Daytona 500

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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.”

NASCAR overhauls race and playoff format

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —-   When the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season kicks off Friday at Daytona International Speedway, there will be the usual firsts and lasts.

Key issues to keep an eye on:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 times running will climb back into a Cup car in competition for the first time since July, when the effects of concussions knocked him from the remaining 18 races. The series badly needs Earnhardt — his name, talent and fan base. When he is running up front, there generally is more fan engagement and interest around the son of late seven-time Cup champion and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr. And that means more interest in NASCAR. And with longtime fan favorites and champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retired and no proven replacements in sight, Earnhardt carries a lot of star power — and a fervent Junior Nation — with him.

Earnhardt, 42, has said he is excited to return to the car and is feeling like himself after doctors cleared him in December to get behind the wheel.

He also has credited his new bride, Amy Reimann, whom he wed on New Year’s Eve, as someone who influenced him positively while he was sidelined.

“She just helped me mature as a person,” Earnhardt said. “She showed me a lot of things that were important. She helped me sort some priorities out in my life and get some things in a row.”

Only time will tell if he and crew chief Greg Ives remain in lockstep or need a few weeks — or months — to get their feet under them again. Meanwhile, every little nudge and bump that Earnhardt absorbs in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will have Junior Nation — and NASCAR — holding its breath.

New rules: No, not the Bill Maher kind. Get out your abacus. Or calculator. Or slide rule. The two most significant offseason changes involve race segments and points.

Every race — yes, even the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl — will be divided into three segments. As always, an overall race winner will be declared, but there also will be winners of the individual segments. The segment winners will also get some TV time as NASCAR makes another attempt at building its brand with Millennials. And points will be awarded not just for the final running order, but for the top 10 at the end of the first and second segments.

In another wrinkle, all the bonus points collected in the regular season will carry into the 10-race playoffs — the Chase nomenclature went out with former sponsor Sprint — bringing more weight to performance during the first 26 races. And those bonus points will carry over through the elimination rounds and can be built upon with more stage and race wins.

Among other changes:

— There will be no bonus points for leading a lap or for leading the most laps.

— The number of laps in each of the first two segments will be the same in a race, and the end of the second stage will be approximately at the halfway point of the race.

— Drivers will now earn bonus points that will be called playoff points and carry with them through the 10-race playoffs. Drivers will earn five playoff points for every race win and one playoff point for every segment win.

— The playoffs will remain divided into three three-race rounds with four drivers eliminated after each round to set up four finalists for the season finale, where the four finalists will not be eligible to earn segment victories.

— The exhibition duels during Speedweeks at Daytona next month will now be worth 10 points to the two race winners.

daytona-500-2017-v2

Johnson’s drive for eight: After winning a seventh title in November to tie Richard Petty and Earnhardt Sr. for the most Cup titles, many labeled Jimmie Johnson NASCAR’s greatest of all-time. After all, he has won in an era that has seen more competitive racing under various points and elimination rules. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have adapted to — and conquered — them all.

Now, they must do it again to make history. Johnson, 41, must perform under a different points format that is aimed at rewarding consistency throughout the 26-race regular-season and a different race format.

With 80 wins in 543 starts and an average finish of 12.1, Johnson knows the rewards that come with reliability. It would be foolish to count him out, even if he gets off to a slow start.

He looks refreshed, as anyone who follows him on Instagram will tell you, after an offseason spent frolicking in the snow with family and friends in the Colorado mountains.

Toyota: Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip has said he is making his final Cup start at the Great American Race. It will come 10 years after Waltrip and his team helped bring Toyota into the NASCAR Cup family — in a very inauspicious manner.

Michael Waltrip Racing was found to have added an illegal substance to the engine manifold during qualifying for that year’s 500, incurring harsh penalties that put the team owner on the brink of bankruptcy and embarrassing the car manufacturer before its first race.

Now, Toyota is coming off its first manufacturers’ championship in Cup and arguably has the dominant team again in Joe Gibbs Racing, with 2015 champion Kyle Busch, 2003 champ Matt Kenseth, defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and rookie Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion who is replacing retired Carl Edwards. And that’s not counting Furniture Row Racing’s two-car contingent of Martin Truex Jr., who made the final four in 2015, and rookie Erik Jones, the 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion.

What a difference a decade makes.

The run-up to NASCAR’s biggest race kicks off Feb. 17. USA TODAY Sports

Stewart-Haas Racing: Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, has vacated the No. 14 — but not the building.

While his NASCAR career as a driver has ended, his responsibilities as a co-owner remain. Expect him to be atop the pit box and around the garage as he helps guide the four-car team to a switch from Chevrolet to Ford.

Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer will step in as the fourth driver, joining 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, 2004 titlist Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. Bowyer and Patrick are seeking sponsorship for more than a handful of their races, which could add pressure to up their performance on the track sooner rather than later.

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Racing: Bold move lands Wayne Taylor Racing, Jeff Gordon Rolex 24 win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ricky Taylor used a gutsy move to fiercely grab a victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona that had seemingly slipped out of reach.

The Wayne Taylor Racing team was among the most dominant in the twice-round-the-clock endurance race but found itself trailing Action Express in the final hour in a battle of brand new Cadillacs. His shot at the celebrated victory was down to one final attempt at a pass of Filipe Albuquerque, and Taylor dove inside of him entering Turn 1 of the road course.

Taylor seemed to have the inside lane, but it wasn’t clear if he could complete the pass. Contact between the two cars sent Albuquerque spinning, and IMSA reviewed the action to see if Taylor warranted a penalty.

No penalty was issued after the review, and the Taylor team won its first Rolex since 2005 — when team owner Wayne Taylor was still a driver. It marks the first victory for brothers Ricky and Jordan Taylor — two of the most talented sports-car racers in America — and longtime Taylor co-driver Max Angelelli. Their fourth driver? None other than retired NASCAR great Jeff Gordon, who won the first Rolex watch of his career. Gordon ran this race once before, in 2007, with the Taylor team.

Angelelli, who is a co-owner on the team, has insisted this is the final race of his career. He’ll stay busy helping Cadillac develop its new program, which had a rousing debut and dominated the race. The manufacturer went 1-2 overall and proved to be no match for any other cars in the prototype class.

Albuquerque, of Action Express Racing, was not at all happy with the second-place finish.

“I don’t think I lost the race, to be honest, because I don’t race like this,” he said. “He hit me in the back. You can see in the car, so I spun. He didn’t even wait for me. He just took off.

“So if the officials don’t agree that it’s a penalty, OK, that it can be a fair play by Wayne for the fight. But it didn’t happen, so it’s what it is.”

He wasn’t sure if Action Express would protest.

“I don’t agree with this, with the decision, because it was clearly on the back,” he said. “He was on a clean move. I think everyone saw that. Everyone knows that. I think the public knows a lot and the fans they saw it. … Let’s wait for them.”

It wasn’t the only questionable moment of an intense final hour that saw two classes engage in door-to-door battles for the win.

Albuquerque was the leader on a restart with 56 minutes to go, but lapped cars separated him from Ricky Taylor before the flag. Mike Conway, in an Action Express sister Cadillac that was 20 laps down, appeared to block Ricky Taylor on the restart to allow Albuquerque to build a strong lead.

Ricky Taylor got a chance to pass him with about 15 minutes ago, and he was as fearless the first time as he was on the race-winning pass. Taylor again dipped inside and tried to force a drag race, and the two Cadillacs bounced off each other before Albuquerque surged ahead. Taylor had to frantically work to close the gap and didn’t get his next chance at the win until there was just under 7 minutes remaining.

His father watched from a monitor in the pits and threw his hands over his face when the cars collided and Albuquerque spun.

“I knew it was going to stick. It was a really good move by Ricky,” Wayne Taylor said. “Thank the officials also from IMSA for calling it the way they did because you could have called it either way. Clearly, Ricky was quicker and getting held up like that at the end was not a nice way to end.

“At the end of the day, we’re happy because Ricky was quicker all the time. He made a silly move, but we knew were going to win this race.”

Gordon didn’t carry a very significant part of the load in victory. He drove twice for a total of three stints, his last one at night in a heavy rain that he’s not accustomed to managing. With so much poor weather into daybreak, the team left most of the heavy lifting to the Taylor brothers.

Still, it’s a coveted Rolex watch for Gordon in a trophy collection that includes four NASCAR champions and three Daytona 500s.

“I haven’t been this emotional for a win and an experience like this for a very long time,” Gordon said. “The reason is because I know what this means to this team, Wayne, these kids, Max. Oh my gosh. This is amazing — Daytona has always been special, but this one sent me over the top. I’m just blown away right now.”

NASCAR: Taylor-made move lands brothers, Jeff Gordon win in Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — He’s one of the top racers in America, and almost always overlooked, even on the day the boldest move of his career gave him the biggest win of his life.

Ricky Taylor used a gutsy pass with less than 7 minutes remaining in the Rolex 24 at Daytona to fearlessly grab the win for Wayne Taylor Racing. After, he stood in the background in victory lane.

He had an American flag draped over one shoulder, a Rolex watch crammed under an elbow, and was content in the shadow of his extrovert brother, Jordan, NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon and retiring veteran Max Angelelli.

On the day the limelight should have been his, Taylor’s move Sunday put Gordon in a group with Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Jamie McMurray as the only drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and this prestigious sports car race.

Team owner Wayne Taylor, father of the two workhorses on the team, was ecstatic for his quieter older son. Jordan has a personality larger than life, and even if the brothers are equally talented, Ricky never gets the credit he deserves.

“I don’t think Ricky has had a fair evaluation of his talent and I think today, if he doesn’t get it after today, then I don’t know what to say,” Wayne Taylor said.

The team was in the top three for 23 hours but found itself trailing Action Express in the final hour in a battle of new Cadillacs. His shot at the celebrated victory was down to one final attempt at a pass of Filipe Albuquerque, and Taylor dove inside of him entering Turn 1 of the road course.

Taylor seemed to have the inside lane, but it wasn’t clear if he could complete the pass. Contact between the two cars sent Albuquerque spinning, and IMSA reviewed the action to see if Taylor warranted a penalty. IMSA said there was no offense.

Wayne Taylor said it was about time his oldest son showed what he’s made of inside a race car.

“I think he needs to be bold,” he said of the 27-year-old. “God, if there’s anything anyone can teach him is to take some (gosh darn) credit, you know? Stop just being nice because this is an unfair business.”

The Taylor team won its first Rolex since 2005 — when Wayne Taylor was still a driver, and it marked the first victory in the event for his sons, who grew up in Orlando and have been coming to this race their entire lives. The lineup included longtime Taylor co-driver Angelelli, who was adamant this was his final race, and Gordon, who won the first Rolex watch of his career. Gordon ran this race once before, in 2007, with the Taylor team.

Chip Ganassi Racing also won its seventh class race . But team Taylor was the story.

With so many feel-good elements to this victory, it was easy to overlook Ricky Taylor. He praised what he learned from working with Gordon, reflected on his longtime mentorship with Angelelli and was relieved to have given his father a victory that might ease the burden in a constant search for team funding.

But that move? Well, for that he seemed quite pleased with himself.

“There was only one way to win, and it was to go for it,” Ricky Taylor said. “From my perspective, it’s Max’s last race. There’s a lot of emotions going on. I wanted to win terribly. We were either going to make a move and do something and win or sit there in second and wait for, wait until next year, basically. I didn’t want to do that.

“A lot of people want to be the quarterback on the last down of the Super Bowl. I know I have three other guys who can do just as good a job, so I would have been just as happy to let Jordan stay in the car. But they said it was my turn, and I was ready to take it.”

Albuquerque, of Action Express Racing, was not at all happy with the second-place finish.

“I don’t think I lost the race, to be honest, because I don’t race like this,” he said. “He hit me in the back. He didn’t even wait for me. He just took off. A true racer in my opinion, in the end, deep inside, I would feel a little bit ashamed with the win.”

Ricky Taylor was baffled by Albuquerque’s assessment.

“Wait for what?” he asked. “Any driver would have done what I did.”

Angelelli, meanwhile, will step outside of the race car with another Rolex for his collection. He’ll stay busy helping Cadillac develop its new program, which had a rousing debut and dominated the race. The manufacturer went 1-2 overall and proved to be no match for any other cars in the prototype class.

Gordon didn’t carry a very significant part of the load in victory. Still, it’s a coveted Rolex watch for Gordon in a trophy collection that includes four NASCAR championships and three Daytona 500s.

“I haven’t been this emotional for a win and an experience like this for a very long time,” Gordon said. “The reason is because I know what this means to this team, Wayne, these kids, Max. Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Daytona has always been special, but this one sent me over the top. I’m just blown away right now.”

NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. relishes chance to return on his terms

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —-   CHARLOTTE – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of the most incomparably interesting figures in sports simply because of an extremely interesting backstory.

In brief summation: he followed his late father and one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history into the family business, fought to escape that long shadow by leaving the family team and grew into a man in the harsh glare of scrutiny and expectation. He won the Daytona 500 twice and rounded into a championship contender late in his career. That career could have ended last season because of concussions.

Earnhardt, 42, is one of the most a compelling figures in sports because of the perspective his experience brings to both the mundane and momentous, and his willingness — almost a cathartic need — to share.

“Junior,” recently married, rejuvenated and eager judging by the pop in his stride, had much to share on Wednesday during the NASCAR media tour, another one of those seemingly pedestrian chores he’s undertaken in 18 seasons at the sport’s highest level. Attending an October race as part of his concussion rehabilitation allowed him a further glimpse, he said, of what he missed.

“I got a chance to be at Dover and watch the drivers come in that morning for practice and it was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “It was an out-of-body experience almost to watch all that happen. Looking at them and knowing that was me. I got to see the drivers from a different point of view and got to see the sport from a different point of view.

“Being out of the car made me anxious to get back in.”

Earnhardt, who missed half of the 36-race schedule last season, could step out of a car at a test next week at Phoenix feeling not right and have another decision to make. Or that could happen during Speed Weeks at Daytona in February. It may never happen again, but the nefarious nature of concussions will always cast doubt. But for now, he’s healthy and ready to return, he said. And he’s thankful for the opportunity to make a decision.

“I got real close to not being able to compete and it being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not,” he said.”People have asked me since I turned 40 when I would retire, and all I wanted to do was make that choice myself. I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to able to make that choice and not have it made for me. All that stuff really showed me how much I have going for me and how fun this really is.”

So much fun that he seemed disappointment when a stringently enforced schedule had him deposed from the stage as he was just limbering up on Wednesday.

“I would have stayed longer,” he said.

Earnhardt plans to stay a lot longer this season, and he realize what it means to him.

NASCAR overhauls race and playoff format

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR is taking a progressive approach to modernizing its series with a radical new format.

It’s complicated and confusing to explain.

But the panel that spent the last seven months on this overhaul promised it’s going to be the best thing to happen in NASCAR in a very long time.

“Wait until you see it on the racetrack,” said 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. “If you are watching right now, please trust us. When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

The overhaul announced Monday assigns three stages to every race. The top 10 drivers at the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 will be awarded points on a 10-through-1 scale. The third portion of the race will be for the overall victory, and although traditional point scoring will be applied for that stage, the win will be worth 40 points. The rest of the field will be scored on a 35 to 2 scale, and positions 36th to 40 will only receive 1 point.

All bonus points accumulated through the 26-race regular season can be used in the 10-race playoff, which will no longer be called “The Chase.”

“You still have the start of the race, you still have the end of the race, and in between, there’s going to be a lot of moments,” said Denny Hamlin, leader of the driver council.

“I think that there’s a lot of different things within this — you don’t necessarily need to know how a watch works, you just need to know what time it is. I think you’re going to see better racing on the racetrack, and that’s all that matters.”

NASCAR worked with a wide range of industry stakeholders to come up with the changes. Heavily involved were the television networks, retired drivers Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, current drivers from the driver council and team and track executives. Monster Energy, which signed last month as the title sponsor for NASCAR’s top series, was only informed of the changes in the last few weeks.

The new format begins with the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500.

“As a driver, I’m happy to be rewarded for performing well throughout the event, not just for how I finished,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. “It’ll tick you off if you’re in that car for enough races and you’re whooping everybody’s butt all day long and then you get beat by somebody who’s running 20th all day, just by circumstance, how the cautions fall late in the race.

“So it’s going to be great to be rewarded as a driver for consistently performing well throughout an event.”

NASCAR was energized by the changes, particularly the stages that will allow for a commercial break that doesn’t occur during green-flag racing. Segment winners will be interviewed during the breaks, and NASCAR likes that it creates a pause that gives fans a chance to reset. It comes as the series is desperately trying to improve both attendance and television ratings, and Fox Sports estimated it will air 20 percent more of actual racing action because of the commercial breaks.

Race distances will not change under the format, which will apply to all three national series. Had NASCAR run the system this past season, Jimmie Johnson still would have won the title, but Martin Truex Jr. would have advanced one more round through the playoffs based on his two victories in the first round.

Among other changes:

— There will be no bonus points for leading a lap or for leading the most laps.

— The number of laps in each of the first two segments will be the same in a race, and the end of the second stage will be approximately at the halfway point of the race.

— Drivers will now earn bonus points that will be called playoff points and carry with them through the 10-race playoffs. Drivers will earn five playoff points for every race win and one playoff point for every segment win.

— The playoffs will remain divided into three three-race rounds with four drivers eliminated after each round to set up four finalists for the season finale, where the four finalists will not be eligible to earn segment victories.

— The exhibition duels during Speedweeks at Daytona next month will now be worth 10 points to the two race winners.

“You can get confused if you want to get into the weeds on math,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing. “This is really about introducing two breaks and rewarding your favorite driver for racing up front. What I’ve heard loud and clear from the fans on Twitter, ‘I want my driver rewarded for every race.’ That’s happening, and it’s as simple as that. It’s rewarding drivers for their effort all race long.”

A look at the five honorees set to join NASCAR Hall of Fame

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —    Five new members will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday night in a ceremony in Charlotte.

A look at the drivers and team owners that make up the class of 2017:

Rick Hendrick

Born: July 12, 1949

Age: 67

Hometown: Palmer Springs, Va.

Claim to fame: Owner of the most successful team in NASCAR history with 12 championships at the premier level, including a record-tying seven by Jimmie Johnson and four by Jeff Gordon. Hendrick Motorsports drivers have earned a combined 299 victories across NASCAR’s top three national series (Cup, Xfinity, Trucks) through 2016.

Quote: ”I think it’s the passion and being able to compete, and it just fuels you getting up and coming out here and trying to do it again.”

Richard Childress

Born: Sept. 21, 1945

Age: 71

Hometown: Winston-Salem, N.C.

Claim to fame: A hard-scrabble racer who was winless in 285 starts at NASCAR’s highest level, he ceded the wheel of the No. 3 car to an up-and-coming hard-charger named Dale Earnhardt in 1981. Together they won six championships and set the foundation for Richard Childress Racing and a NASCAR legend.

Quote:  “You look at life, I’m sure y’all have heard that old song, don’t blink, 100 years goes by fast.”

Mark Martin

Born: Jan. 9, 1959

Age: 58

Hometown: Batesville, Ark.

Claim to fame: Adorned with the double-edged descriptor of best driver to never win a NASCAR championship, the popular Martin claimed 40 wins in the Cup Series and 49 wins in what is now called the Xfinity Series. Despite winning neither a title nor a Daytona 500, his body of work convinced voters of his qualification after finishing as a championship runner-up five times.

Quote: “There are so many things in the world I don’t know, it’s ridiculous, but I knew racing pretty well.”

Benny Parsons

Born: July 12, 1941. Died: Jan. 16, 2007

Hometown: Wilkes County, N.C.

Claim to fame: His drama-filled title run in the 1973 Cup series helped mint the former Detroit taxi driver as an everyman champion and weekly threat. A Daytona 500 winner and the first NASCAR driver to pierce 200 mph, he later became a popular broadcaster.

Quote: “Benny Parsons was the kindest, sweetest, most considerate person I have ever known. He was almost too nice to be a race car driver, and I say that as a compliment. In my 30 odd years of racing Benny Parsons, I never knew of anyone being mad at Benny.” — Darrell Waltrip (2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee)

Raymond Parks

Born: June 5, 1914. Died: June 20, 2010

Hometown: Dawsonville, Ga.

Claim to fame: The former moonshiner is regarded as NASCAR’s first team owner, running the car used by Red Byron to win the sport’s first championship in 1949.

Quote: Raymond Parks, on how to make a small fortune: “You take a huge fortune, and then you go racing.”

NASCAR: Parsons, Martin, Hendrick selected to NASCAR Hall of Fame

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — To Benny Parsons, auto racing was everything.

From driving to announcing, he was an icon in the sport and became one of the most beloved figures in the NASCAR community.

Parsons, who died in 2007 at age 65, was rewarded for his accomplishments and impact on the sport when he was selected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday.

Fellow driver Mark Martin and car owners Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress and Raymond Parks also were voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“Benny was one of the first drivers to make the smooth transition from the racecar to the broadcast booth,” said Doug Rice, PRN president and longtime TV co-host with Parsons. “His down-home style and vast experience made him an instant fan favorite and it gives me great joy to see him elected in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.”

Parsons, the 1973 NASCAR premier series champion, was the first driver to eclipse 200 mph in 1992 at Talladega Superspeedway. He was referred to by some as the “everyman’s champion” and was known for his consistency.

He won 21 times in 536 starts but finished in the top 10 in more than half of his starts (238).

Parsons’ biggest victory might have been in the 1975 Daytona 500, and he is recognized as one of NASCAR’s top 50 drivers. Following his racing career he made seamless transition into television and was a commentator for NBC and TNT until he died of lung cancer.

“This is the biggest honor of Benny’s life,” said Parsons’ widow, Terri. “It summarizes everything he has ever worked toward. Every job he has ever had be it as a race car driver in all divisions, host of a NASCAR radio shows, NASCAR color commentator for TV networks each were just as important to him as the next. He lived his life for NASCAR fans.”

Martin, who was driving up to see the Indianapolis 500 in his motor home when he heard the news, said he was “humbled to no end” to be a part of a class that includes Parsons. Parsons was instrumental in Martin getting into NASCAR when he was just a teenage dirt track driver growing up in Arkansas.

“He gave me great advice,” Martin said.

The 57-year-old Martin went on to win 96 races across NASCAR’s national series competition, including 40 on the Sprint Cup level. Still, he’s known as the best driver to never win a championship, finishing second in the Sprint Cup standings five times.

But he never let it define him.

“I don’t have a Daytona 500 trophy and a championship trophy,” Martin said. “I would ask the question ‘how would my life be different if I had one?’ I truly believe my life wouldn’t be different. But my life will be different from now on because I’m in the Hall of Fame now. That is my crown jewel.”

Hendrick won 14 owner championships, and Childress 11 across NASCAR’s three series.

Parks was the first car owner to win a title. He died in 2010 at 96.

Hendrick, the founder and owner of Hendrick Motorsports, has won 11 of his titles on the Sprint Cup circuit — six with Jimmie Johnson, four with Jeff Gordon and one with Terry Labonte. He owned drag racing boat teams before founding “All-Star Racing,” the team would evolve into Hendrick Motorsports in 1984.

While humbled by the Hall honor, Hendrick said he has no thoughts of slowing down.

“We have accomplished so much and I am appreciative of so much, but with as competitive as we are, I still want more,” Hendrick said.

Childress’ name is synonymous with Dale Earnhardt, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. Earnhardt won six championships with Childress’ cars and 67 races between 1984 and 2000.

Childress said he didn’t expect to get voted in.

“I was told the only way you were going to get in is if you retire or you die,” said Childress. “I sure like the first one better.”

He said celebrated by honor by opening a bottle of his own Childress cabernet wine.

Childress started out as a driver, purchasing his first racecar for $20 at the age of 17. He formed Richard Childress Racing in 1972 and continued racing until 1981 before turning his focus to being a full-time owner.

“Only in America could a kid with a $20 racecar and a dream wind up in the Hall of Fame,” Childress said.

Parks was one of stock car racing’s earliest team owners. He began as an owner in 1939 with drivers Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall and his cars went on to dominate in the 1940s. Red Byron won the first modified NASCAR title in 1948 and his first premier series title in 1949 in a Parks-owned car.

Martinsville Speedway founder H. Clay Earles won the 2017 Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to NASCAR.

_____

The 2017 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, from left, Benny Parsons, Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks and Richard Childress, is displayed after being announced in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

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