As the NASCAR Cup Series arrives at sunny Homestead-Miami Speedway for Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) there will be a distinctively different vibe – drivers establishing early season success versus hoisting a championship trophy.
The facility, which hosted the sport’s championship weekend for 18 years (2002-2019), will now be an important player in setting the stage, not dropping the curtain. And it’s a new challenge the drivers and teams seem eager to take on.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. hoisted the most recent series trophy, earning the win in Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville Speedway - the seventh different driver to win through the opening 11 races.
It was especially big for Truex’s No. 19 team as it was the first victory with new crew chief James Small. And Truex is confident that dose of victory will be important in carrying the team toward a title.
“I have confidence in James all year that we can continue what we’ve done," said Truex, whose previous championship winning crew chief, Cole Pearn, stepped away from NASCAR in the offseason.
"I think this answers a great question for him more than anything, for himself."
And, he added, “Hopefully, we can thrive from this and move forward and start winning more often."
On the other side of that, there are still three drivers ranked among the top 10 in the NASCAR Cup Series championship, still looking for their first win - Truex’s Martinsville runner-up Ryan Blaney and brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch.
Kyle Busch is the reigning series champion, having won the 2019 title with a valiant and dramatic drive in last year’s season finale at Homestead. He and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (a two-time winner this season) are the only active drivers to win multiple times at Homestead-Miami. In fact, there hasn’t been a back-to-back winner since Greg Biffle won three straight from 2004-2006.
Among the trio looking to break into the win column this season and solidify a Playoff position, Kyle Busch, who is ranked ninth in points, boasts the best record at Homestead. The driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota has eight top-10 finishes in 15 starts with wins in 2015 and 2019 earning him the championship trophies. He’s led laps in the last five races there.
His older brother Kurt Busch, who is ranked 10th in the championship, has seven top-10 finishes in 19 Homestead starts punctuated with a win from the pole position in 2002 (the last time a driver won from the pole at this track). The driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet hasn’t led a lap at Homestead, however, since 2014. He finished 21st last November.
Blaney, who is sixth in the championship standings, probably wouldn’t count Homestead as one of his best tracks historically. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford has yet to earn a top-10 in five starts there and has never led a lap. However, Blaney’s 11th-place finish last Fall is his best showing to date.
Also among those hovering atop the series championship rankings is another former Homestead winner, Jimmie Johnson – whose 70 laps led at Martinsville Wednesday night were the most in a race for him since 2017. Johnson, who is ranked 11th in the standings, won at Homestead in 2016 to claim his record-tying seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has 11 top-10 finishes in 19 starts at the track, however, the last top 10 came in his 2016 title-making win.
NASCAR XFINTY SERIES HEADS TO SOUTH BEACH
The good news for the NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers is that no former Homestead-Miami Speedway drivers will be contending in the highly-anticipated weekend doubleheader, but one of the sport’s most talented – and definitely most popular – racers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will be racing for one of the two trophies up for grabs in what should be an exciting showcase of this series’ competitive flair.
Earnhardt, a two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, is making his only scheduled 2020 series start in Saturday’s Hooters 250 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). And the series answers with the Consumer Boats 250 on Sunday (12 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) where $100,000 is on the line in the Dash 4 Cash incentive program.
The racing has been intense, the finishes close and there are no drivers in either Saturday’s or Sunday’s field that have ever won an Xfinity Series race at the 1.5-mile South Florida track, which previously hosted the championship weekend.
Tyler Reddick, now a NASCAR Cup Series rookie contender, is the two-time defending Homestead race winner. But there is plenty of talent ready to hoist one or both of the trophies available in this unprecedented track doubleheader.
The top six in the Xfinity Series driver standings have proven themselves the class of the field weekly – keeping the competition close on-track and statistically. Two-race winner Chase Briscoe holds a four-point edge on two-race winner Noah Gragson atop the championship – each winning a race prior to the COVID-19 pandemic break in action and each winning a race after the return to competition.
Neither has won at Homestead-Miami Speedway, however. Briscoe, driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has a best showing of third place last year. Gragson, who drives the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, finished fourth in his only Xfinity Series race at the track in 2019.
Series rookie, 19-year old Harrison Burton, who earned his first career Xfinity Series victory at California in early March, is ranked third, 32 points off Briscoe’s pace, followed closely by veteran Justin Allgaier (-43 points), South Florida native Ross Chastain (-45 points) and Austin Cindric (-55 points).
Gragson arrives in Homestead $100,000 richer having earned the first Xfinity Dash 4 Cash prize money last weekend in Atlanta. That makes race winner and former NASCAR Cup Series standout A.J Allmendinger, runner-up Gragson, third place Justin Haley and fourth place Daniel Hemric eligible for the big payout in Sunday’s race.
“Homestead is a track that I have circled on the schedule every year and the fact that we get to run a doubleheader this year makes me even more excited," Gragson said. “I love being able to run up on the wall and this is the epitome of that."
And, he added, “Thanks to Xfinity, we will be running for the $100K again on Sunday after winning it last weekend, so that gives us extra incentive to go out there and win this race."
Storylines – from the tight championship chase, to the Dash 4 Cash bonus money, to beloved and familiar drivers on the grid – are in no shortage for the busy South Florida weekend of competition.
“I’m really looking forward to getting back behind the wheel," said Earnhardt, who will drive the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. “It’s definitely going to be interesting having not been in a car in almost a year to jump back in and go race without having any practice. I’m excited to get back and to get to work with [crew chief] Taylor [Moyer] and all of the guys on this team.
“We’ve been working toward this race with Hellmann’s for a while now and I’m happy it’s finally here."
NASCAR GANDER RV & OUTDOOR TRUCK SERIES HEATS UP MIAMI
The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship title won’t be up for grabs based solely on the outcome of Saturday night’s Baptist Health 200 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Homestead-Miami Speedway as has been the case at the track for more than a decade.
But the drivers who have established themselves as the early favorites for the 2020 title happen to be some of the best drivers at the South Florida 1.5-miler and they will be tested this weekend by some of the sport’s best including the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and the NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott.
This season’s NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series points leader Austin Hill won the 2019 Homestead race, but he wasn’t one of the four drivers eligible for the title when the series championship was decided there last November. His work at the track however, combined with a strong runner-up showing last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway makes him an absolute favorite this week in the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota Tundra.
Hill is the only driver with top-10 finishes in all four races this season, his 5.0 average finish is best in the series and his 73 laps led is most among series regulars.
“We’ve had a great start to the year, and I know our group is capable of even more," Hill said. “We had a great United Rentals Tundra last week at Atlanta and we’ve had good speed every race so far. It definitely would have been nice to seal the deal last week, but we have a great shot to do it at Homestead on Saturday."
Grant Enfinger, who bettered Hill last week at Atlanta on a green-white-checkered restart to settle the race in overtime, is now 2-for-4 on the season - also winning the Daytona season-opener. Enfinger has a solid Homestead-Miami record as well with three top-10 finishes in the last four races. His best showing was a runner-up finish in 2018 after starting from pole position. He is third in the championship, 31 points off Hill’s pace.
In all, there are four current championship contenders with Homestead trophies. In addition to Hill, Brett Moffitt won in South Florida in 2018 to claim the truck series championship. Reigning champion Matt Crafton won there in 2015 and Johnny Sauter is the 2011 race champion.
All four of these past winners are setting themselves up as early 2020 title favorites.
Moffitt is ranked fourth in the championship, 31 points behind Hill. The driver of the No. 23 GMS Chevrolet has two top-five finishes in two starts at Homestead, including a fifth-place last year in addition to his 2018 victory. His average finish is 3.0.
Crafton, driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford, is still trying to raise his title defense game. His only top 10 through four races is a fourth place at Las Vegas. He’s ranked 11th in the standings, but has an impressive Homestead resume with 11 top-10 finishes in 19 Homestead starts and not a single DNF. Saturday night may be just what the three-time series champion needs to establish himself a contender again.
Sauter, driver of the No. 13 ThorSport Racing Ford F-150, comes to Homestead abundantly motivated. An inspection violation last week at Atlanta dropped the veteran from a top-10 finish to last on the scoring sheet. Instead of being ranked among the top five in the title run – he was second - he’s now eighth. Not only does he have that previous win at Homestead he’s had nine top-10 finishes in 13 starts – including five of the last six races.
These past success stories, however, are facing a talented group of young drivers that have already proven themselves ready to challenge.
Zane Smith, driver of the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet, is second in the championship – 21 points behind Hill. He’ll be making his Homestead-Miami Speedway debut on Saturday. The 21-year old comes to South Florida with top-10 finishes in the last three races, including a best of third place on the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval.
Ben Rhodes, the 23-year old driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford, has top-10 finishes in the last three races. He’s ranked fifth in the championship, 35 points behind Hill. He’s got one top-10 in four previous Homestead starts.