
The rain might have been an ally for Logano, who was behind Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick during the caution. Had a green waved, the driver known for his restarting ability might have been able to get into the lead and hold onto it until the rains came. But the green flag never waved and Logano will have to wait another year before he can repeat last season's first appearance in the Final Four at Homestead.
Logano's season turned on the Martinsville race, where he was dumped into the wall while leading by Matt Kenseth in retaliation for their coming together at the Kansas Speedway in the fifth race of the Chase. When asked about the ongoing weirdness for him during this year's Chase -- including the Phoenix round -- Logano stuck to a positive spin.
"That's the way this game's played," he said. "That's the way the Chase is. There's no doubt in my mind we're still the strongest team on the race track. I feel like this team is as tight as ever, as fast as ever and we've still got one more race to go out and win, and I'm confident this team will keep doing that."
The season finale at Homestead may not have the Penske team, but will have the sport's other three strongest teams represented. In addition to the one-car team of Furniture Row Racing of Truex Jr., the powerhouses of Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Joe Gibbs Racing will be in the running. Three of the four teams are Chevy entries and it's not a surprise Chevrolet clinched the manufacturer's championship at Phoenix.
What was unexpected was yet another win by a non-Chase driver and the third in a row by the Hendrick team during the Eliminator round. Earnhardt Jr. said it came down to the leadership of team owner Rick Hendrick.
"Rick sat us down this summer and told us to get to work," he said. "I didn't know if we could work any harder, but when Rick tells you to get to work, you find something else to do every minute of the day. Everybody is working harder, and the guys in the engine shop found some power. They've done a lot of work trying to improve there. All the teams in the fab shop started working harder to build better cars, newer cars, different cars and we found some speed."
Does this mean Hendrick driver Gordon is the favorite to cap his stellar career by winning a championship in the final race of his final season?
If so, some credit also goes to team owner Hendrick, who was at Phoenix to help celebrate, for keeping Gordon's career going. "I talked him into one more year a couple of times so he deserves to be able to take a break," said Hendrick. "But it's going to be kind of strange going to Daytona and seeing the 24 car without his name on the roof. It's going to be exciting and a very emotional race at Homestead."
Given the cast of characters, an emotional finish is just about guaranteed no matter who comes out on top.
Phoenix International Raceway
Sunday, November 15, 2015
1. (3) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 219, $213465.
2. (8) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 219, $230380.
3. (14) Joey Logano, Ford, 219, $176588.
4. (10) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 219, $164166.
5. (1) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 219, $168836.
6. (11) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 219, $147276.
7. (2) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 219, $110715.
8. (13) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 219, $105940.
9. (18) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 219, $134881.
10. (17) Aric Almirola, Ford, 219, $134126.
11. (22) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 219, $121790.
12. (4) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 219, $94065.
13. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 219, $94340.
14. (5) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 219, $111360.
15. (12) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 218, $113981.
16. (21) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 218, $91440.
17. (25) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 218, $108798.
18. (29) David Ragan, Toyota, 218, $109404.
19. (7) Erik Jones(i), Toyota, 218, $118826.
20. (16) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 218, $119076.
21. (6) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 218, $109298.
22. (24) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 218, $105273.
23. (27) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 218, $115048.
24. (23) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 218, $109598.
25. (20) Greg Biffle, Ford, 218, $111548.
26. (9) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 217, $95190.
27. (31) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 217, $107354.
28. (30) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, 217, $93048.
29. (33) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 216, $76765.
30. (34) David Gilliland, Ford, 216, $98687.
31. (28) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 215, $105360.
32. (36) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 215, $76340.
33. (38) Cole Whitt, Ford, 215, $76215.
34. (26) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 215, $120665.
35. (32) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 215, $75965.
36. (40) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, 215, $75810.
37. (41) Ryan Preece, Ford, 214, $75666.
38. (35) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 214, $69202.
39. (37) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, 213, $65130.
40. (42) Ryan Ellis(i), Chevrolet, 211, $61130.
41. (19) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, Accident, 194, $65130.
42. (39) Joey Gase(i), Ford, Accident, 161, $53130.
43. (43) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 127, $49630.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 106.512 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 03 Mins, 22 Secs. Margin of Victory: Caution.
Caution Flags: 2 for 29 laps.
Lead Changes: 8 among 7 drivers.
Lap Leaders: J. Johnson 1-44; K. Harvick 45-118; Kyle Busch 119; B. Keselowski 120-123; D. Ragan 124; K. Harvick 125-193; D. Earnhardt Jr. 194; J. Gordon 195-198; D. Earnhardt Jr. 199-219.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Harvick 2 times for 143 laps; J. Johnson 1 time for 44 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr. 2 times for 22 laps; B. Keselowski 1 time for 4 laps; J. Gordon 1 time for 4 laps; D. Ragan 1 time for 1 lap; Kyle Busch 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 16 in Points: K. Harvick -- 4,123; J. Gordon -- 4,121; Kyle Busch -- 4,121; M. Truex Jr. -- 4,106; C. Edwards -- 4,101; B. Keselowski -- 4,093; Kurt Busch -- 4,085; J. Logano -- 4,054; D. Earnhardt Jr. -- 2,306; D. Hamlin -- 2,293; R. Newman -- 2,286; J. Johnson -- 2,280; J. Mcmurray -- 2,264; P. Menard -- 2,239; M. Kenseth -- 2,197; C. Bowyer -- 2,174.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 event at Phoenix International Raceway when the red flag was displayed early because of inclement weather.
The race was called official after the completion of 219 of the scheduled 312 laps, giving Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. the last three spots in the championship chase.
Jeff Gordon, who previously qualified, will join that trio in competing for the Sprint Cup during the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22.
Harvick finished second Sunday. Joey Logano came in third, Kyle Busch fourth, Jimmie Johnson fifth and Gordon sixth. Truex came in 14th.
"I'm excited about our chances and our opportunity," Gordon said. "Our team is fired up and working hard on that Homestead car ever since we won at Martinsville, and we know we've got some tough competitors to go up against, but I love Homestead. I love that race track."
Earnhardt, meanwhile, enjoyed his result even if it didn't mean a spot in the Championship Round.
"It's a rain-shortened win, but my guys are very proud of it because of how the car ran all weekend, and we put ourselves in this position," he said. "A lot of guys would love to see this race continue and have an opportunity to race to the Chase. If I had 4 or 6 inches at Talladega, we would be going there to Homestead to race for a championship, too. It works out for some, and some it doesn't.
"We will take this win. It has been a long year, and we put a lot of effort into it, and we are starting to see some things turn around and work for us like we want. We were fast all weekend, so real proud of this."
Before the finish, the race was already under a caution that came out on lap 195 for a wreck involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Gase. The start of the race was delayed over 6 1/2 hours for rain earlier in the day.
The yellow flag for Stenhouse and Gase was the second caution of the race, and it came after about half of the race field pitted under green, as a cycle of green-flag pit stops began just a lap earlier.
Earnhardt, Harvick, Logano and Kyle Busch pitted under green just before the yellow flag but remained on the lead lap and moved into the top four positions when others pitted under yellow. Johnson was the first driver off pit road during the caution.
"We had an idea that the rain was in the area, but all the circumstances that played out at the end of the race are just kind of luck, I think," Earnhardt said. "I want to give Greg (Ives, crew chief) a lot of credit and the guys. They gave us a good enough car to come here and qualify well.
"I think the reason why we won this race is because of the way we qualified to give ourselves a position to be up front all night. When something this quirky happens, we were able to capitalize."
Harvick dominated the race after getting off pit road first courtesy of a two-tire stop during a competition caution on lap 40. He led most of the remaining laps.
"We made great adjustments overnight and got that little bit of balance that we were looking for from practice, and just the way that the caution fell, I didn't get all my distance back on the race track under green and Dale was able to beat us out," Harvick said. "But, hey, you lose some and you win some like that. And sometimes you're on the right side of it and sometimes you're on the wrong side of it.
"Today, we were on the wrong side of it, but in the big picture, we're racing for a championship next week, so I'm just really proud of everybody on our team."
Earnhardt and Logano, like Harvick, were among five drivers who took two tires during the yellow-flag pit stops. As Harvick pulled away when the race returned to green, Earnhardt and Logano traded the second position back and forth. By the time the race field began cycling through green-flag pit stops on lap 118, Harvick had a cushion of more than five seconds over Logano.
When the cycle of stops completed, Harvick was back up front with Logano in second. Logano made his green-flag stop two laps before Harvick, and after the cycle was completed, his deficit to Harvick was down to two seconds.
Johnson started the race on the pole, with Kurt Busch alongside on the front row following the rain delay. Kurt Busch looked to take the lead in turn three on the first lap, but NASCAR penalized him for jumping the start and handed the lead back over to Johnson. As a result of the penalty, Kurt Busch was not credited for the laps he ran up front before serving his pass-through penalty.
Johnson continued to lead until the lap-40 yellow flag, but he was forced to join Kurt Busch in the back for the restart after serving a pit-road speeding penalty. By the halfway point of the race, though, both Johnson and Kurt Busch were inside the top 10 of the running order.
The race, originally scheduled for a 12:45 p.m. start, was delayed by rain throughout the afternoon and evening.
NASCAR and track personnel got the racing surface nearly dry multiple times between showers. After hours of battling moisture from the sky, water that collected in the track's SAFER barrier system began seeping onto the race track.
Of the 43 drivers who started the race, seven were vying for three remaining slots in the one-race Championship Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. They were Busch, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Logano, Truex, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.
Phoenix International Raceway is temporarily renamed Jeff Gordon Raceway to honor the retiring driver. Gordon clinched his advancement to the final round of the Chase with his win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Nov. 1.
NOTES: Kevin Harvick came into Sunday's race as the winner of the four most recent races at Phoenix International Raceway. ... Joey Logano's only shot at advancement in the Chase for the Sprint Cup was to win at Phoenix. ... Erik Jones substituted for the suspended Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for the second week, and he came in 19th. It also was Jones' second consecutive week of NASCAR triple duty. Kenseth will return next week. ... Kyle Busch led all but 10 laps en route to the win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Phoenix on Saturday. Brad Keselowski and Jones finished second and third, respectively.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- If Saturday's DAV 200 Honoring America's Veterans had been a court case, 39 NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers would have pleaded "no contest."
The exception was pole-sitter Kyle Busch, who led 190 of 200 laps in registering a dominating victory at Phoenix International Raceway, his eighth in 19 starts at the track.
In a race that saw defending series champion and seventh-place finisher Chase Elliott trim Xfinity leader Chris Buescher's margin in the standings from 24 to 18 points, Busch ran away with the event, crossing the finish line 3.097 seconds ahead of runner-up Brad Keselowski.
After winning his 47th pole earlier in the day (extending his series record), Busch picked up his 76th Xfinity victory (extending his series record). He now has led 1,636 laps at PIR, second most at any track behind Bristol (1,768).
The win was Busch's fifth from the pole at PIR.
"It wasn't particularly hard, obviously," Busch said of his victory. "I do remember that there was one other time here I think I led 200 of 200 (laps) ... We've done that here before. Today was close. We just weren't able to get good enough pit stops to come out of the pits with the lead each time and hold the lead that we had.
"But, all in all, it was a very fast race car -- flawless, really."
Keselowski was fast but not in Busch's class.
"We had a great effort," Keselowski said. "We had a great day on pit road. The guys on the pit crew did a great job there. We gained spots, so that was really cool and real fun, but we just needed a lot more speed to run with the 54. Either way, it was a pretty solid day."
JGR drivers Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez ran third and fourth, respectively, giving the organization three of the top four finishing positions. Ty Dillon came home fifth, followed by Regan Smith.
Buescher finished 13th, one lap down, and lost a fourth of his points lead over the reigning champion. But he can clinch the series title with a finish of 13th or better next Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"In the grand scheme of things, we need to go to Homestead and we need to have a good day and do what we did there last year -- just run around and stay out of trouble," Buescher said. "Run fifth -- that would be just fine.
"When you look at the averages and points gained versus our needed position to finish, our window is getting bigger as we go through these last four races, so that makes me feel good as we go to Homestead. Even though they gained some points, honestly, unless something crazy happens at Homestead, it's just not going to be enough."
Busch, on the other hand, is in a dogfight for one of three available spots in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Round next week at Homestead. But first he'll have to survive Sunday's Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at PIR (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
"We got our M&M's Camry a little bit better there in Happy Hour," Busch said of Saturday's final Sprint Cup practice session. "It was good. I'd like it to be better than it was, but we'll see how it stacks up in the race. I learned some things here today that will help me, and I'm looking forward to it."
Busch, who is second on the Chase Grid, will start 10th in Sunday's race.