Daytona 500

NASCAR heads to Atlanta with a Daytona 500 hangover

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Austin Dillon is still celebrating his Daytona 500 victory and Bubba Wallace is relishing his sudden breakout as NASCAR’s newest star.

Denny Hamlin? Well, he’s in the middle of another feud, and it’s only the second week of the season.

NASCAR moves from the Daytona 500 this weekend to Atlanta Motor Speedway with a bit of a hangover from the biggest party of its season.

Hamlin earned a call to the NASCAR hauler for a comment he made last week on the “Barstool Sports” podcast in which he claimed 70 percent of NASCAR drivers take the prescription drug Adderall to help with concentration.

Adderall is on NASCAR’s banned substance list without a doctor prescription.

Hamlin claimed it was a joke made on an irreverent podcast, but Wallace didn’t let it go after nudging Hamlin for second place in the Daytona 500. The two raced door-to-door to the finish, and Hamlin has repeatedly said the contact cut his tire.

But after his historic second-place finish — Wallace was the first black driver in the Daytona 500 field since 1969 — he took a shot at Hamlin for the final lap racing that in Hamlin’s mind went too far.

“He might need to take some Adderall for that one,” Wallace said on the Fox broadcast after he climbed from his car.

Told of the crack in his post-race news conference, Hamlin again maintained Wallace’s contact had cut his tire. He didn’t respond to the Adderall mention and exited the room.

Once outside the media center, he bumped into Wallace, and the two had a brief but heated exchange.

Public sentiment is on Wallace’s side — few fans have forgiven Hamlin since he wrecked Chase Elliott at Martinsville last fall — and Hamlin angrily took to Twitter to tell his side of the story.

Hamlin late Tuesday night called his Twitter critics “idiots,” and explained he had no beef about the ending of the race. His problem was the final question of his news conference, when he was asked for a response to Wallace’s remark.

“I had no issue until not only did he place blame on me but then went on to make personal comments about myself. I left the media center and saw Bubba 30 secs later,” Hamlin posted in a series of tweets.

“Anyone who wouldn’t take offense to the stupid things that was said has absolutely no backbone. I have one,” he concluded.

Wallace was dubious of Hamlin’s take on the last-lap racing on Sunday night, but believed the two would move on to Atlanta and be fine. He did, however, wonder if he was going to be kicked out of the Hamlin-led recreational basketball and golf leagues.

Turns out, though, that it wasn’t just NASCAR that was annoyed with Hamlin’s Adderall assessment.

Kevin Harvick used his Tuesday night SiriusXM show to note plenty of drivers are upset with Hamlin.

“Those 70 percent of drivers he referred to are mad,” Harvick said. “Whether he thinks it was an off-the-cuff comment and something he meant to say or not to say, it still offended most everybody in the garage. If you’re going to play around, joking and think it’s not something that everybody is going to take offense to. I think he’s probably seeing that nobody really appreciated it and it put everybody in a bad spot.”

Angry drivers are just one of many things to keep an eye on at Atlanta.

There are so far only 36 cars entered for Sunday’s race, which would make it the smallest field in decades. Only 39 cars competed at Atlanta last year, and that was the smallest field in 20 years.

NASCAR had allowed a maximum 43 cars starting in 1998, and hit that number until only 42 cars showed up at a 2014 race in Kentucky. Under the charter system, with only 36 cars guaranteed spots in the field, NASCAR cut the field to a maximum of 40 each week.

But the bulk of the purse goes to the chartered teams, and it’s a financial burden for “open” cars to show up every week and fight for the remaining four slots in the field.

The new charter system meant that only 40 cars tried to make the Daytona 500, which made the qualifying races pointless because no driver was battling for a spot in the field. Asked about the small car counts at Daytona, NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell said the series prefers a strong entry list over backmarkers and field fillers.

“I think it is one of the best fields we’ve had, it’s deep,” O’Donnell said. “In the future, would we like to see more? We probably would. But when you look across all of sports now, the idea of sending someone home with a major sponsor, it just doesn’t happen in sports today. It’s not just a reality for NASCAR, it’s all motorsports, and sports in general.”

Team owner Roger Penske also wasn’t bothered by the field size.

“What we need is the continuity with all the same drivers and cars running across the whole season,” he said. “I think this is really a sign of the times, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

And, keep an eye on the Toyota teams, especially Martin Truex Jr.

The most dominating manufacturer of 2017 came up empty at Daytona, and Truex, the defending series champion, led just four laps in three races. Toyota drivers did not win a single Cup event at Daytona.

But Atlanta at 1.54-miles is in Truex’s wheelhouse, and he won seven races on intermediate tracks last year. Truex’s average finish last year in 11 races at 1.5-mile tracks was second.

“While Daytona is the biggest and most prestigious race to win, the season actually starts at a downforce track,” Truex said. “Atlanta should give us a good indication how we fare against the competition.”

So, yeah, NASCAR rolls its show into Atlanta with everyone mad at Hamlin, Wallace out to prove he’s the real deal and Truex and the Toyota camp trying to reclaim their footing.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a long season.

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/

NASCAR’s youth movement may be good for business

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Daytona Day was nothing short of a rousing success for NASCAR, which was able to celebrate both its storied past and youthful future on its biggest stage.

The Daytona 500 is the most important event of the year for NASCAR. With Austin Dillon’s victory in the famed No. 3 and Bubba Wallace’s history-making, second-place finish, NASCAR got perhaps its most promising glimpse to date of the next generation.

Dillon wrecked Aric Almirola on the final lap in overtime at Daytona International Speedway to drive the car owned by his grandfather, Richard Childress , back into victory lane 17 years to the day that Dale Earnhardt was killed in an accident on the final lap of the season opener. It came 20 years after Earnhardt’s only Daytona 500 victory, and in just the fifth appearance for the No. 3 in “The Great American Race” since Earnhardt’s death.

Dillon and much of his Richard Childress Racing crew celebrated into the wee hours Monday by getting tattoos, permanent ones, on their buttocks.

Wallace, driving the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty, was the first black driver in the Daytona 500 field since 1969. His finish was the highest of any black driver in the 500 since Wendell Scott was 13th in 1966.

Wallace has rocketed to fame in the last month and won new fans following an emotional, post-race scene that included a long, tearful embrace with his mother that symbolized the struggles Wallace has faced on the road to NASCAR’s top series.

Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron called him before the Daytona 500, and Lewis Hamilton, the only black driver in Formula One, tweeted he would be cheering for Wallace. When told about Hamilton’s well-wishes, Wallace admitted to “fan-girling out.”

“I look up to him. He does so many great things in the F1 world. … Then he sent out a tweet and I got weak at the knees,” Wallace said.

Wallace noted what the kind words from Aaron and Hamilton really mean for the sport.

“People are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR,” he said.

Wallace entered the season without sponsorship for the full season, but NASCAR Racing Experience announced Monday it would be the primary sponsor for the No. 43 Chevrolet this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

There has been much angst over NASCAR’s problems, and there are many issues, including the disappointing television rating for the Daytona 500. The 5.1 overnight for Fox was down 22 percent from last year.

It’s problematic, and NASCAR needs to find new reasons for fans to watch. There had been much hand-wringing over the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick , but it may have been unnecessary worry.

Why? Because their replacements are really racy and showed Sunday they aren’t content to simply turn laps in a pack, collect a paycheck and take a chartered flight home.

Wallace sparred with 2016 winner Denny Hamlin on the final lap, then criticized Hamlin afterward. Ryan Blaney led a race-high 118 laps and wrecked Kurt Busch, last year’s winner, trying to win the race. Chase Elliott was wrecked racing for points at the end of the first stage. Alex Bowman started from the pole and was the top Hendrick Motorsports driver.

All those drivers are under 30 years old and the future of the sport. If they race the rest of the season as they did at Daytona, the on-track product might actually be pretty good.

The changing of the guard was so palpable at Daytona that Dillon could feel the energy in the garage. Once awe-struck to be racing against his childhood heroes, Dillon is part of a new crop eager to spice up the series. Previously, he just wanted to stay out of the way of the veterans.

“I feel like a lot of these guys are coming in, we’re all going to start trying to be ourselves because the people that led our sport for so long have kind of moved out,” Dillon said. “It definitely feels good to have Bubba and I up there and fighting. I think there’s going to be some great battles this year with all the young guys.

“There’s going to be storylines, and the NASCAR fans are going to love what they see.”

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org

 

Daytona 500 Takeaways: Austin Dillon gets some extra luck, Jimmie Johnson finds more misery

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Austin Dillon became the first driver to lock himself into the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with his surprising victory in the 60th annual Daytona 500.

Dillon, 27, led the only lap that mattered — the final one — but that was enough to send the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to victory lane after a multitude of cars were reduced to mangled metal following Sunday’s wild wreck fest.

Five takeaways (other than the cars that were towed away) from Sunday’s Daytona 500:

SAVE YOUR PENNIES — The penny thing and the No. 3 car is officially a trend.

Twenty years ago, before he won the Daytona 500 for the first and only time, Dale Earnhardt Sr. received a “lucky” penny from a young fan. Earnhardt glued the coin to the dash of his Chevrolet, and he ended a 20-year drought by winning the race.

The penny remains glued to that spot on the winning No. 3.

This week at Daytona, a fan attending an autograph session gave a penny to Austin Dillon and wished him luck in the 500. He glued the penny to the left side of his dash, and, of course, he won the race.

Dillon said Sunday night the penny has found a permanent home. As with every winning Daytona 500 vehicle, the car will be on display at Daytona International Speedway for a year. Along with the penny.

SO, DOES ANYTHING GO? — The three NASCAR national series races at Daytona over the weekend were filled with crashes.

Teams left Daytona with battered race cars and bruised feelings. Wrecks are expected at restrictor-plate tracks because the drafting packs are so crowded, but the numbers of crashes reached absurd levels.

On Sunday in the 500, 14 cars were eliminated in accidents, and several others were wounded. Only 25 of 40 drivers finished NASCAR’s showcase race.

Drivers pushed and shoved and blocked and side-drafted and performed practically every move in the book either trying to hold positions or advance. On the final lap, Austin Dillon claimed first place by bumping Aric Almirola from the lead.

Some fans on social media criticized Dillon’s move, but it’s difficult to find room for that sort of complaint when virtually the same thing was happening throughout the weekend.

Almirola wasn’t upset at Dillon after the race. He said he tried to block the pass but Dillon charged through anyway, a move Almirola expected.

“(Dillon) was not driving too aggressively,” Almirola asserted, “he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 just like I was. It’s the biggest race of the year, and it’s a career-changing race, so we were just racing really aggressively.”

Dillon said, in effect, that anything goes on the final lap of the Daytona 500. “It is what it is here at Daytona.”

Look for more of the same when the series rolls into Talladega, Ala. in April.

JOHNSON ‘THREE FOR THREE’ — It was a rough seasonal start for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver crashed in all three races — the Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition race, his Thursday qualifier in the Can-Am Duel and the Daytona 500. He was knocked out of the 500 on lap 60 as drivers made a mad dash to try to win the race’s first stage.

“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Johnson said.

He had no idea that much bigger wrecks were ahead.

BLANEY DEBUTS WITH PENSKE — Ryan Blaney was among the drivers in new situations who stood out Sunday.

Driving a Team Penske car for the first time after leaving Penske satellite Wood Brothers Racing, Blaney led 118 of the race’s 207 laps and was in the hunt for the win until the madness of the closing laps.

Blaney finished seventh Sunday after taking the runner-up spot in his Wood Brothers car behind Kurt Busch last year .

ON TO ATLANTA — After a long fortnight in Daytona Beach, most teams — those of winner Austin Dillon and runner-up Bubba Wallace the notable exceptions – will be quite happy to move on to Atlanta Motor Speedway and the relative calm of the season’s second race.

The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET (Fox) next Sunday at AMS in Hampton, Ga., south of metro Atlanta.

The AMS race should give the first hints as to which teams might show the most strength on intermediate tracks.

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— Daytona Day was nothing short of a rousing success for NASCAR, which was able to celebrate both its storied past and youthful future on its biggest stage.

The Daytona 500 is the most important event of the year for NASCAR. With Austin Dillon’s victory in the famed No. 3 and Bubba Wallace’s history-making, second-place finish, NASCAR got perhaps its most promising glimpse to date of the next generation.

Dillon wrecked Aric Almirola on the final lap in overtime at Daytona International Speedway to drive the car owned by his grandfather, Richard Childress , back into victory lane 17 years to the day that Dale Earnhardt was killed in an accident on the final lap of the season opener. It came 20 years after Earnhardt’s only Daytona 500 victory, and in just the fifth appearance for the No. 3 in “The Great American Race” since Earnhardt’s death.

Dillon and much of his Richard Childress Racing crew celebrated into the wee hours Monday by getting tattoos, permanent ones, on their buttocks.

Wallace, driving the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty, was the first black driver in the Daytona 500 field since 1969. His finish was the highest of any black driver in the 500 since Wendell Scott was 13th in 1966.

Wallace has rocketed to fame in the last month and won new fans following an emotional, post-race scene that included a long, tearful embrace with his mother that symbolized the struggles Wallace has faced on the road to NASCAR’s top series.

Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron called him before the Daytona 500, and Lewis Hamilton, the only black driver in Formula One, tweeted he would be cheering for Wallace. When told about Hamilton’s well-wishes, Wallace admitted to “fan-girling out.”

“I look up to him. He does so many great things in the F1 world. … Then he sent out a tweet and I got weak at the knees,” Wallace said.

Wallace noted what the kind words from Aaron and Hamilton really mean for the sport.

“People are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR,” he said.

Wallace entered the season without sponsorship for the full season, but NASCAR Racing Experience announced Monday it would be the primary sponsor for the No. 43 Chevrolet this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

There has been much angst over NASCAR’s problems, and there are many issues, including the disappointing television rating for the Daytona 500. The 5.1 overnight for Fox was down 22 percent from last year.

It’s problematic, and NASCAR needs to find new reasons for fans to watch. There had been much hand-wringing over the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick , but it may have been unnecessary worry.

Why? Because their replacements are really racy and showed Sunday they aren’t content to simply turn laps in a pack, collect a paycheck and take a chartered flight home.

Wallace sparred with 2016 winner Denny Hamlin on the final lap, then criticized Hamlin afterward. Ryan Blaney led a race-high 118 laps and wrecked Kurt Busch, last year’s winner, trying to win the race. Chase Elliott was wrecked racing for points at the end of the first stage. Alex Bowman started from the pole and was the top Hendrick Motorsports driver.

All those drivers are under 30 years old and the future of the sport. If they race the rest of the season as they did at Daytona, the on-track product might actually be pretty good.

The changing of the guard was so palpable at Daytona that Dillon could feel the energy in the garage. Once awe-struck to be racing against his childhood heroes, Dillon is part of a new crop eager to spice up the series. Previously, he just wanted to stay out of the way of the veterans.

“I feel like a lot of these guys are coming in, we’re all going to start trying to be ourselves because the people that led our sport for so long have kind of moved out,” Dillon said. “It definitely feels good to have Bubba and I up there and fighting. I think there’s going to be some great battles this year with all the young guys.

“There’s going to be storylines, and the NASCAR fans are going to love what they see.”

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NASCAR: Austin Dillon takes No. 3 back to victory lane at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The No. 3 is No. 1 again at Daytona, on a day, in a race and at a place forever linked with the great Dale Earnhardt.

Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 on Sunday night driving the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet that Earnhardt piloted for most of his career. Earnhardt was behind the wheel of No. 3 when he won his only Daytona 500 in 1998, and when he was killed in an accident on the final lap of the race three years later.

Dillon’s victory, in the 60th running of “The Great American Race ,” came 17 years to the day of Earnhardt’s fatal crash .

“Man, this place is awesome,” said Dillon. “I don’t know what it is about storylines and Daytona. This place just creates history and I’m proud to be a part of it and make some history here.”

Dillon wasn’t a factor in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet until the final lap in overtime when he got a push from Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr . that helped him get to leader Aric Almirola. Dillon spun Almirola then whizzed on by to give Childress, his grandfather, another iconic victory in the beloved No. 3.

“My grandfather has done everything for me and everybody knows it,” Dillon said. “There’s a lot of pressure on me to perform because I’ve had a little bit of everything. But I like that pressure, the same with the No. 3, there’s a lot of pressure behind it, but I’m willing to take it and go with it.”

As for the aggressive move that wrecked Almirola? Dillon was doing what has to be done to win at Daytona, where he led just once for one lap — the final one.

“I think I blacked out and just everything just kind of kept going, and we were staying in the gas, and things were happening fast. The last lap of the Daytona 500, you just don’t lift, actually the last couple laps,” Dillon said, adding his only other option was to ease off the gas and avoid Almirola.

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,” he said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. If he needs to do it to (retaliate) at Talladega for everybody to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve got the 3 back in victory lane at Daytona.”

Almirola, in his debut race for Stewart-Haas Racing, was devastated.

“My heart is broken. I thought I was going to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola said.

Childress was overjoyed.

“To come back 20 years later after Dale’s great victory, and to be able to celebrate 20 years later, with my grandson, it is just a storybook tale,” Childress said. “It’s tough on him running that 3, but we had, I’d say, 97 percent support from Earnhardt fans who wanted him to run that number.”

The No. 3 was dormant in the Cup Series from Earnhardt’s death until Childress brought it back in 2014 for his grandson.

The final scoring tower showed the No. 3 on top, then the No. 43 — two of the most seminal numbers in NASCAR.

“I looked up, seen the board up here, the 3 and the 43, I thought, how special is that for the history,” Childress said.

Wallace, the first black driver in the Daytona 500 field since 1969, finished second in a 1-2 finish for Chevrolet and Childress’ engine program. Wallace drives the No. 43 car for Richard Petty and sobbed in his post-race news conference after his mother came to the front of the room to give him a hug. The two had a long embrace in which she told Wallace repeatedly “you’ve waited so long, baby.”

After another moment with his sister , Wallace sat at the dais sobbing into a towel. His finish is the highest for a black driver; Wendell Scott finished 13th in 1966.

“Pull it together, bud, pull it together. You just finished second,” he told himself.

Wallace, from Mobile, Alabama, received a telephone call from Hank Aaron before the race and Lewis Hamilton, the four-time Formula One world champion and only black driver in that series, tweeted his support to Wallace.

Denny Hamlin, the 2016 winner, finished third in a Toyota.

Ryan Blaney, who led a race-high 118 laps, faded to seventh after giving the win away in regulation. He wrecked Kurt Busch, the defending race winner, trying to reclaim his lead and the contact damaged Blaney’s Ford. It spoiled what should have been a Team Penske party — car owner Roger Penske had three contenders, all considered favorites — but all came up empty. Brad Keselowski wrecked early racing for the lead and although Joey Logano finished fourth, it wasn’t the victory Penske expected from one of his drivers.

“It’s a shame you don’t close it out, but you try to just learn from your mistakes and try to do better next time,” Blaney said. “This one definitely stings, but hopefully we can get another shot at it one day.”

The day was also a bust for Danica Patrick, who made the Daytona 500 her final NASCAR race. With new boyfriend NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers cheering her on, Patrick was collected in an accident and finished 35th. The only woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500 and win the pole for this race then told a story about an exchange she had earlier this week with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

“He said his last Daytona didn’t go well, either, and I was like ‘Oh wow, I don’t remember that. I remember your career.’ So I hope that is how it is with me with everybody,” she said.

Meanwhile, on this celebratory day for Dillon and Childress, the late Earnhardt had a very large presence.

Dillon was 7 when Earnhardt won his Daytona 500 and was photographed alongside his brother with The Intimidator on that victorious day in 1998. Earnhardt credited 6-year-old Wessa Miller, a fan he met through the Make-A-Wish Foundation following the final practice for the race, for helping him get that elusive win. Wessa gave Earnhardt the penny and told him she had rubbed it and that it would bring him good luck. The lucky penny the little girl gave him is still on the dash of the car at the RCR museum.

Inspired by the good-luck coin, Dillon also had a penny in the No. 3 on Sunday, this one given to him by a young boy he met at an autograph session earlier in Speedweeks.

“I had a fan, actually he had no favorite driver, I told him, I said, ‘I’ll give you my hat if I’m your favorite driver.’ I gave him the hat,” Dillon said. “The next day he saw me in the infield, he said, ‘Here’s a lucky penny I found heads up.’ I said, ‘Man, we’ve gotta put that in the car.’ Put it in the car and here we are in victory lane.”

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DAYTONA 500 RESULTS

Sunday from the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (14) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 207 laps, 0 rating, 42 points.

2. (7) Darrell Wallace Jr, Chevrolet, 207, 0, 39.

3. (2) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 207, 0, 35.

4. (5) Joey Logano, Ford, 207, 0, 41.

5. (21) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 207, 0, 32.

6. (16) Paul Menard, Ford, 207, 0, 42.

7. (3) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 207, 0, 48.

8. (13) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 207, 0, 29.

9. (22) Michael McDowell, Ford, 207, 0, 39.

10. (20) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 207, 0, 27.

11. (37) Aric Almirola, Ford, 206, 0, 33.

12. (29) Justin Marks, Chevrolet, 206, 0, 0.

13. (18) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 206, 0, 28.

14. (39) David Gilliland, Ford, 206, 0, 0.

15. (10) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 206, 0, 22.

16. (19) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 205, 0, 21.

17. (1) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 205, 0, 29.

18. (24) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 205, 0, 30.

19. (38) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 204, 0, 18.

20. (34) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 204, 0, 17.

21. (27) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 204, 0, 16.

22. (40) Mark Thompson, Ford, 203, 0, 15.

23. (33) William Byron, Chevrolet, 203, 0, 14.

24. (30) D.J. Kennington, Toyota, 201, 0, 13.

25. (12) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 200, 0, 12.

26. (11) Kurt Busch, Ford, accident, 198, 0, 21.

27. (36) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, accident, 198, 0, 10.

28. (25) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, accident, 198, 0, 9.

29. (9) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, accident, 197, 0, 15.

30. (15) David Ragan, Ford, accident, 107, 0, 7.

31. (6) Kevin Harvick, Ford, accident, 105, 0, 10.

32. (31) Brad Keselowski, Ford, accident, 102, 0, 5.

33. (4) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, accident, 101, 0, 7.

34. (26) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, accident, 101, 0, 3.

35. (28) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, accident, 101, 0, 2.

36. (8) Erik Jones, Toyota, accident, 59, 0, 1.

37. (17) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, accident, 59, 0, 1.

38. (35) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, accident, 59, 0, 1.

39. (23) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 59, 0, 1.

40. (32) Corey Lajoie, Chevrolet, engine, 8, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 150.551 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 26 minutes, 15 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.260 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 37 laps.

Lead Changes: 24 among 14 drivers.

Lap Leaders: A.Bowman 0; D.Hamlin 1-10; J.Marks 11; Ku.Busch 12-14; A.Bowman 15-22; E.Jones 23-33; R.Stenhouse 34-44; C.Elliott 45-48; J.Logano 49-51; Ku.Busch 52-62; A.Bowman 63-67; R.Blaney 68-93; P.Menard 94; M.Truex 95-98; R.Blaney 99-122; A.Allmendinger 123; R.Blaney 124-170; D.Hamlin 171-173; R.Blaney 174-193; D.Hamlin 194; Ku.Busch 195-196; R.Blaney 197; D.Hamlin 198-205; A.Almirola 206; A.Dillon 207

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): R.Blaney, 5 times for 113 laps; D.Hamlin, 4 times for 18 laps; Ku.Busch, 3 times for 13 laps; A.Bowman, 3 times for 11 laps; E.Jones, 1 time for 10 laps; R.Stenhouse, 1 time for 10 laps; C.Elliott, 1 time for 3 laps; M.Truex, 1 time for 3 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 2 laps; A.Allmendinger, 1 time for 0 laps; A.Almirola, 1 time for 0 laps; A.Dillon, 1 time for 0 laps; J.Marks, 1 time for 0 laps; P.Menard, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: A.Dillon, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. R.Blaney, 48; 2. A.Dillon, 42; 3. P.Menard, 42; 4. J.Logano, 41; 5. M.McDowell, 39; 6. D.Wallace, 39; 7. D.Hamlin, 35; 8. A.Almirola, 33; 9. C.Buescher, 32; 10. M.Truex, 30; 11. A.Bowman, 29; 12. R.Newman, 29; 13. T.Bayne, 28; 14. A.Allmendinger, 27; 15. C.Bowyer, 22; 16. Ku.Busch, 21.

NASCAR – Xfinity Series: Tyler Reddick needs 5 overtimes to win at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tyler Reddick needed five overtimes, a brief red flag and the closest finish in NASCAR history to take Dale Earnhardt Jr. to victory lane.

Reddick won the Xfinity Series’ season-opening race by beating JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler in a photo finish. The margin of victory was 0.000 seconds, breaking the mark set by Butch Miller when he beat Mike Skinner by 0.001 seconds to win the Truck Series race July 15, 1995 at Colorado National Speedway.

“How do I protest that? It’s a tie, and it should go to the elder,” joked veteran Sadler of the win that went to the 22-year-old Reddick.

Reddick later joked a protest was still a winning proposition for the organization.

“Either way, JR Motorsports wins, right?” Reddick said. “That was insane. I saw a picture of it 10 minutes ago and it was just enough.”

It was a nail-biting and tense opener at Daytona International Speedway for NASCAR’s second-tier series, which celebrated its 100th race sponsored by Xfinity on Saturday.

The victory came in Reddick’s debut race for JR Motorsports, the team in part owned by Earnhardt Jr. This is Earnhardt’s first season in retirement from full-time racing and his presence at the race track is still strong through his race team.

JR Motorsports has won five of the last nine Xfinity Series races at Daytona, and Reddick’s victory led a 1-2 sweep for the company.

“Either way, fine with me,” Earnhardt said of the finish. “I watched the whole thing, it was incredible. I was surprised by the amount of overtimes. Fans want to see a green-flag finish and NASCAR tries everything it can to give them that opportunity.”

Sadler was temporarily crestfallen. Sadler finished second in the 2002 Daytona 500 and was passed for the lead right before the rain came in the abbreviated 2009 race. His best finish in all three of NASCAR’s national series at Daytona is second.

“This one hurts a lot,” said Sadler. “I don’t know how many more starts I’ll have at this race track. I really want to get one of the trophies here at this place.”

For Reddick, it was his second Xfinity victory and in the biggest race to date of his career. He won once last year driving a partial schedule for Chip Ganassi, then moved to Earnhardt’s team this season.

“A hell of a way to start the year off with JR Motorsports,” Reddick said.

Ryan Reed was third, and Kaz Grala fourth, in Fords. Garrett Smithley was a career-best fifth and Daniel Suarez was the highest finishing Toyota driver in eighth.

“Was it only five overtimes? It felt like a dozen,” Grala said.

The race was zipping right along and dominated by the combination of Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott. Then a late accident sent the race to overtime.

Larson, who led a race-high 61 laps, tried to block Aric Almirola after the restart and the contact caused Larson to spin and trigger an 18-car accident. Logano, who had led 28 laps, was also knocked out in the race.

It was a task to complete the race after that accident as restart after restart in overtime was halted by another accident. During the caution period following the third overtime, Elliott was black-flagged because the right-side window panel had fallen from his car. As he sat on pit road, cameras followed a crew member make a mad dash on foot back to the team hauler, where he directed a second crew member back to pit road with the needed part.

Another camera filmed members of another JR Motorsports team cheering on the effort.

Elliott, who led 17 laps, finished 12th.

The five overtimes — and a red flag of five minutes, 27 seconds — pushed the race 23 laps past the scheduled distance and forced teams to desperately conserve fuel after each caution.

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POWERSHARES QQQ 300 RESULTS

Saturday from the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (9) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 143 laps, 0 rating, 50 points.

2. (11) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 41.

3. (15) Ryan Reed, Ford, 143, 0, 34.

4. (27) Kaz Grala, Ford, 143, 0, 33.

5. (25) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 32.

6. (4) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 39.

7. (6) Ryan Truex, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 35.

8. (17) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 143, 0, 0.

9. (23) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 28.

10. (18) Brandon Jones, Toyota, 143, 0, 27.

11. (31) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 26.

12. (8) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 0.

13. (30) Caesar Bacarella, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 24.

14. (14) Cole Custer, Ford, 143, 0, 24.

15. (35) Stephen Leicht, Toyota, 143, 0, 22.

16. (24) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 21.

17. (32) David Starr, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 20.

18. (37) JJ Yeley, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 19.

19. (39) Matt Tifft, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 18.

20. (26) Vinnie Miller, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 17.

21. (21) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 16.

22. (40) Josh Williams, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 15.

23. (16) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 143, 0, 0.

24. (22) Alex Labbe, Chevrolet, 142, 0, 13.

25. (34) Spencer Boyd, Chevrolet, 142, 0, 12.

26. (1) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 140, 0, 18.

27. (20) Dylan Lupton, Ford, accident, 137, 0, 10.

28. (36) Chad Finchum, Chevrolet, 136, 0, 9.

29. (2) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, accident, 134, 0, 0.

30. (29) Ryan Ellis, Chevrolet, accident, 133, 0, 7.

31. (5) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, accident, 124, 0, 15.

32. (38) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 122, 0, 0.

33. (19) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, accident, 122, 0, 4.

34. (3) Joey Logano, Ford, accident, 121, 0, 0.

35. (12) Aric Almirola, Ford, accident, 121, 0, 0.

36. (28) Brandon Brown, Chevrolet, accident, 121, 0, 1.

37. (7) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, accident, 106, 0, 5.

38. (33) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, accident, 82, 0, 0.

39. (13) Christopher Bell, Toyota, accident, 11, 0, 1.

40. (10) Austin Cindric, Ford, accident, 10, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 119.107 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 0 minutes, 6 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.000 seconds.

Caution Flags: 12 for 49 laps.

Lead Changes: 19 among 11 drivers.

Lap Leaders: D.Hemric 1-2; K.Larson 3; D.Hemric 4-8; K.Larson 9-32; G.Smithley 33; E.Sadler 34-35; K.Larson 36-46; C.Elliott 47-63; G.Smithley 64; A.Almirola 65-68; J.Logano 69-74; K.Larson 75; J.Logano 76-96; K.Larson 97-103; J.Logano 104; K.Larson 105-121; D.Suarez 122-126; R.Reed 127-129; R.Truex 130-132; T.Reddick 133-143

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Larson, 6 times for 55 laps; J.Logano, 3 times for 25 laps; C.Elliott, 1 time for 16 laps; T.Reddick, 1 time for 10 laps; D.Hemric, 2 times for 5 laps; D.Suarez, 1 time for 4 laps; A.Almirola, 1 time for 3 laps; R.Reed, 1 time for 2 laps; R.Truex, 1 time for 2 laps; E.Sadler, 1 time for 1 lap; G.Smithley, 2 times for 0 laps.

Wins: T.Reddick, 1.

Top 10 in Points: 1. T.Reddick, 50; 2. E.Sadler, 41; 3. S.Gallagher, 39; 4. R.Truex, 35; 5. R.Reed, 34; 6. K.Grala, 33; 7. G.Smithley, 32; 8. R.Chastain, 28; 9. B.Jones, 27; 10. J.Green, 26.

NASCAR: Team Penske stakes claim as Daytona 500 favorites

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Roger Penske has a car capable of winning the Daytona 500.

Maybe even three of them.

Penske again went 1-2 at Daytona International Speedway for its second sweep of Speedweeks. This time, Ryan Blaney went to victory lane after winning the first of two Thursday night qualifying races that are used to set the Daytona 500 field.

Chase Elliott won the second race in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to put a temporary halt on the Team Penske dominance.

Joey Logano finished second to Penske teammate Blaney for the Ford sweep in the first race. Kevin Harvick was second to Elliott in the second race and Harvick was also in a Ford — proving the automaker has the same speed it did a year ago when it swept all four restrictor-plate races.

“I definitely think we have the fastest cars down here,” Harvick said. “Obviously, the Penske guys have done well in both races they’ve run this week. We’ll have the speed.”

Logano has finished second now twice in Speedweeks. He was beaten last week by teammate Brad Keselowski in an all-star race that opened activity at Daytona International Speedway.

Keselowski is the Las Vegas favorite to win Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, but he wrecked with two laps remaining in the qualifier and he’ll need a backup for the main event.

No matter, it seemed, because the Penske cars so far have the Daytona field covered.

“We’re going to make it happen,” Logano said about the Penske effort Sunday.

The three Penske drivers dominated the all-star race and were at the front of the field for the entire Thursday night race. Blaney won it in overtime after Keselowski’s accident brought out the caution.

Blaney did it with a pass that didn’t work last week. When he tried to pass Keselowski in the all-star race, he pulled out of traffic and didn’t get the help he needed to complete the move. This time he was able to get past leader Logano, then the Keselowski accident brought out the caution.

“I didn’t make a good move and I kind of lost that (all-star) race,” Blaney said. “I learned a little bit and I thought about that forever. I thought we learned a little bit from our mistakes. Hopefully we can make it another one here on Sunday. That would be the one that counts.”

On the restart in overtime, Blaney got a huge push from best friend Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. and pulled away for the win.

“I saw (he) was third and I’d figure he’d give me a good push,” Blaney said about Wallace.

Wallace finished third and was congratulated with a huge hug from team owner Richard Petty, the seven-time NASCAR champion.

“That is probably the highlight of the night, better than finishing third, just seeing how pumped he was,” Wallace said.

Jimmie Johnson was in his second accident of Speedweeks. The seven-time NASCAR champion dropped out of line just minutes after his race began with an apparent tire problem, and his car took an unexpected hard right into traffic. The contact wrecked Johnson, Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola, and sent Johnson and Almirola to backup cars. He also wrecked on Sunday in the all-star exhibition race.

“Tough way to start Speedweeks,” Johnson said.

It wasn’t all bad for Hendrick Motorsports, though, as Elliott won his qualifying race for the second consecutive year. He might have won the Daytona 500, too, had he not run out of gas last year.

“We have the big one on Sunday — that is the main thing,” Elliott said.

Hendrick has one victory at Speedweeks and the pole for the Daytona 500. Both are firsts for Chevrolet’s new Cup effort, the Camaro.

The second qualifying race began with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers watching from the top of girlfriend Danica Patrick’s pit box. The Daytona 500 is her final NASCAR race and Rodgers arrived in Daytona on Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, to support her effort.

He ignored questions from media as he climbed off the pit box following her 14th-place finish in her race. Patrick’s plan for the qualifier was simply to stay out of trouble and keep her Premium Motorsports entry clean for her final Daytona 500.

“I was just playing it safe,” she said.

Alex Bowman has the pole for the Daytona 500 based on last weeks’ time trials, and much like Patrick, his goal was simply to make it through the qualifying race unscathed. So Bowman dropped to the back of the pack and just made laps, a move that was criticized by veteran Harvick, a series champion and former Daytona 500 winner.

“Alex Bowman didn’t learn anything today, in my opinion,” Harvick said. “Riding around starting on the pole is great, but not knowing what your car is going to do is a complete waste of time.”

Bowman said it was obvious his Hendrick entry was set to contend for the pole and needs adjustments before it will be strong in race trim.

“We came down here to sit on the pole,” Bowman said. “We have an entire different setup that we can just make it drive better for the 500.”

NASCAR: Alex Bowman makes most of big break with Daytona 500 pole

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — His nickname is Bowman the Showman, yet that did little in helping Alex Bowman to get Rick Hendrick to remember his name.

Bowman was a journeyman driver who had already washed out of the Cup Series once when he found himself inside mighty Hendrick Motorsports with the opportunity of a lifetime. Perform well in a Hendrick car, and Bowman just might land a full-time job with one of NASCAR’s top organizations.

He had his work cut out for him: The boss initially believed his new driver was named Alex Baldwin, not Bowman.

“Then he showed the talent he had, the sponsors really liked him,” Hendrick said.

Bowman’s debut as the new driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet got off to a strong start when he won the pole for the Daytona 500. It’s a record-tying fourth consecutive year a Hendrick car has won the Daytona 500 pole.

Bowman will race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway in one of the two qualifying events that sets the remainder of the field. The 24-year-old from Arizona has been here before, most recently in 2015, when a multicar accident in his qualifying race cost Bowman a spot in the Daytona 500.

His only previous start in the Daytona 500 was in 2014 when he finished 23rd as a rookie. He missed the race the next year, and was out of a job after the 2016 season. His break came when Dale Earnhardt Jr. found nine Xfinity Series races for Bowman to drive for JR Motorsports.

When a concussion sidelined Earnhardt for the second half of that season, Earnhardt talked Hendrick into giving Bowman a shot as the replacement driver. Bowman got 10 races and meshed well enough with the team that he got the job when Earnhardt retired after last season.

While he waited, Bowman sat on the sidelines.

“If you talked to me in 2015 and told me that in 2018 I was going to be driving the 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports, I would have called you nuts,” Bowman said. “You know, everything happens for a reason. My career had a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve been able to lean on my past experiences a lot to make me better and to better prepare myself for this job.

“I think I’m better because of the things that I had to go through. I got to make a lot of mistakes without anybody watching.”

All eyes will be on Bowman the rest of this week as he leads the rebuilt Hendrick roster into NASCAR’s biggest race of the year. Although the team is anchored by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott is entering just his third season and William Byron will make his Cup debut in Sunday’s race.

Hendrick looks at this as a chance to give three young drivers a chance to develop on the job. Elliott was promoted when Jeff Gordon retired. Earnhardt got Bowman this shot at Hendrick. Byron made it to the Cup level in his third season in part because if Hendrick didn’t promote him, he’d likely lose the 20-year-old to another team.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the garage, but when I have an opening and here’s a guy that I’ve tried to groom, and he develops faster than I thought he could, and then if you don’t do something with him, someone else is,” Hendrick said. “So my idea this year was let’s let them learn in the stuff they’re going to be driving for a long time.”

Hendrick also commended Bowman for showing patience rather than just rushing into a ride after his 2016 stint in the No. 88. Bowman did get three events last year, two Xfinity Series races and a Truck Series race, but the rest of his time was spent in a simulator while he hoped Hendrick would come through with a job.

“He sat out a year when he had lots of opportunities, and he did that to wait for the opportunity with us,” Hendrick said. “That speaks a lot of his desire, and he’s spent an awesome amount of time in a simulator giving feedback. He’d run setups before the race for all the guys, after the race for all the guys. He was like a human computer for them. He paid his dues, and he deserves to be here.”

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OTHER DAYTONA NEWS:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Getting behind the wheel of the most iconic car in NASCAR history might be enough to unnerve even the most confident of race car drivers.

But Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, the first full-time African-American driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series since Wendell Scott in 1971, and the first black driver in the Daytona 500 since 1969, has no fear of driving the No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports. That would be the same car that the legend drove to seven victories in the Daytona 500.

Perhaps it’s because The King himself imparted his wisdom to the brash 24-year-old driver from Mobile, Ala.

“Richard Petty told me before climbing in, ‘No need to be a hero. No need to overstep anything that you’re doing,’ ” Wallace said. “I’m here for a reason and here because I proved my point, so just go out there and do what you do.’ ”

Despite the extraordinary publicity he has received, including being the star of a docu-series that NASCAR is chronicling called Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace, which will air this week and next on Facebook Watch, he’ll feel no added pressure when the green flag comes down to start the “The Great American Race” on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

The documentary, he says, has been stressful, “for sure, with cameras following you all the time, capturing everything, the only time they haven’t followed me is when I go to the bathroom and go to sleep. Everything in between, they’re there. But it will be a fun series to watch, that’s for sure.”

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The second half of the Danica Double lineup was confirmed Wednesday by none other than Danica Patrick — although in indirect fashion.

Talking to reporters during Daytona 500 Media Day Wednesday at the speedway, Patrick revealed without necessarily meaning to that she will drive for Ed Carpenter Racing in the May Indianapolis 500.

The IndyCar race is scheduled to be Patrick’s final motorsports competition. She will race in Sunday’s Daytona 500 and then plans to complete what she is calling the Danica Double at Indy in May.

Patrick reached an agreement with the Carpenter team recently and later said she planned a big “reveal” to showcase her plans for Indianapolis. But she let the ECR news slip Wednesday.

Patrick was asked when she will begin concentrating on Indy.

“I didn’t have time to meet up with Ed and the people…,” she said, pausing.

“Oh, did I just say that out loud?” she said. “Oh, well. I’ve never done that in my career.”

Patrick, 35, raced full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series from 2013 to 2017. She went winless while posting seven top-10 finishes. Her best result at the Daytona 500 came during that rookie year when she won the pole and went on to finish eighth.

Before detouring to NASCAR, Patrick finished fourth in the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2005, was third in 2009 and scored six top-10 finishes in seven races in IndyCar’s most famous race. In seven years on the Verizon IndyCar circuit Patrick recorded one win (in Japan in 2008), three poles and seven podium finishes.

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/

NASCAR: Chevrolet, Ford spent offseason working to catch up to dominant Toyota

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    The exciting closing laps of last season’s NASCAR Cup championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway were about much more than Martin Truex Jr. masterfully holding off a charging Kyle Busch to win the title.

Truex and Busch both drove the season’s dominant vehicle — the Toyota Camry. Although Busch was disappointed in finishing second to Truex for NASCAR’s top prize, the fact that Toyotas swept across the finish line first and second simply underlined what was a year of domination for the Camry.

As teams prepare to open the door to a new season this week in Daytona Beach, Fla., they are shadowed by 2017 numbers that made Truex’s championship look like a lock:

  • Toyota won 16 races. Chevrolet and Ford won 10 each.
  • Toyota’s laps-led total of 5,757 was more than Chevrolet’s (2,377) and Ford’s (2,447) combined.
  • Truex and Busch led 40% of the laps run across the 36-race season.
  • Toyota won eight of the 10 playoff races.

In a sport in which small differences in vehicle aerodynamic shapes can translate to significant boosts in speed, Toyota Racing Development and its teams began the year with a sleek body and made it better as the months wore on. By August, Ford driver Brad Keselowski was complaining about Toyota’s supposed advantage, generating laughter from Toyota representatives and suggestions from the Camry camp that its competitors needed to work harder and talk less.

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The new year brings change, although there is little reason to suggest that Toyota will give up its position of strength. Chevrolet enters the year with a new car — the Camaro — and high hopes that the vehicle’s sleek design and race-ready front end will equal significant improvement over 2017.

At a casual glance, Ford faces the steeper climb. Its Fusion was generally trailing in speed much of last year, and this season is likely to be its final hurrah as garage talk has the Mustang arriving as Ford’s Cup vehicle for 2019.

NASCAR rules on body design will have a new enforcement element — the Hawk-Eye camera/projection system. The Optical Scanning Station replaces the laser platform and is expected to ferret out the smallest imperfections in car bodies.

“If the new Hawk-Eye system is put in place and implemented for 2018 fully — not partially, fully — it would certainly level the playing field for Ford by enforcing the rules,” Keselowski said.

“It is inherent to the designs of the cars that some things weren’t able to be policed before that were designed into other cars that, with this system, it will eliminate it.”

That statement underlines Keselowski’s view that Toyota had advantages beyond the basic design of the Camry race car last year, a claim that, again, results in Toyota drivers — in particular Kyle Busch — suggesting that other teams show up for work earlier and leave later.

Erik Jones, who moved from one Toyota team (Furniture Row Racing) to another (Joe Gibbs Racing) in the offseason, said he expects the other manufacturers to be improved but that work on making the Camry better also has continued.

“Obviously, you’ve seen Chevrolet roll out a new product for this year,” Jones said. “We’ll have to see what that’s going to do. I think that’s going to put them in a position to catch up some. I’m sure they did their homework. You see, honestly, a lot of similarities between some of the stuff they’ve done with their car and ours.

“But I think us having a year under our belt with the new Camry is really going to make it that much better. It’s given us another offseason to develop on it.”

Ford driver Kevin Harvick said the Fusion improved during the season last year and added he looks for more gains in what should be the model’s final season.

“We may come out of the box great, but you don’t know until you get to the racetrack,” he said. “We worked through those issues last year. It took us a bit, but we might have to work at them again.”

Chevrolet driver Chris Buescher said expects gains despite the newness of the Camaro.

“It’s a body that looks way closer to what we were competing against last season and, at the same time, maintains its own identity and carries much of the characteristics of the actual production Camaro,” he said. “I think they accomplished everything they set out to do. Now it’s a matter of fine-tuning everything.”

Chevrolet official Pat Suey said he expects the Camaro to be competitive.

“It’s a better aero platform than we had before,” he said. “The teams have busted their humps building and testing and going to the wind tunnel. I’d like to think we’re not going to struggle that badly early (because of the new-car break-in period), but we’ll see.”

‘Grandpa’ Johnson determined to win 8th NASCAR championship

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson has never hitched a ride for an afternoon on a champion’s float that snakes down closed city streets.

The professional sports teams bask in the celebration of hundreds of thousands of fans screaming in adulation and spraying beer from sidewalks in a frenzy as confetti flies from the sky.

Johnson’s top reward for winning it all, a rally once at one of his sponsor’s stores a few miles away from his California hometown.

The NASCAR champion traditionally gets a party in victory lane at the season finale and throws a bash at the postseason banquet.

It’s all good fun, but even a seven-time champion wouldn’t mind a parade.

“I have to admit, that would be a nice add to the NASCAR champions schedule,” Johnson said. “It would be really cool.”

Johnson, a regular visitor to the White House when he reigned as NASCAR’s champ, had already initiated his own champion’s tradition a few years back.

Inspired by a chat with NASCAR official Mike Helton and the presidential tradition of leaving a handwritten letter to the successor, Johnson started a champion’s journal.

His first entry was a December 2011 letter to series champion Tony Stewart. Johnson followed championship seasons with notes for Kevin Harvick and 2017 champ Martin Truex Jr., and the keepsake is handed off at the banquet.

“There seems to be a thread when it comes back to me about me having more entries than anyone else,” Johnson said with a laugh outside his motorhome. “That kind of finds its way in each time I get it back.”

The journal is thick enough for quite a few more lines of teasing, well wishes and advice left to be composed. But the question looms for the 42-year-old Johnson, can he still fill the blank pages left as he comes off the worst season of his career?

Or, is the handwriting on the wall that a new crop of stars is ready to deny Johnson another title for as many years as he has left?

Believe that at your own risk.

“I signed up for three more years and I feel like I have the team and the ability to win all three of them,” Johnson said. “We won five in a row and I want to believe in three in a row.”

Johnson was never really a serious contender in 2017 to push past Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and win his record eighth NASCAR crown. He won three races (but none after June), had a career-worst four top-fives and finished 10th in the standings.

There are about 30 other drivers in the Daytona 500 field who would love to craft that kind of season. At Hendrick Motorsports, long the class organization of NASCAR, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were considered underachievers with the No. 48 Chevrolet.

The Chevy ran slower in the second half of the season, and the team could never click and go on their traditional late-season surge; consider he won three of the final seven races in ’16 to clinch his seventh championship.

“That was the first time at Hendrick that I’ve had that happen,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have asked anything more from anybody on the team. Everybody was all in. That’s where the frustration comes from.”

The struggles did nothing to deter the Hendrick lifer from signing a three-year contract extension that should keep him with the team through 2020. Johnson, whose 83 wins are tied for sixth on the NASCAR career Cup series list, was already the top dog at Hendrick.

Now, he’s the oldest dog on the Hendrick block, trying to teach his three 20-something teammates new tricks.

Daytona 500 pole-sitter Alex Bowman is 24. Cup rookie William Byron is 20. Chase Elliott is 22.

The trio’s combined Cup wins: 0.

But the nicknames for the two-time Daytona 500 winner are adding up.

“We call him Grandpa every now and then,” Bowman said.

“I would say Uncle Jimmie,” Elliott said.

For a stately veteran, Johnson can still show the young’uns a good time. Johnson, a ski junkie in Aspen, Colorado, hit the slopes with Elliott before they hit the town for a couple of nights.

“I even heard him say, ‘Wow this is what 40 looks like. Not bad,'” Johnson said. “I guess we can still have enough fun for a 22-year-old and make it cool.”

Johnson tweeted a photo of himself from behind the wheel of his family car with Bowman and Byron tagging along in car seats.

Johnson, though, is steadfast that he will do his part to shape the next generation of Hendrick stars into regular challengers for checkered flags. He invites teammates into the hauler for chats, talks game plans with the other crew chiefs, and the fitness freak has even suggested healthy diet tips.

“Jimmie loves that role, and I think these guys will tell you he’s there,” team owner Rick Hendrick said.

Bowman must be listening: He won the Daytona 500 pole.

Retired four-time champion Jeff Gordon is still a trusted adviser at HMS and Hendrick said he was having as much fun as he had in years with an injection of youth into the organization.

If 2017’s transition season led to stagnation across the lineup, Hendrick’s focus this season on returning the team to championship form has Johnson fired up.

“I’ve never seen him more committed than he is right now,” Hendrick said.

Johnson’s outside interests — including an ownership stake in a taco shop and a speakeasy; bike rides and marathons; and a blossoming interest in the NFL’s Carolina Panthers (“I’d love to have a shot at it. But I don’t think I can stretch the capital they need.”) — have never affected his race preparation each weekend.

Johnson’s championship crew chief Chad Knaus’ deal is up at the end of the season, though Hendrick said he would work on an extension. Knaus is connected with Johnson in much the same way as Pat Riley and Magic Johnson or Joe Torre and Derek Jeter. One calls the shots and the other leads them to glory — and Johnson wants to keep the tag team intact.

“I know the dog years he lives in and I’ve anticipated at some point there might be a separation,” he said. “I can’t see it in the near future, so I hope to stay together. I’ve told him that we started this thing together, let’s end this thing together.”

Johnson, who wrecked in Speedweeks exhibition Clash at Daytona, is determined to end it alone atop the championship count.

“He wants No. 8,” Hendrick said.

The one that would wipe away the doubt and stamp him as NASCAR’s greatest champion.

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org

NASCAR: Keselowski leads 1-2 Team Penske sweep at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Brad Keselowski opened Speedweeks, before he turned a single lap, as the 7-1 favorite to win the Daytona 500.

Now that he has the first victory of the season, Keselowski is shaping up to be a safe bet.

Keselowski led a 1-2 Team Penske sweep Sunday in the exhibition The Clash at Daytona International Speedway. The race marks the opening of Speedweeks and is the first chance for teams to show their offseason work.

“I have never won anything here during Speedweeks and I feel like I have choked them away to be quite honest,” Keselowski said in victory lane. “You need one to break through. Hopefully, this is our breakthrough.”

Indeed, Keselowski is one of the best restrictor-plate racers in NASCAR. Although he’s a five-time winner at Talladega in Alabama, his lone victory at Daytona International Speedway was in the 2016 summer race.

When it comes to Speedweeks — The Clash, the Thursday twin qualifying races, and finally the season-opening Daytona 500 next Sunday — Keselowski always came up empty. His best finish in the Daytona 500 was third in 2013, and he finished fourth a year earlier. In his prior appearances in the all-star Clash, Keselowski finished inside the top-nine in four of his five races.

“It was a good day, a great start to Speedweeks, and now there’s two more to go,” Keselowski said.

The 17-car field is set by a draw and Keselowski started last. He had 75 laps to race his way to the front, which was easy enough for the three-car Penske contingent. Keselowski had the race in control as the Penske drivers closed in on the checkered flag.

He had a piece of garbage stuck to the front of his Ford, and that appeared to be his only challenge.

“I was worried about the (competitors) but the car was way overheating there at the end and I was more worried about it blowing up than anything else,” he said.

Ryan Blaney pulled out of line from behind Keselowski on the final lap in an attempt to beat his teammate, but he was left alone in the bottom lane and faded into traffic. Joey Logano didn’t have enough help to mount a challenge on Keselowski and had to settle for second.

“It is fun when you are up there running and you don’t know what is going to happen,” Logano said. “The suspense keeps building as you are running single-file: three to go, two to go, here comes the white flag — when do you make the move? Do you make a move? Sometimes you make and it is never the right thing.

“You are waiting to see what everyone else is going to do and you are thinking about the type of people they are and what the possible moves are they will make. Then as soon as we hit the white flag Blaney was able to go to the bottom, I had to stay on top because I would have gotten passed.”

Kyle Larson made contact with Jimmie Johnson on the final lap to trigger an accident that allowed Keselowski an easier route to victory lane.

Blaney faded to fourth, behind defending Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, as Ford drivers took the top four spots. It was a nice rebound from qualifying earlier Sunday when the fastest Ford driver was Kevin Harvick at eighth.

In a race that means nothing beyond an early glimpse of who might contend in the Daytona 500, Blaney was disappointed with his finish.

“I thought we were in a good spot. Even though Brad is one of the best at doing this, I thought we had a good chance at it,” Blaney said. “I probably didn’t pull out at a very good time. I thought it was enough, but I got hung out.

“I should know better than that. I need to learn from that.”

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ADVANCE AUTO PARTS CLASH RESULTS

Sunday from the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (17) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 75 laps.

2. (3) Joey Logano, Ford, 75.

3. (14) Kurt Busch, Ford, 75.

4. (15) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 75.

5. (1) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 75.

6. (2) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 75.

7. (13) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 75.

8. (4) Erik Jones, Toyota, 75.

9. (9) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 75.

10. (10) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 75.

11. (11) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 75.

12. (5) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 74.

13. (12) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 74.

14. (6) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 74.

15. (7) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 74.

16. (8) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 73.

17. (16) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, accident, 43.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 169.626 mph.

Time of Race: 1 hour, 6 minutes, 19 seconds.

Margin of Victory: Under Caution.

Caution Flags: 3 for 8 laps.

Lead Changes: 11 among 7 drivers.

Lap Leaders: A.Dillon 1; D.Hamlin 2-9; C.Elliott 10-14; A.Dillon 15-16; C.Elliott 17-23; J.Logano 24; K.Larson 25; K.Harvick 26-27; B.Keselowski 28-33; C.Elliott 34-38; B.Keselowski 39-75; K.Larson 76

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): B.Keselowski, 2 times for 41 laps; C.Elliott, 3 times for 14 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 7 laps; A.Dillon, 2 times for 1 lap; K.Harvick, 1 time for 1 lap; K.Larson, 2 times for 0 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 0 laps.

NASCAR at Daytona 2018: Key information on Daytona 500 pole qualifying and The Clash

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)     —   The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season kicks off Sunday with Daytona 500 pole qualifying followed by The Advance Auto Parts Clash exibition race. Here’s all the information you need to get ready today’s NASCAR events at Daytona International Speedway:

DAYTONA 500 POLE QUALIFYING

START TIME: Daytona International Speedway president Chip Wile will welcome fans to the track at 12:08 p.m. ET, followed by the singing of “God Bless America” by Gina Marie Incandela at 12:09 p.m. The green flag will drop for qualifying at 12:15 p.m.

TV/RADIO SCHEDULE: Fox will broadcast qualifying beginning at Noon ET. The Motor Racing Network (MRN) and Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio will call the event on the radio.

LIVE STREAMING: Fox is offering a live stream through its Fox Sports Go app.

FORMAT: Daytona 500 pole qualifying is a two-round, single-vehicle format on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. The driver with the top time at the end of the second round will earn the pole position for the 60th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). The driver with the second-best time will start alongside on the front row. The remaining Daytona 500 lineup will be set by the Can-Am Duels on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1).

DAYTONA 500: All-time pole winners and speeds 

WEATHER: The Weather Channel is calling for cloudy skies in Daytona Beach, Fla., with a high of 81 degrees and a 15% chance of rain.

LAST TIME: Chase Elliott won the Daytona 500 pole for the second straight year, edging his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earhardt Jr., who retired from Cup racing at the end of the 2017 season. Elliott will attempt to become the fourth Cup driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500 poles after Fireball Roberts (1961-63), his father Bill Elliott (1985-87) and Ken Schrader (1988-90).

ADVANCE AUTO PARTS CLASH

START TIME: Melissa Trumble will perform the national anthem at 3:06 p.m. ET. Scott Borchetta, founder & CEO of Big Machine Label Group, will instruct drivers to start their engines at 3:12 p.m., followed by the green flag at 3:24 p.m.

RACE DISTANCE: The Advance Auto Parts Clash is a 75-lap exhibition race around the 2.5 mile Daytona International Speedway for a total of 187.5 miles. The event will be broken up into two stages with a competition caution at lap 25 separating the segments.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race starting at 3 p.m ET and has a pre-race show beginning approximately 2 p.m., following qualifying. The Motor Racing Network (MRN) and Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio will call the event on the radio.

LIVE STREAMING: Fox is offering a live stream through its Fox Sports Go app.

WEATHER: The race will get started under cloudy skies that could give way to scattered thunderstorms, beginning around 5 p.m.

LAST TIME: After Denny Hamlin led 48 of 75 laps, Joey Logano took the lead on final lap and won by 1.120 seconds over Kyle Busch.

SATURDAY’S PRACTICE:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Hendrick Motorsports rookie William Byron has posted the fastest lap in practice for the Daytona 500.

Byron turned a lap of 210.681 mph in Saturday afternoon’s practice at Daytona International Speedway. It was the fastest lap of two sessions.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second fastest at 201.649 mph. Stenhouse won two plate races last season, at Talladega in the spring and at Daytona in July. Joey Logano was third and followed by Denny Hamlin.

David Ragan and Michael McDowell were the surprises of the first day of practice by posting the fifth and 10th fastest speeds. Qualifying for the first two spots in the Feb. 18 season-opening race is Sunday.

In Saturday’s first practice, Kyle Busch led all four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas to a sweep of the speed chart. Busch’s best lap was 199.743, with no driver topping 200 mph in the early practice.

CLASH ENTRY LIST: 

Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing
Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford, Team Penske
Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing
Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Ford, Team Penske
Ricky Stenhouse Jr, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Erik Jones, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford, Team Penske
Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Kurt Busch, No. 41 Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing
Kyle Larson,No. 42 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Martin Truex Jr, No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing
Kasey Kahne, No. 95 Chevrolet, Leavine Family Racing

NASCAR season begins with Truex reigning, series rebuilding

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. has been all over the country during his brief reign as NASCAR’s newest champion.

Since winning his first Cup title in November, Truex has celebrated in Las Vegas, New York, Denver, Charlotte, Toronto and last week, Minneapolis, where he watched his beloved Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl.

It was the final party for Truex, who goes back to work this week along with the rest of NASCAR to get ready for the 2018 season. The season-opening Daytona 500 is Feb. 18, and qualifying for “The Great American Race” is Sunday.

Truex will get back behind the wheel of his No. 78 Toyota at Daytona International Speedway and race in an exhibition all-star event Sunday. It will be the first look at the Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team since it manhandled the competition most of last year.

Truex led nearly every statistical category in 2017, including notching a series-leading eight victories.

“I feel zero pressure about starting the new season,” Truex said. “We’re comfortable in what we are doing and having a lot of fun at the same time.”

Truex doesn’t have a teammate this year as Furniture Row moves back to a one-car operation. The change is one of the small ripples in a major wave that affected the NASCAR landscape.

Erik Jones, who had been on loan to Furniture Row, moved to Joe Gibbs Racing. To make room for Jones, JGR had to bounce Matt Kenseth from his ride even though the two-time Daytona 500 winner didn’t really want to retire.

Kenseth wasn’t alone: Danica Patrick lost her ride, making the Daytona 500 her final NASCAR race, and Kasey Kahne was forced out at Hendrick Motorsports and took a lesser job with Leavine Family Racing that created decent upheaval among the mid-pack racers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired at the end of last season, but will still have a very heavy NASCAR presence. He will serve as grand marshal for the Daytona 500, will be part of NBC’s broadcast team and has been very clear he wants to be part of NASCAR’s future in a non-driving role.

The on-track attention will focus on NASCAR’s young drivers. Hendrick Motorsports hired Xfinity Series champion William Byron to replace Kahne and slid Alex Bowman into Earnhardt’s seat. Hendrick still has seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the stable as well as budding star Chase Elliott.

Elliott spent the past two years driving the No. 24 but is switching to the No. 9 — the number his Hall of Fame father donned for most of his career. Before Earnhardt Jr. locked down NASCAR’s most popular driver award, Bill Elliott owned the category. With Chase Elliott now in the No. 9 Chevrolet, fans may flock to his camp.

But Elliott is out to win races and not a popularity contest. Entering his third season in the Cup Series, he’s still seeking his first victory.

“There’s guys that people like and there’s guys that people don’t like. That’s what makes the sport, not just one person that everybody likes,” Elliott said.

“Not everybody liked Dale. That’s just the facts. Most people did. The majority did. But a lot of other people have other drivers, too. It’s not just about one person.”

Team Penske has expanded to three cars to add Ryan Blaney to its lineup, and he’s already a hit with fans. Close friend Bubba Wallace got a promotion to the Cup Series this season and will drive for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Wallace is the first black driver to win a national series NASCAR race since 1963. Jones and Daniel Suarez, the only Mexican driver in the Cup Series, make up the other half of Gibbs’ lineup.

The grid is getting younger and younger, and there’s been disagreement among veteran drivers about NASCAR’s push to spotlight the fresh faces.

The fans will be the big winners this year because the younger drivers are more accessible, and the veterans are aware of the need for increased fan engagement.

Wallace said newer drivers have to build brands and find sponsorship, unlike drivers of the past two decades, when fully-funded rides were far easier for no-name drivers to nab on the promise of future success.

“I have 13 (sponsored) races, so I have to put myself out there. I have to sell myself,” Wallace said.

Funding is an issue across all motorsports, and NASCAR’s teams are scratching their heads as they rework budgets.

Very few drivers have just one primary sponsor anymore; most split their season between dozens of brands in various funding roles, and some drivers have to bring their own money just to get a return call on a mediocre ride.

NASCAR is in its own sponsorship watch, too.

It’s the second season of Monster’s entitlement sponsorship of the Cup Series, but there’s been near silence from the company on its future in the sport.

Monster had a splashy debut race in which Monster-sponsored driver Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500, and that race alone was a massive return on its investment. Monster is back on both Busch’s car and as the series sponsor, but interest beyond 2018 is unknown.

NASCAR made a behind-the-scenes move before the season when Ben Kennedy, great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., stopped racing and became the company’s general manager of the Truck Series.

It’s an obvious entry point for Kennedy to join the family business, and a sign that NASCAR chairman Brian France and ISC head Lesa France Kennedy are aware that ownership may be in need of a youth movement as well.

“Ben will draw upon his years of experience across NASCAR’s grassroots and national series,” NASCAR president Brent Dewar said.

“With promising young drivers and experienced veterans battling it out in close, side-by-side racing, Ben truly understands from experience that every lap matters and we are excited about his future leadership in this important national series.”

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

NASCAR: Stenhouse can make a name for himself post-Patrick

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a two-time Xfinity Series champion who is coming off the best season of his NASCAR career. He won his first two Cup races last year and made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons of racing in NASCAR’s big leagues.

Building on that momentum will be his goal this year, and likely what he focuses on when he faces reporters during NASCAR’s annual preseason media tour. What Stenhouse probably won’t talk about is his breakup with Danica Patrick, though he will certainly be asked.

Why should anyone ask Stenhouse about his ex-girlfriend? The circumstances are unique and unconventional. He and Patrick were professional athletes from the same sport who competed against each other weekly while living together as a couple both at home and at the race track.

They dated for five years, the entire time Stenhouse has raced in the Cup Series, and being her boyfriend became part of his identity. So, yes, there is interest in hearing from Stenhouse about the split.

However, Stenhouse owes no one any answers, and likely won’t spill any tea about their late November breakup. Stenhouse very rarely talked about the relationship publicly, and it was Patrick and her “Danica Machine” marketing team that drove the bus for the couple. She was the one who announced they were dating, telling The Associated Press in early 2013, “I have a boyfriend, his name is Richard.”

She tearfully thanked Stenhouse, who watched from the back of the room, as she announced she’ll retire from racing after two events this year last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. About two weeks later, the couple had split. Patrick said she is now dating Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and has been the most relevant racer the entire offseason through a promotional blitz that has kept her in the headlines.

Stenhouse, meanwhile, has said nothing. It’s the right course of action.

Stenhouse started to flourish on the race track last season and, if he chooses, can be an important part of NASCAR’s future. His victories at Talladega and Daytona last year absolutely had a lot to do with the horsepower Doug Yates put in Stenhouse’s Ford at those tracks, but he still showed he has the ability to win.

Stenhouse had done very little to shine on the race track prior to last season, but much of his Cup career has been spent with a rebuilding Roush Fenway Racing team. His numbers from last season are all career bests, and while they aren’t spectacular statistics, he still showed that RFR and the No. 17 team are making progress.

The next steps will require Stenhouse to be a leader at Roush, with his race team and the organization. Stenhouse has an opportunity to become something much bigger than Patrick’s plus one. He was 25 when they began dating, didn’t go to college and most of his learning was done in race cars.

When he first started dating Patrick, she was already one of the most famous athletes in the world and had been married and divorced. Her life became his life — she got him to cut his mullet, dress a little better, explore big cities and take his fitness seriously, improvements that landed him two spots on “American Ninja Warrior.”

Stenhouse is now 30 and has a chance to show the world who he is as a racer and a person. His passions are dirt racing, the golf league comprised of NASCAR personalities and Ole Miss football. When he’s not racing, he probably wants to be racing.

This is now Stenhouse’s time. He gets to not only reset, but also rebuild who he wants to be in the world of NASCAR and with his race team.

Those are the kind of things Stenhouse is likely going to focus on in the buildup to next month’s season-opening Daytona 500. He won at Daytona at July, so there’s no reason to think he won’t be a contender in the 500, and a victory there would be the biggest moment of his career.

What Stenhouse has ahead of him is now what’s important. He alone gets to dictate what happens next.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Danica Patrick has found a ride for the Daytona 500 that helps complete the closing of her racing career in appropriate fashion.

Patrick will drive for Premium Motorsports in next month’s Daytona 500, her final NASCAR race. She also plans to race in the Indianapolis 500 in May.

The one-race deal for next month’s NASCAR showcase will put Patrick in the seat of the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet, the same number she drove when she entered stock-car racing in 2010.

Her former crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., will return to Patrick’s pit box for her finale.

“I keep saying, ‘I couldn’t have written a better story about how this would all fall into place’ … Going with the flow is working out beautifully,” said Patrick. “I’ll be back in GoDaddy green, driving the No. 7 Chevrolet with Tony Jr. in my ear again. It all makes my last NASCAR race just that much sweeter.”

Premium Motorsports recently bought assets from Tommy Baldwin Racing. The No. 7 car will use Premium’s charter (the No. 15 car last year) to have a guaranteed spot in the Feb. 18 season opening event at Daytona International Speedway. The team will receive engineering support from Richard Childress Racing.

GoDaddy reunited with Patrick last week, agreeing to sponsor her cars for the final two races of her career. She announced her plans to race Daytona and Indy before she had rides, and a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for both races never happened. She called GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons in late December for help making the “Danica Double” happen.

The sponsorship from GoDaddy gives her additional funds to find seats in both races, and the Indy team still has to be completed. Many IndyCar owners have said they can’t or won’t field Patrick in the Indy 500, the race that made her famous, but anything can change now that she’s secured sponsorship.

A reasonable candidate at this stage would be Ed Carpenter Racing, which always fields competitive cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The team is in partly owned by Tony George, the head of the family that owns the speedway, and ensuring Patrick is in the race helps with the success of the Indy 500.

At Daytona, almost the entire field has the opportunity to be in contention for the victory. The team Patrick paired with wasn’t as important as getting a strong engine and solid technical support.

Premium is hardly a top-shelf team, but Daytona is a place where that won’t hurt Patrick. Premium ranked 34th in owner standings in 2017, but Michael Waltrip drove its Daytona 500 car to an eighth-place finish. Patrick will be also aided by her previous experience with Eury, who was her crew chief when she made her initial move from IndyCar to NASCAR.

“It wouldn’t be just any opportunity that could coax me back to the pit box,” Eury said. “Working with Danica and GoDaddy again at Daytona is going to be fun. Danica and I have shared success before in Daytona, and she has a lot more experience under her belt now, so I look forward to seeing what we can achieve during Speedweeks.”

Patrick has not shown any signs of panic about putting together her two final races, and credited the “positive vibes” that have helped move the project along.

“I’m feeling good energy with the sponsor and team we’ve put together for Daytona,” she said. “I’m convinced that good vibes translate into performance, and I’m definitely feeling the good energy with this sponsor and team.”

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

NASCAR: Robert Yates posthumously inducted into NASCAR Hall of Fame

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Robert Yates lived long enough to hear his name announced as a NASCAR Hall of Famer.

Although he lost his battle with liver cancer five months after he was voted into the Hall, Yates was able to write his own acceptance speech for Friday night’s ceremony. It was read by Dale Jarrett, a Hall of Famer who won the 1999 championship driving for Yates.

“When I started in racing, this was not the goal,” Jarrett read from Yates’ speech. “All I wanted to do throughout my career was win races. I would always say, I don’t race for the money, I race to win. For me, that’s what it’s always been about, but to be part of this year’s induction class is a true honor.”

Yates was a championship-winning car owner and engine builder who learned from Waddell Wilson and Junior Johnson. He built the powerplants for Bobby Allison’s 1983 Cup championship team, and the engines used when Richard Petty drove to his 199th and 200th victories — his last — of Petty’s career.

As a car owner, Yates drivers won 57 races that included three Daytona 500s. A year ago, as he was in his losing fight with cancer, Kurt Busch drove a Yates-powered car to the Daytona 500 title.

Also inducted Friday night were pioneering crew chief Ray Evernham, Red Byron, NASCAR’s first champion, four-time Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. and Ken Squier, the first broadcaster to make the Hall.

Evernham led Jeff Gordon to three of his four championships and changed the sport in his approach to preparing race cars. He pushed limits through innovation, engineering and formed Gordon’s “Rainbow Warriors” pit crew that was the best in NASCAR.

“It was 1995, we win the championship in Atlanta, it wasn’t the best of days, we didn’t perform very well,” Gordon recalled. “But we did win the championship. And to tell you what kind of person Ray Evernham was, I think he enjoyed that championship for maybe a split-second before he started thinking about what was wrong with that race car, and he showed up at the shop the next morning, the day after we won that championship, to figure out what was wrong with that race car. And he found it.”

Evernham eventually transitioned into car ownership and spearheaded Dodge Motorsports’ return to NASCAR in 2001. Hall of Famer Bill Elliott earned Evernham Motorsports its inaugural victory that season, and Evernham collected 15 wins as a team owner.

Evernham was inducted by Gordon and his son, Ray J.

“A young boy playing with toy cars in a stone driveway at the Jersey Shore could only dream of a moment like this,” said Evernham, who thanked mentor and former boss Rick Hendrick by telling the Hall of Fame car owner, “you saw more in me than I saw in myself. You believed in me. I was a young, unorthodox crew chief.”

Hornaday’s 51 victories are a Truck Series record, as well as his championships. He was introduced Friday night by Kevin Harvick, one of the many drivers who Hornaday helped make it in NASCAR.

Hornaday frequently allowed young racers to live on his living room couch when they relocated to North Carolina. Among them are Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, who have eight Cup titles between them. Harvick eventually repaid the favor by fielding a Truck Series team that gave Hornaday two of his titles.

He revealed he’d spent two sleepless nights leading into Friday trying to prepare a speech.

“Sitting up here trying to think what you’re going to say to anybody, and it’s the toughest thing you’d ever say,” he said. “Everybody would just say ‘Just be yourself, it’s easy.’ It’s the frigging Hall of Fame, guys, it’s the toughest thing you’ve ever done.”

Byron was NASCAR’s first crowned champion in the Modified Series and in 1948 the Strictly Stock Series, which is now called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. His induction was presented by current NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr.

Byron served in the United States Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He suffered a severe injury to his left leg while flying in a combat mission and later had to wear a specially created steel leg brace while racing.

“He set the foundation for the rare few who capture the most coveted prize in motorsports, a championship at NASCAR’s highest level,” Truex said. “This driver had admirable talent but possessed even greater toughness and courage. He will always be the first, he will always be a pioneer, and now he’ll always be a NASCAR Hall of Famer.”

Squier worked NASCAR’s flag-to-flag network television debut in the 1979 Daytona 500. He was introduced by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is transitioning from racing into broadcasting, and inducted by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.

Squier is the co-founder of the Motor Racing Network and a longtime voice of NASCAR. He had co-founded MRN in 1969 before moving to television. He’s also credited with helping develop the sport’s first “in-car camera” that is still used in telecasts today.

“The heroes in this room who earned their way through tenacity, courage, and their ability to accomplish something they believe worthwhile, vital, and now they’ve added a storyteller,” Squier said. “And believe me, I can tell some stories. Most of them aren’t true, so don’t be concerned.”

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/

Darrell Wallace Jr. embraces legacy of Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first black driver

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   WELCOME, N.C. — There are two ways to look at Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.’s upcoming season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

One, he’s the next in line — and one of the youngest drivers — to attempt to lift Richard Petty Motorsports from mediocrity into the fast lane.

Two, he’s the first African-American driver in 45 years to attempt to run the full Cup Series schedule. Therefore, he will be the first black driver to have a significant shot at winning a Cup race since the late Wendell Scott became the only one to visit a Cup victory lane in December 1963.

Both challenges are formidable, but Wallace, 24, seems ready. He has won six races in the Camping World Truck Series, scored six top fives in Xfinity Series racing and performed well in four Cup races last year when he substituted at RPM for injured driver Aric Almirola. That “tryout” led Petty to put Wallace in the No. 43 this year after Almirola left the team to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Following in the tire tracks of Scott, who raced against harsh discrimination in the 1960s, will earn Wallace a string of publicity as he attempts to put RPM’s cars (newly minted Camaros as the team switches from Fords) in the Cup playoffs. Even as he concentrates on lap times, pit stops and passing points, he knows the social-history aspect of this particular journey will be the dominant theme for many.

“For sure, I’m carrying that banner,” Wallace said. “What’s funny is that Wendell Junior (Scott’s son) called recently and left me a voicemail. He said that I shouldn’t feel like I need to carry the pressure of his dad and the Scott legacy, just to go out there and ‘do me.’

“A small part carries him with me, but I don’t put that in the forefront. For me, it’s just to go out and get through practice, qualifying and the race. If we end up with a top five, then, hey, it’s ‘the first African-American to do this’ or ‘the first African-American to do that.’ I don’t really look at that stuff, but you can sit back after the race and say, ‘Damn, that was pretty cool.’ ”

Wallace got a hint of what’s to come this year in his four races last season. He made his first start subbing for Almirola at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in early June, and his arrival in the Cup Series sparked a wave of media attention.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer remembers.

“When they told us last year that Bubba was going to drive the car, it was like, ‘OK, he’s that guy who wrecks every once in a while in the Xfinity Series and has won a couple of Truck races,’ ” Blickensderfer said. “We know who he is, and he seems like a pretty cool kid.

“Then when we showed up at Pocono, we realized what it was all about. It kind of gave you goosebumps to think about how special it was. We saw all the hoopla and everything that was going on around it, and we thought, this is something special and a little different than just the kid who’s going to drive a race car.”

Wallace keeps things in balance, though, Blickensderfer said.

“Bubba — he just handles it,” he said. “He does it remarkably well for a kid his age. He takes it in and goes about his business much better than most people would. When we get ready to fire engines for the Daytona 500, we’re going to be like he’s doing something really cool here. Until then, it’s kind of business as usual, and it’s just some kid driving a race car.”

Wallace, a native of Mobile, Ala., embraces the Scott legacy and his spotlighted role. He has heard the N-word more than a few times during his rise in the sport, and social media channels often pulse with criticism about his place in racing. A Wisconsin high school golf coach was fired in November for posting disparaging tweets about Wallace.

“I’ve accepted that it’s always going to be talked about no matter what I do,” Wallace said. “I’ll be the first African-American to take a piss in the Cup garage. Everything I do is a first. It’s going to be there. I’ve accepted it.

“It’s the fans who get so fired up over it. It’s like, ‘Why do we have to mention it?’ Because no one is there. So it’s going to be mentioned. It has to be mentioned, so just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”

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NASCAR start times, TV networks for 2018 Cup season

Unlike 2017, no race will start before 2 p.m. ET next season, though a number of races that had later start times this year will see a slightly earlier start.

Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway had 3 p.m. ET start times for both races this season, but in 2018, their first race will start at 2 and their second at 2:30. Similarly, races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Watkins Glen International and Indianapolis Motor Speedway will also see slightly earlier start times next season.

Some alterations to the calendar were announced earlier this year. New Hampshire will host only one race in 2018 as Las Vegas Motor Speedway picks up an additional race instead. The second Las Vegas race will kick off the 2018 playoffs on Sept. 16.

The second race at Richmond Raceway, which had traditonally been the final regular-season race, now becomes the second race of the playoffs and will be the only night race in the 10-race postseason.

Charlotte Motor Speedway, which will hold its playoff race on a combination of the track’s oval and road course, becomes the first elimination race of the playoffs, while the second Dover International Speedway date becomes the second-round opener.

Daytona 500 qualifying kicks off the 2018 calendar on Feb. 11, with The Clash exhibition immediately following. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will close out the 26-race regular season on Sept. 9.

Here is the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, with date, location, time, TV and radio network. All times p.m. and Eastern unless noted:

*-Exhibition race. FS1=Fox Sports 1; NBCSN=NBC Sports Network; MRN=Motor Racing Network; PRN=Performance Racing Network; IMS=Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Feb. 11: Daytona 500 Qualifying at Daytona International Speedway, Noon, Fox (MRN)

Feb. 11:*The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, 3, FS1 (MRN)

Feb. 15: The Duel at Daytona International Speedway, 7, FS1 (MRN)

Feb. 18: Daytona 500, 2:30, Fox (MRN)

Feb. 25: Atlanta Motor Speedway, 2, Fox (PRN)

March 4: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 3:30, Fox (PRN)

March 11: Phoenix Raceway, 3:30, Fox (MRN)

March 18: Auto Club Speedway, 3:30, Fox (MRN)

March 25: Martinsville Speedway, 2, FS1 (MRN)

April 8: Texas Motor Speedway, 2, FS1 (PRN)

April 15: Bristol Motor Speedway, 2, Fox, (PRN)

April 21: Richmond Raceway, 6:30, Fox? (MRN)

April 29: Talladega Superspeedway, 2, Fox (MRN)

May 6: Dover International Speedway, 2, FS1 (MRN)

May 12: Kansas Speedway, 8, FS1 (MRN)

May 19: *All-Star Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway, 6, FS1 (MRN)

May 19: *All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, 8, FS1 (MRN)

May 27: Charlotte Motor Speedway, 6, Fox (PRN)

June 3: Pocono Raceway, 2, FS1 (MRN)

June 10: Michigan International Speedway, 2, Fox (MRN)

June 24: Sonoma Raceway, 3, FS1 (PRN)

July 1: Chicagoland Speedway, 2:30, NBCSN (MRN)

July 7: Daytona International Speedway, 7, NBC (PRN)

July 14: Kentucky Speedway, 7:30, NBCSN (PRN)

July 22: New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 2, NBCSN (PRN)

July 29: Pocono Raceway, 2:30, NBCSN (MRN)

Aug. 5: Watkins Glen International , 2:30, NBC (MRN)

Aug. 12: Michigan International Speedway, 2:30, NBCSN (MRN)

Aug. 18: Bristol Motor Speedway, 7:30, NBCSN (PRN)

Sept. 2: Darlington Raceway, 6, NBCSN (MRN)

Sept. 9: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 2, NBCSN (IMS)

**********PLAYOFFS**********

Sept. 16: Las Vegas Motor Speedway,  3, NBCSN (PRN)

Sept. 22: Richmond Raceway, 7:30,NBCSN (MRN)

Sept. 30: Charlotte Motor Speedway, 2, NBC, (PRN)

Oct. 7: Dover International Speedway,  2, NBCSN (MRN)

Oct. 14: Talladega Superspeedway, 2, NBC (MRN)

Oct. 21: Kansas Speedway, 2, NBC (MRN)

Oct. 28: Martinsville Speedway, 2:30, NBCSN (MRN)

Nov. 4: Texas Motor Speedway, 3, NBCSN (PRN)

Nov. 11: Phoenix Raceway, 2:30, NBC (MRN)

Nov. 18: Homestead Miami Speedway, 2:30, NBC (MRN)

NASCAR: Earnhardt long ago outgrew his father’s shadow

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — He was so shy, so skinny, not yet somebody.

It was around 1997 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was testing at Talladega Superspeedway, wearing an all-white firesuit. Bobby Labonte was the star at the Alabama test that day, and all the media crammed into Talladega’s wood-paneled press room to talk to Labonte.

I’m not sure anyone talked to the Earnhardt kid that day. Why would they? Nobody had any idea what he was about to become.

In that moment at Talladega, he was just the son of NASCAR’s greatest hero, a rich kid getting a chance to shake down a car because of his last name. Earnhardt hadn’t accomplished anything and NASCAR had no idea it had a future rock star in its midst.

Earnhardt, it turned out, was not just a kid getting a break because his father owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. The Hall of Famer was tough on his kid, made him work hard, kept him honest — two traits Junior has carried with him all the way until now, his final week as a full-time driver in NASCAR. Retirement awaits, and so does fatherhood.

Earnhardt started small, worked his way through the Xfinity Series and became a two-time champion. Then Earnhardt graduated to the Cup level in 2000 in a seat owned by his dad with splashy sponsor Budweiser and an expensive marketing campaign. Earnhardt Jr. dyed his hair blonde, threw raucous parties at the Club E he’d built on his property, and Bud got him into the hottest parties and sporting events all over the country.

Behind the wheel, he was a winner. The DEI cars were good back then, and Earnhardt made it to victory lane in just his seventh start. As his fan base began to grow, he became a cult hero to the NASCAR fan and recognizable to the casual sports observer.

When his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500 the next season, Earnhardt’s world changed in every way. Now the spotlight was on him all the time, and without his father around to cast a disapproving glare, Earnhardt struggled. He was still shy, still had some insecurities, and wasn’t comfortable being the guy forced to carry his father’s legacy.

Fast-forward to 2007 and Earnhardt and his sister, Kelley, were in a strained relationship with their father’s wife. They didn’t like the direction Teresa Earnhardt was taking DEI, and he wanted 51 percent control of the team in his contract negotiations. Teresa Earnhardt had also publicly questioned her stepson’s commitment, and Earnhardt painfully admitted in a preseason news conference that their relationship “ain’t a bed of roses.”

Four months later, he’d made his decision to leave DEI. Earnhardt took people who had covered the bulk of his career into his office and explained to them, personally, why he was leaving. He feared what people would think of him, and he’d been raised to be honest and behave professionally. Earnhardt didn’t want anyone to think he was abandoning his father’s team.

Off to Hendrick Motorsports he went, and that wasn’t what anyone hoped. Racing wasn’t fun, he was no longer getting along with the family members who had always been part of his career and his performance was awful.

It was Steve Letarte who took over as crew chief and rebuilt Earnhardt. He held him accountable with a strict schedule, demanded Earnhardt be present for debriefs and team meetings, and he coached him back into a winning race car driver.

Earnhardt will retire after Sunday’s season finale having never won a championship. He never filled his father’s shoes on the race track. But he won two Daytona 500s and built an army of loyal fans.

He also settled into his own skin, found his voice on social media and became the social conscience of NASCAR simply by stating his beliefs and being honest, as his father had taught him to be.

He took NASCAR to events and appearances the sport had never accessed before, and he settled into a life with wife Amy, who brought him out his shell. She was by his side during a grueling recovery last season from concussions, and the couple will become first-time parents next year.

Earnhardt is nothing at all like the kid trying to wedge his way into NASCAR two decades ago. But in many ways, the money and the fame and lifetime of experiences hasn’t changed him at all.

All the adulation and the accomplishments are because of who Earnhardt is, not because of his lineage.

“I read something on Twitter the other day about my brother, he said he has always lived under Dad’s shadow and that is not such a bad thing,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know that you are always out from under it, but it didn’t bother me, but I was always compared to him and compared to his success, the person he was, people either liked I was different or didn’t like that I was different and wanted me to be just like him or whatever.

“It was often in conversation or part of the topic of conversation in articles and so forth. I really don’t know when that started to happen.”

And now, with one week left in his retirement tour, the emotions and the reality are very real for Earnhardt. Although he has three cars running for the Xfinity Series championship on Saturday, a future career in broadcasting with NBC, a baby girl on the way, there’s something missing this week.

“I just miss him so bad and wish he were here today to see all this happening,” Earnhardt said of his father.

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Jenna Fryer began covering NASCAR in 1997 at Talladega Superspeedway, before Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his Cup debut. She can be followed via https://twitter.com/jennafryer

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

 

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney wins pole in critical playoff race at Phoenix / Truck Finals

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Ryan Blaney probably needs to win at Phoenix Raceway to earn a shot at NASCAR’s championship.

He’ll at least start up front Sunday in his bid to put The Wood Brothers in the final four contenders next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Blaney won the pole in his final chance to qualify for NASCAR’s championship race with a lap at 137.942 mph around Phoenix in a Ford.

It gave Blaney the top starting spot for Sunday’s penultimate race of the playoffs. There is one slot available in the field of four that will race for the championship next week, and Blaney is one of five drivers chasing that spot.

“Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole. My mindset doesn’t change,” Blaney said. “I still want to go try to win the race, so that’s the mindset we’ve had all week and hopefully we can keep that and I think that’s our goal.”

Blaney bested Denny Hamlin in Friday qualifying. Both playoff drivers need to win to grab the final spot in the finale, and Hamlin waited until the third and final round to cut a corner on the track in an attempt to better his time.

Hamlin’s lap at 137.936 briefly put his Toyota on top of the leaderboard, but Blaney bumped him moments later.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have already locked up spots in the finale. Busch and Truex are in Toyotas, while Harvick drives a Ford. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott are the only two Chevrolet drivers with a shot to make the finale.

Kyle Larson, who has been eliminated from the playoffs, qualified third.

He was followed in qualifying by playoff drivers Elliott, Truex and Harvick.

With Elliott due to start right behind Hamlin, there was brief speculation that Elliott could seek revenge from an incident two weeks ago at Martinsville. Elliott was on his way to a victory that would have clinched his spot in the finale when Hamlin wrecked him out of the lead.

Hamlin said the two raced professionally last weekend at Texas and he had no concern for Sunday.

“Was I worried last weekend? No and I’m not worried this weekend,” he said. “Everyone up front is professionals and we all have one job to do and that’s to win. Our objective is the same objective as his — it’s to go out there and win on Sunday. You really can’t worry about other guys. If you’ve got that in front of you and you’re thinking about that, your chances of winning are slim to none.”

Busch was eighth and Johnson qualified 12th, but felt his Chevy was far faster.

“We made it to the third round and I just got really aggressive in that round trying to run a flat,” he said. “Just got in the corner too hard on both ends and I kind of pushed up. So, could have been better but I don’t know if we could have had the pole. I think we would have only been about fifth or sixth if I had got it right.”

Brad Keselowski was the lowest-qualifying playoff driver at 16th. He starts Sunday’s race with an advantage in the point standings over the other four drivers trying to make it into the championship, but he has very little breathing room and a victory is his only sure bet to make the finale.

But, Keselowski found solace in the speed that teammate Blaney showed, and is hopeful he’s got something for Sunday.

“It’s not where we want to start, but when the track gets hot and slick we seem to run better here,” Keselowski said. “My teammate Blaney is real fast, so I know we’re all real similar and we’ll have a little confidence in that.”

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NASCAR TRUCK SERIES: Sauter wins and Cindric moves on to final amid controversy

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — NASCAR’s Truck Series has itself a spicy championship fight, with teenager Austin Cindric smack in the middle of the controversy, after a heated Friday night race at Phoenix Raceway.

The race was stopped three times in the final 20 laps for accident cleanup, including the mess created when Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Noah Gragson and Christopher Bell wrecked each other racing for the lead. The night went so long, a football game between Stanford and Washington had to be moved to another network, so defending series champion Johnny’s Sauter victory celebration was abbreviated.

Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton and Cindric advanced to next week’s championship race — Sauter had already qualified — with their finishes at Phoenix. Cindric’s spot was contested because he wrecked the competition to earn his berth in next Friday night’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bell clinched his on points by winning the first two stages. Then two-time series champion Crafton locked up his spot on points in the second stage at Phoenix.

With Sauter already in, it put just one slot in the championship on the line during the final stage at Phoenix. That turned it into a race between Ben Rhodes and Cindric for the right to race for the championship.

A caution sent both drivers to pit road with 25 laps remaining, and Cindric was slowed by a second consecutive troubled stop. But it was a questionable call to pit in hindsight because Rhodes also lost track position when other drivers didn’t follow him.

Rhodes had been fourth but restarted ninth. Cindric was 12th with 21 laps remaining and the season on the line.

That’s where the race for the final championship spot all but ended. John Hunter Nemechek made a late bid to bump Cindric, but had to win the race to advance and wound up second.

But it was that restart with 21 laps remaining that set the championship field. As Rhodes and Cindric battled for position on the restart, the two trucks made contact that led to a race-ending wreck for Rhodes. Cindric went low on the restart to gain momentum for a potential pass and Rhodes briefly dipped down in an apparent attempt to block him.

The two made contact that caused Rhodes to spin

“I was there and he blocked, that’s his fault,” Cindric radioed.

Rhodes’ crew chief saw it far differently and felt Cindric used a dirty move to collect his spot at Homestead. Eddie Troconis also warned that Cindric will have a rough race ahead of him in the championship.

The race was stopped and Cindric said during the pause it was a racing incident.

“I had a good run, Ben went to block, and I was there,” Cindric said. “I can’t get pushed around because that was my chance and he was better than we were all night. Nothing intentional there. I tried to get a run and held my ground.”

Rhodes called it a “desperation” move by Cindric and said he was driving “over his head.”

“There’s definitely a time and place to go three-wide, that wasn’t it,” said Rhodes. “He put me in a bad place. I am not sure that was the right move on his part.”

Crafton was also in the wreck and will race against Cindric next week for the title. He sided with Rhodes.

“I told Ben, the 19 (Cindric) better not finish Homestead,” Crafton said in encouraging Rhodes to retaliate next week when Cindric has so much on the line.

Brad Keselowski owns the truck that Cindric is racing, and is shutting down the team after next week’s race. He tweeted after watching a replay during the red flag that he didn’t believe either driver was at fault.

“Tough deal. I’m not sure either driver could or should have done anything different,” he wrote. “Sometimes things happen when you go fast for a living …”

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NASCAR PLAYOFFS FINALS

Friday’s qualifying; race Sunday

At Phoenix RacewayAvondale, Ariz.

(Car number in parentheses)

1. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 137.942 mph.

2. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 137.936.

3. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 137.926.

4. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 137.641.

5. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 137.583.

6. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 137.247.

7. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 137.190.

8. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 137.075.

9. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 136.711.

10. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 136.467.

11. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 136.374.

12. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 136.224.

13. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 136.841.

14. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 136.322.

15. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 136.307.

16. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 136.302.

17. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 136.281.

18. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 136.044.

19. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 135.864.

20. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 135.670.

21. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 135.588.

22. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 135.308.

23. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 135.227.

24. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 134.862.

25. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 135.634.

26. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 135.354.

27. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 135.318.

28. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 135.293.

29. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 135.014.

30. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 134.847.

31. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 134.695.

32. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 134.519.

33. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 133.551.

34. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 133.546.

35. (7) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 133.482.

36. (66) David Starr, Toyota, 132.558.

37. (15) DJ Kennington, Chevrolet, 132.251.

38. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 131.617.

39. (51) Kyle Weatherman, Chevrolet, 127.042.

40. (00) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 0.000.

NASCAR: Chevy needs a win Sunday at Phoenix to join Toyota and Ford in Final Four

This gallery contains 1 photo.

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    Chevrolet drivers have won seven of the last eight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races at Phoenix Raceway.

Chevy teams will need help from that history in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) as five drivers wrestle for the last spot in the Final Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have qualified for the Homestead championship run along with Ford’s Kevin Harvick. Chevrolet’s only remaining playoff drivers are Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson, and they are at the bottom of the playoff standings entering Sunday’s 312-mile race, the final event in the third round.

Elliott trails points leader Truex by 49 points, and Johnson, clinging to hope that he can win a record eighth championship, is 51 points behind. Both Chevrolet drivers almost certainly need a win to advance to the Homestead playoff group.

“I know we’re building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix, and we’ll go there and fight as hard as we can,” Johnson said. “That is one thing this team will never do — give up.”

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Johnson has won four times at Phoenix, but his playoff experience this year has been very non-Johnson-like. He was a tepid 27th last week at Texas.

Elliott, still seeking his first series win after a string of good runs but no victory lanes, has finishes of eighth, ninth and 12th at Phoenix.

 Ford driver Brad Keselowski has a leg up in the competition for the fourth playoff spot. He is 19 points above fifth-place driver Denny Hamlin. Keselowski has not won at Phoenix but has eight top-10 finishes in 16 races.

A win by any of the playoff drivers advances that driver to the Homestead finale. If someone other than a playoff candidate wins, the leader in points advances. That is likely to be Keselowski unless the finish order is seriously scrambled.

Busch and Harvick earned Homestead spots with race wins, while Truex, the dominant driver much of the season, locked in a slot via points.

Keselowski won the Cup championship in 2012 before the Final Four format was introduced. Busch and Harvick also have won titles.

Ryan Blaney, in his second season driving for the Wood Brothers, is 22 points behind Truex.

Harvick’s Homestead spot is locked in, but he is expected to be a threat at Phoenix regardless. He owns eight wins at the track.

Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series playoff drivers also will race for Final Four positions at Phoenix this weekend. All three NASCAR national series titles will be determined at Homestead.

NASCAR: As sponsorship dollars dwindle, NASCAR’s stars fade

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Matt Kenseth, a future Hall of Famer, likely has two races left in his life as a famous NASCAR driver.

The final seat in the carousel of job options will be filled Wednesday when Stewart-Haas Racing is expected to announce Aric Almirola as its new driver.

Yes, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and former series champion was passed over for a driver with one victory in 242 career starts. It is yet another seat that didn’t go to Kenseth, who embarrassingly has become the odd man out in a free agency period that has focused far more on salaries and sponsorship than talent.

Kenseth, who told reporters over the weekend that he will take time off in 2018 , is hardly alone in his plight. Danica Patrick has nothing lined up for next year , same for reigning Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch. Greg Biffle quietly went away at the end of last season, and Carl Edwards announced his retirement after coming 10 laps shy of winning the championship a year ago.

All but Patrick started in a robust economic period for NASCAR, where teams were flush with sponsor dollars and could basically hire any driver they wanted. Jack Roush was the fat cat in the early 2000s, and he’d hold gong-show style auditions for drivers to see who got paired with his newest open seat.

Kenseth, Busch, Biffle and Edwards all went on to become stars in Roush’s system while launching lucrative and lengthy careers.

But the math has changed considerably. Sponsors are paying far less for the right to advertise on a car during a NASCAR race, and they are increasingly difficult to get. In the days of exploding popularity, a top team might spend $30 million to run a race car. Most of that money came from sponsorship, and top drivers were making $10 million per year.

Now owners are running teams for half of what they did 15 years ago, and driver salaries are slowly being adjusted accordingly. If a team owner can’t get a driver that financially matches the sponsorship level, then the owner has to pay expenses out of pocket.

Brad Keselowski is widely regarded as the driver of the Miller Lite car, but Team Penske last week revealed its sponsorship program for the No. 2 car in pieces, and it only includes 11 races with Miller Lite as the primary sponsor. Discount Tire was sold the rights to be on Keselowski’s car in next year’s season-opening Daytona 500 and season finale at Homestead, as well as eight other events. The Würth Group was announced as a three-race sponsor.

Still, Penske was able to do what few others can manage right now: Put together a sponsorship package that is valuable enough for him to afford a high-priced driver.

Kenseth struck out time and again in a search that began when Joe Gibbs Racing unexpectedly told him it was bringing development driver Erik Jones in-house next season, a decision that cost the 45-year-old Kenseth a spot in the lineup.

The 19-year Cup veteran didn’t get rides at Hendrick Motorsports, which will see Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne depart after the season. Alex Bowman and William Byron will allegedly drive next year for something like $500,000 in salary.

It is clear that sponsorship budgets have been decreased, reflecting in many ways television viewership for NASCAR races and attendance at various tracks. With fewer dollars coming in, car owners have to be careful to avoid paying too many expenses out of pocket. Driver salaries don’t seem to be a priority right now, and a guy like Kenseth would lose money on travel for himself, his wife and four children to some or all of the 38 races on the Cup schedule.

Earnhardt warned earlier this year that NASCAR’s financial system was in for a major reset, and it has happened faster than anyone expected.

“On a big scheme of things, I feel like things have happened quickly, but yet on the other hand, it kind of does surprise me how, you know, the reset, hasn’t been totally linear,” Kenseth recently said. “Some people have been able to make it work, some people haven’t. Certainly right now is a very interesting time.

“I think it’s a very tough time for car owners to find the money that they need to field competitive race cars with competitive personnel. I think it’s probably harder than at least it’s been since I’ve been around. And the cost is higher than when I started, as well. Certainly a challenging environment.”

Tony Stewart had been exposed to the changing NASCAR sponsorship landscape once he joined Gene Haas as co-owner of their four-car team, but even he’s been surprised at the difficulties in finding funding.

The team had a massive stock of open inventory on Clint Bowyer’s car this year, ran into a sponsorship dispute with Patrick’s backers right before the start of the season and Haas has been primarily funding Busch’s car out of pocket. For Busch to return to the team, he is likely going to accept a significant pay cut.

SHR now has Smithfield Foods coming aboard, and Almirola seems pegged to continue a driver-sponsorship relationship he began at Richard Petty Motorsports. SHR could have Kenseth or even Brickyard 400 winner Kahne, but instead is going with the driver the sponsor is already comfortable with.

Stewart is careful to note it’s not a sponsor-driven decision, though.

“I’m not hiring drivers that have money. I’ve been the route that in the dirt-track stuff. I’ve seen it, it’s not the way to run a race team,” Stewart told The Associated Press last month. “I know there’s people that have to do that to survive, but if that’s what I had to do to survive, I wouldn’t do it, it’s not worth it to me.

“I want to hire drivers that I feel like can go out and run well and win races, and if I can’t hire them on their talent, I don’t want to do it all.”

Stewart said he’d dump a car before he’d hire a driver bringing in sponsorship money. However, that’s essentially what Patrick did when she came to NASCAR with her GoDaddy Funding . When that ran out, SHR did find her new sponsorship.

Stewart believes the model needs a ton of work and the project begins with increased viewership. If ratings and attendance improve, the sponsorship dollars grow again.

Until then, NASCAR is in a cycle where drivers such as Kenseth will be sidelined next year. He finished fourth at Texas on Sunday. He’s ninth in the standings.

“You do this because you want to compete and you want to go out and try to contend for races and championships, and if you’re having to do it just to get by, there’s no fun in that,” Stewart said.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

 

NASCAR: Truex fastest for playoff elimination race at Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. had already locked up his spot in the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

Now, he’ll have the prime pit position for its first race.

Truex won the pole for this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway on Friday night, and with that prize came the chance to have pit choice at Martinsville. The paper clip-like geometry of that track makes stall selection arguably the biggest advantage of any track all season.

“We race one week at a time, try to do the best job we can, but we knew this was a big one tonight,” said Truex, whose victory at Charlotte punched his ticket to the round of eight. “Just proud of everybody for making the right adjustments, the right calls.”

Truex has dominated at Kansas Speedway for years, only for bad luck to conspire against him. But he broke through with a victory in May, and that’s kicked off a dominant stretch at intermediate tracks that has included a run of three consecutive wins at mile-and-a-half ovals.

“It’s been pretty terrible lately,” he said, sarcastically. “This stuff is so difficult and all these teams out here work so hard, trying to be better than we’ve been.

“If you’re not getting better you’re going backward.”

Truex was followed by playoff contenders Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin for Sunday’s race at Kansas. But Blaney’s car failed post-qualifying inspection when the package tray did not maintain its original shape, which means he will start 40th.

Kyle Busch will roll off eighth after barely escaping the first round of qualifying, while Jamie McMurray will start ninth and Brad Keselowski will start 11th after winning last week at Talladega to punch his ticket to the next round.

Jimmie Johnson, who is seven points ahead of Busch for the final spot in the next round, will start 13th after a solid run by his standards. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott were right behind him, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will start 25th after failing to advance from the first round.

“The thing I’m looking at is progression through the rounds, what we picked up from practice, and that was trending the right way,” said Johnson, who missed the final qualifying round by a mere two-hundredths of a second. “We’re starting closer to the front than we have in quite a few weeks. Qualifying we know isn’t my sweet spot and I’m trying so hard to get better at that.”

Several drivers were white-knuckling it around Kansas Speedway with wind whipping up to 35 mph, and Harvick said a bobble caused by a bad gust may have cost him the pole.

“That thing was different every time we went into the corner, probably because of the wind,” he said. “The back stepped out and next thing I knew I was up a lane, but good knowing what’s on the line with pit selection (at Martinsville) and what we have to do this week.”

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The sometimes bizarre nature of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff structure was fully illustrated last week at Talladega Superspeedway with the case of Ryan Blaney.

Blaney entered the Talladega weekend in 11th place in the 12-driver playoff grid. What did he do at Talladega? He crashed — didn’t almost everybody? — and finished 18th, 11 laps behind the leaders.

Yet Blaney jumped from 11th to seventh — safe, for the time being — in the playoff standings. This happened because Blaney won one Talladega stage and finished third in another and because several other drivers in the playoff group wrecked during Sunday’s wild race.

Playoff drivers can’t depend on such wacky activity in the final race of the second round Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where the racing typically is a bit more subdued than at Talladega.

Although stage results at Kansas could change matters considerably, the six drivers on edge entering the Hollywood Casino 400 are Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Blaney. Three of the six — Johnson, Busch and Kenseth — are former series champions.

Stenhouse (22 points below the eighth-place cutoff line) and McMurray (29 points) probably need wins at Kansas to advance to the third round. Kyle Busch is seven points below the line, and Matt Kenseth is eight behind.

Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, sits in the first slot below the cutoff line after finishes of 29th at Charlotte Motor Speedway and 27th at Talladega.

“We’ve obviously had a terrible round, and we are still within striking distance,” said Busch, who has five consecutive top-fives — including one win — at Kansas. “If we didn’t have those bonus points, we wouldn’t have much shot going into this weekend. So I’m thankful that the system is in place that rewards the good runs we had during the regular season.”

Blaney, in seventh, is nine points above the cutoff, and Johnson, in eighth place, is seven points to the good. Johnson, the seven-time and reigning series champion, has won three times at Kansas, most recently in the spring of 2015.

“Obviously we are in a tight spot in the playoffs after last weekend at Talladega,” Johnson said. “We know what we need to do in Kansas.”

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Of course, a win at Kansas by any playoff driver advances him to the Round of 8.

Brad Keselowski won at Talladega with a last-lap pass of non-playoff driver Ryan Newman, securing the Ford driver a spot in the next round along with Charlotte winner Martin Truex Jr. Keselowski’s win also boosted him from 10th in the playoff standings to second, behind Truex.

Five of Truex’s six victories this season have come at 1.5-mile tracks, including Kansas in May. Kenseth and Kevin Harvick — fourth in the standings — own two victories each. Harvick won at Kansas a year ago when it was the middle race of the second round.

Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, is the all-time leader in laps led at Kansas with 774, Truex has led 622, Johnson 601 and Harvick, the 2014 champion, 559. No other driver has led more than 300 laps at the Kansas City track, which underwent a repave in 2012.

“The repave is definitely what changed and turned things around for us at Kansas,” said Harvick, who earned only one career top-five at Kansas before the repave but six afterwards. “Once the repave happened, we were able to really hit on some things and, for whatever reason, it kind of fits my driving style and we have gotten some good results out of it.”

After Kansas, the playoffs move to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway. Following Phoenix, the playoff field will be trimmed to four drivers for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Follow Mike Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree

NASCAR: Who has the edge in playoff elimination race at Kansas?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   Sunday is cutdown day in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as the 12-driver playoff field will be reduced to eight following the Hollywood Casino 400.

Only two drivers — Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski — can rest easy this weekend with their berths in the third round already secured after victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, respectively.

The weekend won’t be quite so chill for the other 10 drivers — even ones like third-ranked Kyle Larson, who have built up a plethora of points — because one crash or mechanical issue can see championship hopes go up in smoke.

Expect the the 267 scheduled laps around the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway to be a fierce contest of wills, handling and strategy calls, as drivers battle their competitors on track as well as their nerves.

How the playoff drivers have fared at Kansas, and what to watch for Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network):

1. Martin Truex Jr. (3,120 points)

Car: No. 78 Toyota

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2017)

Notable: The points leader has dominated on tracks like Kansas this season, with five of his six wins coming on 1.5-mile ovals. Expect him to be near the front of the pack all day, like he was in May when he led 104 laps.

2. Brad Keselowski (3,101)

Car: No. 2 Ford

Team: Team Penske

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2011)

Notable: His brilliant race and last-lap pass for the win last weekend provided a shot in the arm to a driver that before Talladega hadn’t won since April. Now the 2012 champion and crew chief Paul Wolfe have the opportunity to take chances that other playoff drivers cannot in an effort to rack up playoff bonus points before the round of eight.

3. Kyle Larson (3,096)

Car: No. 42 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Kansas finish: Second (fall 2014)

Notable: Larson is in the most enviable position among the rest of the playoff field, sitting 22 points above the cutline. And while none of four 2017 wins have come on 1.5-mile tracks, he’s finished second on intermediate ovals four times. A clean and consistent race is likely all he needs.

4. Kevin Harvick (3,089)

Car: No. 4 Ford

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (fall 2013, 2016)

Notable: Harvick said this week that Kansas “fits his driving style,” and recent results bear him out. Since the track was repaved in the summer of 2012, the 2014 series champion has been a master at the Kansas City oval with six top-three finishes in 10 races, including the victory in last year’s playoff.

 

5. Denny Hamlin (3,088)

Car: No. 11 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2012)

Notable: His top-six finishes at Charlotte and Talladega could go a long way in providing insurance because Kansas has not been one of Hamlin’s stronger tracks, with an average finish of 17.0. But Hamlin finished second in this race two years ago, and the Toyota contingent has been especially strong on intermediate tracks, which could give him a boost.

6. Chase Elliott (3,087)

Car: No. 24 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Kansas finish: Ninth ( 2016)

Notable: He’s the least experienced driver at Kansas with only three races under his belt, but his runner-up finishes in the playoff races at Chicagoland Speedway and Charlotte prove that he can contend for the win on 1.5-mile ovals. He’ll have to run much better than his 29th-place finish in May, however.

7. Ryan Blaney (3,076)

Car: No. 21 Ford

Team: Wood Brothers Racing

Best Kansas finish: Fourth (spring 2017)

Notable: Blaney may have circled this race on his calendar because statistically Kansas stacks up as one of his best tracks. He has three top-seven finishes in five races and an average finish of 11.4, ranking as his third-best. He has no margin for error, though, so he’ll need to come through like he did in May to keep himself among the top eight.

8. Jimmie Johnson (3,074)

Car: No. 48 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Kansas finish: First (fall 2008, 2011; spring 2015)

Notable: The seven-time and reigning series champion is right on the brink and can’t afford the sub-par 24th-place finish he turned in this spring. Fans of the 48 team can take comfort in Johnson’s strong career results at Kansas, however. He’s finished in the top 10 in 17 of 22 races there and came home third and fourth, respectively, in the last two playoff races at the track.

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9. Kyle Busch (3,067)

Car: No. 18 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (spring 2016)

Notable: After a dominating first round in which he won two of three races, no one’s fortunes have turned more after Busch’s disastrous results at both Charlotte and Talladega. He may not technically be in must-win territory, but expect him to race like he is. The 2015 series champion has become quite proficient at Kansas lately with five straight top-five finishes, and he’ll need another sterling result to advance.

10. Matt Kenseth (3,066)

Car: No. 20 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Kansas finish: First (fall 2012, spring 2013)

Notable: No playoff driver has more experience or has led more laps at Kansas than Kenseth’s 774, and he’s going to need every bit of that quality experience Sunday if he hopes to advance in what could be his last season in the Cup Series. Like his teammate Busch, he may not necessarily have to win to advance, but he cannot rely on points either. He will need to be aggressive and hope Toyota’s advantage on intermediate tracks holds up.

11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,052)

Car: No. 17 Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Best Kansas finish: 11th (spring 2008, 2017)

Notable: Talladega, where he won earlier this season, likely was Stenhouse’s best opportunity for a playoff win, so Kansas appears to be the end of the road. His car has not been particularly fast or competitive on 1.5-mile tracks, and it’s hard to imagine that changes Sunday.

12. Jamie McMurray (3,045)

Car: No. 1 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Kansas finish: Seventh (fall 2004, spring 2013)

Notable: Disaster struck McMurray early at Talladega and put him in a hole he probably cannot get out of. Like Stenhouse, he almost certainly needs to win — something he hasn’t done in four years.

Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow

4 NASCAR playoff drivers who could advance to the next round at Kansa

(PhatzRadio Sports / FTW)   —-   As the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway for the final playoff race in the Round of 12 this weekend, history points to Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson and being likely drivers to win the Hollywood Casino 400.

Truex is coming off a win at Kansas in the spring and, let’s face it, his No. 78 Toyota’s speed makes him a reasonable contender every race. Seven-time Cup Series champ Johnson is the all-time winningest driver at Kansas with three trips to Victory Lane since taking the checkered flag at this race in 2008.

These two drivers are solid bets for not only winning the Hollywood Casino 500 but also for surviving the next elimination and advancing to the Round of 8 in the playoffs. Truex leads the playoff standings while Johnson is eighth.

But as the championship contenders shrink from 12 to eight after Sunday’s race, there are four drivers who could quietly advance to the next round, thanks to their consistently playoff performances.

1. Ryan Blaney

Through the first five playoff races, Blaney has two top-10 finishes, and his 18th-place spot would have been higher Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, had he not wrecked with just 11 laps to go. Despite crashing, he reminded everyone of his talent and how fast his No. 21 Ford is by winning his first playoff stage win.

Outside of Sunday, he hasn’t led any playoff races. But he’s still seventh in the standings and nine points ahead of the cutoff. Going into the Hollywood Casino 400, he averages the best starting position among playoff drivers, according to NASCAR, which includes winning the pole at the May race. So he’s got a great shot at starting up front this time and earning at least another stage win – if not his first playoff win, which would lock him into the next round.

2. Kyle Larson

The No. 42 Chevrolet driver enters the Kansas race third in the playoff standings with a 29-point cushion above the cutoff line. But he hasn’t done anything particularly spectacular in the playoffs, including win. Unlike his four regular season victories – plus a handful of others – that “Holy cow! Look at him go!” moment has been absent through five playoff races. Yet, his seventh-place average finish in five playoff races has propelled him toward the top.

However, Kansas is not his best track. Larson has never won a race there, and he’s had just two single-digit finishes in seven Cup Series starts, including placing sixth in the spring race. But he’s an excellent racer who has consistently been a car to beat this season, along with Truex. So he might not get his first playoff win Sunday, but even just a decent performance could help him quietly sneak into the Round of 8.

3. Matt Kenseth

If the Round of 12 elimination was today, the No. 20 Toyota driver wouldn’t advance. Through five playoff races, he finished ninth, third, 11th twice and 14th most recently. Winless in 2017, he’s currently eight points behind the cutoff mark, although a good race (or obviously a win) could change all that.

Kenseth is one of three drivers with two wins at Kansas – behind Johnson’s all-time best of three – winning back-to-back races across the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Experience is clearly on his side with 23 starts and three top-10 finishes in his last five races there. If the nine drivers ahead of him in the playoff standings race better than him Sunday, his championship run will be over. But points have gotten him this far, so maybe they’ll carry him a little farther.

4. Denny Hamlin

The No. 11 Toyota driver is still searching for a lot: his first playoff victory, his first playoff stage win and his first unencumbered win since July. But he must be doing something right because he’s currently fifth in the playoff standings and 21 points above the cutoff.

Without a playoff win to lock him in the next round, there’s always a chance he could be bounced. But three of his five playoff races have resulted in top-6 finishes, and he has experience to fall back on with one win and five career top-10s at Kansas. Hamlin doesn’t need his first playoff win to advance. He just needs a strong finish Sunday and maybe a stage win or two to give him an added boost.

Here’s a look at the complete playoff standings going into the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

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NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes pole for final Talladega Cup race

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the pole for his final scheduled Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Earnhardt is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the season, and the Alabama crowd has always embraced NASCAR’s most popular driver. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has declared race day “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day” across the state.

The field will be led to green by Donnie Allison, a two-time Talladega winner and original member of the Alabama Gang, while driving the late Dale Earnhardt’s No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Talladega officials presented Earnhardt Jr. with the car , which his father raced during his 1979 rookie season, as well as some races during his 1980 championship season, as a retirement gift.

Now, with the pole — the first of his career at Talladega — it has turned into quite the special weekend for Earnhardt.

“This place has meant a lot to me,” he said. “It’s awesome to hear those fans happy for us and hopefully we’re going to give them a lot more to cheer about before this weekend is over.”

Could he add a seventh victory?

“Certainly,” he grinned. “You think about that every time you suit up and get in the car, you imagine if that’s going to be the day you get a win. But, this would be a real important one if we could win for all the fans, all year long, we certainly owe them a win.”

Earnhardt is winless this season and didn’t make the playoffs. He’s got just six races left before he turns over his No. 88 Chevrolet to Hendrick Motorsports and replacement driver Alex Bowman.

On Saturday, Earnhardt turned a lap at 190.544 mph to knock teammate Chase Elliott from the top starting spot. Elliott wound up second with a lap at 190.412 mph in a Hendrick Motorsports sweep of the front row.

“We’ve been fighting our teammate Chase and his group for poles at these tracks for a long time and it’s been a lot of fun to be honest with you, how these two teams have pushed and elevated each other,” Earnhardt said. “Really, all the credit for getting a pole at a place like this goes to the team. … I just hold the wheel straight and try not to bounce into the apron. There ain’t much to it as a driver.”

Joey Logano was third in a Team Penske Ford, followed by Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Ford drivers took positions third through seventh.

Stenhouse knocked Earnhardt from the pole in May , and then went on to win his first career Cup race at Talladega. Stenhouse added a victory at Daytona in July, making him the winner of the last two restrictor-plate races. Busch’s victory in the Daytona 500 has made the Ford engines built by Doug Yates 3 for 3 so far this year in plate races.

So Stenhouse wasn’t thrilled to qualify fifth.

“That was a bummer,” he said. “I was hoping we’d get another pole and I think it would have been cool to knock (Earnhardt) off the pole again. But obviously this shows our Ford is still fast. We’ve got speed.”

It was a rough qualifying effort for Toyota, with none of its playoff contenders advancing to the final 12. That’s an odd development considering Toyota drivers have won the first four playoff races.

Eliminated in the first round were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, as well as points leader Martin Truex Jr. Starting position doesn’t mean much at Talladega, and Truex won at Charlotte last weekend so he’s already in the third round of the playoffs.

“You know it is superspeedway qualifying — just been a little bit off on superspeedway qualifying,” Hamlin said. “We obviously race pretty decent. It looks like the Fords are pretty strong, so we’ll have to race those guys tomorrow and we’ll just kind of see how we all stack up.”

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It’s NASCAR race day at Talladega Superspeedway, and we’ve got some essential information you need to get ready for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500:

START TIME: Kay Ivery, the 54th Governor of Alabama, will instruct drivers to start their engines at 2:07 p.m. ET. (1:07 local), followed by the green flag at 2:19 p.m. (1:19 p.m. Central Daylight Time).

RACE DISTANCE: The Alabama 500 is 188 laps around the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. That’s 500.08 miles.

SEGMENTS: Beginning this season, NASCAR is dividing every race into segments and awarding one bonus point to the winner of each stage. Segment lengths will be different for every race. Also, the top 10 finishers of segments 1 and 2 will be awarded regular-season points in descending order from 10 to 1. Here are the segments for the Apache Warrior 400: Stage 1: 55 laps; Stage 2: 55 laps; Stage 3: 78 laps.

NATIONAL ANTHEM/FLYOVER: The 313th United States Army Band out of Birmingham, Ala., will perform the national anthem at 2:01 p.m. ET, followed by a USAF Heritage Flyover, featuring an F-16 Fighting Falcon and a P-51 Mustang.

TV/RADIO SCHEDULE: NBC will broadcast the race on TV and has a pre-race show beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET. Motor Racing Network and Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio will call the race on the radio.

LIVE STREAMING: NBCSports.com will live-stream the race for those who sign in with their cable/satellite provider’s credentials.

WEATHER: The National Weather Service is calling for partly sunny skies and a high near 83 degrees. There is a chance of showers in the morning, then a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms after the green flag.

JUNIOR WATCH: Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns for his final race at his most successful track before retiring from Cup racing at the end of the season. Earnhardt has won six times (most recently in 2015) in 34 races at Talladega, with 12 top-five and 16-top 10 finishes. Talladega is clearly Earnhardt territory as it is also the track where Dale Earnhardt Sr. earned the most wins of his career (10).

LAST TIME: Rick Stenhouse Jr. started on the pole in the spring race then earned his first career Cup Series win after taking the lead on an overtime restart to book a spot in the playoffs. And one year ago, Joey Logano led the final 45 laps in last year’s second-round elimination race to advance in the playoffs.

STARTING LINEUP: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first career pole at Talladega, his second of the season and the 15th of his career. He will start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, who qualified second.

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ALABAMA 500 LINEUP

Saturday’s qualifying results from the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway (car number in parentheses):

1. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 190.544 mph.

2. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 190.412.

3. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 190.374.

4. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 190.268.

5. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 190.170.

6. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 190.151.

7. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 189.778.

8. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 189.774.

9. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 189.669.

10. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 189.658.

11. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 189.620.

12. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 189.242.

13. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 189.100.

14. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 188.958.

15. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 188.820.

16. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 188.783.

17. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 188.783.

18. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 188.705.

19. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 188.664.

20. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 188.626.

21. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 188.548.

22. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 188.400.

23. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 188.270.

24. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 188.226.

25. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 188.219.

26. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 188.015.

27. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 187.923.

28. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 187.890.

29. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 187.618.

30. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 187.405.

31. (7) Justin Marks, Chevrolet, 187.394.

32. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 187.148.

33. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 186.590.

34. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 186.180.

35. (75) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 185.395.

36. (15) Mark Thompson, Chevrolet, 184.911.

37. (23) Joey Gase, Toyota, 184.409.

38. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 184.384.

39. (83) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 182.821.

40. (55) DJ Kennington, Toyota, 182.456.

Possible 5 NASCAR drivers to win at Talladega

(PhatzRadio Sports / FTW)    —-   As the pool of NASCAR drivers in the Cup Series playoffs continues to shrink, betting fans and fantasy NASCAR players will need to look beyond the championship contenders for potential picks.

Even though the 12 drivers still in the playoffs are among the best, it’s realistic to imagine one of the other 28 cars on the track winning at some point. That’s especially true this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where literally anything could happen – including, hypothetically, “the big one” knocking all 12 playoff drivers out of the race.

So who are the safe drivers to bet on or pick for fantasy NASCAR in the Alabama 500? According to VegasInsider.com, of the five drivers with the best odds of winning this weekend, three of them are in the playoffs, and none of them are named Martin Truex Jr.

Let’s break it down.

5. Denny Hamlin, 11-to-1 odds

As the No. 11 Toyota driver explained to FTW this week, the best way to succeed at this crazy race track is to stay near the front and hope for the best. He’s one of six drivers with one win at Talladega – which came back in 2014 – and he needs a third victory this season to lock himself into the Round of 8 in the playoffs.

Through 23 starts at the 2.66-mile track, he’s had plenty of ups and downs, but earlier this season, he qualified and finished 11th in the GEICO 500. If he can stay out of trouble, there’s a great chance he’ll be fighting for the stage wins as well as the checkered flag.

4. Joey Logano, 10-to-1 odds

If there is any driver out there who is long overdue for a win – a real win – it’s Logano. Disappointment is all over the No. 22 Ford driver’s face nowadays after missing the playoffs with his lone race win being encumbered.

But he’s ultra-competitive and enters the weekend with a Talladega streak he’d like to extend, winning this race in both 2015 and 2016. He also crashed and didn’t finish in the spring race, so he’ll likely be aggressive to make up for that.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 10-to-1 odds

You can’t ever discount Dale Jr. at Talladega – a track nicknamed Earnhardt Country. He followed in his father’s footsteps winning at the track, and his six victories are the most among active drivers and second to his dad’s 10 on the all-time list. He knows how to win at this track – he once took four consecutive checkered flags – and, as NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip told FTW, Junior has “a real knack for figuring out what to do and when to do it.”

Unfortunately, the No. 88 Chevrolet driver’s most recent win at the track was in 2015, and he came in 22nd in the GEICO 500 earlier this year. He’s also not in the playoffs. But Earnhardt is hungry and doesn’t want to retire at the end of the year without one last trip to Victory Lane. Of the six race tracks left on the schedule, Junior will never have better odds to win than this weekend.

2. Kyle Busch, 9-to-1 odds

This guy is having a stellar second half to his season and an impressive yet not unexpected playoff run. He already won two playoff races in the Round of 16, and his No. 18 Toyota – along with Truex’s No. 78 Toyota – is always among the cars to beat.

Although Busch finished third in the GEICO 500 earlier this season, he only has one win at Talladega on his resume, and that was back in 2008. But his car this season is exceptionally fast, and if he can stay away from chaos and wrecks, he’ll easily be able to maintain his speed through the stages and as those 188 laps wind down.

1. Brad Keselowski, 7-to-1 odds

This makes perfect sense. Among active drivers, Keselowski has the second-most wins at the 2.66-mile track with four – most recently in 2016 – along with 10 career top-10 finishes.

Also, even though Keselowski’s two 2017 wins seem wildly overshadowed by Truex’s six or Busch’s four, his No. 2 Ford has been consistently fast this year. He’s earned 12 top-5 finishes this season, and nearly 60 percent of the time, he’s been in the top-10 – including this year’s spring race where he came in seventh. Get in a strong qualifying round, and there’s a great chance Keselowski is looking at his seventh Talladega win and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs’ Round of 8.

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Talladega: NASCAR playoff drivers prepare for white-knuckle ride

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —    The return to a track drivers fear and fans love is here. That’s right, Talladega Superspeedway is the site of this Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race.

In a twist this year, the sanctioning body moved the track’s date up a week, taking it out of the second-round elimination slot. While all 12 drivers will have a chance to advance to the third round at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 22, many of their hopes may get dashed this weekend.

NASCAR’s largest circuit, at 2.66 miles, offers high-speed, breathtaking racing that sees the cars draft in clumps thanks to restrictor plates. When physics comes into play, the result can be white-knuckle wrecks and airborne cars.

How the playoff drivers have fared at Talladega, and what to watch for Sunday (Alabama 500, 2 p.m. ET, NBC):

PHOTOS: 2017 NASCAR PLAYOFF DRIVERS

1. Martin Truex Jr. (3,106 points)

Car: No. 78 Toyota

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Best Talladega finish: Fifth (fall 2006, spring 2015)

Notable: The points leader and title favorite is a definitive 0-for-25 at Talladega and 0-for-50 at restrictor-plate tracks. Fortunately for him, that doesn’t matter, because Truex can enjoy a Sunday drive after his win last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway secured his spot in the next round.

2. Kyle Larson (3,072)

Car: No. 42 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Talladega finish: Sixth (fall 2016)

Notable: Look for Larson to be in the lead pack in the closing laps and pushing for a win. He has a penchant for putting the squeeze on in plate racing, which can be good and bad.

3. Kevin Harvick (3,069)

Car: No. 4 Ford

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2010)

Notable: Two years ago, Harvick was at the center of controversy after his wreck on a green-white-checkered finish with his motor expiring froze the field and preserved his spot in the next round. After finishes of of 36th and 17th to wrap the first round this season, he got back on track last week with a third-place result. Look for him to be in the mix Sunday.

4. Chase Elliott (3,059)

Car: No. 24 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Talladega finish: Fifth (spring 2015)

Notable: His Hall of Fame father Bill scored two wins and 22 top-10s here. Chase is just 21, but already has shown a penchant for plate racing. In just three Cup races at Talladega, he has started first, fourth and eighth. If he can avoid trouble, he’ll score a top-10 finish. He’s been on the brink of his first career Cup win several times this season, and if he scores it here, he’ll bring the house down.

5. Denny Hamlin (3,056)

Car: No. 11 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2014)

Notable: Look for Hamlin and teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to work some draft magic behind that Toyota power.

6. Kyle Busch (3,055)

Car: No. 18 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2008)

Notable: While Busch dropped in the standings after his disastrous day at Charlotte, which ended with him needing medical attention for heat exhaustion after the race, he remains a strong contender for the crown with two wins in the first four playoff races. But Talladega has doomed his playoff hopes more often then he’d care to talk about.

7. Jimmie Johnson (3,051)

Car: No. 48 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2009, 2011)

Notable: He and crew chief Chad Knaus have proven they can work through almost any situation and score a great finish. Johnson, the reigning champion who is seeking a record eighth title, will take care of his equipment and drive a smart race. But what about those around him?

8. Jamie McMurray (3,044)

Car: No. 1 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (fall 2009, 2013)

Notable: McMurray has an average start of 9.5 and average finish of 13.0 this season. He’d probably be pretty happy with that Sunday.

9. Matt Kenseth (3,043)

Car: No. 20 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (fall 2012)

Notable: Kenseth hasn’t finished better than 23rd in his past five starts here. That’s no bueno. While the veteran watches his final season at JGR – and perhaps in the series – come to a close, it doesn’t seem as if he has the momentum to reach the next round.

10. Brad Keselowski (3,042)

Car: No. 2 Ford

Team: Team Penske

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2009, 2012, 2016; fall 2014)

Notable: He has more wins than any other playoff driver here. So, his confidence is high and that should carry some weight Sunday. But his title hopes ended here last year when his engine expired, sending him to a 38th-place finish.

11. Ryan Blaney (3,039)

Car: No. 21 Ford

Team: Wood Brothers Racing

Best Talladega finish: Fourth (spring 2015)

Notable: He has two top-10s in six starts at Talladega and has shown acumen early in his career at restrictor-plate racing. While Fords haven’t shown they have the power to match the Toyotas of Truex and the Gibbs drivers, plate racing could change the game. If Blaney can work with fellow Ford drivers, look for him to get a strong finish.

12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,034)

Car: No. 17 Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2017)

Notable: With two wins in three restrictor-plate races this year, Stenhouse finally has broken through and become a contender in his fifth full-time year. Expect another stellar performance from him to help propel him into the third round.

***

Follow Tucker on Twitter @HeatherR_Tucker

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