Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – The NASCAR Cup Series run for the championship makes its only stop of the season in South Florida this weekend with the Dixie Vodka 400 on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) the second race in the Round of 8 to determine which four drivers will advance to the Championship 4 season finale in Phoenix.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano became the first of the four to advance to the Championship 4 Round with an impressive win in a dramatic race last week at Las Vegas, outdueling another championship contender, Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain for the victory.
Chastain is now second in the Playoff standings heading into Homestead with Regular Season Champion Chase Elliott in third and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin holding the important fourth and final position to transfer to the next round on points.
Hendrick’s William Byron – the defending Homestead race winner – trails Hamlin by only six points. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe is only 9 points behind the cutoff and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney is 11 points back.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell is certainly looking to return to form this week. His No. 20 Toyota was collected in a well-publicized tussle between Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson last weekend, and the resulting DNF leaves Bell 23 points behind his teammate Hamlin for that last Championship 4 position.
The good news for Bell is that he has a good track record at Homestead and has enjoyed success there, including capturing the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship at the track.
“As disappointing as Vegas was, if anyone can pull through it’s our No. 20 group,” Bell said. “I expect to be extremely competitive again and am ready to tackle the challenge.”
Wallace was issued a one-race suspension for his part in the Larson incident and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship contender John Hunter Nemechek has been tabbed to drive the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota this week.
Teams got a rare mid-season opportunity to test the Next Gen car at Homestead-Miami Speedway in September and Team Penske’s Austin Cindric was fastest of the two-day session with Logano, the only driver who has already clinched a Playoff berth second quickest. Hamlin was third and Bell was fifth fastest – tops among the rest of the Playoff drivers.
Hamlin is the winningest active driver at Homestead-Miami with three victories. JGR’s Kyle Busch is the only other multi-time winner with a pair of trophies. Byron is the defending race winner and Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick have also won at the track.
Playoff driver Chase Briscoe, who is only nine points out of the Championship 4, has won in both the Xfinity Series (2020) and the Camping World Truck Series (2017) at Homestead-Miami. And Byron has wins in both the NASCAR Cup Series and the Camping World Truck Series (2016).
Although Homestead is essentially the Floridian Chastain’s “home track” he has struggled there in the past. In three NASCAR Cup Series starts his best finish is 17th last year and his 28.3 average finish is worst among the Playoff drivers – although it should be noted two of those starts were not with competitive teams.
Elliott, who has had an up-and-down Playoff run, is looking to regain form. He boasts the top average finish (9.0) among the eight Playoff drivers at Homestead-Miami even as he races for his first victory there.
Among this Playoff group, Hamlin has had the most experience racing at Homestead. Not only is he the winningest driver there, but he is also highly consistent, scoring top-10 finishes in 11 of his 17 starts. His 10th place average finish is second only to Elliott.
“I’m looking forward to Homestead,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “We had a very good test there a few weeks ago and really felt like we unloaded as one of the best cars. After two days, the field kind of caught up to us a little bit, but I have a lot of confidence going there.
“I feel like the driver can make a difference just with the different lines you can run, so I think that fits into our strength on top of just how strong we have been on these types of tracks this year.”
Practice and Busch Light Pole Qualifying will be Saturday at 10 a.m. ET and fans can watch on the NBC Sports App.
Xfinity Series Playoffs take on South Beach
Not to be outdone, the NASCAR Xfinity Series is also turning in one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory with the second Playoff race of the Round of 8, the Contender Boats 300, set for Saturday afternoon (4:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Unlike NASCAR’s other two premier series, the Xfinity Series Playoff drivers have been settling the race trophies themselves to decide this tight 2022 championship. JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson won four straight races in the late summer, including the Playoff opener at Texas.
Regular Season Champion, Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger won the next two races and Gragson’s JR Motorsports teammate, Josh Berry earned the victory in this Round’s opener last week at Las Vegas.
Berry’s victory has automatically earned him a position in the Championship 4 Round at Phoenix to race for the title – a first for him.
Gragson leads the championship standings over impressive rookie Ty Gibbs, who drives for his grandfather’s Joe Gibbs Racing team. And JR Motorsports’ veteran Justin Allgaier holds that fourth and final transfer spot as the points are now.
Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill and Allmendinger are only 15 and 16 points behind Allgaier, respectively. Gibbs’ teammate Brandon Jones is 27 points behind Allgaier and JRM’s Sam Mayer is 36 back.
No current Playoff driver has ever won at Homestead before. Myatt Snider is the defending race winner and the only current fulltime Xfinity Series driver to have hoisted a trophy there.
This will be the NASCAR national series debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway for both Gibbs and Mayer. Hill won the 2019 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the track, but will be making his first Xfinity Series start as well.
Allmendinger made 10 Homestead starts in the NASCAR Cup Series at Homestead, but has only three races in the Xfinity Series with a career-best fourth place there in 2020.
Gragson has the best track record among those with experience at the South Florida 1.5-miler, with three top-five finishes in four races. His best finish is third in 2020 and he’s led laps in every race he’s competed in there.
“I love running at Homestead-Miami Speedway and really want a win there,” said Gragson, driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. “We had it in 2021 before the incident in Turns 3 and 4 and I feel like this place owes me one. Our No. 9 team is on a roll, and we had a great car at Las Vegas last week. Right now, it’s all about getting into the Championship 4 and winning a championship.”
Jones has seven starts and a similarly good record at Homestead – earning five Top-10s – all in the last five races – including runner-up showings in the last two (in 2020 and 2021). His average finish at Homestead of 8.1 is his best on any oval the series competes on.
“I have a lot of confidence going into this weekend as Homestead has slowly become one of my favorite tracks,” said Jones, driver of the No. 19 JGR Toyota. “Over the years I have studied hard to figure the track out and have found a lot of success there recently.
“I know these No. 19 boys will bring a fast Toyota GR Supra for the weekend as we keep battling to get into the Championship 4.”
Allgaier may have the most starts (13) among the current Playoff eight, but he’s had only a pair of top-10 finishes in that time. His best effort was a sixth place in 2016 and his last top-10 – a seventh place – came back in 2018.
Practice starts at 6:05 p.m. ET on Friday followed by qualifying at 6:35 p.m. ET on the USA Network and streamed on the NBC Sports App.
After a short break Camping World Truck Series returns to Playoff action
This weekend’s Baptist Health 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will set the Championship 4 to compete for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title in Phoenix.
Heading into the race only one Playoff driver, Ty Majeski, has punched his ticket to the Phoenix finale – winning this Playoff round opener at Bristol, Tenn. Beyond him the standings are tight. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Ben Rhodes fill out the current top-four positions.
However, Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen are only three-points below defending series champion Rhodes in the standings and Nemechek is only five points back. Grant Enfinger is 29 points below the cut line.
While none of the current fulltime drivers have ever won at Homestead-Miami Speedway before – both Nemechek and Enfinger can boast a previous runner-up finish. Nemechek – then 18 years old – finished second in his very first race at the track in 2015 and Enfinger won pole position and finished second in 2018.
Five of the last six races have been won by these Playoff drivers with Chandler Smith winning the Pocono, Pa. regular season finale and then at Richmond, Va. two weeks later. Enfinger won the Playoff opener in Indianapolis. Nemechek won the Kansas Playoff race and Majeski won the Bristol race that opened this round.
The series did not compete at Homestead-Miami last year, so this will be a fresh outing for many. Matt DiBenedetto, who won a photo finish at Talladega two weeks ago, will be making his Truck Series debut in South Florida. His best finish in seven NASCAR Cup Series starts there is 20th in 2014.
This weekend also marks Chandler Smith’s series debut on the 1.5-mile South Florida oval. Zane Smith has only one previous start – finishing 37th in 2020 after an early race accident. Eckes will be starting only his third Homestead-Miami race, but he is 2-for-2 in top-10 finishes with a best showing of third in his 2019 debut at the track.
Nemechek has four starts, with that runner-up showing in 2015 his best work and another top-10 in 2018, but he hasn’t led a lap in the three races since. His last Truck Series start at Homestead-Miami was in 2018.
Rhodes, Friesen and Enfinger each have five previous Homestead starts. Enfinger’s three top-10 finishes – including that runner-up showing – is best among those. Friesen’s best finish is fourth-place in 2018, although he has never led a lap at the track. Rhodes best finish is 10th in 2018.
Worth noting, Hailie Deegan arrives in Homestead fresh off an impressive NASCAR Xfinity Series debut – 13th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And the driver of the No. 1 DGR Ford earned a career best Truck Series finish – sixth place – in the most recent race at Talladega, Ala.
Practice begins at 4 p.m. ET on Friday followed by Cometic Gasket Pole Qualifying at 4:30 p.m. ET.