Saturday, Oct 16

The performance of Germain Racing has increased over the past two seasons by having an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. The alliance has allowed the small organization to up its game, and go from essentially a start-and-park team to a team that each week is battling for top-20 finishes.

Casey Mears is entering his seventh season with Germain Racing, five in which have been full-time. In 2010, the team qualified for just 30 races, 12 of them slotted the California native behind the wheel.

Back when Germain Racing decided to Sprint Cup Series racing, it picked Max Papis to be the full-time driver with sponsorship from GEICO. Six years later, GEICO is still around and supporting the team in every race, for a club that runs outside of the top 10.

It isn’t for a lack of trying. Aligning themselves with RCR has brought the spirit within the team to new heights. In 2015, Mears experienced his best season with the current team.

His top 10 total went down from three to one in 2015 compared to 2014, but the consistency was there more this season than in previous seasons. With an average finish of 23.1, slightly up from 2014, his team has brought optimism into the new season.

He finished 23rd in the championship standings, but hovered around the 20th position all season long. His lone top 10 came in the Daytona 500 where the No. 13 car crossed the checkered flag in the sixth position, giving them a heads up on larger teams that finished poorly in the 500, such as Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski, all whom finished 35th or worse.

In the first month and a half of the season, Mears finished in the top 20 all but two times, giving him the best start with Germain Racing in his tenure. Following Martinsville, he had four straight finished of 25th or worse, costing him valuable points.

One thing that the team improved was qualifying. For the season, the No. 13 had an average starting position of 23.9, including an eighth-place effort at Sonoma, a place that Mears typically runs well at. The speed was there to be competitive, and he looks forward to even better results in 2016.

“Our morale is really high right now,” Mears told Speedway Digest. “It’s been a long time coming for our program. The last five years now it’s been a huge growth from being essentially a start-and-park program, to running half of the races, to now I think this is our third full season. Now being with RCR again for another year, I feel like we are really starting to understand a lot of the details that we need to know and understand to really go out and compete.”

RCR hasn’t won a race since the fall of 2013 when Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix. However, it did produce one of the championship four contenders in 2014 with the No. 31 team and Newman. Over the course of last season RCR continued to grow faster, especially with Austin Dillon.

The No. 3 team may not have got the results that they were looking for, but Dillon became a top-10 to top-15 regular, including a career best of fourth at Michigan in August. Paul Menard made the Chase for the first time, and an alliance with Furniture Row Racing propelled Martin Truex, Jr. to the championship race in Homestead.

Speed wise, RCR is giving high quality equipment to its competition. Being that 2016 will be the third year working with Germain Racing, it is assumed that the No. 13 car will be the best it has been to date.

“A huge goal for us is to break the top 20 in points,” Mears said. “I honestly feel like last year, every single year there’s a handful of races that you can always look back on and go ‘man if we would have just done this’ or something would happen, but in reality we actually had several things happen to us last year that just don’t typically happen.” 

Crew chief Bootie Barker and he have worked together for the better part of the past five and a half years. Barker is one of the most respected crew chiefs that sits atop the pit box on a weekly basis. The chemistry has evolved into a close friendship off the racetrack and has proven to work on the track. 

This isn’t quite a make or break season for Mears as he is signed with Germain Racing through the 2018 season. But the pressure to perform is always on a race team and for him personally he wants to win, but more importantly have a shot at the championship, something that’s never happened in his career.

In his 13-year career, Mears has had some bright moments that stick out including winning the pole for the Brickyard 400 in 2004. He’s raced for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Red Bull Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Keyed-Up Motorsports and now Germain Racing, but has just one fuel mileage win to show for it in the 2007 Coca-Cola 600.

In recent memory Mears hasn’t had the ability to run toward the front, but heading into 2016, his career might be the most stable that it has ever been.

“I feel like, even last year, if we can just put a solid season together and not had issues we could have probably finished 18th in points,” he said. “I see us if we get everything out that we have and make the right decisions we’re knocking on the door of possibly being in the Chase.”

Making the Chase would be a huge step in the right direction for the small race team that employs less than 40 people. Unloading off of the hauler with something to work with will allow for a better opportunity for Mears and Barker. They can focus on what they have and improve the setup instead of struggling to find the right balance all weekend long.

Hugs all around. That’s just how warm-hearted he is. Wife and son. Crew members and owners. Everyone deserves a hug for what this man accomplished.

“The Closer” took it all home at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Kevin Harvick, who made the daring swap to Stewart-Haas Racing over the off-season, battled a hard-charging Ryan Newman late in the Ford EcoBoost 400. After a restart with three laps to go, the driver of the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet headed off into the sunset to win the race, and more importantly – his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

With 25 laps to go, Harvick got around Hamlin. Logano came into pit road on the following caution, along with Newman and Harvick, but the jack fell off on the left side, which put the No. 22 car at the rear of the field. Logano came back to finish 16th, yet it wasn’t enough with his three opponents racing inside of the top-10 throughout the day.

“I knew I needed to get a bunch of them," Harvick said following the race. "I was fortunate to start on the outside. The seas kind of parted there as I came off of Turn 2 and was about to get four or five of them; I don’t really know but it was time to go for broke at that particular point. When the next caution came out, we were fortunate enough again to line up on the outside. That was pretty much what we needed - to get the run on the outside down the backstretch."

Harvick had five wins on the year, which is tied for the most in his career (2006). With 14 top-fives and 20 top-10s, he showed he had the speed to win throughout the year. Although adversity struck the No. 4 team on multiple occasions with pit crew problems and mechanical issues, they rebounded with multiple victories late in the year; including back-to-back wins to end the season. Winning the championship, Harvick has given Stewart-Haas Racing their second triumph, and he becomes the 30th different driver in the sport’s 66-year history to win the title.

"If it wasn’t for Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, I would have been in bad trouble this week," said Harvick. "Those guys really helped me get through the week. Today was fine. I was a little anxious both days of practice, overdriving the car and not doing things I needed to do. After every practice, Jimmie was in there, and in our team debriefs Tony was constantly telling me just to go race and that it’s just another race."

“It was a heck of a race up there,” said Logano following the disappointing result. “I screwed up and hit the wall early and we were able to recover then had the mistake on pit road which didn’t give us enough time to recover from that. It is unfortunate. Execution was our strong point all year and we just didn’t do it tonight. For that reason we finished fourth after I think we scored the most points this whole Chase.”

Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb opted to stay out of pit road along with Jeff Gordon with approximately 20 laps remaining in the race. The No. 11 car had run up front throughout the 400-mile race, and led 50 laps during Sunday’s spectacle. However, without fresh tires and multiple late-race restarts, his Toyota fell back on the restart – finishing seventh at Homestead.

But for Newman, he was extremely close to winning the title. The two-tire call late in the race by crew chief Luke Lambert gave him a chance at winning it all. Before that risk, the No. 31 Chevrolet was racing outside of the top-five, which was sub-par compared to Harvick, Hamlin and Logano, who were each fighting for the lead. Although they didn’t record a victory in 2014, the team was well inside the top-10 in points throughout the regular season.

Gordon led the most laps on Sunday evening as he paced the field 161 times. But after starting on the pole, he finished 10th to end his season. Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top-five in the 400-mile event. Keselowski fell a lap down during a green-flag pit cycle, but took the wave around to get back on the lead lap, and was able to fight for the win for the last 50 laps.

Jimmie Johnson, who finished ninth at Homestead, finished 11th in the championship standings. Prior to this season, his worst season result was sixth in 2011. Keselowski finished fifth in points with Gordon, Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch rounding out the top-10.

Kyle Larson locked up the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Throughout his first full-time season, the 22-year-old had an average finish of 14.2 with eight top-fives and 17 top-10s. Larson had some inconsistent moments throughout the year, but he had three runner-up finishes, and was able to lead 53 laps. Austin Dillon finished second to Larson in the rookie standings, but not earning a DNF over the course of the season wasn’t enough for the Richard Childress Racing driver.

 

 

Four drivers. One will be crowned the champion. It’s going to be an intense 400-mile race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the southern edge of “The Sunshine State.”

After 35 races, 13 drivers have won at least one event in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Only two drivers have finished every race. Dreams were crushed. Some were made. Two young men won their first career race in astonishing fashion. But when it is all said and done, only one driver will be crowned the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion.

With that being said, here is what you should watch for the in Ford EcoBoost 400:

-Jeff Gordon starts on pole for the 200th time in Hendrick Motorsports history. After being eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup after a runner-up finish at Phoenix. He’s going to be gunning for his 93rd career victory.

-Each of the four championship-eligible drivers have never won a Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick has won championships in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in the past, yet neither one of his competitors have held a championship trophy.

-Kevin Harvick is looking to win his first title after 14 years in NASCAR’s top division. It would be the first time that Stewart-Haas Racing has won a championship since team owner Tony Stewart captured it in 2011. He has been the quickest of the Chase drivers throughout the weekend. The No. 4 team will start fifth on Sunday afternoon, but he was just behind Hamlin during the Saturday practice sessions in terms of 10 consecutive laps run.

-Ryan Newman is the only one of the four drivers without a victory this year. He came in clutch when he needed to, and now he is set to win Richard Childress Racing their first championship since Dale Earnhardt did so in 1994. Although he has just four top-fives this year, the driver of the No. 31 car has an average finish of 13th, and he has five top-10s throughout the Chase. He’s going to be starting 21st at Homestead, which is the worst of the Chase drivers. However, he was 12th in each of Saturday’s practices as he looks to capture his first title in his 13th full-time season in the sport’s top division.

-Denny Hamlin came close to winning the title in 2010, but he came short after finishing 14th at Homestead. Last year, his only win of the season came at the 1.5-mile track. However, Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled at the intermediate tracks this year and he has an average finish of 14.5, which is the worst of the Chase drivers. But Hamlin came on strong in the last round, and now he is set to win Joe Gibbs Racing their first championship since Tony Stewart captured the 2005 title when the team was with General Motors. Winning it all would also give Toyota their first championship in the Cup Series.

-Joey Logano joined Team Penske after underperforming at JGR. With high expectations and too much pressure to contend for wins with his teammates, Logano opted to move over to Team Penske. The decision paid off and he has been victorious five times in the No. 22 Ford this year. Two of his victories came at intermediate tracks, and the 24-year-old is determined to win the title. The pressure might be on his shoulders once again as he is hoping to give Penske their second championship of the weekend after winning the owner’s title in the Nationwide Series. However, with an average finish of 11.2 this year and 16 top-fives, the extremely consistent driver could come out on top.

-Marcos Ambrose is running his final race for Richard Petty Motorsports in the No. 9 car this weekend. He’ll be replaced by Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2015, but Ambrose could return to run the road course events since he does have off weekends in the Australian V8 Supercar Series. But he’s going to be with Penske, which means he could run a third car for them just like Juan Pablo Montoya did in 2014. Over 226 career starts, Ambrose has two victories with 18 top-fives and 46 top-10s. This year has been a struggle for him, but coming off of a top-10 finish at Phoenix – Ambrose might end his full-time NASCAR career on a high note.

-Carl Edwards is running his final race for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend. He’s starting 15th in the No. 99 Ford, but he was 18th of 30 cars to run 10 straight laps in final practice. Edwards is on the move to a fourth car at Joe Gibbs Racing, and he’s going to be working with a new crew chief as well. Homestead will be the final race on the top of a pit box for veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Since joining Roush in 1997 with Mark Martin, he has won 38 races and the first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format with Kurt Busch in 2004. The pair has struggled with the new ride height package this year, and that was a key for Edwards when he made the decision to leave the team.

-Trevor Bayne is running his last race for the Wood Brothers. He’s going to be replacing Edwards, but they’re rebranding the No. 99 team back to the legendary No. 6 Ford. Bayne has been with Roush since he left Michael Waltrip Racing’s developmental team in 2010. The 2011 Daytona 500 champion finished sixth in the Nationwide Series standings over the past two seasons, but he failed to score a victory in 2014.

-Kyle Larson is set to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title over Austin Dillon. The No. 42 team has been extremely impressive this year with eight top-fives and 17 top-10s for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. With an average finish of 14.2, he is arguably the best rookie since Hamlin in 2006.

-This is ESPN’s final race broadcasting the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – for now. For the next decade, the worldwide leader in sports won’t be telecasting NASCAR events. Instead, they have signed multiple on-air talents to continue coverage of the sport as NBC Sports will take over starting in 2015. It has been a long journey with ESPN, and they have helped the sport get noticed with long segments on their flagship show “SportsCenter.” Hopefully, they will continue their NASCAR coverage in 2015 and beyond in great ways like they have over the years.

The level of intensity at Phoenix International Raceway was higher than the clouds. Coming down to the final lap, the four drivers that will be fighting for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway now know that they are safe.

In dominating fashion, Kevin Harvick locked himself into the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory on Sunday afternoon during the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Leading 264 of 312 laps at Phoenix, Harvick separated himself from the field to take his third-straight win at the 1-mile speedway.

“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against,” Harvick said following the race. “That was our goal coming in here and that’s really the goal every time you come to Phoenix.  This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year.”

With the triumph, Stewart-Haas Racing now has a shot to win their second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick now has four victories through the 2014 season and had he not won at Phoenix – likely would not have advanced to the final round of the Chase.

Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman were able to advance to the final round of the Chase. Hamlin had a flat tire during a caution period early in the race. Subsequently, the No. 11 car went a lap down during that green-flag run. However, he rallied back on the lead lap, albeit he proceeded to get lapped once again just after the halfway mark. But with approximately 100 laps remaining in the race, the soon to be 34-year-old received the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Hamlin drove his Toyota into the top-five late in the race and solidified his spot in the championship round.

For Logano, he had a penalty for dragging equipment out of his pit stop after winning the race off of pit road during the second caution of the day. Like Hamlin, the No. 22 Ford was lapped by Harvick, yet he got the lucky dog to get his lap back. He finished sixth on Sunday at Phoenix, which helped ease his way into the final four as he had a nine-point cushion over Jeff Gordon, who narrowly missed the cutoff.

"When the 4 car laps you, you don’t know how the race is gonna play out," said Logano following his comeback on Sunday. "You don’t know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the lucky dog or will you get the lucky dog.  When you go down a lap it’s not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder.  We missed the lucky dog by one that time, and we had a decent car but when you’re trying to work your way through the field and race really hard you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble.  We were able to adjust our car to that and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely.” 

Then, there is Newman. For a moment, he seemed to be like the Newman from Seinfeld. After struggling through the first 100 laps, the No. 31 team entered the top-10. However, he fell outside of the top-15 late in the going and opted to use strategy to get up front. On the final restart of the day, Newman’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in fifth-place. But on old tires – multiple cars roared right past him. On the final lap, he was set to be just one position out of the Chase in a tie with Gordon. Gordon would have won the tie-breaker since he had a better top finish in the Eliminator Round. Yet with a bold move in Turn 3, Newman drove it in hard and got into the side of rookie Kyle Larson – putting him in the wall and giving Childress a shot at winning his first Cup Series championship since 1994.

"That was about as clean as I could race," said Newman. "I wasn't proud of it."

Gordon was notably disappointed after finishing second at Phoenix. Had he not been involved in an on-track incident with Brad Keselowski at Texas, the four-time champion likely would have advanced to Homestead. Matt Kenseth also fell short on Sunday. After finishing third, he was just three points behind Newman for third in points. Keselowski finished fourth, and came up eight points behind Newman with Carl Edwards finishing 15th – 15 points behind the No. 31 team.

“It makes last week that much even tougher to swallow, but that's all right,” said Gordon. “We put in a great effort at Martinsville, great effort here, and it just wasn't enough. Some things are out of our control, and I felt like we did a great job putting all the effort into the things that we could control.”

The race had a record 12 cautions on the day – surpassing the previous track record of 11. With eight lead changes during Sunday’s 312-mile spectacle, it was the fewest amount of passes for the lead at the track since 1998.

Going into Homestead, there will be a first-time Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the first time someone will take home their first title since 2006, when Jimmie Johnson captured his first of six crowns. 

Joseph Wolkin can be found on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.

The transition to Richard Childress Racing has been smooth for Ryan Newman. The latest driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet is consistently one of the best cars at any given NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this year.

However, as the Chase for the Sprint Cup is right around the corner, Newman hasn’t scored a win this year. Although he has shown he has cars capable of winning at some of the sport’s largest tracks, ‘rocket Ryan’ has been running around the top 10 on a weekly basis.

“We have been fairly consistent,” Newman said on Friday at Richmond. “Your radar or somebody else’s might be different. The guys have been doing a really good job of providing the good cars that are holding together, and that keeps us in that position. We’ve had issues like every other team, whether it’s a tire problem or a pit stop of something like that. But we’ve kept ourselves in contention to be ninth in points right now and have a shot at being in the Chase.”

Through his first 25 events with RCR, the 36-year-old has earned a pair of top fives with nine top 10s. Moreover, he sits ninth in the championship standings without a win, and has been a key leader for the organization.

With Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon looking for help at tracks he has never seen before, Newman is the veteran of the team now. He is the one that everyone is going to. Whether it is the organization’s Nationwide Series drivers, Dillon or their teammate Paul Menard – everyone has looked up to Newman as a leader. It is a role that he couldn’t have at Team Penske or at Stewart Haas Racing.

Now, thanks to an opportunity from Caterpillar and RCR, Newman might be set to win his first championship in NASCAR competition.

“After 25 races, I think you’re going to see typical Richmond racing. I don’t necessarily think that their Chase format is going to change the outcome of what happens in the last five laps or what happens in the last five minutes before the checkered flag. I think that’s typical Richmond,” he said. “It’s a little bit different situation this year because you’ve got however many guys that have won a race that are locked in and they might be experimenting or experiencing different things versus the other guys who haven’t won and have a shot at winning the race and racing their way in.”

The Chase kicks off next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, and Newman is set to do well. However, without that elusive victory, his team has shown signs of weakness. But after Kevin Harvick ended 2013 on a high note with RCR, Newman might just do the same this year. 

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