Daytona 500

NASCAR: Yates, Evernham lead NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Robert Yates still remembers his college professor telling him he’d never make anything of himself.

It turns out his professor was wrong.

Yates’ 40-year career in auto racing culminated with his selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday, an achievement that left him in tears.

The 74-year-old Yates admitted he wasn’t the smartest guy, but said “I knew how to work on cars.”

Yates, a NASCAR Cup champion as both an engine builder and owner, was voted in along with three-time NASCAR Cup championship crew chief Ray Evernham, drivers Red Byron and Ron Hornaday Jr. and broadcaster Ken Squier. Hornaday and driver Alan Kulwicki tied for the fifth and final spot, and Hornaday won the tiebreaker.

Yates was an overwhelming favorite, selected by 94 percent of the voters.

He grew up in Charlotte and couldn’t play baseball and football because of a heart murmur.

“So I worked on engines,” Yates said.

While Yates’ passion was engine building, he achieved most of his notoriety as an owner, with his drivers winning 57 Cup races.

After providing the power behind Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough with his engines, he started his own racing team in the late 1980s. Success came quickly with driver Davey Allison winning the 1992 Daytona 500, while finishing third in the standings. Dale Jarrett would win two more Daytona 500s and a Cup Series championship for Robert Yates Racing.

Yates is currently battling liver cancer, but said being selected into the Hall of Fame left him feeling like grabbing a jack, jumping over a pit wall and changing a tire.

“I may not sleep a wink,” he said with a wide smile.

NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said Yates could do it all and is well-liked in the garage.

“Having watched him from an engine builder to a crew chief to a car owner and a tutor to so many families in the sport, the contributions he has made to NASCAR — we will never be able to count them all,” Helton said

Evernham earned his fame as a crew chief.

He became synonymous with Jeff Gordon when they began working together in 1992. Evernham guided Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors team to Cup titles in 1995, ’96 and ’98. Under Evernham, the No. 24 team excelled on pit stops, becoming the envy of other NASCAR teams as they dominated the 1990s decade by winning a series-leading 47 Cup races.

Evernham was having dinner with his wife in Indianapolis when he learned of the news.

“My wife got a really big smile on her face and she said, ‘You’re in,'” Evernham said. “The emotions overwhelmed me and I have been at a loss of words since. I have never felt as overrun by emotions in my life. … This is the biggest thing that can happen in your career.”

Byron won NASCAR’s first race in 1948 on the Daytona beach and road course and went on to win NASCAR’s first championship. Byron was wounded in World War II and drove with a special brace on his pedal.

Squier, who became the definitive voice of NASCAR, called Byron “an American hero.”

“After he got shot up so bad in the war they wanted to take his leg off and he said, ‘Thank you, I’ll keep it,'” Squier said. “He became a champion who represented everything this Memorial Day weekend is all about.”

Seven-time Cup Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were among the many young drivers who attribute Hornaday to helping them get their start in NASCAR. Hornaday let a number of drivers, including Johnson and Harvick, sleep in his couch at his Charlotte-area home while they were getting started in the sport.

“We moved and the only thing I saved was that couch,” said Hornaday, who has won four Trucks Series championships during his career. “People say why and I said, ‘Because everybody was always too drunk to go upstairs and they would always pass out on that little couch, the closest one to the door.'”

Jim France, the current chairman of International Speedway Corporation and son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., won the Landmark Award for his contributions to NASCAR.

The induction ceremony for the Class of 2018 will be in January in Charlotte.

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More AP Auto Racing: ap.racing.org

NASCAR: Austin Dillon gets new crew chief in NASCAR Cup Series

Justin Alexander has been moved by Richard Childress Racing from one of its Xfinity Series teams to be the crew chief for the No. 3 Chevrolet of Austin Dillon in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the team announced on Monday.

Alexander will immediately replace Richard “Slugger” Labbe, who, according to a team release, is “leaving the company to pursue other opportunities.”

Randall Burnett, previously a crew chief for RCR technical partner JTG Daugherty Racing, will replaced Alexander on RCR’s No. 2 Xfinity Series Chevrolet.

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DEKALB, Ill. (AP) — Former NASCAR driver Tony Stewart was stopped by an Illinois state trooper over the weekend, but not for speeding.

Police spokesman Jason Bradley says Stewart was pulled over Friday for improper lane usage and issued a warning on Interstate 88 in DeKalb, roughly 65 miles from Chicago.

The trooper posted a photo with Stewart on Twitter, which was later taken down. Police are reviewing it to see if the trooper will face discipline for social media use during a traffic stop.

The three-time NASCAR champion celebrated his 46th birthday Saturday, though he and some others were briefly stuck in a hotel elevator in Madison, Wisconsin. Stewart tweeted that he was trapped for 20 minutes before a rescue by fire officials.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR announced several changes to its 2018 schedule Tuesday, including new tracks for the final 11 races of the season.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway will become the 26th race of the Cup season and the final chance to set next year’s playoff field. The race will be run Sept. 9 and not be part of the summer schedule for the first time since it was added to the NASCAR schedule in 1994.

“The Brickyard 400 has been one of NASCAR’s premier events for 25 years, and we’re thrilled the race is moving to one of the most important dates on the NASCAR calendar,” said J. Douglas Boles, IMS president.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway will replace Chicagoland Speedway as the opening event in the 10-race playoff series. Chicago moves to a regular-season race in July.

Richmond International Raceway, which had been the playoff cutoff race since the format debuted in 2004, will move into the playoffs.

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s playoff race will now be run on the venue’s road course instead of its 1.5-mile oval. It will be the first NASCAR road course race in Charlotte’s 58-year history.

The Charlotte “roval” is a 13-turn, 2.4-mile road course that incorporates part of the infield and all but 400 feet of Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval. Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, A.J. Allmendinger, Jeff Burton and Max Papis have all tested the roval.

“Charlotte Motor Speedway has always been about innovation,” said Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc. “Hosting the first road course race in NASCAR’s playoffs, as well as the drama of closing out the playoffs’ first round, means that tension will be high and competition will be fierce as soon as the green flag drops.”

The opening three-race playoff round will be Las Vegas-Richmond-Charlotte. The next round will be Dover-Talladega-Kansas. The third round is Martinsville-Texas-Phoenix, with the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18 exactly nine months after the season-opening Daytona 500.

The changes dramatically alter the type of tracks in the 10-race playoff. There will now be a road course, a restrictor-plate track, two short tracks, two 1-mile tracks and four 1.5-mile tracks.

The season will open Feb. 18 with the showcase Daytona 500, but Daytona International Speedway is also restoring a Speedweeks tradition with the exhibition “Clash” returning to a Sunday afternoon start one week earlier. The Clash will be followed by qualifying for the Daytona 500. The Clash was first held in 1979 and won by Buddy Baker.

The event was on a Sunday from 1979 until 1991. There was a one-year switch to Saturday, then the race returned to Sundays from 1993 until 2002. In 2003, it moved to a Saturday night start.

“Combining the Clash with qualifying is going to give our fans an outstanding afternoon of NASCAR action,” said Chip Wile, Daytona International Speedway president.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

NASCAR has huge hole to fill after Earnhardt retires

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — There was a moment during the Bristol Motor Speedway race that captured the essence of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He was walking briskly to the care center for a mandatory health check after a crash. Flanked by a television reporter on one side, a handler on the other, he was explaining why he wrecked while hustling to his destination. A fan approached him from behind, Earnhardt turned, and the fan was shoved away when it became clear he just wanted a selfie.

Earnhardt never broke stride. He just gave his aw-shucks smile and continued on his way. Once cleared by the medical staff, he found the fan and posed for the photo.

Earnhardt is a 14-time winner of NASCAR’s most popular driver award for a reason. He’s personable and authentic and as close to the roots of racing as any driver alive today. When he walks away from NASCAR at the end of this season , he will take a lot more than 26 Cup wins.

He will also take a big, reliable chunk of NASCAR’s identity. The big question is whether he will also take Earnhardt Nation and its thousands of fans with him, too. It’s the last thing NASCAR needs in a time of transition, both in terms of structure and in its celebrity lineup of drivers.

NASCAR has already lost Jeff Gordon, the driver who took the sport mainstream and announced his retirement two years ago at 43, just like Earnhardt. Then a year ago it lost Tony Stewart, the talented, volatile rebel who said what everyone was too scared to say out loud.

Carl Edwards, friendly and a strong ambassador, walked away from NASCAR at the start of this year.

Now here goes Earnhardt, the blue-collar everyman. A third-generation racer from North Carolina who says “ain’t” and “Daddy” and talks the way the good ol’ boys always did.

So what does NASCAR do now, with its most bankable stars rapidly exiting stage left at a time when the sport needs to rebuild its audience?

“It will be an important year for fans to look at what other drivers are out there and who will make them interested in continuing to watch,” said Jill Gregory, chief marketing officer for NASCAR. “We knew these days were going to come, we just didn’t know when.”

Gregory said the biggest challenge for NASCAR is introducing the current crop of young talent to fans and giving the drivers a chance to make their own marks rather than pigeonhole them in roles as the next Gordon, Stewart or Earnhardt.

“What is true to them? What is authentic?” asked Gregory. “You look at Kyle Larson, he loves to race. That’s what he is going to do, and allowing him to do what he naturally loves, that’s what we want to highlight. I don’t think there’s an effort to say ‘We’re going to make this guy into the next Jeff Gordon.’

“We have to let it come naturally and what do they gravitate toward, because if it’s natural, that’s what makes it real to the fans. If we are trying to manufacture it, that’s how it is going to be seen. We have to let it play out.”

Earnhardt didn’t hesitate to name the future of the sport: Larson, the current Monster Energy Cup points leader, and Chase Elliott, his current teammate who replaced Gordon last season.

Elliott is the son of Hall of Famer “Awesome” Bill Elliott, a Georgia native who grew up at NASCAR tracks. Larson is a dirt tracker from California who will race anything at any time and is likely headed in 2018 for a seat in the Indianapolis 500. Earnhardt also praised Ryan Blaney, another second-generation NASCAR driver, and Bubba Wallace, who have used social media to show the life of a millennial and not been afraid of overstepping their place.

Although their personalities are often overshadowed by the veterans, they are settling into their own niches and engaging a much younger fan base for a series whose origins are steeped in the bootlegging days of Prohibition.

“All those guys have great attitudes, great personalities,” Earnhardt said. “I know them well enough to be excited about how fans are going to know them in the future. I feel like that these are the guys that they’re the cream of the crop, and maybe I’m the only one that sees it in this room, but I really have a lot of confidence in the personalities that we have.”

“We’ve just got to get them in front of the fans, let the fans get to know them, and I think the rest will take care of itself,” he added.

The new regime has certainly stepped up through the first two months of this season. Three of the top four drivers in the standings are 27 or younger. Blaney is 10th in the standings, rookie Erik Jones is 13th and although reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez is only 22nd in the standings, the rookie driver from Mexico has brought a huge new following to NASCAR.

As team owner Rick Hendrick prepares to fill a hole in his No. 88 Chevrolet , he’s not worried about the options.

“I’ve never seen so much young talent,” Hendrick said. “They’re here, they’re young, they’re aggressive, they’re fun. I think the sport has got a lot to be excited about, and I think the fans, let’s face it, Dale is unique. You can’t replace Dale.

“But he also is still going to be in and around and visible in the sport, and help tap these young guys on the shoulder and really tutor them. Tell them what they’re doing wrong, what they could do better, because he’s been through all those cycles of life. No one in the garage could be any better than Dale Earnhardt to mentor these guys because he’s been through all the different stages, and every one of them look up to him.”

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Notable achievements in the driving career of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday that Earnhardt will be retiring at the end of the season.

1998: Wins the Busch Grand National Series points championship for the first time at the age 24.

1999: Wins his second Busch Series points title.

FILE – In this Nov. 13, 1999, file photo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates after winning his second Busch Grand National Series championship, at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. Dale Earnhardt Jr. abruptly announced his retirement at the end of the season Tuesday, April 25, 2017, a decision that will cost NASCAR its most popular driver as the series scrambles to rebuild its fan base. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

2000: Earns his first Winston Cup victory at DirecTV 500 in Fort Worth, Texas. The victory came in just his 12th career Winston Cup start.

2001: In the first race held at Daytona International Speedway since his father was killed in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. wins the Pepsi 400. He jumps to the hood of his car after the race, throws his fists in the air and then hugs 2001 Daytona 500 champion and Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Pepsi 400 Saturday, July 7, 2001, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)

2001: In the first NASCAR event since the 9/11 attacks, Earnhardt wins the Cal Ripken Jr. 400 at Dover, Delaware. He carries a large American flag during his victory lap.

2003: Captures Aaron’s 499 title to win at Talladega Superspeedway for a record fourth straight time.

2004: Earns his first Daytona 500 title exactly six years to the day after his father’s lone Daytona 500 championship. One of his career-high six titles that season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., waves to the crowd after winning the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004, in Daytona Beach, Fla.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

2004: Wins an October race at Talladega but gets fined $10,000 and is docked 25 points for swearing during an NBC interview after the race. Penalty drops him out of the lead in the points race at the time.

2007: Announces he is moving from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports, effective in 2008.

2008: Ends a 76-race title drought by winning at Michigan International Speedway when he goes the final 55 laps without stopping for gas.

2012: Ends another long drought at Michigan again when he earns his first Sprint Cup victory since 2008. He had gone 143 races without a title.

2014: Captures his second Daytona 500 title in a race that included a rain delay lasting 6 hours, 22 minutes. Launches a comeback year in which Earnhardt also records season sweep at Pocono Raceway (also launches Twitter account that now has over 2 million followers).

2015: Wins the Coke Zero 400 in another rain-delayed race at Daytona for his 10th career victory on a restrictor-plate track. He would earn his 26th – and most recent – career victory later that year in Phoenix.

2016: Named NASCAR’s most popular driver for a 14th consecutive season despite missing half the year due to concussion-like symptoms. Bill Elliott is the only person to be named the most popular driver more often.

2017: Announces on April 25 that he will retire at the end of the season.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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This has been corrected to show that Earnhardt won his second Busch Series points championship in 1999.

Breaking News: Hendrick says Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire after season

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   — CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, announced Tuesday that he will retire at the end of the season.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner set an afternoon news conference with team owner Rick Hendrick to discuss his decision. Hendrick Motorsports said in a news release that Earnhardt informed his team of his decision early Tuesday.

A third-generation NASCAR driver, Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from the latest head injury. It’s caused him to delay contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and now he appears ready to call it quits.

Earnhardt turns 43 in October, was married during the offseason and has stated he wants a family. He’s become a vocal advocate for research of sports-related brain injuries.

Earnhardt has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 times. He has 26 career Cup victories, and that includes a pair of wins in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt is a two-time champion in NASCAR’s second-tier series. But the son of the late seven-time champion has never won a Cup title.

Earnhardt has driven for Hendrick since 2008 after a nasty split with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father’s 2001 death in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR’s most powerful team.

Hendrick Motorsports said Earnhardt first discussed retirement with his boss on March 29.

Earnhardt made his first career Cup Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Kannapolis native is in his 18th full-time season at the Cup level and he made his 600th career series start earlier this year at California.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Chase Elliott display their front row trophies after qualifying for the top two positions in the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Chase Elliott display their front row trophies after qualifying for the top two positions in the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

 

Charlotte Motor Speedway moves NASCAR playoff race to Sunday

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s previously scheduled October Saturday night playoff race has been moved to the next day, Sunday, Oct. 8, in a 2 p.m. start, the track announced on Thursday.

The move leaves no night races in the 10-event Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The event at the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval had been scheduled to run on Saturday night since 2002.

“We’ve heard from fans and from several drivers about how much fun it is to race during the daytime at Charlotte Motor Speedway,” Marcus Smith, speedway president and general manager, said in a release. “A return to ‘Daylight Racing Time’ also builds on our commitment to being ‘Fan first’ by providing families with affordable, world-class entertainment on a Sunday afternoon.”

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, whose eight career victories at Charlotte leads all drivers, applauded the move. Johnson believes racing in the daylight will make for a more exciting race.

“Charlotte’s so tricky, especially when the sun’s out,” Johnson said in the release. “And, the track’s finally aging and getting to a place with a lot of character (so) that a day race will allow us to run so many more lanes and, I think, create such an entertaining and compelling race … I’m really excited for a hot, slick, day race.”

Johnson won last year’s playoff race at Charlotte, held on Sunday afternoon after rain postponed the scheduled Saturday night race.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Schedule

Date Race TV Winner

Feb. 19

11:30 a.m. EST

Advance Auto Parts Clash

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Joey Logano

Feb. 23

7 p.m. EST

Can-Am Duel at Daytona 1

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Chase Elliott

Feb. 23

8:30 p.m. EST

Can-Am Duel at Daytona 2

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Denny Hamlin

Feb. 26

2 p.m. EST

Daytona 500

Daytona International Speedway

FOX Kurt Busch

Mar. 5

2:30 p.m. EST

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

Atlanta Motor Speedway

FOX Brad Keselowski

Mar. 12

3:30 p.m. EDT

Kobalt 400

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

FOX Martin Truex Jr

Mar. 19

3:30 p.m. EDT

Camping World 500

Phoenix International Raceway

FOX Ryan Newman

Mar. 26

3:30 p.m. EDT

Auto Club 400

Auto Club Speedway

FOX Kyle Larson

Apr. 2

2 p.m. EDT

STP 500

Martinsville Speedway

FS1 Brad Keselowski

Apr. 9

1:30 p.m. EDT

O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

Texas Motor Speedway

FOX Jimmie Johnson

Apr. 23

2 p.m. EDT

Food City 500

Bristol Motor Speedway

FOX

Apr. 30

2 p.m. EDT

Toyota Owners 400

Richmond International Raceway

FOX

May 7

2 p.m. EDT

GEICO 500

Talladega Superspeedway

FOX

May 13

7:30 p.m. EDT

Go Bowling 400

Kansas Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 20

6 p.m. EDT

Monster Energy Open

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 20

8:15 p.m. EDT

Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 28

6 p.m. EDT

Coca-Cola 600

Charlotte Motor Speedway

FOX

Jun. 4

1 p.m. EDT

AAA 400 Drive for Autism

Dover International Speedway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 11

3 p.m. EDT

Pocono 400

Pocono Raceway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 18

3 p.m. EDT

FireKeepers Casino 400

Michigan International Speedway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 25

3 p.m. EDT

Toyota/Save Mart 350

Sonoma Raceway

Fox Sports 1

Jul. 1

7:30 p.m. EDT

Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola

Daytona International Speedway

NBC

Jul. 8

7:30 p.m. EDT

Quaker State 400 Presented by Advanced Auto Parts

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

Jul. 16

3 p.m. EDT

New Hampshire 301

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Jul. 23

3 p.m. EDT

Brickyard 400

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBC

Jul. 30

3 p.m. EDT

Pennsylvania 400

Pocono Raceway

NBCSN

Aug. 6

3 p.m. EDT

Watkins Glen 355

Watkins Glen International

NBCSN

Aug. 13

3 p.m. EDT

Pure Michigan 400

Michigan International Speedway

NBCSN

Aug. 19

7:30 p.m. EDT

Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race

Bristol Motor Speedway

NBC

Sep. 3

6 p.m. EDT

Bojangles’ Southern 500

Darlington Raceway

NBCSN

Sep. 9

7:30 p.m. EDT

Federated Auto Parts 400

Richmond International Raceway

NBCSN

Sep. 17

3 p.m. EDT

Chicagoland 400

Chicagoland Speedway

NBCSN

Sep. 24

2 p.m. EDT

New England 300

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 1

2 p.m. EDT

Delaware 400

Dover International Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 8

2 p.m. EDT

Bank of America 500

Charlotte Motor Speedway

NBC

Oct. 15

2 p.m. EDT

Alabama 500

Talladega Superspeedway

NBC

Oct. 22

3 p.m. EDT

Hollywood Casino 400

Kansas Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 29

3 p.m. EDT

Goody’s Fast Relief 500

Martinsville Speedway

NBCSN

Nov. 5

2 p.m. EST

AAA Texas 500

Texas Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Nov. 12

2:30 p.m. EST

Can-Am 500

Phoenix International Raceway

NBC

Nov. 19

2:30 p.m. EST

Ford Ecoboost 400

Homestead-Miami Speedway

NBC

Why these five drivers could break through at Bristol with first NASCAR win of season

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Sports Today)  —-    Jimmie Johnson took himself out of the when’s-he-going-to-finally-win conversation when he found victory lane April 9 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Coming off the first idle week of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, most everyone else remains in that unwanted company heading to Bristol Motor Speedway.

Fortunes can be undone in moments on the high-banked short track, but a select group of drivers – several of whom have made the playoffs – have hope to finally bank the first victory of the season, and in two cases, in their careers.

USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James selects five drivers who could break through Sunday (2 p.m. ET, Fox):

Denny Hamlin: His middling campaign has been in keeping with Joe Gibbs Racing’s sluggish follow-up to a dominating 2016 effort in which it helped Toyota win a first manufacturer’s title in Cup. He is 15th in points with an average finish of 20th and is coming off a 25th-place result at Texas. Hamlin can be encouraged entering the Bristol bullring, though. He won there in 2012 and has finished third twice since then. Full disclosure: all of those came in the fall race, held at night.

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: The Roush Fenway Racing driver has four top-10s in eight Cup starts at the .533-mile track, finishing second for the second time last fall. He also was second in the spring race three years ago. After a long slog through the Cup hinterland, both he and the organization have shown glimmers of hope on smaller tracks this season, with Stenhouse finishing fourth at Phoenix and 10th at Martinsville. A first Cup win could be close.

Jamie McMurray: The Ganassi Racing teammate of current points leader Kyle Larson is wielding cars being produced by arguably Chevrolet’s most consistent team right now. With 11 top-10s in 28 starts – including an eighth-place finish last fall – McMurray has been a steady producer at Bristol in recent seasons.

Clint Bowyer: He’s been generally eager for another chance at any track in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, but Bowyer could be angling for his first victory since 2012. He has six top-5s in 22 starts at Bristol and was eighth last spring in his stop-gap season with HScott Motorsports. That finish marked his second-best result of the year. Now ninth in points and a weekly competitor, Bowyer might be ready for that bottled-up celebration.

Austin Dillon: The Richard Childress Racing driver has made just six starts at Bristol, but has two top-10s – and finishes of 11th and 13th – and was fourth last fall. A fifth-place result at Martinsville began his spring southern short track campaign. It could continue with a first Cup victory.

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Team Penske enters final appeal process after failed inspection at Phoenix

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —-   The National Motorsports Appeals Panel on Wednesday denied an appeal by Team Penske stemming from an L1 infraction after Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford failed a post-race NASCAR inspection at Phoenix Raceway, but the team will exercise one final appeal to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

“While we are disappointed in today’s results, we plan to immediately request a final appeal hearing as outlined in the NASCAR rulebook,” the team said in a release. “While the appeals process runs its course, we will continue to move forward and our focus will remain on getting prepared for the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway.”

Crew chief Paul Wolfe was fined $65,000 and suspended for three Monster Energy NASCAR Series Cup races – he sat one before the appeal was made – Team Penske docked 35 owner points and Keselowski the same. The fifth-place finish was considered encumbered. Keselowski is virtually assured a spot in the Cup playoffs anyway with a series-leading two wins, but 35 more points would currently move him from fourth to second place, and within six of leader Kyle Larson. The regular-season points leader earns a 15-point bonus entering the playoffs.

Keselowski’s in

Standings: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

As of: Apr. 15
 
Rank Driver Points PV Rank
1 Kyle Larson 315 6
2 Chase Elliott 298 4
3 Martin Truex Jr. 275 7
4 Brad Keselowski 274 3
5 Joey Logano 243 5
6 Ryan Blaney 224 8
7 Kyle Busch 211 24
8 Jamie McMurray 209 11
9 Clint Bowyer 204 13
10 Kevin Harvick 198 1
11 Jimmie Johnson 190 31
12 Trevor Bayne 164 10

 

 

NASCAR fines Team Penske, Brad Keselowski after failed inspection at Phoenix

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —   The National Motorsports Appeals Panel on Wednesday denied an appeal by Team Penske stemming from an L1 infraction after Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford failed a post-race NASCAR inspection at Phoenix Raceway, but the team will exercise one final appeal to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

“While we are disappointed in today’s results, we plan to immediately request a final appeal hearing as outlined in the NASCAR rulebook,” the team said in a release. “While the appeals process runs its course, we will continue to move forward and our focus will remain on getting prepared for the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway.”

Crew chief Paul Wolfe was fined $65,000 and suspended for three Monster Energy NASCAR Series Cup races – he sat one before the appeal was made – Team Penske docked 35 owner points and Keselowski the same. The fifth-place finish was considered encumbered. Keselowski is virtually assured a spot in the Cup playoffs anyway with a series-leading two wins, but 35 more points would currently move him from fourth to second place, and within six of leader Kyle Larson. The regular-season points leader earns a 15-point bonus entering the playoffs.

Keselowski’s infraction involved the “weights and measures” and the rear skew of the car. The NMAP consisted of former NASCAR truck series driver Rick Crawford, former television executive Hunter Nickell and Bowman Gray Stadium operator Dale Pinilis.

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney achieves another goal, but still misses out on victory lane

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FORT WORTH, Texas – Two stage wins were encouraging. Leading a race-high 148 laps was even more so.

Leaving Texas Motor Speedway with just a 12th-place finish left Ryan Blaney with things to reconcile, though, as the second-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver continues to flirt with a first victory.

Blaney became the first driver to lead more than 100 laps for the Wood Brothers since Neil Bonnett at Rockingham in 1982, but a mid-race play for points and a balky pit stop nullified his chances to maximize a fast No. 21 Ford. Blaney and the top seven stayed out under a late caution in the second stage to assure his 10-point bonus, but he fell to 20th on his stop between the sessions. He slid through his box on a later stop on Lap 299, incurring a penalty.

“Once we got that caution before the second segment, a lot of guys pitted and there was a lot of mixed strategies, and we decided to try to win the segment, which I thought was important to get those points and an extra bonus point,” Blaney said. “And I thought we had enough of the race to go to try to work our way back up through there, and I think we got to eighth or something like that before the last caution, and I slid through our pit box, and that was an unfortunate deal.”

Blaney said his team deserved much better.

“It’s not where you want to finish,” he said. “We deserved to finish third at worst. Our car was at its worst point was a third‑place car. You definitely think about that and are discouraged about that.

“But at the same time, you’ve got to look at the positives, and I think this is the most positive race we’ve ever had as a team, as a whole organization.”

Blaney, 23, who is contracted to Team Penske but is in his second campaign with the Wood Brothers, began the season with a second-place finish in the Daytona 500, has three top-10s in seven races and is currently sixth in the driver standings. His stage wins were the first of his career and added 20 points to his haul from Texas.

“I feel like our past couple weeks, even though we haven’t gotten the great finishes we deserve, I felt like our cars have been really, really fast,” Blaney said. “I thought it said a lot about our team and car last week to run good at Martinsville [25th].”

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WINNER: Jimmie Johnson broke through for his first win of the season, taking the lead with 15 laps remaining and holding off Kyle Larson in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. It is Johnson’s seventh win at the 1.5-mile layout. Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top five.

Texas becomes the fourth track where Johnson has won at least seven times, joining Dover International Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Sunday’s win came on a newly repaved and reconfigured surface.

Johnson, who said he still was trying to catch his breath when he emerged from the car, is among the fittest drivers on the circuit. But he clearly was exhausted after the race. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt complained his air flow wasn’t working too well in his car as many drivers seemed to wilt under the Texas heat.

“I guess I remembered how to drive and this team remembered how to do it,” said Johnson, whose last win was November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when he clinched his record-tying seventh championship. “What a tough track and tough conditions. Oh, it was hot in there. I got cooked in the car today. I didn’t have any fluids so I’m not feeling the best.

“But it was really in our wheel house, and I was able to execute all day. Just an awesome day for this Lowe’s team.”

Larson, who now has four runner-up finishes in seven races along with a win at Auto Club Speedway, said he thought if he had a few more laps he may have been able to catch Johnson.

“I had a better car than most. I think that made it really fun for me,” Larson said. “I wish I could have gotten past Joey (Logano) sooner; I think I would have had a shot at Jimmie. … Another second place for us and extended our points lead, so pretty happy about that.”

BLANEY’S RUN: Ryan Blaney dominated in winning the first two stages of the race and leading 148 laps. He was among the top seven leaders after the second stage dropped into the field after pitting to begin the final 164-lap segment. They worked their way gradually back during a lengthy green flag run. Blaney suffered a damaged nose in the final 60 laps when Corey LaJoie appeared to slow in front of him and the Wood Brothers driver responded by broadsiding LaJoie as he finally passed for ninth place. Blaney dropped to 16th with 32 laps left after over-running his pit stall.

GRIP: Drivers appeared limited to one main racing line although speedway officials for the second time deployed a machine to apply rubber by dragging tires across the surface. Numerous incidents had occurred Friday and Saturday when drivers strayed from the one established line and ventured into a slippery layer of tire debris nearer the wall. Logano used the high line to hold off Kevin Harvick on a restart with 30 laps left, however, and radio chatter suggested a second line had opened in Turns 3 and 4 in the final 20 laps.

STAGE ONE: Blaney claimed his first stage win of the season in running off in the first 85 laps. Blaney beat Martin Truex Jr. by .242 seconds, followed by Jamie McMurray, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Larson, Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Logano and Kyle Busch.

STAGE TWO: Blaney won the second stage by .551 seconds, followed by Johnson, McMurray, Larson, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Larson, Earnhardt, and Truex.

HISTORIC: Blaney led 148 laps on Sunday. The last time the Wood Brothers led at least 100 laps in a Cup race was Oct. 31, 1982, by Neil Bonnett at Rockingham. Bonnett finished third.

STAGGERED START: Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon could not take the checkered flag because of a mechanical problem originally diagnosed as a broken track bar mechanism. Dillon began the races under caution, 12 laps down.

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Changed track, same result at Texas with Jimmie Johnson win

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Jimmie Johnson still knows how to get to Victory Lane at Texas, even from the back of the field on a track that had changed significantly since his first six wins there.

And also while cramping because of dehydration late in the race that he won Sunday after charging under Joey Logano with 16 laps left .

“When I caught Joey and was racing with Joey, I started cramping pretty good on my left side — my chest, and my bicep, my forearm,” Johnson said. “I knew I was real low on fluids.”

Johnson discovered right after the start of the 334-lap race that there was a problem with the fluid delivery system in his car. But that and the track changes didn’t keep him from his first win this season , and the 81st in the career of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.

“I didn’t really say much about it,” he said. “I was so happy the car was running good, and we weren’t making mistakes, I kind of overlooked it all.”

Until he caught up with Logano after the final restart, and then got to Victory Lane.

While hot, Johnson said he initially felt better after getting out of the No. 48 Chevrolet. But when his back, chest and arms started to lock up while doing an interview, he went to the infield care center and got three bags of IV fluids.

When Johnson finally made it to the infield media center for his postrace interview about two hours after the checkered flag, he said he was feeling much better. He was also looking forward to his planned off-week trip to Mexico that he said would include a sunburn, margaritas, chips and guacamole.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus said they weren’t sure what caused the problem with the fluid system.

This was the first Cup race in Texas since the 1 1/2-mile facility was completely repaved and changes made to Turns 1 and 2 earlier this year. It was Johnson’s seventh victory at Texas, six in the last 10 races there.

Kyle Larson, the season points leader, finished second for the fourth time this year, but also won at California. Logano, polesitter Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top five.

Earnhardt also said he was hot after the race, because of a problem with the unit that is supposed to pump cool air through his helmet. Earnhardt, Johnson’s teammate with Hendrick Motorsports, needed no special treatment.

Johnson had to start at the back of the 40-car field because of a tire change after a spin in qualifying. He had qualified 24th.

“I guess I remembered how to drive; and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s only top-10 finish in the first six races this season had been ninth at Phoenix. Earnhardt had his first top-five finish since a runner-up at Pocono last June, not long before he missed the last half of the season because of lingering concussions symptoms.

Ryan Blaney won the first two stages and gave Wood Brothers Racing, the oldest active team in NASCAR, its longest front-running car in a race in 35 years. The 23-year-old Blaney finished 12th after leading 148 of 334 laps, the first time the team led more than 100 laps in a race since 1982.

Blaney first got the lead on the second early restart on lap 16, with a somewhat bold move around the outside of Harvick going through the reconfigured Turns 1 and 2, where the banking was reduced and the track widened.

During a caution on a few laps before the end of the second stage on lap 170, Blaney stayed on the track for a shot to win the stage while other cars pitted. Blaney restarted 20th after that stage and his stop, but after working back into the top 10, he overslid his pit on the last caution.

“That last pit stop was pretty discouraging,” Blaney said. “I don’t know what it was there at the end of segment two and that made everybody have split strategies, and we got in the back and couldn’t pass anybody. It was terrible to try to pass people.”

CAN’T HOLD ON

Logano regained the lead after not pitting on the final caution, but just didn’t have enough to hold off Johnson. “I needed a 15-lap run instead of a 30-lap run,” Logano said. “Or a couple cautions in there and we would be standing in Victory Lane with a 12th-place car, and that would have been something.”

DRY BUT WINDY

Both Cup races at Texas last year had lengthy rain delays, and the November race was cut 41 laps short by more rain after starting nearly six hours late. There was no threat of rain Sunday — good thing the race wasn’t a day later, when storms are in the forecast — but there were wind gusts of 30 mph or more throughout the race.

WOOD CENTURY

The Wood Brothers team was formed in 1950, and its last driver to lead at least 100 laps in a race was Neil Bonnett at Rockingham on Oct. 31, 1982. The team’s last victory was Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500. The team hadn’t even had more than 100 laps led in a full season since Elliott Sadler’s 125 in 2001. Since the start of 2002 until this week, the team had only 161 laps led total, including two for Blaney in the season-opening Daytona 500 this year.

UP NEXT

After the traditional Easter weekend break, the next Cup race is April 23 at Bristol.

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STAGE ONE: Blaney claimed his first stage win of the season in running off in the first 85 laps. Blaney beat Martin Truex Jr. by .242 seconds, followed by Jamie McMurray, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Larson, Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Logano and Kyle Busch.

STAGE TWO: Blaney won the second stage by .551 seconds, followed by Johnson, McMurray, Larson, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Larson, Earnhardt, and Truex.

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O’REILLY AUTO PARTS 500 RESULTS

Saturday at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (24) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 334 laps, 0 rating, 49 points.

2. (32) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 47.

3. (4) Joey Logano, Ford, 334, 0, 36.

4. (1) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 334, 0, 44.

5. (37) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 34.

6. (5) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 334, 0, 40.

7. (6) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 46.

8. (7) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 334, 0, 39.

9. (33) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 34.

10. (10) Kurt Busch, Ford, 334, 0, 32.

11. (3) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 334, 0, 30.

12. (2) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 334, 0, 45.

13. (12) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 334, 0, 24.

14. (11) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 334, 0, 26.

15. (34) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 334, 0, 23.

16. (8) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 334, 0, 21.

17. (14) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 20.

18. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 334, 0, 19.

19. (20) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 334, 0, 18.

20. (16) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 334, 0, 17.

21. (38) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 333, 0, 16.

22. (36) Erik Jones, Toyota, 333, 0, 15.

23. (13) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 333, 0, 14.

24. (19) Danica Patrick, Ford, 333, 0, 13.

25. (17) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 333, 0, 12.

26. (9) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 332, 0, 11.

27. (27) JJ Yeley, Chevrolet, 330, 0, 0.

28. (21) David Ragan, Ford, 329, 0, 9.

29. (15) Landon Cassill, Ford, 329, 0, 8.

30. (28) Cole Whitt, Ford, 327, 0, 7.

31. (26) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 327, 0, 6.

32. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 326, 0, 5.

33. (25) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 322, 0, 4.

34. (29) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 322, 0, 3.

35. (30) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 319, 0, 2.

36. (22) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 1.

37. (40) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 313, 0, 1.

38. (35) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 303, 0, 1.

39. (39) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, engine, 104, 0, 0.

40. (31) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, accident, 9, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 147.139 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 24 minutes, 18 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.340 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 35 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K.Harvick 1-15; R.Blaney 16-32; K.Harvick 33-36; R.Blaney 37-88; M.Truex 89-92; R.Blaney 93-125; M.Truex 126; R.Blaney 127-172; K.Harvick 173-219; B.Keselowski 220-223; J.Logano 224-228; M.Truex 229-272; J.Johnson 273; J.Logano 274-290; K.Harvick 291-301; J.Logano 302-317; J.Johnson 318-334

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): R.Blaney, 4 times for 144 laps; K.Harvick, 4 times for 73 laps; M.Truex, 3 times for 46 laps; J.Logano, 3 times for 35 laps; J.Johnson, 2 times for 16 laps; B.Keselowski, 1 time for 3 laps.

Wins: B.Keselowski, 2; Ku.Busch, 1; J.Johnson, 1; K.Larson, 1; R.Newman, 1; M.Truex, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Larson, 315; 2. C.Elliott, 298; 3. M.Truex, 275; 4. B.Keselowski, 274; 5. J.Logano, 243; 6. R.Blaney, 224; 7. Ky.Busch, 211; 8. J.McMurray, 209; 9. C.Bowyer, 204; 10. K.Harvick, 198; 11. J.Johnson, 190; 12. T.Bayne, 164; 13. R.Newman, 163; 14. E.Jones, 159; 15. Ku.Busch, 151; 16. D.Hamlin, 151.

Daniel Suarez embracing twin challenges as top-level NASCAR driver

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-   Daniel Suarez’s opportunity at NASCAR’s top level came quickly and by surprise. So did the corresponding role as pitchman.

Replacing Carl Edwards in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota this season was difficult enough, even after the product of Monterrey, Mexico, won the developmental Xfinity Series championship last season.

The race cars are different, but the principles the same as he attempted to replace the 37-year-old Edwards following his unexpected decision to leave the team this offseason. Following as a spokesperson for Subway would require more and a different kind of skill set, but Suarez, 25, was pleased with the results following the airing of his first national commercial for the sandwich shop last weekend.

“That part has been difficult, but I keep learning,” said Suarez, who raced with a Subway-themed car for the first of four times last week at Auto Club Speedway. “After this commercial, I guess it’s been good. I’m still learning about it, how to do better.”

Suarez did versions of the commercial in English and Spanish, with the finished product more like a hype video than a shill for a product. There was no smiling consumption of a sandwich, but Suarez introducing himself to the sponsorship as a video of himself racing played in the background. Edwards had a cameo.

“I spent a lot of ours trying to do my lines right in English,” Suarez joked. “In Spanish I took 10 minutes. I was going to feel bad if it wasn’t that way.”

Suarez’s work-study program at NASCAR’s highest level — he had not so much as tested a Cup car before Edwards’ move — took another turn on Wednesday when JGR announced that crew chief Dave Rogers had left his role indefinitely and would be replaced by Scott Graves. This change, at least, could provide some familiarity, as Graves was Suarez’s crew chief during his championship run last season.

Suarez’s first five races Cup races have, as expected, been challenging, especially given the relative struggles of JGR, which won 15 races last season but is winless so far. The team began a four-race win streak with a Kyle Busch victory last season at Martinsville Speedway, the site of Sunday’s race.

After finishing no better than 20th in the first three races, Suarez finished seventh in consecutive races at one-mile Phoenix Raceway and 2-mile Auto Club Speedway to perhaps establish a beach head into the spring. Although Edwards had made himself available as a mentor for Suarez, Busch has taken on a prominent role in answering inevitable questions.

“It’s been good. Kyle has helped me with a lot of stuff in the race shop,” Suarez said. “I’m trying to learn from everything. There is some room for improvement still, but we can be where we want to be.”

NASCAR: NASCAR off to a fast start, but ratings still sink

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Bad news first: The overnight television ratings for NASCAR’s race in California were down. The ratings were down for Phoenix, Las Vegas and Atlanta, too. Basically, nothing NASCAR does can stop this slide, it seems.

So what’s the good news?

Well, NASCAR really couldn’t have asked for a better start to its season.

Five drivers won the first five races. The lead changed in the waning laps each time.

Kyle Busch got into a fight on pit road that left him with a bloody gash on his forehead — generating all sorts of mainstream attention — and nobody was punished. Similarly, Austin Dillon avoided any penalty when he wrecked Cole Custer in retaliation.

Danica Patrick, for one, argued NASCAR did the right thing by withholding heavy-handed punishments.

“It makes for good TV,” she said, “and we handle it on the track ourselves.”

Professional partier — oh, and NFL star — Rob Gronkowski was the main attraction at the season-opening Daytona 500, and celebrities came out in full force to watch NASCAR on Sunday in Fontana, California. Among the many in attendance were Jada Pinkett Smith, Kaitlin Olson, Dean Cain, Terry Crews, Fred Savage, Scott Eastwood and Justin Hartley, “Kevin/The Manny” from NBC’s hit “This is Us,” who apparently caught NASCAR fever and attended various events over the last few months.

For all the hand-wringing over the ratings slump, NASCAR appears to be headed in the right direction.

Heck, even Clint Bowyer, one of the largest personalities in the series, is emerging from his lengthy slump. He finished third Sunday and wrote on Twitter: “first time in a long time I grabbed the bottle of Jack in the plane for the right reason.” Trust us, a happy Bowyer is good for everyone in NASCAR.

There’s parity among the manufacturers — Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota all have wins this season — and the younger drivers have found themselves in the mix every week. Kyle Larson, victorious Sunday, in theory could have five wins already this season. He ran out of gas while leading the Daytona 500, notched three consecutive runner-up finishes, then finally finished first at Fontana after several nail-biting restarts.

But the bad news always comes on Monday, when the TV numbers are released. The ratings become the main focus of the sport: Naysayers fixate on decline; excuse-makers trot out all manner of explanations.

How about this? NASCAR, no matter how many story lines or rule changes or celebrities lining the grid, is an underwhelming overall product. Even with its new stage format, events are too long in this day and age of instant gratification — even the NFL recently announced ways it is going to try to shorten games — and the racing itself often isn’t all that exciting until the end.

Another issue is that viewers are essentially being asked to tune in to watch colorful cars go in circles for 500 miles. When the cars themselves become the “stars,” it’s a lot harder to become emotionally invested in the product. It doesn’t help that Jeff Gordon, the sport’s biggest star for more than two decades, is now in the TV booth and Tony Stewart, the man of the people, is also retired.

The people left who need to be embraced are stuffed into cockpits, wearing helmets, and aren’t heard from until the end of the event. Their personalities are hidden, too. It’s so different from, say, the NCAA Tournament, which once a year makes celebrities out of basketball players few have heard of.

Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski has a beard of Bunyanesque proportions that earned its own Twitter account and made him famous over the last two weeks. North Carolina forward Luke Maye hit the shot of his life — the game-winner Sunday over Kentucky to send the Tar Heels to the Final Four — then received a standing ovation when he showed up for his 8 a.m. class back in Chapel Hill on Monday.

Most other sports provide an opportunity for fans to feel the tension, see and hear the emotion, experience the highs and lows of the participants in real time. NASCAR hasn’t found a way to capture that, barring, of course, an angry Busch stomping down pit road at Las Vegas to take a swing at Joey Logano.

That’s as big a problem for NASCAR as the length of its races, its over-saturated 11-month schedule and the constant corporate-speak of its drivers. Figure out a way to show us more — take off the sunglasses, be engaging, give us energy and passion — and then maybe people will start watching again.

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Standings: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

As of: Mar. 27
Rank Driver PV Rank
1 Kyle Larson 6
2 Chase Elliott 4
3 Martin Truex Jr. 7
4 Brad Keselowski 3
5 Joey Logano 5
6 Jamie McMurray 11
7 Ryan Blaney 8
8 Clint Bowyer 13
9 Kevin Harvick 1
10 Kyle Busch 24
11 Ryan Newman 19
12 Denny Hamlin 18

More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

NASCAR: Drivers who could get a boost at Las Vegas

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —-    As the NASCAR season begins its three-event swing out West, it still is far too early in the 36-race season to start drawing any firm conclusions on which drivers and teams may have the upper hand.

Yes, Ford has made a heavy early impact. And race winners Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski know they’ll have a chance to race for the Monster Energy Cup Series title when the 10-race playoff opens in September.

But we’re just two races in as the series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Kobalt 400. So instead of selecting a winner, let’s instead examine three drivers who could make an important move with a victory — or a very strong finish — in “Sin City.”

 

AUSTIN DILLON: How long have people been talking about Dillon and a breakthrough Cup victory? Well, since he began his stint as a full-time driver in NASCAR’S top series in 2014 and won the Daytona 500 pole. Dillon has six top-five finishes in 123 starts, and one of them is at Las Vegas — last year. The Richard Childress Racing driver has shown glimpses of speed and has been running up front more often. But it’s time to convert. Kyle Larson, the 2014 rookie of the year, finally broke through last season with a victory at Michigan International Speedway in his 99th start. So there’s even more pressure on Dillon to find victory lane and establish himself as a weekly threat.

 

CLINT BOWYER: This could be a special year for the 37-year-old journeyman. Bowyer, who spent last season driving for HScott Motorsports while waiting for the seat in the No. 14 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing to open up with Tony Stewart’s retirement, has just eight career wins. And only one of those is at a 1.5-mile venue like Las Vegas. But what a difference a win — or even a top-five — could make for Bowyer, who still seeks sponsorship to help fill out his Cup season card. And SHR, in its first year with Ford after switching from Chevrolet, already has proven strong with Busch’s win in the Daytona 500 and Kevin Harvick’s near-win at Atlanta last week (his speeding penalty on the final pit stop relegated him to an ninth-place finish). Bowyer, who hasn’t been to victory lane since 2012 — when he won three times — could use a boost.

 

KASEY KAHNE: The Hendrick Motorsports driver hasn’t won since 2014 and has flown under the radar at the four-car powerhouse for awhile. When you have seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2016 rookie of the year Chase Elliott under the same roof, it’s easy to see why. Kahne also has lagged in performance. When team owner Rick Hendrick signed up-and-comer William Byron last year, Kahne, whose contract runs through 2018, said: ‘’If I haven’t performed by then, it’s time to go do something different.’’ Well, there’s no time like the present. Kahne is off to a fast start, with a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500 — ostensibly a crash-fest — and a fourth-place result at Atlanta. If he can carry that momentum into victory lane at Vegas, he could jump-start a special season.

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The signature event remains in Florida and most race teams call North Carolina home, but the nation’s gambling mecca is about to become NASCAR’s busiest market.

This week’s announcement that Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host six races yearly in NASCAR’s top three circuits starting in 2018 suits Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch just fine. He’s watching his hometown go through a sports boom.

“As a kid I went to a lot of UNLV basketball games, early ’90s, we were the real deal. We were on a national stage,” the 38-year-old Busch said Thursday during a visit back to his old school, Durango High. “Then it seemed to fizzle out for a while.”

While the Runnin’ Rebels have fallen on hard times in hoops, the Las Vegas sports scene has never been more crowded as the city’s population grows and the city recovers from the 2008 recession.

As Busch was finishing last in a Big Wheel race against students and making a $5,000 donation to his former school, the Las Vegas Stadium Authority was meeting down the street to discuss lease details of the proposed NFL stadium that would lure the Raiders from Oakland.

There were also three college basketball conference tournaments going on, with Busch having tickets to the evening Pac-12 session. That’s being played for the first time at the new T-Mobile Arena, where the NHL expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights begin play in the fall.

And Busch, in town for this weekend’s NASCAR Cup race, was excited about Wednesday’s announcement that the 1.5-mile oval north of the Strip will host a second Cup race beginning in 2018, during the 10-race playoff.

The addition of the two lower tier races will make Las Vegas the only NASCAR track to host two tripleheader weekends each year.

“Las Vegas is a destination,” said Busch, who won NASCAR’s premier race at Daytona last month. “Our schedule changes. Tracks gain dates, tracks lose dates. This is nothing new. But when you talk about Las Vegas, I believe it’s 90 percent of the ticket sales are from out of town. And so the tourism bureau is really the ones in charge and they do a fantastic job to advertise Las Vegas in general.”

Indeed, money is driving the sports growth in town. The Raiders are in play because the state of Nevada has pledged $750 toward a $1.9 billion domed stadium. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley agreed to pay a $500 million expansion fee. Money draws numerous UFC and boxing fights to town.

And Speedway Motorsports Inc. decided to move its fall Cup and Truck Series dates from New Hampshire and an Xfinity race from Kentucky to the desert because the Las Vegas track will receive $2.5 million a year for seven years from the city’s convention and visitors authority. The bureau is funded mostly through hotel taxes.

“Las Vegas has always been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world and it is now emerging as a premiere destination for major league professional sports and marquee sporting events,” said Kerry Bubolz, President of the Golden Knights. “The addition of the second NASCAR race supports that. And as a NASCAR fan, I personally am excited about the news.”

While Las Vegas hasn’t been immune to NASCAR’s dwindling attendance, the visitors bureau said 115,000 attended last March’s NASCAR Cup race, with an estimated 96,000 coming from out of town.

“The experience is unique to any other in our sport.” NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell said.

So it wasn’t a difficult call for track owner SMI to move the dates. Neither race at New Hampshire this year has a title sponsor and it was tough to draw crowds for a single Xfinity race at Kentucky.

But a more saturated sports market will also test NASCAR’s second date, which will likely occur during an NFL Sunday and in the September heat of the desert.

“I love Vegas. I think it’s a great atmosphere and it would be good,” driver Kevin Harvick said last week at Atlanta. “But sometimes you can turn one great (race) into two mediocres.”

Busch believes his hometown and two NASCAR dates are a great fit.

“There’s so much to do. Restaurants, entertainment, gambling, this is a huge destination worldwide,” Busch said. “And now they have two NASCAR dates.”

NASCAR: Keselowski steals Atlanta win after Harvick caught speeding

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HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Kevin Harvick was faster than everyone at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Too fast, it turned out.

Harvick ruined a dominating performance by speeding on his final pit stop, allowing Brad Keselowski to steal a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup victory Sunday.

“I’m just snake-bit here,” Harvick said. “But it’s my own doing.”

Harvick won the first two stages under NASCAR’s new race format and led a staggering 293 out of 325 laps overall. But, after a late yellow came out when Austin Dillon lost power, the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford eclipsed the 45 mph speed limit going into the pits.

“I thought I was being conservative,” Harvick said. “I guess I wasn’t. I was just pushing it too hard.”

The ensuing drive-thru penalty pushed Kyle Larson to the lead but he couldn’t hold off Keselowski, who surged ahead on the backstretch with six laps to go and cruised to a 0.564-second victory.

Keselowski, who had his own misfortune at Atlanta in 2013 that cost him a shot at making the Chase, wasn’t about to turn down Harvick’s gift.

“We’ve had races where we led a bunch of laps and things just fall apart at the end,” Keselowski said. “That’s just how this sport works. You take advantage of the opportunities when they come. We certainly caught an opportunity.”

Harvick seemed poised to win at the 1.54-mile trioval for the first time since his initial Cup victory in 2001, just three races after he got his chance following the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Instead, it was another bitter disappointment.

Harvick also led more laps than anyone each of the last three years, a total of 442 in all, but was never ahead when it mattered.

This mistake cost Stewart-Haas its second straight victory to start the season after Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 .

“I didn’t think I was pushing it,” Harvick told his crew over the radio. “I’m so sorry guys.”

He clearly had the fastest car all weekend. After starting from the pole, he took the first 85-lap stage by more than 2.5 seconds and was ahead by a staggering 5.4 seconds at the end of the second stage — turning the new format into a total snoozer.

“Would we have caught the 4?” said Roger Penske, Keselowski’s car owner. “Probably not.”

The speeding penalty on pit road — an issue that plagued a bunch of drivers, including two-time defending race winner Jimmie Johnson — knocked Harvick to the end of the lead pack with 11 laps remaining.

He didn’t have enough laps to make up for the mistake, forcing him to settle for a ninth-place showing that should’ve been so much better.

“I had a great car under me,” Harvick said.

He made only one other mistake all day, spinning his tires coming out of the pits after Gray Gaulding blew an engine 62 laps from the end. Keselowski grabbed the lead, only to get word that his crew had not properly attached some of the tire lug nuts during his own pit stop. He had to come back in for a second stop, knocking him from the lead to 14th place on the restart.

But Penske wondered if that pit stop was on Harvick’s mind when he came back in the final time.

“I think he might’ve been on a little bit of an edge,” Penske said. “He pushed it more than he should.”

Keselowski had time to recover from his crew’s mistake, reassuring them over the radio and working his way back toward the front.

“Kevin was very, very strong,” Keselowski said after his 22nd career Cup victory. “But we persevered.”

JIMMIE’S WOES: Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, was trying to become the first driver to win the Atlanta race three years in a row.

His hopes were ruined by not one, but two speeding penalties on pit road.

Johnson wound up a lap down in 18th place.

CHASE’S WOES: Local favorite Chase Elliott might’ve been in position to challenge for his first Cup win, but a problem on the final pit stop cost him valuable track position. He wound up fifth.

“We had just a little bit of a hiccup that cost us the second spot unfortunately,” Elliott said. “After Kevin’s misfortune, that would have put us in a really good spot.”

Elliott ran out of gas while leading at Daytona late in the race.

Now, another frustrating day.

“I thought our car was as good as Kevin’s car was,” Elliott said. “I just think he did a little better job of driving than I was doing.”

A DEBUT AND A RETURN: Cody Ware made his first career start in the Cup series.

It was a tough outing for the 21-year-old driver.

The No. 51 Chevrolet entered by non-chartered team Rick Ware Racing ran just 74 laps because of a steering problem and wound up last in the 39-car field.

At the other end of the age spectrum was 58-year-old Derrike Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner making his first Cup appearance since 2009.

Like Ware, Cope didn’t have the funding to run a competitive car but at least made it all the way to the end.

He finished 27 laps down in 36th.

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SUNDAY’S RESULTS

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (5) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 325 laps, 0 rating, 53 points.

2. (8) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 325, 0, 43.

3. (16) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 325, 0, 34.

4. (29) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 325, 0, 33.

5. (11) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 325, 0, 49.

6. (6) Joey Logano, Ford, 325, 0, 37.

7. (13) Kurt Busch, Ford, 325, 0, 30.

8. (9) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 325, 0, 43.

9. (1) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 325, 0, 48.

10. (7) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 325, 0, 27.

11. (25) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 325, 0, 28.

12. (15) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 325, 0, 26.

13. (4) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 325, 0, 28.

14. (23) Erik Jones, Toyota, 325, 0, 26.

15. (26) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 325, 0, 22.

16. (3) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 325, 0, 21.

17. (24) Danica Patrick, Ford, 325, 0, 20.

18. (14) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 324, 0, 19.

19. (18) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 324, 0, 19.

20. (37) Cole Whitt, Ford, 324, 0, 17.

21. (21) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 323, 0, 16.

22. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 323, 0, 15.

23. (34) David Ragan, Ford, 323, 0, 14.

24. (28) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 323, 0, 13.

25. (17) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 322, 0, 12.

26. (20) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 322, 0, 11.

27. (30) Aric Almirola, Ford, 321, 0, 10.

28. (22) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 321, 0, 9.

29. (36) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 320, 0, 8.

30. (12) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 320, 0, 7.

31. (33) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 320, 0, 6.

32. (19) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 319, 0, 10.

33. (35) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 317, 0, 4.

34. (32) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 313, 0, 3.

35. (2) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 309, 0, 15.

36. (38) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 298, 0, 1.

37. (31) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, engine, 253, 0, 1.

38. (10) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, garage, 182, 0, 4.

39. (39) Cody Ware, Chevrolet, garage, 74, 0, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 140.900 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 33 minutes, 8 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.564 seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 32 laps.

Lead Changes: 9 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K.Harvick 1-36; R.Newman 37-39; K.Harvick 40-127; J.Johnson 128-129; B.Keselowski 130-141; K.Harvick 142-264; B.Keselowski 265-266; K.Harvick 267-311; K.Larson 312-318; B.Keselowski 319-325

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Harvick, 4 times for 292laps; B.Keselowski, 3 times for 21 laps; K.Larson, 1 time for 7 laps; R.Newman, 1 time for 3 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 2 lap.

Wins: Ku.Busch, 1; B.Keselowski, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Harvick, 90; 2. Ku.Busch, 86; 3. B.Keselowski, 84; 4. C.Elliott, 82; 5. J.Logano, 80; 6. K.Larson, 79; 7. M.Truex, 67; 8. R.Blaney, 63; 9. K.Kahne, 63; 10. T.Bayne, 58; 11. A.Allmendinger, 50; 12. J.McMurray, 49; 13. A.Almirola, 47; 14. C.Bowyer, 46; 15. P.Menard, 44; 16. M.Kenseth, 41.

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NASCAR: Daytona’s marred finished

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —   With 40 drivers in the field and last year’s Daytona 500 having the closest finish ever – a .01-second margin between first and second – what happened Sunday that left just a handful of cars in serious contention for the win?

First, there were several wrecks – including one involving 17 cars – that knocked drivers out of the race under new NASCAR collision rules. So with three laps left in the 200-lap Great American Race, there were arguably nine cars leading the way and any one of them had a chance to win.

But then drivers started to run out of gas, including winner Kurt Busch in the No. 41 Ford, whose crew chief handed him potentially race-ending news.

“With the fuel situation, he said we were half a lap shy,” Busch said after the race. “I just figured we would figure out how to gain half a lap as we raced.”

 

But these teams aren’t just winging it with how much gas is left in the tank. Slight fuel miscalculations combined with a lack of caution flags – which offer drivers the opportunity to refuel – in the final 47 laps dealt a few drivers devastating results.

During a caution flag – usually after a crash – each car’s position is frozen, allowing them to make a pit stop without falling behind. Additional new NASCAR rules break each race into three segments – two 60-lap and one 80-lap stages for the Daytona 500 – and there is a caution flag following the first two.

Although there were eight cautions throughout the race, the final one ended on lap 153, making it the first time in more than a decade without a caution flag in the final 12 laps.

Leading for 22 of the final laps, Chase Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet ran out of gas, and Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota took over for a lap before dropping back. And on lap 199, Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet just had to maintain his position for the win, but he, too, ran out of fuel – paving the way for Busch to take the lead for his first Daytona 500 win in 17 starts.

 AP Photo/John Raoux

AP Photo/John Raoux

“Either we were all going to come to the [finish] line together like we did, or we were going to run out together,” Busch explained. “We were on the same sequence as the majority of those cars up front. Sometimes, you’ve just got to roll with it.”

Between the numbers wrecks – that eliminated Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick and Kyle Busch, along with 11 others – and late-race fuel problems, just 15 drivers are credited with completing all 200 laps.

And luckily for Busch, the only real problem he had was losing his rearview mirror with 30 laps left, keeping him from seeing just how many car lengths ahead of the pack he was as he crossed the finish line.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Fox’s broadcast of Sunday’s Daytona 500 posted that same rating as last season, although the average viewership numbers saw a modest bump.

The broadcast of Kurt Busch’s victory had a rating of 6.6. with an average viewership 11.922 million, Fox announced Monday evening. The rating was equal to last year, although the average broadcast audience in metered markets was up 5%. The race had a share of 15, meaning 15% of the televisions in use were tuned to the race.

Viewership peaked (14.031 million viewers) between 6:15-6:30 p.m. ET as Busch held on for the his first victory in 16 attempts.

The ratings remain well off their highs.

Bolstered as the lead-in to the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, NBC scored an 11.3 rating for the 2006 Daytona 500, and the ratings remained in double digits over the next two broadcasts of “The Great American Race.”

Fox, which has broadcast the race since 2007, reported a 16% ratings gain for its pre-race show and 21% boost of the network’s post-race show over 2016.

The network said it had a record NASCAR audience on its streaming service, Fox Sports GO, with an average audience of 39,832 people per minute streaming the broadcast.

Busch took the lead on the final lap as other contenders ran out of fuel in the season-opening race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

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NASCAR: Hype, new format didn’t equal must-watch Daytona 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Daytona 500 was sold out, the grid packed with celebrities, the fan area full of activities including a motorcycle “Ball of Death.”

Owen “Lightning McQueen” Wilson was on hand, and so was Waka Flocka Flame , Gronk and nearly two dozen women decked out in scantily-clad Monster Energy outfits.

One thing NASCAR had for its season opener was a much-needed spark and an atmosphere worthy of the hype associated with its biggest race.

But for all the buzzwords — NASCAR is edgy! — star power and a Monster-fueled fervor that made the race a hot ticket, it couldn’t hide the one thing that still continues to tug at the heart of the sport.

The racing.

The sport’s leaders had worked so hard to make a splash and push the message that this was a new NASCAR. Even the drivers could feel it.

“The whole week was a lot of fun. All the media. All the buildup. The sellout,” said NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Felt like it was a new beginning of sorts in some way for the sport. It seemed like there was a new energy. I don’t know what it was. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but it just felt good.”

Right up until go time.

NASCAR revamped the rules that turned races into segments — three, like periods in the NHL — designed to keep fans engaged from the drop of the green flag. But a series of wrecks wiped out contenders like Earnhardt and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and others, and there were lengthy red flag delays. The top 10 became loaded with drivers more familiar with the back of the pack and all that energy faded away.

Gronk can’t save them every week, either.

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski almost overshadowed race winner Kurt Busch . Both are sponsored by Monster, NASCAR’s new title sponsor, but it was Gronk who was out until 5:30 a.m. Monday following NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.

The biggest race of the year was far from NASCAR’s best and the new format fell a little flat from the promised amazingness drivers insisted it will deliver. It wasn’t a dud, but it’s impossible to know after one crash-filled weekend if it’s any good.

It was wreck after wreck after wreck on Sunday, and almost all the top names were taken out early. It meant Canadian driver D.J. Kennington’s debut in the Daytona 500 produced a better finish than Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth, both two-time Daytona 500 winners, and former series champion Kyle Busch.

Cole Whitt was at one point the race leader, and before Busch stole the victory, it appeared the win could go to either Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson or Ryan Blaney — a trio with an average age of 22 and one win in a combined 209 starts.

That Busch led just one lap, the last one, was fitting for this race. It was the first time in 59 years that the winner led only the final lap.

It’s hard to know why so many drivers struggled, or if racing in stages produced the problems. The aggression on the track could be attributed to anxious drivers running their first real race following the offseason. It could be that the back half of the grid just isn’t that talented. Consider: This Daytona 500 lacked Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, featured rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones and the debuts for Kennington, Corey LaJoie, Joey Gase and Jeffery Earnhardt.

AJ Allmendinger finished third and thought the stages made a difference.

“It seemed like you get five laps to go in the stage, everything would kind of amp back up,” Allmendinger said. “Everybody just gets three-wide now. It’s hard to make any moves happen. You have to get your track position. If you lose it, it’s hard to get it back.

“Over the last couple years, it’s kind of hard to make moves through the middle of the pack through the field with 20 to go. Everybody was trying to get up there and make sure they got the track position. That’s what happens here.”

Blaney, give him credit, tried to win in a backup car and didn’t shy away from pulling out of line to try to make a run at the win.

“I tried to make a move with 10 (laps) to go to see what would happen. No one really went with me,” runner-up Blaney said.

Elliott ran out of fuel. So did Larson. Same with Martin Truex Jr. And so Kurt Busch won, then Monster threw a rager to celebrate. For the cut-rate price the company is paying for naming rights — reportedly about $20 million a year — it likely recouped its initial investment on opening day based on publicity alone.

In the end, the television rating was up, the mood was mostly upbeat and Monster was as proud of Busch’s victory as it was of Gronk’s all-nighter. At Busch’s Monday winner’s breakfast, Monster vice president of sports marketing Mitch Covington noted that Gronk had put in a 24-hour shift for the company.

That a hard-partying NFL player could steal thunder from the Daytona 500 winner is a problem NASCAR has to address. The big names are getting old, and the sport is going to be in desperate need of some superstars very soon.

And if NASCAR intends to be the rock star that Monster can create, it’s going to need far better racing that it got at Daytona.

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

NASCAR: Kurt Busch steals monster victory by winning Daytona 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Decked in Monster gear and chugging a tall boy of the energy drink as he was flanked by scantily clad models and one of pro sports’ top partiers, Kurt Busch celebrated the biggest win of his racing career.

It was Monster Madness!

Busch used a last-lap pass to win the crash-filled Daytona 500 on Sunday in the opening race of Monster Energy’s new role as title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series. Busch, it just so happens, is also sponsored by Monster, and the company has strongly stood by him through his rocky career.

So this was a victory of redemption for Busch, who was suspended by NASCAR two days before the 2015 Daytona 500 for his off-track behavior, and for Monster, which has promised to pump new life into NASCAR’s sagging sport.

“I’ve had a lot of people that have believed in me through the years, a lot of people that have supported me,” Busch said.

Add NFL star Rob Gronkowski to Busch’s bandwagon, too.

Gronkowski celebrated with Busch and the Monster girls in victory lane. He raved about the win and seemed to really enjoy his first Daytona 500, the first for NASCAR’s new three-segment format and one filled with wrecks.

“Monster’s the best!” Gronk shouted to The Associated Press. “We picked Kurt to win and he won ’cause he’s a Monster guy. Kurt did an awesome job. Monster killed that race!”

Gronk and Busch likely will celebrate late into the night, well after the banged-up No. 41 Ford heads to the museum for its yearlong display at Daytona International Speedway.

“The more that becomes unpredictable about Daytona, the more it becomes predictable to predict unpredictability,” Busch said. “This car’s completely thrashed. There’s not a straight panel on it. The strategy today, who knew what to pit when, what segments were what. Everybody’s wrecking as soon as we’re done with the second segment.

“The more that I’ve run this race, the more that I just throw caution to the wind, let it rip and just elbows out. That’s what we did.”

It wasn’t NASCAR’s finest moment, though, as multiple accidents pared down the field and had a mismatched group of drivers racing for the win at the end.

It appeared to be pole-sitter Chase Elliott’s race to lose, then he ran out of gas. So did Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne. As they all slipped off the pace, Busch sailed through for his first career Daytona 500 victory in 16 tries.

It also was the first Daytona 500 win for Stewart-Haas Racing, which is co-owned by Tony Stewart. The three-time champion retired at the end of last season and watched his four cars race from the pits.

“I ran this damn race (17) years and couldn’t win it, so finally won it as an owner,” Stewart said. “It’s probably the most patient race I’ve ever watched Kurt Busch run. He definitely deserved that one for sure.”

It was a crushing defeat for Elliott, who is developing a reputation as a driver unable to immediately digest defeat. He left the track without comment in a car driven by his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.

Ryan Blaney finished second in a Ford. AJ Allmendinger was third in a Chevrolet, and Aric Almirola was fourth for Richard Petty Motorsports.

“I can understand his disappointment, for sure,” Blaney said of Elliott, his friend and rival. “You’re leading the race. Looks like you’re going to win the Daytona 500. You know how he is, he’s very hard on himself. But it wasn’t his fault. You can’t help you run out of gas.”

The win was a huge boost for Ford, which lured Stewart-Haas Racing away from Chevrolet this season and celebrated the coup with its second Daytona 500 victory in three years. Joey Logano won in a Ford in 2015.

“What a great win to start off a partnership,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technical officer. “We were so fast. We knew we had a good chance and Kurt hung in there after getting caught up in that crash. He didn’t give up.”

The first points race of the Monster era was run under a new format that split the 500 miles into three stages. Kyle Busch won the first stage, Kevin Harvick won the second stage and neither was a contender for the win. NASCAR also this year passed a rule that gave teams just five minutes to repair any damage on their cars or they were forced to retire.

But the race was slowed by wreck after wreck after wreck, including a 17-car accident at the start of the final stage that ended the race for seven-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick. It was a particularly rough incident for Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing team, which had all four of its cars collected in the accident.

“Just seems like that could have been avoided and was uncalled for,” Johnson said about the aggressive racing behind him that triggered the accident.

Kurt Busch was able to continue, but most of the top contenders found themselves on the outside looking in.

“Some years I think we have it where we run here and nobody wrecks and it’s great racing,” said Brad Keselowski, “and then you have other years like this where everybody wrecks all the time.”

Roughly two hours before the race, NASCAR chairman Brian France issued drivers a stern warning about blocking.

France rarely wades into competition matters, especially in public, but stepped to the microphone to admonish the drivers. The Truck Series and Xfinity Series races were sloppy wreck-fests, and France hardly wanted the same spectacle for his Super Bowl.

“This is our biggest event,” France told the packed drivers meeting. “What I don’t normally do, and I’m going to do this today, is bring up a competition issue. This is for the drivers. And what I want you to think about. We realize blocking is part of racing. We understand that. We accept that.

“Do not look for NASCAR … when you block somebody out there. It causes almost all the big incidents. Do not look for NASCAR … you better hope there’s a Good Samaritan behind you who is going to accept that block, because they have that lane and the right to it. And I don’t often make those statements.”

Blocking or not, the race was a mess of tangled sheet metal and wrecked cars.

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Here are some other items of note from the Daytona 500:

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EARNHART’S HIT

Dale Earnhardt Jr. slammed into the wall and walked away unscathed, an early exit from the Daytona 500 that could be viewed as a positive step in his recovery process.

NASCAR’s most popular driver missed 18 races, half the season, in 2016 because of lingering concussion symptoms that included nausea as well as vision and balance issues. He got back in the car in early December and gained medical clearance to return this season.

He was looking to make a triumphant return at Daytona, the track where his famous father died, but ended up driving to the garage and parking it for the day shortly after the midway point of the 200-lap event. He finished 37th, but made progress.

“I feel good,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t have any symptoms or anything I’ve experienced in the past. It wasn’t that hard of a hit, but it still doesn’t mean you can’t get injured.”

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FORD’S BIG WIN:

It was a definite coup for Ford when it lured Stewart-Haas Racing away from Chevrolet starting this season. The hope was that the four-car organization would bolster Ford’s numbers and lead the manufacturer to victories and championships.

One race down, and this partnership seems to be a perfect pairing.

Busch gave Ford its first win in the Daytona 500 since Joey Logano won it two years ago.

“SHR in their first outing with Ford, to get this win, we could not be any happier as an organization right now,” said Dave Pericak, global director of Ford Performance.

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ELLIOTT’S HEARTBREAK:

Chase Elliott came close to victory several times last season, each defeat hitting him harder than the last.

So it was no surprise to see Elliott devastated after he ran out of gas while leading the Daytona 500. He left the track as a passenger in a car driven by his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, after slipping to a 14th-place finish. Elliott was seeking to become the first driver to win the pole, a qualifying race and the 500 since his father accomplished the feat in 1985.

“I can understand his disappointment,” friend and second-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. “You’re leading the race. Looks like you’re going to win the Daytona 500. You know how he is. He’s very hard on himself.”

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WALTRIP’S FINALE

Michael Waltrip ended his racing career exactly how he hoped.

He knew a victory was unlikely, so he set a more realistic goal for his final NASCAR start: to finish in the top 10 in his 30th and last Daytona 500.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner took the checkered flag in eighth, providing him the ideal conclusion to a career that began in 1985, spanned more than three decades and included 784 Cup Series starts and four victories.

“It’s going to be a great memory,” said Waltrip, who signed a one-race deal with Premium Motorsports to say goodbye at the famed speedway that has provided him triumph and tragedy. “I’m ready for it to be my last one, so it’s going to be a good one to remember it by.”

daytona-500-with-2017-winner

 

DAYTONA 500 RESULTS

1. (8) Kurt Busch, Ford, 200 laps, 0 rating, 48 points.

2. (36) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 200, 0, 44.

3. (38) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 39.

4. (13) Aric Almirola, Ford, 200, 0, 33.

5. (33) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 32.

6. (15) Joey Logano, Ford, 200, 0, 40.

7. (26) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 30.

8. (30) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 200, 0, 29.

9. (25) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 200, 0, 28.

10. (11) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 200, 0, 27.

11. (39) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 0.

12. (16) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 33.

13. (35) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 200, 0, 24.

14. (1) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 23.

15. (22) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 22.

16. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 199, 0, 21.

17. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 199, 0, 23.

18. (17) Cole Whitt, Ford, 199, 0, 19.

19. (10) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 199, 0, 18.

20. (40) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 199, 0, 0.

21. (14) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 198, 0, 18.

22. (5) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 197, 0, 34.

23. (29) Joey Gase, Toyota, 196, 0, 0.

24. (31) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 193, 0, 13.

25. (20) David Ragan, Ford, 188, 0, 12.

26. (32) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, accident, 145, 0, 11.

27. (7) Brad Keselowski, Ford, accident, 143, 0, 24.

28. (3) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, accident, 141, 0, 13.

29. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, accident, 141, 0, 8.

30. (18) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 140, 0, 7.

31. (23) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, accident, 133, 0, 6.

32. (6) Clint Bowyer, Ford, accident, 128, 0, 9.

33. (12) Danica Patrick, Ford, accident, 128, 0, 11.

34. (24) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, accident, 127, 0, 5.

35. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, accident, 127, 0, 2.

36. (28) D.J. Kennington, Toyota, accident, 127, 0, 1.

37. (2) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, accident, 106, 0, 7.

38. (21) Kyle Busch, Toyota, accident, 103, 0, 11.

39. (34) Erik Jones, Toyota, accident, 103, 0, 1.

40. (9) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, accident, 103, 0, 1.

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 142.891 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 29 minutes, 31 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.228 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 40 laps.

Lead Changes: 37 among 18 drivers.

Lap Leaders: C.Elliott 1-5; J.McMurray 6-18; K.Harvick 19-22; C.Elliott 23-24; K.Harvick 25-29; B.Keselowski 30-31; K.Larson 32; K.Harvick 33-41; Ky.Busch 42; M.Truex 43; Ky.Busch 44-48; R.Blaney 49-50; Ky.Busch 51-62; A.Allmendinger 63-64; K.Larson 65-68; K.Harvick 69-72; K.Larson 73; K.Harvick 74-89; J.Johnson 90-96; D.Earnhardt 97-104; E.Sadler 105-109; K.Harvick 110-121; J.Logano 122; K.Larson 123-125; C.Elliott 126; K.Kahne 127; C.Elliott 128-135; K.Kahne 136-141; A.Dillon 142-148; J.Logano 149-151; C.Whitt 152-154; A.Almirola 155-156; K.Larson 157-162; J.Logano 163-174; C.Elliott 175-197; M.Truex 198; K.Larson 199; Ku.Busch 200

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Harvick, 6 times for 44 laps; C.Elliott, 5 times for 34 laps; Ky.Busch, 3 times for 15 laps; J.Logano, 3 times for 13 laps; J.McMurray, 1 time for 12 laps; K.Larson, 6 times for 10 laps; D.Earnhardt, 1 time for 7 laps; A.Dillon, 1 time for 6 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 6 laps; K.Kahne, 2 times for 5 laps; E.Sadler, 1 time for 4 laps; C.Whitt, 1 time for 2 laps; A.Allmendinger, 1 time for 1 lap; A.Almirola, 1 time for 1 lap; R.Blaney, 1 time for 1 lap; B.Keselowski, 1 time for 1 lap; M.Truex, 2 times for 0 laps; Ku.Busch, 1 time for 0 laps.

Segment wins: Kyle Busch, Stage 1; Kevin Harvick, Stage 2.

NASCAR: Elliott on the Daytona 500 pole again, alongside Earnhardt

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It’s Daytona Day!

The 59th running of the Daytona 500 begins Sunday afternoon, with Chase Elliott on the pole for the second consecutive year. Although Elliott had the fastest car in qualifying, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is getting most of the attention. Earnhardt is returning from his fifth documented concussion, the latest costing him half of last season.

Earnhardt will start alongside Elliott on the front row of “The Great American Race.”

Elliott won one of two qualifying races Thursday. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, the defending Daytona 500 winner, won the other.

Others to watch in the season opener — NASCAR’s most prestigious race — include Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The Team Penske teammates won three of four restrictor-plate races last season.

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NASCAR: Hamlin spoils Earnhardt return with last-lap pass for win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Denny Hamlin didn’t need a Toyota teammate to grab another win at Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin charged past Dale Earnhardt Jr. with one lap remaining Thursday night to deny Earnhardt a victory a 150-mile qualifying race that Earnhardt dominated. Earnhardt led 53 of the 60 laps in the second qualifying Duel, but couldn’t hold off a Hamlin charge at the end.

Hamlin got a push from Chevrolet driver Austin Dillon to gather the momentum needed to get past Earnhardt. Typically, the Toyota drivers have teamed together to navigate through traffic in restrictor plate races.

In the qualifying race, Hamlin didn’t need his fellow Toyota drivers and even overcame a pit road penalty to get the win.

“I don’t know what I could have done differently to defend that,” Earnhardt said. “Denny is so smart, he knows what he’s doing out there. Any which way I went, I knew he was going to go the other way and probably get by me. If it’s the Daytona 500, it’s the same thing, ain’t nothing you can do about that.”

It was Earnhardt’s first race in his return from a concussion that caused him to miss the second half of last season. He faded to sixth.

Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner and has won a Duel qualifying race three times in his career. The twin 150-mile races are used to set the field for Sunday’s season-opener, and Hamlin got this win on the same day he announced a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsor FedEx.

Chase Elliott won the first qualifier, but he had already earned the top starting spot for Sunday’s race based on speed. He and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt will start on the front row in “The Great American Race.”

There were two open slots for the Daytona 500 and they were claimed by Corey LaJoie and Canadian driver D.J. Kennington.

LaJoie had the harder road to race into the Daytona 500.

He ran into the back of Reed Sorenson, one of the drivers he was racing for the slot in the 500. It caused Sorenson to wreck.

“I know it looked like I meant to do it but I didn’t,” LaJoie said on his radio. “I was running the middle and he came down on me.”

He said he would have preferred not to have wrecked Sorenson, but insisted it was unintentional and noted the race was his first time in a Cup car at a plate track. LaJoie had to politic through December to get this ride, but still asked Jimmie Johnson to put in a good word for him to help him get a chance to race in the Daytona 500.

So, he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way of making Sunday’s race.

“I didn’t want to be sipping margaritas on the beach on Sunday. I wanted to be out there racing,” LaJoie said. “If that was my mom, I would probably spin her out to make the Daytona 500, too. That’s just frank. I’m sure I’m not going to be on Reed’s Christmas card list this year, but that’s all right.”

Sorenson was not pleased.

“I guess he felt like he did what he had to do to make the race,” Sorenson said. “I hope he’s proud of that part of it. There’s a lot of pressure going in to making this race. It’s a very big deal for a small team like ours.”

Elliott, meanwhile, was thrilled with his first Cup victory.

“I know this was just a Duel win, and doesn’t mean a lot for the playoffs, but it still means something to me,” said Elliott.

Indeed, this was technically just an exhibition race. But new rules for this season earned Elliott 10 points with the win. NASCAR’s new format this year including a provision that awards points on a 10-to-1 declining scale to the top-10 finishers in Thursday night’s races.

Points were not the goal for Elliott, though. His Hendrick Motorsports team instead wanted to test his Chevrolet to see how strong it will be in Sunday’s big event.

“We didn’t say one word about points before the race,” Elliott said. “We just kind of set out and wanted to race, not ride around. I think sometimes you ride around and you don’t know what your car is like and if it’s going to be the way you want it for Sunday.

“We took chances and it worked out, so excited for Sunday.”

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NASCAR: Earnhardt wants to win a title then ride into retirement

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Upon further review, hoisting a championship trophy is exactly how Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to end his career.

NASCAR’s most popular driver caused a stir on “The Dan Patrick Show” when he claimed he would immediately retire if he wins the title this year. The statement followed him to media day for the Daytona 500, and there was no question about it.

“Hell, yeah. I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship. I would be outta here,” he said. “That’s the last box I don’t have checked, really. There’s a few races I’d like to win. The championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career.”

Earnhardt is the son of Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, who won a record-tying seven championships over his career. As Earnhardt enters the 18th season of his Cup career, he’s still seeking his first title.

He’s said repeatedly that retirement is not on his radar, and at just 42 years old, he should have many years ahead in his career. But Earnhardt has had concussion issues and missed the second half of last season recovering from one. He is also newly married and says he is looking at life differently.

Knowing how hard he worked to get healthy and back in the race car, he really just wants to dictate his final racing years himself and not have a doctor be the one to end his career.

“To come back this year, win a championship, it would be hard not to hang it up,” he said. “This is the last year of my (contract). I would like to race more. But if I win the championship, I’d have to consider going out on top.”

Earnhardt qualified second for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 — on the front row next to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott — and is the star of Speedweeks. All the drivers had a chance to address a variety of topics Wednesday. The highlights:

CONCUSSION AWARENESS

The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for 18 races last season raised awareness on concussions in racing, and NASCAR this year has beefed up its concussion policy in an effort to better detect head injuries. Danica Patrick, who raced for years in IndyCar before moving to NASCAR, estimated she’s suffered a dozen concussions in her career.

“Every time you crash you have a concussion on a varying degree, I’m sure,” she said. “It is a little bit thought-provoking … because while we’re not football players, we don’t get the repeated hits like in succession over a short amount of time, but it’s rough in the car and the hits are probably singularly bigger.

“There’s nothing better than having somebody like Dale Jr. going so far as to get out of the car for as long as he did and saying, ‘Hey, I have a problem,’ because it makes it more available for everyone else. I think we like to sweep it all under the rug as drivers like we feel fine and nothing is wrong, but it’s our life.”

TURN 4 TROUBLES

Hendrick Motorsports has been admittedly aggressive in preparing for the Daytona 500, and it may be the cause of the problems the team has had in Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson twice spun in that turn Sunday during an exhibition race, and pole-sitter Chase Elliott got loose in the same spot in practice. In last year’s Daytona 500, both Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun in Turn 4.

“We can’t sit still. We need faster cars. Everybody is working on it,” Johnson said. “We were very aggressive in the (Clash) trying to create speed for the car, and I’m a guy that likes a loose race car so I was willing to roll dice.”

Johnson also noted that Alex Bowman and Kasey Kahne had no problems with Turn 4 in Sunday’s race.

“We have great notes to fall back on. We had a very good driving car in last year’s 500, and then two teammates that didn’t spin out in the Clash, so we have plenty of notes to go to, but we’re definitely being aggressive.”

TOYOTA TEAMWORK

A solid game plan got Toyota its first Daytona 500 victory last season, and the manufacturer wants to use that same teamwork this year during Speedweeks. It was on display during the Clash on Sunday when the Toyota entries ran 1-2-3-4 for most of the race.

It remains to be seen if the same strategy will work in the Daytona 500. The Toyota fleet now includes a pair of rookies in Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, and neither has much experience in a Cup car.

“Game plans don’t necessarily all work out,” said Toyota driver Matt Kenseth. “You’ve got to have strong cars to do it. The car has to end up there, not be separated by bad pit stops or strategy. I thought we had it lined up really good in the Clash. We had all four of us in a row for a while.

“We just weren’t quite fast enough.”

RACE FAVORITES?

Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano teamed to win six of the last nine restrictor-plate races, and Logano won the exhibition Clash on Sunday.

It means Team Penske is a heavy favorite for Sunday, and eager for the 500 to arrive.

“I wish it was Sunday right now, I’m ready to go racing,” Keselowski said.

Austin Dillon praised the way Keselowski raced Sunday, and called a move Keselowski made where he went to the bottom, then the middle, then back to the bottom, “pretty wicked. That was a sweet move.”

Dillon called Logano, Keselowski and defending race winner Denny Hamlin the drivers to beat.

“As a race car driver you always look to be better at certain things,” Logano said. “When I first started speedway racing, I wasn’t very good at all and I’ve worked really hard at it to become better. I’m confident enough to say I’m the best race car driver out there, but I guess at the same time after the race I’m able to look back at the race and say, ‘Why did I do that? I screwed this up. I did that wrong.’ I’m able to still find a lot of things that I can be a lot better at.”

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

NASCAR: Johnson’s 8th title could stake him as NASCAR’s greatest

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson might have had an easier time had his 6-year-old daughter asked for help with a school art project. Genevieve Johnson instead left dad briefly bewildered with a messier question:

What does famous mean?

“At school, the kids are asking her, saying, ‘Your dad’s famous,'” Johnson said. “How do you answer that question?”

Let’s try.

Does your dad dress in a Lowe’s fire suit, slide into the No. 48 Chevrolet and race on national television every weekend? Does your dad have more than 2.3 million Twitter followers, is he besieged by autograph seekers and asked to voice cartoons on the Disney Channel?

Yes, Genevieve, your father is famous.

But the more contemplative question is this: Is Johnson the greatest to ever drive a stock car? That answer is up for debate, though arguments for other contenders thin as Johnson continues to add to his championship collection.

Seven of ’em, if you’ve lost count.

An eighth would push Johnson past Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most ever, leaving him alone as NASCAR’s greatest.

Outside his motorhome, Johnson scratched his beard, tinged with a touch of grey, as he considered what an eighth title would mean. Johnson had retreated to Aspen, Colorado, over the winter, where the snow and ski-filled days made him want to grow his beard to roughly ZZ Top length. The King has his feathered cowboy hat. Maybe a wavy beard could become Johnson’s distinguishable feature.

What seemed cool in Aspen made him hot under the helmet at Daytona.

“I was really uncomfortable,” he said. “It just hits you the whole time.”

Beard aficionado Dale Earnhardt Jr., who shaved his own for a wedding, openly admired his teammate’s facial hair.

“That’s a bad-ass beard,” Junior said. “If I’d known he was going to come so strong, I would have worked on mine a little more. I certainly do envy what Jimmie’s got going on.”

Most drivers also envy his record run at NASCAR history.

Johnson’s shot at history hit him in 2010 when he won his fifth straight Cup title and talk about chasing eight intensified. He won his sixth in 2013, and his surprising seventh last year now makes an eighth championship seem more inevitable than a longshot.

With 80 career wins and a pair of Daytona 500 victories, the 41-year-old Johnson won’t let the record define him.

“No,” he said, “but I’m going to try (and win it), though.”

Long before he fires up the Chevy, Johnson’s championship pursuit begins near dawn with a run. Johnson long ago traded his race helmet for a bicycle helmet during off hours at the track and put a twist on his Sunday finish line by running the occasional marathon before a race.

At Daytona, he biked 42 miles on Sunday morning hours before he pulled double duty and raced in the Clash at Daytona and qualified for the 500. He’s inspired and coached members of the NASCAR family — crew chiefs, fellow drivers — and helped whip them into shape before he whipped them on the track. Johnson’s days of scarfing hushpuppies and sipping sweet tea out by a roadside barbecue stand are long behind him. He’s still an adrenaline junkie in the offseason, though his fastest turns in the winter now come navigating the snowcapped slopes in Colorado.

With a wife, two daughters and enough race trophies to stuff a storage unit, the fitness freak has never been happier. Johnson has even won over fans who had grown tired of the 48 dynasty built with team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Chad Knaus. Before the championship race at Homestead, Johnson was greeted by fans holding up seven fingers, not the one-finger salute he’d grown accustomed to receiving.

“I get the respect from being around a long time, now” he said. “I think the age kind of does something.”

NASCAR fans are coming around to what the drivers have known for years — Johnson is an easy guy to root for.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Jimmie,” 2010 Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray said. “I feel like he’s the guy that you would like not to like because he does win all the time. He’s got a beautiful wife. He’s got great-looking kids. He just kind of like has everything. But he’s just always so nice.”

Life as a stay-at-home dad will be confined to the winter for now. While Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have called it quits the last two years, Johnson said he’s not even thinking of retirement. He loves racing too much.

“When it feels like work someday, I’ll stop,” he said. “It hasn’t been there yet.”

Certainly not when he’s coming off a bit of a surprise championship.

Johnson was practically gifted his seventh title when Edwards’ aggressive attempt to win the championship ended in a wreck. Johnson got the restart of his life in overtime, took the lead on the very last lap, won for the first time in his career at Homestead and grabbed the final Sprint Cup trophy. Snoop Dogg played his championship party.

Johnson won all his titles in the Chase era and goes for eight under a rules revamp that divided races into segments — and every point counts. Who knows? The format could be just the jolt needed for him to win five straight championships for a second time.

“If I did it before, I guess it is possible,” Johnson said. “It’s probably not probable. But it’s certainly possible.”

Just keep some fingers free to count more championships.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip has a lofty goal for his final NASCAR race.

Waltrip wants to “figure out a way to get to the front, run up front and finish in the top 10.” If that happens, the 53-year-old driver would “walk away proud.”

One problem? He was 35th in pole qualifying Sunday, hardly the kind of speed needed at one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks.

He says “unless our strategy is, ‘We’ve got them right where we want them; they don’t even know we’re here,’ then we might be in a little bit of trouble on this one. But I’m looking forward to trying.”

Waltrip announced last month that his 30th Daytona 500 would be the final driving stint of his NASCAR career.

NASCAR: Optimism in high gear at Daytona for NASCAR’s top teams

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Optimism abounds after the opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway, especially for NASCAR’s top teams.

Teamwork at Joe Gibbs Racing appears as solid as ever despite adding rookie Daniel Suarez to the mix, evidenced by Denny Hamlin, Suarez, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch running 1-2-3-4 for much of the Clash at Daytona.

Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski look as if they could continue their recent dominance at restrictor-plate races, and with Stewart-Haas Racing switching from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason, they now have a few extra friends — Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer — to help around NASCAR’s most famous track.

Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole again as well as another front-row sweep.

And the usual suspects — Hamlin, Logano and Keselowski — seem to be up front at every turn.

Combine all those notable nuggets, and the 59th running of “The Great American Race” on Sunday is setting up to be another unpredictable showcase event.

Some other things we learned from the opening of Speedweeks:

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HENDRICK HORSEPOWER: Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole-sitter for the third consecutive season and swept the front row for the fourth time in the last eight years. It’s a clear indication Hendrick has the horsepower — as usual — to be a factor in NASCAR’s opener.

Chase Elliott landed the pole for the second time in as many years, and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his triumphant return to racing by securing the No. 2 starting spot. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of 2016 because of nausea and vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career.

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TROUBLING TURN: Although much went right for Hendrick, the four-car team found cause for concern.

Seven-time and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson spun twice in Turn 4 during the Clash at Daytona on Sunday, adding to the team’s recent woes in the high-banked corner. Teammates Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had similar issues in the 2016 Daytona 500, both crashing in the final turn.

So what may have seemed like a one-year fluke is now a full-fledged trend for Hendrick.

“It’s a concern,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott. “We have things in place to try to improve that, and we’re very aware of it.”

Earnhardt sounded like getting the turn straight would be a priority during the week.

“We’re looking at our notes from over the years,” Earnhardt said, pointing specifically to 2015. “We’ll look at what we did then and what we’re doing now and sort of go through the process of elimination, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing until we fix it.”

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NEW RULES: NASCAR’s new rules received mixed results in the opening weekend.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson was parked with 14 laps remaining in the Clash for violating NASCAR’s new damaged-vehicle policy. Officials said Larson’s team had more than six crew members over the wall to work on his damaged No. 42 Chevrolet. NASCAR policy states that teams can’t continue in the race if they’re caught with too many men over the wall.

“I didn’t even know that was a rule,” Larson said. “It’s just confusing. We know now.”

NASCAR also got its first look at its new concussion assessment testing.

Drivers involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage must report to the infield care center for an evaluation. Concussion assessment tests are administered if care center doctors believe there is a concern of head injury.

Former series champion Kurt Busch was the first to wreck under the new rule and praised the extra evaluation.

“There was an individual that met me out by the car, rode with me in the ambulance and again met with the doctors and just went through different sequences to check all of the different vitals and we were released,” Busch said. “It’s just a little bit of an upgrade. You can tell that they’ve made an effort and it’s nice to have that security.”

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PATRICK’S RUN: Danica Patrick did it again at Daytona.

Patrick has been solid at times at Daytona since her rookie season when she won the Daytona 500 pole and led five laps. She finished fourth at the Clash, a needed confidence boost following a dismal 2016. She finished 24th in the standings and failed to post a top-10 finish.

Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin crashed on the last lap, allowing Patrick to sneak through for the best finish of her NASCAR career.

“I will say that I got a little lucky, but there’s a lot of that in speedway racing,” she said.

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BOWMAN’S LAND: Alex Bowman’s final scheduled race for Hendrick Motorsports was a doozy.

He finished third in the No. 88 Chevrolet, his last time subbing for Earnhardt. Earnhardt was cleared to race in the 88 but let Bowman take a deserved turn for his sturdy job in part-time duty last season.

Bowman chatted with Kyle Busch on pit road after the race. Bowman worked hard to pass Busch over the final laps instead of teaming with him to chase the leaders.

Bowman said it was an honor to drive for Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick. His NASCAR future is unknown.

“It’s definitely kind of like a bittersweet feeling,” he said. “I don’t really know what I have going forward, and I only know of one race for sure that I’m going to run, and it’s not a Cup race this year.”

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MONSTER DEBUT: Kurt Busch’s car was the center of attention of before the Clash. His car’s make? A Ford. The model? Try models, the bevy of Monster Energy girls who posed for pictures with bystanders.

Busch is sponsored by Monster Energy — but the energy drink company also took over this season as title sponsor for the Cup series.

Its debut was a monster dud.

Busch hit the wall a few laps into the race, the green squiggly M logo on the hood crushed as the car was towed to the garage.

Other than the Monster girls, there has been little promotion by the company. Monster isn’t selling drinks at concession stands, and there are no ads spread around the track.

There was a billboard in the fan zone promoting NBC’s television coverage that still had the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series logo plastered in the middle.

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MEDICAL IMPROVEMENTS: (USA Today)   —   The two white trucks perched alongside the track as Daytona Speedweeks kicked off this weekend marked one of the most visible changes to NASCAR’s safety protocol since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death on the same track 16 years ago.

The trucks — each outfitted with a doctor and paramedic — will be at each NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series weekend this season as part of a partnership with American Medical Response (AMR), announced earlier this month. The move brings NASCAR more in line with what the Verizon IndyCar Series and other major racing organizations have had for decades: dedicated traveling safety teams.

“You ask why now?” Jim Cassidy, vice president of NASCAR racing operations, told USA TODAY Sports. “We are always looking for improvements in the area of safety and this has been on our radar for a couple years. The drivers council meetings tend to focus a large amount on safety and competition. Through those conversations, we came up with a path that makes sense.”

This is the second full season for the 10-member NASCAR drivers council and founding member Denny Hamlin told reporters the addition of the safety team is a sign that series officials are “listening and they’re making changes on our behalf.”

“We’ve always advocated you have to be a little more consistent with doctors because you just never know,” Hamlin said. “Each race track has its own set of doctors, all well qualified, but maybe they don’t know our personalities as much as the traveling doctors do that go every week. I think it’s important that we have that steady staff that understands the patients and has a good relationship with them.”

The roots of modern U.S. traveling safety teams trace to the early days of CART, the open-wheel racing series that morphed into Champ Car before it merged with IndyCar in 2008.

Terry Trammell, who has been a trackside physician for more than 30 years, was one of the CART safety members credited with saving the life of Alex Zanardi after a gruesome 2001 crash that resulted in amputation of both his legs.

“I think the immediacy of care and the knowledge provided makes a difference,” Trammell told USA TODAY Sports.

AMR will staff the safety team with a small pool of about six physicians along with an unspecified number of paramedics that will rotate throughout the season. Larger tracks, like Daytona International Speedway, and road courses will have two AMR-staffed trucks, while intermediate and short tracks will have one.

NASCAR responded to the death of Earnhardt in 2001 by mandating head and neck restraints (HANS) , pushing out a stock car with safety improvements and working with tracks to add Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers that cushion wall impacts.

A member of last year’s drivers council, Earnhardt’s son lauded NASCAR for another move announced Friday. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the second half of the 2016 Cup season as he recovered from another concussion, called the additional concussion screening that infield care center doctors now have access to a “positive step toward protecting our drivers” on Twitter.

Physicians in the infield care center, which will continue to be staffed by local medical professionals, can use the latest version of Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT-3) that measures memory and agility along with physical symptoms that could signal a person has been concussed.

While NASCAR would not comment on what might prompt a SCAT-3 test, it said its use would still be a judgment call by the infield care doctor.

“It’s just another diagnostic tool for the infield care center,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said NASCAR will continue to rely on the ImPACT test, which is similar to SCAT, for baseline testing of each driver before every season.

A traveling team also has one major edge vs. local medical professionals when it comes to concussion diagnosis: familiarity.

“The advantage of having a traveling crew is that they know what’s normal and not (normal) behavior,” Trammell said. “They can tell if something is way off and if a driver is acting erratically.”

While the AMR doctor will be sharing information from the crash site and ambulance ride, that physician likely will return trackside if the race is not complete. There are contingency plans in case of a catastrophic accident when a member of the AMR safety team would need to stay at the infield care center or even an area hospital to tend to an injured driver, NASCAR spokesperson Tom Bryant told USA TODAY Sports.

In another change, every driver whose car goes behind the wall – regardless of the severity of damage – must go to the infield care center to be checked by a doctor.

It’s unclear whether the SCAT-3 test was used on any of the drivers who visited the infield care center at Daytona after wrecks during the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Sunday, NASCAR’s season opening race. Bryant said federal health privacy laws preclude the series from detailing the tests conducted and can only state whether a “driver has been evaluated and released, treated and released, or transported to a local medical facility for further evaluation.”

All the drivers involved in wrecks so far were treated and released, including Kurt Busch.

“There was an individual that met me out by the car, rode with me in the ambulance and again met with the doctors and just went through different sequences to check all of the different vitals and we were released,” Busch said. “It’s just a little bit of an upgrade. You can tell that they’ve made an effort and it’s nice to have that security.”

NASCAR: Elliott nips Earnhardt to win 2nd straight Daytona 500 pole

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It’s impossible to tell the history of NASCAR without mentioning Elliott and Earnhardt.

As the series shifts into a new era, those distinguished names are out front again and will give the start of the Daytona 500 a throwback feel.

Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — teammates and sons of Hall of Fame drivers — will start 1-2 and should give a sagging series a sorely needed boost this week headed into its marquee event.

Elliott nipped Earnhardt on the final qualifying lap Sunday to win his second straight pole for the Daytona 500. Elliott turned a lap at 192.872 mph to just edge Earnhardt’s speed of 192.864 and become the first repeat pole winner in 27 years.

“I don’t really care who it is. I’m not going to feel bad about beating somebody,” Elliott said. “Dale’s a good guy. I’m happy to share the front row with him. Happier to beat him.”

Earnhardt, long NASCAR’s most popular driver, had the speed to beat in his triumphant return after missing the second half of last season with a concussion. He missed the final 18 races with nausea, vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career following a June wreck. He was as sharp as ever in the No. 88 Chevrolet headed into his first race since last July.

“Ain’t much to it. The car does all the work ,” he said.

Elliott and Earnhardt gave Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet a 1-2 front row for the fifth time in the Daytona 500.

Elliott, the 21-year-old son of Hall of Fame driver and two-time Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott, became the youngest Daytona 500 pole winner a year ago and proved in the No. 24 Chevy starting first last season was no fluke.

Elliott also made it three straight years for the No. 24 on the pole. Jeff Gordon won the pole in 2015 in his final season before he retired and turned the car over to Elliott.

The rest of the field will be set Thursday in the two qualifying races.

Elliott will lead the field to green and try and avoid the problems that spoiled his Daytona 500 debut.

Elliott’s run at a Daytona 500 victory last season ended in the grass just 19 laps into the race. The front end of his car lifted off the ground, and the rough ride caused enough damage that his car had to be towed to the garage.

Until the wreck, Elliott was the star of Speedweeks. He followed the pole with a win in the second-tier Xfinity Series race.

He’s back out front again and expecting a better finish.

“I hope we can just try to get to the end of the 500, next,” Elliott said. “We’ve obviously got to get through the Duels, first. But, just making it to the end and having yourself in position, obviously we’d love to have a shot to win this thing. It would be great and I think we have a car that can do it.”

Elliott’s speed earned team owner Rick Hendrick his 11th overall pole in the Daytona 500.

“My boss man is happy,” Earnhardt said. “I just talked to him on the phone, and he’s got to be thrilled with having his cars up front.”

The 42-year-old Earnhardt got married in the offseason, wants a family and said over the weekend that he would a like a “couple of months” to see how he feels before deciding to sign a contract extension.

Earnhardt starts second in the first NASCAR race under the Monster Energy sponsorship banner and the Daytona 500 is the first under the new format that divides the race into segments.

NASCAR ditched its knockout group qualifying format for Daytona for single cars making one qualifying lap.

After 42 drivers had a scheduled turn, the 12 fastest advanced to the second round. The two fastest drivers in the second round set the front row. There were 36 drivers guaranteed a spot because of the charter system.

Other things to know about qualifying:

WHO’S IN: Beard Motorsports driver Brendan Gaughan and Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Elliott Sadler secured spots in the Daytona 500 as the two fastest drivers from teams not locked into the 40-car field.

REPEAT POLES: Elliott joined Fireball Roberts, Buddy Baker, Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader as drivers with consecutive Daytona 500 poles.

WALTRIP FINALE: Michael Waltrip failed to advance to the second round of qualifying in his 30th and final Daytona 500. He said the race will be his last in NASCAR. Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, will drive the No. 15 Toyota for Premium Motorsports. Premium bought a team charter from the defunct HScott Motorsports, guaranteeing the 51-year-old Waltrip a spot on the grid.

SUAREZ STRUGGLE: Daniel Suarez also did not advance to the second round in his first career Cup event. Suarez, the only non-American in the Monster Energy Cup Series, has become a sensation in his native Mexico. He became NASCAR’s first foreign-born series champion with an Xfinity Series title last season and Joe Gibbs Racing promoted him to the No. 19 Toyota when Carl Edwards abruptly retired.

RIGHT CALLS: Alan Gustafson because the first crew chief to win three straight poles since Ernie Elliott in 1985-1987.

daytona-500-021917

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FULL RESULTS: Daytona 500 qualifying

1. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 192.872 mph.
2. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 192.864 mph.
3. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 192.691 mph.
4. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 192.571 mph.
5. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 192.308 mph.
6. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 192.213 mph.
7. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 192.189 mph.
8. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 192.090 mph.
9. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 192.016 mph.
10. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 191.996 mph.
11. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 191.767 mph.
12. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 191.453 mph.
13. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 192.004 mph.
14. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 191.898 mph.
15. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 191.877 mph.
16. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 191.804 mph.
17. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 191.779 mph.
18. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 191.746 mph.
19. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 191.718 mph.
20. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 191.693 mph.
21. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 191.534 mph.
22. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 191.420 mph.
23. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 191.396 mph.
24. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 191.318 mph.
25. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 190.990 mph.
26. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 190.973 mph.
27. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 190.335 mph.
28. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 190.283 mph.
29. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 190.054 mph.
30. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 189.721 mph.
31. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 189.422 mph.
32. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 189.402 mph.
33. (75) Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, 189.294 mph.
34. (72) Cole Whitt, Ford, 189.107 mph.
35. (15) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 189.080 mph.
36. (7) Elliott Sadler(i), Chevrolet, 188.561 mph.
37. (55) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 187.332 mph.
38. (96) DJ Kennington, Toyota, 186.819 mph.
39. (23) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, 185.843 mph.
40. (83) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 185.246 mph.

Failed to qualify:

41. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 184.767 mph.
42. (51) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 184.102 mph.

More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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NASCAR: Rain postpones start of exhibition Clash at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The first official NASCAR event of Speedweeks was postponed by rain at Daytona International Speedway.

The rain began during driver introductions Saturday night for the exhibition race. The Clash is the first event leading into the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR will stage the event Sunday at 11:30 a.m., just a few hours before qualifying for the Daytona 500.

Brad Keselowski is slated to start from the pole in a race comprised primarily of pole winners from last season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is being replaced by Alex Bowman in the race because Earnhardt felt Bowman earned the right by substitute driving for Earnhardt last season. Earnhardt missed the second half of the year with a concussion.

Earnhardt is instead an analyst for this race for Fox Sports.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Austin Theriault would have welcomed another restart in the ARCA season opener.

After all, he figured he had the field covered.

“I feel strongly we still would have been in good shape,” he said.

Theriault never got a chance to find out. He won at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday after a harrowing late accident damaged part of the energy-absorbing wall and halted the race. The 200-mile event was called with five laps remaining — with Theriault sitting in his No. 52 Chevrolet on the high-banked track.

“When you’re fast and you play a smart race, you’re hard to beat,” Theriault said. “Fortunately everything played out in our favor.”

While Theriault celebrated his second ARCA victory in three career starts, Justin Fontaine was headed to a hospital. The 19-year-old Fontaine sustained a mild compression fracture of his L1 vertebrae and will be kept overnight for evaluation and will be in back brace for the next three months.

“Justin is awake and alert following a hard crash at Daytona International Speedway,” Win-Tron Racing owner Kevin Cywinski said. “Justin is in good spirits, and we hope to be able to provide a further update on his recovery time when it’s appropriate.”

Fontaine thanked safety personnel for “their quick actions after the accident.”

“I just want to let everyone know that I’m OK and I’m thankful for the outreach of support,” he added.

Fontaine’s wild ride brought out the final red flag. He slammed into the outside wall, slid on his driver’s side door, flipped and then came to a stop on his roof. Fontaine was stuck in the car for several minutes as safety workers turned his car over and cut him out of the cockpit.

Eight-time race winner Bobby Gerhart, Codie Rohrbaugh and Derrick Lancaster also were caught up in the late melee. None of them was injured.

Terry Jones finished second, followed by Shane Lee, Dalton Sargeant and pole-sitter Tom Hessert.

Theriault passed Jones for the lead with eight laps to go, but the race was red-flagged after Fontaine’s crash damaged part of the SAFER barrier at Daytona. The energy-absorbing wall had to be repaired before the Monster Energy Cup Series exhibition Clash.

Theriault sat in his car for more than 10 minutes until the race was called. He then made his way to victory lane to celebrate.

“Our focus is to win the championship,” said Theriault, who drives for Ken Schrader Racing. “I think we made that clear tonight. We have a long season to go, though, and a lot of work to do. We always want to get better, and Daytona’s kind of a different animal, obviously.

“Once we get to Nashville (in April), we’ll have a better idea of maybe what we have to work on and what we’re good at and we can go from there. But our intention’s to go for the championship.”

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

NASCAR beefs up concussion testing before season begins

This gallery contains 1 photo.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was confident NASCAR took the right step Friday when it beefed up its concussion protocol by adding a consistent screening rule at all venues.

“Good to see progress being made and implemented. Health and safety is top priority,” Earnhardt tweeted .

Earnhardt, long NASCAR’s most popular driver, was sidelined for the second half of last season with a concussion. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races with nausea, vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career following a June wreck.

In the 16 years since his father’s death at Daytona, NASCAR has introduced a series of measures designed to keep drivers safe, from helmet and restraint systems to impact-absorbing SAFER barriers along concrete walls, all designed to cushion the blows of high-impact wrecks.

NASCAR made baseline concussion tests mandatory for all drivers in 2014, but expanded the protocol this year just nine days before the Daytona 500 with a consistent screening tool and additional neurological support in the hope of keeping drivers healthier.

Drivers who are involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage will now be required to report to the infield care center for an evaluation. Under the old rule, a driver went to the care center only if their car had to be towed from the track.

NASCAR’s standards will also require infield care center physicians to use the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries. NASCAR has already announced plans to use a traveling safety crew and a rotating roster of physicians. The new program will provide on-site support for neurological evaluations.

The safety crew will come from American Medical Response and ensure that a physician and paramedics are in the safety vehicle at all Monster Energy Cup events. AMR will also provide a small group that will travel to each race, and a physician who will serve as NASCAR’s primary doctor.

NASCAR has identified 50 total concussions in the three national series since 2004.

Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin nodded in approval as he read the concussion news release on a mobile phone on the concourse of Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin said drivers had raised the issue of clarifying the protocol during their council meetings.

“I think there was some confusion last year,” Hamlin said.

Matt DiBenedetto was cleared to race at Phoenix International Raceway in November after NASCAR held him out of one event because of a possible concussion. He missed one Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he was involved in a crash during the Xfinity Series race one day earlier.

DiBenedetto said at Texas he felt fine and that NASCAR’s doctors “wanted to err on the side of caution.”

Cup drivers advocated for more defined concussion testing akin to other sports such as the NFL.

“They sometimes have to protect us from ourselves,” Hamlin said. “But we also want to make sure we’re racing on the track with people that are 100 percent. I’m all for that. I think it’s important we keep safety first.”

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Alex Bowman will race 75 laps in the car that belongs to NASCAR’s most popular driver, hang up the firesuit and head home.

When will he return?

Bowman has no idea if he’ll return to Cup racing in 2017.

A year after making a string of solid starts, Bowman is outside the NASCAR picture following Saturday’s opening exhibition Clash race at Daytona International Speedway.

The 23-year-old Bowman has no rides lined up in any NASCAR series and knows the Clash may be the last time he competes for Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman was a stout as a substitute last season for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. With Junior sidelined with a concussion, Bowman made ten starts and shared the 88 Chevrolet with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. Bowman won a pole at Phoenix — which earned him a spot in the non-points Clash — and had three top-fives.

Bowman was courted by other teams, and certainly could have landed a ride that would have left him a backmarker. Bowman had been down that road and had no top-10 finishes in 71 starts over the 2014-2015 seasons with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.

No deal could pull him away from Hendrick .

“I was kind of surprised that a winning Xfinity car or something like that didn’t open up,” Bowman said. “I feel like I want to be part of a winning organization whether I am driving; just working for the team; doing testing or doing the simulation stuff.”

Bowman made nine starts in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team and has five top-fives in 50 career starts.

Earnhardt has been cleared to drive, and could have returned to race for the first time since July. Earnhardt graciously declined his spot and let Bowman take the wheel. Earnhardt instead will help call the action in the Fox Sports booth.

“It’s owed to Alex,” Earnhardt said.

Bowman, who couldn’t find the necessary sponsor funds for an Xfinity ride, couldn’t wait to hear Earnhardt call his race.

“I feel like we can be up front all night,” he said. “But it definitely adds some pressure to have probably the best speedway racer of our time in the booth calling the race.”

Earnhardt has missed races because of concussions in two different seasons. Should Earnhardt, or any of the other three Hendrick drivers, be forced to sit out a race for any reason, Bowman is on-deck and ready to ride.

“I think if something did come up, that I would think I would be the one that would get called for it,” he said.

Bowman spends time testing in the Hendrick race simulator and was vague about his future race plans.

“I do have a couple of races, not in the Cup Series, but in some other stuff coming up,” he said. “Excited about that. I can’t really talk a whole lot about it, but I will be racing some stuff. Really, I will be hanging out at the shop and coming to the race track when I can, just trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can.”

Until then, he’ll sign some autographs in the Daytona garage, embrace his role one more time as super sub, and try and find the win against NASCAR’s elite that has so far eluded him.

All with a tip of the helmet toward Junior.

“Dale’s been so great to me. I wouldn’t be here without him,” Bowman said. “He is the one that pointed me out when he wasn’t feeling good. I feel like I owe a lot to him, and I am very thankful for him to put me in the car for this race.”

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