Highly competitive NASCAR Cup Playoffs arrive in South Florida
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – With Kyle Larson‘s victory last week at Las Vegas, one member of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 is set and three positions remain up for grabs as the series heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway for Sunday‘s 4EVER 400 Presented by Mobil 1 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — the race named in honor of 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, who is retiring at the end of the season.
The Playoff picture looks highly competitive as teams show up in South Florida for the annual 400-miler around the 1.5-mile track just outside the Florida Keys.
Larson‘s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, who held more than a 20-point margin on the Playoff cutoff line earlier in the Playoffs, now tops the standings by a slight nine points. Regular Season Champion Martin Truex Jr. and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin are tied only two-points to the good.
Sitting just below — two points back — is their JGR teammate Christopher Bell in fifth place. 23XI Racing‘s Tyler Reddick is 16 points behind, followed by Team Penske‘s Ryan Blaney, who is 17 points back. RFK Racing‘s Chris Buescher is only 23 points behind Hamlin with two Playoff races remaining to decide which four drivers will compete for the sport‘s biggest trophy on Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway.
All four highest-ranked drivers arrive in Homestead-Miami with confidence and a solid track record. The 2021 series champion Larson is the defending race winner. Byron won in 2021. Truex won in 2017 to claim that season title and Hamlin leads the entire series with three Homestead victories — 2009, 2013, 2020 — which ties the all-time record held by both Greg Biffle and NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart.
For Byron, a third victory at the track (also including his 2016 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series win) would put him into the championship finale for the first time in his six-year career in the elite NASCAR Cup Series. His six wins in 2023 has tripled his previous single season output. His 13 top fives are most in his career as well, and his 19 top-10 finishes are one shy of equaling a career-high mark too.
Since Hamlin was paired with crew chief Chris Gabehart in 2019, the 42-year-old has won races at eight of the 10 Playoff tracks. And Hamlin‘s career average finish at Homestead of 9.833 is second best among the Playoff contenders.
“We‘re looking forward to this weekend,” said Hamlin, who has finished fourth or better in the championship six times including a best showing of runner-up in 2010.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have finished last week a little better to be in a better spot in the points, but we feel good about Homestead. It‘s a track we‘ve had some success at and feel like we can run up front and score points.
“That‘s the name of the game right now to just qualify up front, score points in the stages and finish as good as we can. It‘d be awesome to win the race and lock ourselves in, but if we can‘t do that, we need to maximize our day.”
His teammate Truex is currently tied for most Championship 4 appearances (five) since the elimination format started in 2014. Although he won three races and his second Regular Season Championship this year, Truex only scored his first top-10 of this year‘s Playoffs last week at Las Vegas.
“That‘s the kind of track I really like,” Truex said of Homestead. “You can run all over and it‘s really low-grip and it wears tires out. You really have to manage your car and your tires throughout runs. Be able to move around the track and find lines that work for you.
“It‘s a big challenge and I enjoy tracks like that. I love South Florida and love going down there. A lot of great fans.”
On the flip side, three of the drivers ranked in the bottom half of the Playoff eight have never advanced to the Championship 4 previously. Bell, who scored a walk-off home run of sorts, winning at Martinsville, Va. a week before the 2022 Phoenix finale, is the only one.
And Bell‘s average finish of 13.0 at Homestead is best among those four drivers below the cutoff line. Though, Reddick won back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Homestead-Miami to earn championships in 2018-19.
Practice followed by Busch Light Pole Qualifying will begin at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday and can be viewed on the NBC Sports App.
Four spots still up for grabs in NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs’ Championship 4
The second race in the Round of 8 for the NASCAR Xfinity Series takes place Saturday in the back half of a NASCAR doubleheader at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Contender Boats 300 (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the 29th series race at the 1.5-mile track — most of any NASCAR series there — and there have been 22 different race winners.
Last weekend Las Vegas native Riley Herbst — who is not in Playoff contention – scored his first ever NASCAR Xfinity Series victory in front of his hometown crowd. The 14-second win was the largest margin of victory this season for the series and that win means the Championship 4 picture remains wide open this weekend for the eight title-eligible drivers.
Joe Gibbs Racing‘s John Hunter Nemechek leads the championship standings coming to a track where his father Joe holds multiple Xfinity Series records from wins (three) to laps completed (3,514). The 26-year-old Nemechek — a career best seven-race winner this season – holds a healthy 47-point edge on the four-driver Playoff cutoff line.
JR Motorsports‘ Justin Allgaier, a three-time winner this season, sits second in points with a 21-point cushion among the top-4, followed by Regular Season Champion, Richard Childress Racing‘s Austin Hill (+19) and Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Cole Custer (+15).
Kaulig Racing‘s Chandler Smith is 15 points below the cutoff, followed by JR Motorsports Sam Mayer (-16), Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Sammy Smith (-35) and RCR‘s Sheldon Creed (-41).
Only two previous Homestead winners are entered this weekend — Custer (2017) and Myatt Snider (2021). Noah Gragson is the defending race winner.
Much to the pleasure of NASCAR fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be making his second start of the season, driving the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. A two-time Xfinity Series champion, the NASCAR Hall of Famer has four top-10s in six career Homestead races. Earnhardt led 47 laps in the Bristol, Tenn. Xfinity Series race two weeks ago before a fire in the car left him to a 30th-place finish.
Practice and then qualifying sessions for the Contender Boats 300 are scheduled to begin at 6:05 p.m. ET on Friday and will be televised on the USA Network and streamed on the NBC Sports App.
Last chance for NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series drivers to make the Championship 4 Round
After a two-week break, the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs continue with Saturday‘s Baptist Health Cancer Care 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Noon, ET on FS1, MRN SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — the first of an afternoon NASCAR doubleheader.
This race will formally set the Championship 4 drivers who will compete for the 2023 title on Nov. 3 at Phoenix Raceway.
With a win at Bristol, Tenn. TRICON Garage‘s Corey Heim is the only Playoff driver to have formally secured his position to race for the championship, meaning three spots are still to be decided.
Niece Motorsports‘ Carson Hocevar tops the standings below Heim and holds a healthy 22-point advantage over fifth place, GMS Racing‘s Grant Enfinger. Christian Eckes, who just re-signed with the McAnally-Hilgemann Racing team this week and Rev Racing‘s Nick Sanchez round out the top-4 heading into Homestead-Miami — nine-points and three-points ahead of the cutoff, respectively.
Former series champion, ThorSport Racing‘s Ben Rhodes is sixth in the standings, only five points behind Sanchez. His ThorSport teammate Ty Majeski is 19 points off the top four and defending series champion, Front Row Motorsports‘ Zane Smith is 36 points off the pace.
Majeski is the defending Homestead-Miami race winner, leading 67 of the 134 laps last year to clinch his first Championship 4 appearance — finishing nearly five-seconds ahead of the runner-up Smith. Veteran Matt Crafton, who is no longer championship-eligible, is the only other previous Homestead winner in the field, claiming the trophy in 2015.
Of the championship contenders, Enfinger and Rhodes have the most starts (six). Enfinger has three top 10s — most among the Playoff drivers — and an 11.8 average finish. Majeski is a perfect 2-for-2 in top-10 finishes and boasts the best average finish (5.5) among those with multiple starts.
This will mark the Miami-native Sanchez‘ season debut at his home track.
Of note, IndyCar standout Marco Andretti is entered at both Homestead and the Phoenix season finale. He‘ll be driving the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet. He made his series debut at Mid-Ohio SportsCar Course this summer, finishing 19th.
Practice and qualifying sessions begin at 4:05 p.m. ET on Friday.
— NASCAR News Wire —