Manufacturers' execs optimistic with what's to come in 2019
HOMESTEAD, Fla. - As is tradition during NASCAR's Championship weekend, executives representing the sport's three manufacturers held a news conference to reflect on this year's competition and share expectations on the season ahead.
One of the biggest talking points for 2018 was the debut of Chevrolet's new Camaro ZL1 body to Cup competition and news that Ford will introduce its Mustang as its Cup body beginning in 2019.
Chevy's Jim Campbell conceded it was disappointing not to have the carmaker's drivers among the Championship 4 in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but he was optimistic that 2019 would reflect the progress teams have made with the new body.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott led the way, claiming three of Chevy's four wins, including a career-first at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and two more during the Playoffs. Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon gave the new Camaro its first victory in the season-opening Daytona 500.
"The trajectory of the season, not exactly what we wanted, but definitely heading in a better direction than in the front half of the season," Campbell acknowledged. "When you bring a new car in and you have changeover in drivers, those are big moments for manufacturers.
"More work to do, but looking forward to the rest of the weekend, the (Xfinity) race today, and I know there's a few Chevy drivers that would love to perform great tomorrow in the race, but clearly tomorrow is about the Championship 4."
Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Performance, said he anticipates realistic challenges when Ford begins fielding the new Mustangs as well. This season, his drivers accounted for 19 wins through the first 25 races. Two Ford drivers - Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick - will vie for the Cup championship on Sunday with Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
"We've definitely seen what's going on with the Chevrolet this year, and as Jim [Campbell] said, bringing anything new to the track is always a difficult challenge, whether it's a new body or a new block for the engine or cylinder head or even a chassis component," Rushbrook said, "So there's no guarantees."
"We realize that it's going to be a learning curve, and again, using our advanced CFD tools, hopefully we've gone through and got the best body that we can through the homologation process, the approval process.
"And since gaining that approval, we've been focused and it's been the difficult challenge, right, to keep our tools and our people focused on delivering wins and a championship this year with the Fusion to send it out the right way, but also hopefully enough focus being paid to the new Mustang so that we can hit the track fast when we get on in Daytona in February."
NOAH GRAGSON SEES SILVER LINING IN LAST RACE WITH KBM
Noah Gragson got his diploma from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series on Friday night, but it didn't come with a championship.
From a restart on Lap 68 of 134, Gragson led 31 straight green-flag laps, battling gamely against Brett Moffitt for the entire stretch. But Moffitt made what proved to be the decisive pass on Lap 99 and went on to win the Ford EcoBoost 200 and the championship.
The race was the last with Kyle Busch Motorsports for Gragson, who will move to the NASCAR Xfinity Series next year in a JR Motorsports Chevrolet. And it was a bittersweet parting for the 20-year-old from Las Vegas.
"We needed to make better adjustments on pit road," Gragson said after the race. "That's where it comes down to me. I need to do a better job.
"On the bright side, racing for a championship, I never would have dreamed of that when I started racing six years ago that I'd be in this position. It's my last truck race with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Man, I wanted to go out on top, but it just wasn't meant to be...
"It's just a bummer, but, hey, no bad days, right? We're going to move on to the next year in the Xfinity Series. I'm pumped up about that, but this one is going to hurt for a while. Just very thankful."
Denny Hamlin won the pole position for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but he won't have the biggest perk that comes with the fastest qualifying effort. After discussion within the Joe Gibbs Racing organization, Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Wheeler, chose pit stall No. 4 on Saturday, leaving highly desirable pit stall No. 1 for JGR teammate Kyle Busch, who is fighting for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Surrendering the most advantageous pit stall (closest to the exit from pit road) is a bitter pill for Hamlin, who has one race left to extend a 12-year streak of winning at least one race per year...
Championship 4 contender Joey Logano made a statement in Saturday's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice session at Homestead. Not only did the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford post the fastest single lap (169.609 mph), but he also topped the charts for best consecutive 10-lap average (163.995 mph). The other Championship 4 drivers stacked up as follows: Martin Truex Jr., ninth in single lap, fifth in 10-lap average; Kyle Busch, 23rd in single lap, ninth in 10-lap average; Kevin Harvick, 28th in single lap, 13th in 10-lap average...
Logano continued his strong performance in Happy Hour, blistering the competition with a lap at 171.701 mph. Truex was second at 170.584 mph. Busch and Harvick were 12th and 14th, respectively. But Busch had issues late in practice and scraped the outside wall with the right side of his No. 18 Toyota, giving his fabricators some extra work before Sunday's title race.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---