Kevin Harvick

NASCAR suspends crew chiefs for Keselowski and Harvick

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR suspended the crew chiefs for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick on Wednesday for violations at Phoenix Raceway.

Keselowski’s car failed post-race inspection on Sunday and NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races. Wolfe was also fined $65,000 and Team Penske was docked 35 driver and owner points.

Team Penske said it will not immediately appeal and Brian Wilson will fill in for Wolfe this weekend at California.

“The race cars returned to the race shop (Wednesday) and we are in the process of evaluating the area in question,” the team said.

Keselowski finished fifth at Phoenix. He already has a victory this season, so the points penalty does little to alter his playoff position. But the driver was an analyst on FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub when the penalties were announced, and felt the points deduction does matter.

“Last year, you got a win and you locked in and you got to the next round. This year with points, you still lock in with wins,” he said on the show. “The difference is there’s a huge points bonus for having the most points at the end of the season that carries all the way through the playoffs, and you only get that bonus if you’re one of the best cars and leading up front at the end of the regular season, which requires having a lot of points.

“Thirty-five points is a pretty big deal.”

He noted the team does not know why it failed inspection at Phoenix and the car had “all the same parts” that it has had through the first four races of the season.

“All those parts were good and they passed inspection pre- and post-race,” he said. “So, there’s a lot of questions for our team, like we don’t understand exactly what happened. We’ve still got to figure out what happened, and that’s probably the most concerning thing because we feel like we built a car that was legal.

“It passed pre-race inspection. We don’t want it to happen again.”

Harvick’s team was fined for an illegal track bar mount and supports. Crew chief Rodney Childers was suspended for one race and fined $25,000. The Stewart-Haas Racing team was docked 10 driver and 10 team owner points. Harvick is winless through the first month of the season.

Meanwhile, a three-member appeals panel Wednesday upheld the 35-point penalty to AJ Allmendinger, as well as the three-week suspension and $65,000 fine to crew chief Randall Burnett.

Burnett has already served two races of the suspension. JTG Daugherty Racing was penalized for having three or more loose or missing lug nuts after the NASCAR Cup race at Atlanta.

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NASCAR: Logano uses fast late lap to claim pole in Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Joey Logano capped a day in the spotlight with a fast late lap Friday to claim the pole for the NASCAR Camping World 500.

With the temperature in the low 90s and the sun beginning to set, Ryan Blaney qualified second to give Ford the top two spots to start Sunday’s race.

Logano and Blaney bumped Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet out of the top spot he had held through most of the final five-minute qualifying round on Friday.

The day began for Logano with a meeting with Kyle Busch and NASCAR officials about the crash and subsequent scuffle late in last Sunday’s race in Las Vegas.

Logano had the fastest lap through two rounds but the top 12 have to start from scratch and qualify in the third round. He won with a top speed of 137.321 mph on the Phoenix International Raceway track made slick by the heat.

Busch qualified ninth.

“There’s I guess a lot of distractions that we don’t typically have,” Logano said. “It’s just a matter of managing those distractions and keeping your head back in the right spot for when it’s game time.”

Drivers waited as late as possible in all three rounds to hope for slightly cooler weather to boost their speed.

But all were prepared for a long, hot day on Sunday, when the high is predicted to hit 96 degrees.

Bring it on, Logano said.

“I think racing in the heat of the day, when it’s hot out, is the best racing, and I think maybe the whole garage may agree,” he said. “When it’s hot, the track gets wide, it’s greasy, there’s a lot more passing, tires become more important because there’s more fall-off.”

Logano won his 18th career pole but first in 17 races in Phoenix. He won the Can-Am Sprint Cup Series race on the same track last Nov. 13, the next-to-last race of the season.

“I’m just glad we finally got a pole here,” Logano said. “I don’t know what our average starting position is, but I feel like it’s really good, but we’ve never really put the whole deal together in the last run.”

Blaney, 23, qualified in the No. 2 spot for the second week in a row.

Blaney’s Wood Brothers racing team works closely with the sophisticated operation of the Penske group, where Logano is a driver.

“That’s been a huge help and the Penske group has been very open to what we need,” Blaney said, “not only on the driver side with Brad (Keselowski) and Joey, but on the team side as well.”

Defending champion Kevin Harvick, an eight-time winner in Phoenix, had trouble and qualified 23rd. He is in the first season in a Ford after driving Chevrolets his entire career.

Three cars will have 15-minute practice holds on Saturday for rules infractions detected in Friday inspections. The drivers are Ty Dillon, David Ragan and Austin Dillon.

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The first face-to-face meeting between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano since last week’s post-race scuffle in Las Vegas is over.

Whether the drivers feel any better about things headed into Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway is an open question.

The two were summoned to a 15-minute session Friday with NASCAR officials as everyone involved tried to put the pit road brawl to bed. Busch attempted to turn the attention to this weekend’s racing at Phoenix, saying almost nothing as he emerged from the meeting. He answered every question by repeating, “Everything’s great.”

Logano initiated a phone conversation with Busch on Tuesday. He said after Friday’s meeting it was good to sit with his former teammate and explain the on-track incident at Las Vegas was “an honest mistake.”

Are the two OK?

“I guess time will tell. We’ll see,” Logano said. “I hope he’s able to see that and know that I was sincere about it but time will tell.”

The two were racing for position Sunday at Las Vegas and Busch spun because of Logano’s hard racing. Busch stormed down pit road and threw a punch at Logano before crews intervened. Team Penske was not penalized for tackling Busch to the ground, even though Busch sustained a gash to his forehead in the scrum.

Logano said he has tried to persuade Busch with evidence he says shows he didn’t cause the wreck intentionally on the final lap.

“I really just tried to explain that I made a mistake underneath him,” Logano said. “That’s basically what it was. He asked for some data. I was able to show him that. It was pretty clear in my opinion what happened so that’s that.”

NASCAR senior executive Steve O’Donnell was in the meeting.

“The beginning of it was really to let the drivers talk about what happened, which they did,” he said. “Then we were very clear about our expectations, what we expect going forward.”

“It’s an emotional sport,” O’Donnell said. “We still view that as true racing hard for position. If that escalates beyond to something intentional on the race track, we were very clear that we’ll react.”

Busch repeated his “everything’s great” comment to five separate questions, tagging on essentially the same words: “I’m really looking forward to getting back in my race car and being here in Phoenix.”

It was far different from what he said Sunday, when he was led away from the fracas by NASCAR officials as blood from his forehead trickled down his nose.

“I got dumped,” he said then. “He flat out just drove in the corner and wrecked me. That’s how Joey races so he’s going to get it.”

The Busch incident is the latest between Logano and his former Joe Gibbs Racing team.

The Busch vs. Logano subplot adds heat to what already promised to be a sweaty race, with temperatures expected to reach the mid-90s at the track carved into the desert hills southwest of downtown Phoenix.

Kyle Larson, a fast-rising young driver on the NASCAR circuit, was asked if he was surprised that NASCAR didn’t levy any punishment in the incident.

“Our new (title) sponsor, Monster, they’re an edgy brand,” Larson said. “I think what you saw last week was edgy. I don’t know, though. It’s just hard. They used to penalize people for that and now they don’t.”

Don’t expect the diminutive Larson to ever cause this kind of ruckus.

“Look how big I am? I can’t do that,” he said to a room full of laughter. “Joey’s got probably a two-feet longer reach on me, too. I’m not the fighting type. I don’t think I’ve ever been mad enough to want to punch anybody.”

The Logano-Busch meeting came minutes before the two took to the track for practice runs.

They climbed in their cars and gave every indication they will be in the thick of things on Sunday. Logano had the fourth-fastest car, Busch the sixth.

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus stick together to chase NASCAR history

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-  Jimmie Johnson is in a long-term relationship.

Yes, Johnson has often spoken of the support he’s received from wife Chandra, married since 2004.

But for all of his statistical accomplishments, including a record-tying seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships and 80 victories heading into Sunday’s Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, none is more impressive — or unimaginable — in a volatile sport/industry than this:

Since 2002, his first full season, Johnson has had the same team owner (Rick Hendrick), the same crew chief (Chad Knaus), the same sponsor (Lowe’s), the same car chief (Ron Malec) and the same automaker (Chevrolet).

Rules, tracks, competitors, car specifications, championship formats and countless other variables over 15-plus seasons have been changed more often than the Valvoline in Johnson’s engine. Remarkably, however, not Johnson’s key ties.

Especially that with Knaus, his friend/strategist/coach/confidant over NASCAR’s marathon 36-race Cup season, which demands thousands of communications and decisions between driver and crew chief and can be an intense, emotional roller-coaster. They are now a hyphenated entity — Johnson-Knaus — inextricably bound by their success together and as they chase NASCAR’s greatest historical touchstone, an eighth Cup championship.

“As our sport evolves, the only consistent (element) is our relationship,” said Knaus, trying to set a NASCAR crew chief championship benchmark of his own.

Johnson and Knaus admit to their share of spats, including several during a winless and struggling summer of 2016, which seemed to make a championship run unlikely. Hendrick, shockingly, conceded he wondered if the duo should split: “Is this (the) time? Do we need to make a change?”

But Johnson, after starting last, tied the title totals of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. with a victory in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“We’re definitely like brothers,” said Knaus, 45, whose ultra-competitive demeanor makes many regard him as the sport’s biggest workaholic. “The closer you get with your family, the more you can go through anything together. As much as we’ll fight and battle and argue from time to time, if somebody steps up and pulls him around, I’m going to sock the other guy in the nose.

“All I want to do is see him be successful. I think that’s probably the biggest reason why we’ve managed to stay together.”

jimmie-johnson-titles-021917

Johnson, 41, known for his calm public persona, says they’ve learned from the relationship of their former Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham. The landmark Gordon-Evernham combination won three Cups and 40 races in a four-year stretch but split before the end of the 1999 season.

“I’m loyal,” said Johnson, who has four Phoenix victories but only a best 11th-place result in three 2017 starts. “I’ve been accused of being loyal to a fault. The respect we have for one another has always been the glue.

“Chad and I look at what Ray and Jeff went through. We’ve had both of them tell us, ‘You can work through your problems. If we would have stayed together, who knows what we could have done?’”

Knaus, who married in 2015, describes some of his arguments with Johnson as “painful” and that “nothing is out of bounds.”

Now part of NASCAR lore is Hendrick’s late 2005 “milk and cookies” meeting with his driver and crew chief, which, perhaps, made the championships possible. The Johnson and Knaus egos were colliding in frustration after four seasons (2002-05) in which they won 18 races yet finished fifth-second-second-fifth in the point standings.

Hendrick called them into his office and said, “If you’re going to act like kids, we’re going to have some milk and cookies,” and there they were, on a table.

“I told them they were so close to success and they’d be fine if they’d just talk things out and get their problems out in the open . . . That broke the ice.”

The next year they won the first of an unprecedented five consecutive titles.

And about that eighth championship?

“Yes, I would love to do that,” said Knaus, who then tellingly added, “but I also would rather get nine.

“The way we operate is different. We don’t necessarily set goals and try to eclipse other people’s records. We set the goal to try to go make our own records. We want to win our next race. We want to be on pole for our next qualifying session. That’s how we approach life.”

Johnson said he’s “really been enjoying (title) seven,” and part of that has been spending time recently with his wife and two young daughters at their second home in Aspen, Colo., away from NASCAR’s Charlotte-area hub. “I’m trying to keep eight in a very fun and light-hearted place.

“In my younger days, I was very good at over-thinking things, and applying too much pressure on myself. The fact that I’m chasing this history, I’m not going to put extra pressure on myself to do it.”

Do it or not, it will be a Johnson-Knaus effort.

“I firmly believe,” Johnson said, “the relationship between driver and crew chief is where the magic lies.”

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Knight writes for the (Phoenix) Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network.

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. wins at Vegas, Kyle Busch bloodied in brawl

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. finished speaking to reporters after winning the NASCAR Cup race Sunday and retreated into a corner of the media center where a tablet awaited with the video cued up.

Truex had to see the Kyle Busch-Joey Logano brawl, too.

“I’m sure NASCAR is going to love that one,” Truex said.

Truex passed Brad Keselowski with two laps to go and avoided a last-lap wreck and ensuing fight that left Busch’s forehead bloodied in a wild finish.

An aggressive Joey Logano got into Busch as they raced for third, sending Busch spinning down pit road at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“It was nothing intentional,” Logano said. “But obviously he thinks that.”

As Truex headed toward victory circle, Busch walked down pit road, turned right and threw a right hook at Logano’s face. Logano’s crew members brought Busch to the ground as NASCAR officials yelled for them to stop.

When they were separated and Busch got to his feet, he had a bloody gash above his right eye.

“There wasn’t much talking, just a lot of swinging,” said Logano, who said he was unhurt. “I was racing hard there at end.”

Busch, who had recovered from a speeding penalty that left him a lap down to get into contention, was escorted to the infield care center and quickly released as the track buzzed.

“I got dumped. He flat out just drove straight in the corner and wrecked me,” Busch said. “That’s how Joey races, so he’s going to get it.”

The fight overshadowed a dominating day for Truex and a tough-luck finish for Keselowski, who appeared to be pulling away after a restart and on his way to his second win in as many weeks when he ran into mechanical problems.

“I just know it was something major,” he said. “It wouldn’t turn and I lost brakes.”

Truex passed him and held on to become the first driver to win all three segments in NASCAR Cup’s new stage racing.

Kyle Larson was second, followed by Chase Elliott, Logano and Keselowski.

Truex won the first two race stages and took re-took the lead with 39 laps to go after a lengthy cycle of green-flag pit stops. After a hard-charging Keselowski went in front, Danica Patrick blew an engine, bringing out a caution.

Keselowski, who started from the pole, just beat Truex out of pit road road after their four-tire stops. He chose the outside lane on the restart and shot ahead until his car slowed at the end of the 267-lap race.

That gave Toyota a win after Ford victories in the season’s first two races.

“I’ve been on the other side of those things plenty of times, so it definitely feels good to take advantage of somebody else’s issue for once,” Truex said.

Denny Hamlin was sixth, followed by Ryan Blaney, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer.

Jimmie Johnson was 11th, marking the first time since he became a full-time driver in 2002 that he has failed to have a top-10 finish in the first three races.

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th, Kevin Harvick’s hope of bouncing back from a disappointing finish at Atlanta lasted only 68 laps. He crashed hard into the wall when his right front tire exploded.

“It started vibrating four or five laps before it blew out,” Harvick said. “I was trying to ride it to the end of the stage.”

Harvick was credited with a 38th-place finish a week after leading 292 laps a week earlier only to be caught seeding on pit road. He surrendered the points lead to Keselowski.

The 1.5-mile track was slick with the temperature in the 80s in the desert. And it was a rough homecoming for Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch. Shortly after venting his frustration over the radio, he had to come in for a new battery with 66 laps to go and finished 30th.

NOW WHAT?: NASCAR will review the fight and issue any penalties in the coming week.

SPEEDING: Kyle Busch was one of three drivers to get caught speeding on pit road, with the pass-through penalty leaving him a lap down. Speeding has been a hot issue this season as NASCAR has gone to more precise timing lines.

LONG WAIT TIMES: Harvick was annoyed at how long it took the medical crew to get to his car and transport him to the infield care center. NASCAR for the first time this season is using a traveling set of doctors and paramedics in hopes of better consistency.

“I thought we made that better, but obviously we haven’t,” Harvick said.

TROUBLE: Patrick (rear gear change) had to start from the rear, fell a lap down in the first stage and ended up 36h after the dead engine. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 33rd in a backup car after an axle shaft poked out of wheel.

UP NEXT: The middle race of the Western swing is next Sunday on the mile track at Phoenix.

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NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Kobalt 400 Results

At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas

Lap length: 1.50 miles (Start position in parentheses)

1. (2) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 267 laps, 0 rating, 60 points.

2. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 52.

3. (12) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 47.

4. (6) Joey Logano, Ford, 267, 0, 39.

5. (1) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267, 0, 48.

6. (15) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267, 0, 31.

7. (3) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 267, 0, 43.

8. (10) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 37.

9. (4) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267, 0, 30.

10. (13) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 267, 0, 27.

11. (16) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 31.

12. (7) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 25.

13. (20) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267, 0, 24.

14. (30) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267, 0, 23.

15. (8) Erik Jones, Toyota, 267, 0, 22.

16. (18) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 26.

17. (21) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 22.

18. (26) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 19.

19. (14) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 18.

20. (11) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 267, 0, 17.

21. (24) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 267, 0, 16.

22. (9) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267, 0, 18.

23. (25) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 266, 0, 14.

24. (23) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 266, 0, 13.

25. (22) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 266, 0, 12.

26. (31) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 265, 0, 11.

27. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 264, 0, 10.

28. (33) Cole Whitt, Ford, 264, 0, 9.

29. (32) David Ragan, Ford, 264, 0, 8.

30. (17) Kurt Busch, Ford, 263, 0, 7.

31. (37) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 262, 0, 6.

32. (36) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 261, 0, 5.

33. (29) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 261, 0, 4.

34. (35) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 260, 0, 3.

35. (38) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 254, 0, 2.

36. (28) Danica Patrick, Ford, engine, 246, 0, 1.

37. (39) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, suspension, 135, 0, 0.

38. (19) Kevin Harvick, Ford, accident, 68, 0, 1.

39. (34) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, accident, 16, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 136.034 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 56 minutes, 39 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.495 seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 34 laps.

Lead Changes: 14 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders: B.Keselowski 1-19; M.Truex 20-24; B.Keselowski 25-70; J.Logano 71-75; M.Truex 76-124; B.Keselowski 125-126; T.Dillon 127-128; M.McDowell 129-130; M.Truex 131-153; J.Johnson 154-156; M.Truex 157-211; J.Johnson 212-227; M.Truex 228-243; B.Keselowski 244-265; M.Truex 266-267

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): M.Truex, 6 times for 144 laps; B.Keselowski, 4 times for 85 laps; J.Johnson, 2 times for 17 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 4 laps; T.Dillon, 1 time for 1 lap; M.McDowell, 1 time for 1 lap.

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

Top 16 in Points: 1. B.Keselowski, 132; 2. K.Larson, 131; 3. C.Elliott, 129; 4. M.Truex, 127; 5. J.Logano, 119; 6. R.Blaney, 106; 7. Ku.Busch, 93; 8. K.Harvick, 91; 9. K.Kahne, 88; 10. J.McMurray, 86; 11. T.Bayne, 82; 12. C.Bowyer, 73; 13. M.Kenseth, 71; 14. A.Almirola, 70; 15. D.Hamlin, 68; 16. P.Menard, 62.

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NASCAR Driver Rating Formula

A maximum of 150 points can be attained in a race.

The formula combines the following categories: Wins, Finishes, Top-15 Finishes, Average Running Position While on Lead Lap, Average Speed Under Green, Fastest Lap, Led Most Laps, Lead-Lap Finish.

NASCAR: Keselowski on pole for NASCAR Las Vegas stop, Truex Jr. 2nd

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Brad Keselowski will begin his bid for a third victory in the past four NASCAR Cup races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway from the pole after topping qualifying Friday night.

Keselowski, who also won last week’s race at Atlanta, made up ground in the final two turns and posted a top seed of 193.68 mph in his No. 2 Ford for his 13th career pole. He won at the 1.5-mile track last year and in 2014.

“We found some things we really liked here about three or four years ago and we’ve been able to kind of roll with that,” Keselowski said.

Martin Truex Jr., who was the fastest in the midday practice, will join him on the front row Sunday in the 400-mile race thanks to a speed of 193.458 mph in his No. 78 Toyota.

“We were really strong in practice and thought it would pick up quite a bit of speed tonight and it really didn’t,” Truex said. “So that threw us for a little bit of a curve and kind of hurt our setup. But it was a good recovery. We made a lot of changes throughout qualifying and got better at the end.”

Ryan Blaney will start third in his Ford, and Matt Kenseth qualified fourth on his 45th birthday.

Kyle Larson was fifth, followed by Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne, rookie Erik Jones, Las Vegas native Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray.

Daniel Suarez will start 11th and Chase Elliott 12th.

Keselowski believes the new stage racing format this season has boosted qualifying’s importance in the race weekend. The first segment Sunday ends on the 45th lap.

“Now it matters more than ever because it gives you a prime opportunity to win that first stage and collect those points both for the season and for the playoffs,” Keselowski said.

Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch failed to get out of the second qualifying round and will start 17th. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and series points leader Kevin Harvick struggled and will being 19th.

Clint Bowyer (13th) just missed getting into the last round. Defending series champion Jimmie Johnson will start 16th and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. 18th.

Kyle Busch was the fastest in the first qualifying round and Danica Patrick (28th) was among those outside the top 25 who failed to advance. AJ Allmendinger knocked out his teammate Chris Buescher by posting a faster lap seconds before the 20-minute session ended

“I thought AJ and I were better friends than that,” joked Buescher, who will start 25th.

With only 39 cars entered, open drivers Corey LaJoie (34th), Derrike Cope (38th) and Timmy Hill (39th) all made the field.

*****

FULL LINEUP: Kobalt 400

1. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 193.68 mph.
2. (78) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 193.458.
3. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 193.41.
4. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 193.389.
5. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 193.161.
6. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 193.029.
7. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 193.133.
8. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 192.369.
9. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 192.362.
10. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 192.362.
11. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 191.966.
12. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 191.042.
13. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 192.623.
14. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 192.431.
15. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 192.356.
16. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 192.267.
17. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 192.089.
18. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 192.068.
19. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 191.7.
20. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 191.544.
21. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 191.523.
22. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 191.029.
23. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 190.638.
24. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 188.864.
25. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 190.57.
26. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 190.402.
27. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 190.208.
28. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 189.954.
29. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 189.553.
30. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 189.401.
31. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 187.813.
32. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 186.716.
33. (72) Cole Whitt, Ford, 185.752.
34. (83) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 185.554.
35. (23) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 185.008.
36. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 182.624.
37. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 180.301.
38. (55) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 177.468.
39. (51) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 174.876.

NASCAR: Drivers who could get a boost at Las Vegas

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Las Vegas race could shake up NASCAR schedule

A vote expected to happen in Las Vegas Wednesday could have a dramatic impact on future NASCAR schedules.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board of directors is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss and possibly vote on a sponsorship proposal that could result in Las Vegas Motor Speedway adding a second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race to its schedule.

If the proposed $2.5 million sponsorship deal is approved and parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. puts a second race in Las Vegas, it’s likely that the race would fall within the September-November playoff run. The current Las Vegas race on the schedule typically is run in March (this year on March 12), and the weather extremes of Vegas summers would make a mid-year date there practically impossible.

Although it’s possible that talks could result in a scrambling of the schedule involving several tracks, it seems likely that SMI, which operates eight Cup facilities, would move one of its fall dates to Las Vegas. On the current schedule, SMI tracks in Loudon, N.H. Charlotte and Fort Worth host fall events.

It’s never easy to predict what SMI kingpin Bruton Smith might do in any given situation, but it seems unlikely that he would move a race from SMI’s flagship facility in Charlotte to Las Vegas. That leaves New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where attendance has suffered in recent years and where Smith has not been able to add lighting, in the crosshairs.

SMI also operates tracks in Bristol, Tenn.; Sparta, Ky.; Sonoma, Calif., and Hampton, Ga. Bristol Motor Speedway hosts two Cup races, while Kentucky Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway have one each. Including the May All-Star race, Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts three Cup events; New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway have two apiece.

There are obvious reasons to add another date in Las Vegas. While all NASCAR tracks, including Las Vegas Motor Speedway, have seen attendance decline in the past decade, LVMS has maintained relatively good crowd totals.

The Las Vegas track clearly benefits from the fact that the city is one of the world’s top tourist destinations. NASCAR fans get a race, along with access to world-class entertainment and an array of hotel/casinos that stretches the imagination. According to the tourism office proposal, last year’s Las Vegas NASCAR weekend attracted 96,400 visitors and produced an economic impact of $139 million.

Adding a playoff race in Las Vegas would put more punch and sparkle into NASCAR’s 10-race run to the championship, the winner of which has been celebrated in recent years at the post-season awards banquet along the Vegas strip. On the flip side, however, a Vegas playoff race would add another 1.5-mile track to the championship lineup. The 10-race playoff schedule already includes five 1.5-mile facilities.

Although each of the tracks has its own somewhat distinctive layout, fans often deride the 1.5-milers as “cookie-cutter,” and there has been significant fan interest in adding a second short track (to join Martinsville Speedway) or a road course to the playoff lineup.

NASCAR has taken steps to improve the level of its competition, particularly at the intermediate-size tracks, where racing has been more parade-like than fierce in recent seasons.

Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, another 1.5-mile track, was run under new lower-downforce rules, but there was no extended competition at the front of the pack in a race in which Kevin Harvick led 292 of the 325 laps. Brad Keselowski won when Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road late in the race.

NASCAR needs some rivalries to spice up the action

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rivalries are the lifeblood of sports, and NASCAR sorely needs a few to spice up the action.

The discourse among drivers has been tame for several years, in part because wives and children have seemed to mellow the competitors. They live inches away from each other in the same motorhome lot every weekend, share the playground, the basketball court and the gym.

It’s kind of hard to slide a side eye at someone you share a neighborhood with 38 weekends a year.

So there was much delight Sunday night when DeLana Harvick, wife of known agitator Kevin Harvick, took a swipe on social media at Austin Dillon. Mrs. Harvick was upset that Dillon seemed to lose power in the waning laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where his decision to stay on the track caused a race-altering caution.

Because Dillon didn’t pull off, NASCAR brought out the yellow flag and the field headed to pit road for a final stop. Harvick, who had the win in control prior to Dillon’s action , was flagged for speeding on pit road and the penalty cost him a victory.

Harvick had led 292 of the 325 laps — the most ever for a driver at Atlanta who did not win the race — and he finished ninth.

His wife used an expletive on Twitter to express her displeasure with Dillon, and many fans rejoiced because it was the most exciting thing to come out of the second race of the season.

Harvick didn’t point the finger at Dillon. After all, it’s hard to cast blame on someone when you were the one caught speeding. But that entire sequence and the volley from DeLana Harvick were the best parts of an otherwise uninspiring race.

Perhaps something else would have changed the course of the event in the final minutes, but without that caution, Harvick drives to an easy win. Instead, Brad Keselowski proved his team can overcome adversity by coming back from a pit road error to take the checkered flag.

Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott again showed they will contend for victories many times this season. Atlanta officials conceded that overwhelming driver pressure has them reconsidering a planned repave to the track, and Ford with its beefed up lineup has gone 2-for-2 to start the Cup season.

Those are your highlights, folks.

NASCAR no longer wants to see fisticuffs from its drivers, who also have sponsors that prefer they be family-friendly brand ambassadors. But everything is built around excitement, and NASCAR needs more of it, immediately.

LARSON LOSES

Chip Ganassi has taken the “I like winners” slogan to new heights with his social media use of the tag when talking anything from politics to team performance. The owner must be getting a little anxious about star driver Kyle Larson.

Larson finished second to Keselowski on Sunday after choosing to run the slower high line at Atlanta while leading the race in the final moments. Keselowski got by Larson on the bottom, and Larson has now been passed for the lead late in a race in the last three Cup races dating to the November season finale.

The season-opener at Daytona wasn’t his fault because Larson ran out of gas. But Larson could be accused of either overthinking or being too nice. Either way, he’s got just one win in his Cup career and that’s not enough for the victory-charged Ganassi.

BUILT FORD TOUGH

Ford wasn’t kidding when it said it wanted improved performance from its Cup program. The manufacturer signed Stewart-Haas Racing for this season and parlayed it into a Daytona 500 victory with Kurt Busch.

The race Sunday at Atlanta was going to SHR driver Kevin Harvick until his late speeding penalty, so the win went instead to Ford driver Brad Keselowski of Team Penske. Ford, which won a total of eight Cup races last season, has two wins in two races this year.

“They said they were going to bring on Stewart-Haas, and we said ‘That’s great,’ because we really get some teammates, we’ve got benchmark,” said team owner Roger Penske. “For Ford, it’s terrific that we kick off the season certainly with Kurt’s win last week and the win this week for us.”

VIVA LAS VEGAS

Leading into race day, much of the talk at Atlanta was about a potential second Cup race going to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s board of directors scheduled a special meeting Wednesday to discuss a race sponsorship agreement with the track. The deal would be for $2.5 million a year for seven years with the option of extending the deal three years.

Current Cup tracks are in the second year of five-year sanctioning agreements with NASCAR, but Speedway Motorsports Inc. can cut any deal it wants to move a race. It could move an event from its current collection of tracks, or could try to deal with a property outside of its portfolio.

SMI owns Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Kentucky, Texas, New Hampshire and Sonoma. International Speedway Corp. owns 12 tracks that host Cup races, while Dover, Pocono and Indianapolis are separately owned.

Las Vegas has hosted one Cup race a year since 1998, but SMI CEO Marcus Smith didn’t shy away from a potential addition.

“When we see that the community is supportive of racing there, it’s definitely encouraging to us,” he said.

That could be a shot at North Carolina leaders who have not given the Smith family the financial support it desires for its Charlotte properties, and the Smiths aren’t thrilled with similar setbacks in New Hampshire.

NASCAR has said only that the 2018 schedule is a work in progress.

“We are constantly working with promoters to discuss and develop NASCAR schedules,” said Jim Cassidy, senior vice president of racing operations.

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

NASCAR: Keselowski steals Atlanta win after Harvick caught speeding

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

Too fast, it turned out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, it was another bitter disappointment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson wound up a lap down in 18th place.

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

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

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

Now, another frustrating day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He finished 27 laps down in 36th.

harvick-atlanta-v3

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SUNDAY’S RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 140.900 mph.

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

Margin of Victory: 0.564 seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 32 laps.

Lead Changes: 9 among 5 drivers.

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

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

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

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

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NASCAR: Kurt Busch steals monster victory by winning Daytona 500

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

It was Monster Madness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EARNHART’S HIT

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

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

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

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

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FORD’S BIG WIN:

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

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

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

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

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ELLIOTT’S HEARTBREAK:

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

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

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

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WALTRIP’S FINALE

Michael Waltrip ended his racing career exactly how he hoped.

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

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

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

daytona-500-with-2017-winner

 

DAYTONA 500 RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 142.891 mph.

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

Margin of Victory: 0.228 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 40 laps.

Lead Changes: 37 among 18 drivers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorenson was not pleased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other things we learned from the opening of Speedweeks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its debut was a monster dud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Hendrick

Born: July 12, 1949

Age: 67

Hometown: Palmer Springs, Va.

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

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

Richard Childress

Born: Sept. 21, 1945

Age: 71

Hometown: Winston-Salem, N.C.

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

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

Mark Martin

Born: Jan. 9, 1959

Age: 58

Hometown: Batesville, Ark.

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

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

Benny Parsons

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

Hometown: Wilkes County, N.C.

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

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

Raymond Parks

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

Hometown: Dawsonville, Ga.

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

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

How the Chase was won: Looking back at NASCAR champions

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)     —-   As NASCAR prepares to crown its last Sprint Cup champion – the sport will have a new title sponsor starting next season – USA TODAY Sports looks back on how the 12 previous champions in the Chase earned their titles.

The sport’s playoff began in 2004. Last year, Kyle Busch won the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his first championship in NASCAR’s premier series.

The Chase was designed to bring more interest and intensity to the back-end of the season. NASCAR chairman Brian France doubled-down on that sentiment in 2014 with a complete redesign that was formulated to put a premium on wins.

The current format expanded the field to 16 drivers and divided the 10-race Chase into four rounds, with three races apiece in each of the first three rounds. In the third race of every round four drivers were eliminated, leaving four drivers to contend for the championship at Homestead-Miami.

 

A look at all the Chase championships:

2004

Champion: Kurt Busch

Pre-Chase rank: Seventh (two wins)

Chase rank: Seventh, 30 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

PHOTOS: Kurt Busch through the years

How the Chase was won: Busch won the first ever Chase race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to kick off his championship campaign. He went on to finish sixth or better in seven of the next nine races to hold off Jimmie Johnson by eight points, despite the fact that Johnson won four Chase races to Busch’s one.

2005

Champion: Tony Stewart

Pre-Chase rank: First (five wins)

Chase rank: First

PHOTOS: Tony Stewart through the years

How the Chase was won: Even though all of his victories occurred before the start of the Chase, Stewart was still able to earn his second Cup championship in four years. Propelled by runner-up finishes at New Hampshire, Talladega and Martinsville, “Smoke” staved off Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards for the title.

2006

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Second (four wins)

Chase rank: Second, five points behind leader Matt Kenseth

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson got off to a relatively poor start in the first four races, then turned it on at the halfway point, scoring one win and four second-place finishes in the final six races to pull away from runner-up Matt Kenseth.

2007

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Sixth (six wins)

Chase rank: First

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson continued his dominance of the 2007 season, earning another four victories in the Chase — in consecutive races — to wrap up his second Cup championship early in arguably his best season.

2008

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Third (four wins)

Chase rank: Third, 40 points behind leader Kyle Busch

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: A win in the penultimate race at Phoenix clinched Johnson’s third championship in a row. Johnson also won at Kansas and Martinsville to help him build a substantial lead in the standings.

2009

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Third (three wins)

Chase rank: Tied for second, 10 points behind leader Mark Martin

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson didn’t even need his win at Phoenix to clinch title No. 4. Earlier wins at Dover, Fontana and Charlotte helped Johnson build up a huge points lead, and when the final race concluded, Johnson ended the season with a 141-point gap over second-place Mark Martin.

2010

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Seventh (five wins)

Chase rank: Second, 10 points behind leader Denny Hamlin

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: Denny Hamlin gave Johnson a run for his money, but in the end, four-time became five-time. Johnson scored just one Chase win at Dover, but it was enough to score his unprecedented fifth consecutive championship.

tony-stewart-career-111316-v2

2011

Champion: Tony Stewart

Pre-Chase rank: 10th (no wins)

Chase rank: Ninth, 12 points behind leader Kevin Harvick

PHOTOS: Tony Stewart through the years

How the Chase was won: Stewart won the closest championship in Sprint Cup history in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards. “Smoke,” who said he didn’t even deserve to be in the Chase, went on a tear, winning five races, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That final win allowed him to tie Edwards at 2,403 points and earn the tiebreaker by virtue of more wins: five to one.

2012

Champion: Brad Keselowski

Pre-Chase rank: Sixth (three wins)

Chase rank: Third, three points behind leader Denny Hamlin

PHOTOS: Brad Keselowski through the years

How the Chase was won: Johnson was on his way to a sixth championship until a poor finish in the penultimate race at Phoenix. That left the door open for Keselowski, who earned wins at Chicagoland and Dover, to score his first career title.

2013

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: First (four wins)

Chase rank: Second, three points behind leader Matt Kenseth

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

How the Chase was won: After Kenseth jumped out to an early lead — winning the first two races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire — Johnson roared back with a victory in the third race (Dover) and eighth race (Texas) to take a slim seven-points lead on Kenseth into the penultimate race at Phoenix. And that’s where the title fight was essentially decided; Johnson finished third, Kenseth struggled with a 23rd-place finish, and Johnson took a 28-point lead to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

2014

Champion: Kevin Harvick

Pre-Chase rank: Eighth (two wins)

Chase rank: Sixth, six points behind leader Brad Keselowski

PHOTOS: Kevin Harvick through the years

How the Chase was won: Harvick won the season finale at Homestead-Miami, giving him the title in the revised Chase format at 38. He beat fellow Chase contender Ryan Newman by one point — Newman finished second in the race. Denny Hamlin was seventh and Joey Logano 16th. Harvick also won the fifth race of the 10-race Chase at Charlotte Motor Speedway before earning a must-win victory in the penultimate race at Phoenix International Speedway to send him to the championship race.

2015

Champion: Kyle Busch

Pre-Chase rank: 27th

Chase rank: First (tied with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, who also had four regular-season wins)

PHOTOS: Kyle Busch through the years

How the Chase was won: Busch missed the first 11 races of the season while recovering from a broken leg and foot suffered in a crash during the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway. His comeback was something out of a storybook, with four wins in five races including three in a row. He also won his first Brickyard 400. But Busch needed to win the season finale at Homestead-Miami to give him his first Cup title. The 30-year-old held off defending champion Harvick by 1.6 seconds, beating him by one point. Fellow title contenders Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. were sixth and 12th, respectively.

NASCAR: Chase isn’t always fair, that doesn’t make it bad

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When William Byron’s engine exploded less than 10 laps away from his seventh win of the season, his chance to race for the Truck Series championship blew up in a puff of white smoke.

It was one of those bad breaks that happen every week at every level in auto racing. But when it happens to the most dominant driver in a series and ruins his title aspirations, it ignites a debate about the fairness — flaws, maybe? — of the elimination-style playoffs NASCAR now uses in all three of its series.

Brad Keselowski was particularly upset about Byron’s misfortune, even though Keselowski fields rival trucks. He described himself as “mad and disappointed” for Byron, and said the elimination format has effectively “traded excellence for entertainment.”

Keselowski learned how harsh the system can be in 2014, its debut year at the Sprint Cup level. He won six races that year, but one bad day at Martinsville led to his elimination from the playoffs after the third round. Keselowski had been worthy of a spot in the finale, but he didn’t earn one of the slots.

Same goes Jeff Gordon that first year. He won four times in 2014 and should have raced for the title. Like Keselowski, he was bounced out of the third round.

Joey Logano should have made the finale last year but didn’t. Same goes for Matt Kenseth, who was two laps away from victory Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway until a caution created a series of events that caused him to crash. He was all but assured of a slot in this weekend’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway one moment, last in the Chase standings the next.

There have been arguments about the Chase since it was first introduced in 2004. Fans felt it was contrived and that the traditional season-long point champion was the truest way to decide a title. The format has been tinkered with several times since, but its most radical adjustments came three years ago when NASCAR implemented eliminations. That format this year was brought to both the Xfinity Series and Truck Series for the first time.

Every sport has upsets and underdogs. Every sport has a Cinderella story every now and then that drums up interest. NASCAR very much needed that element when it introduced the Chase, and chairman Brian France has long trumpeted the desire to have his sport in a position to create “Game 7 moments.”

The entire country talked for days about the seventh game of the World Series and the Chicago Cubs’ dramatic victory. Any leader in their right mind would want that same nail-biting tension for their sport. They want to see crushing defeats, career-defining victories, magical moments.

So no matter what longtime fans believe, France did the absolute right thing in creating the Chase. Yes, people claim they stopped watching NASCAR because of the Chase. They blame Brian France for turning to gimmicks over tradition, claim the Chase has ruined the sport they once loved.

Well, those people are clinging to a past that is never coming back. NASCAR has plenty of problems and NASCAR does many things incorrectly, but the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is not one of them.

The Chase in its first year had five drivers eligible to win the title. It pitted teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson against each other in one of the fiercest championship battles in NASCAR history. The Chase in 2011 produced a magnificent finale in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the championship tied with Stewart getting the trophy on a tiebreaker.

The elimination element has raised the pressure and forced drivers to answer the call when the season is on the line. Kevin Harvick twice won must-win races in 2014 on his way to the title, Joey Logano has done it twice this year alone, including Sunday when his victory put him in the finale.

It is absolutely true that the final four drivers will not always represent the most deserving teams. Byron learned that the hard way in the Truck Series’ inaugural Chase. The most dominant teams don’t always deliver when the pressure is at its highest; although Harvick had performed time and again when his back was against the wall, Stewart-Haas Racing couldn’t come up with the dominating performance it needed Sunday for him to advance.

That’s called sports, and there’s nothing contrived about it.

It’s not always fair, but sports are the greatest reality programming out there. Anything can happen — and did to Kenseth at Phoenix! — and that’s why we watch.

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NASCAR: Logano wins Phoenix as he and Kyle Busch complete final 4

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Matt Kenseth’s misfortune gave Joey Logano a chance to race for the championship.

In an improbable turn of events, Kenseth came within two laps of a spot in next week in the title-deciding finale to eliminated from NASCAR’s playoffs. Logano was gifted a victory Sunday that put him in the final four after a tense double-overtime event at Phoenix International Raceway.

Kenseth had the win in hand until a late caution sent the race to extra laps. Although he cleared traffic on the restart, his teammate Kyle Busch had contact with Alex Bowman that altered Bowman’s racing line.

Kenseth’s spotter told the driver he was clear, but he actually cut down on Bowman and the contact caused him to crash.

Logano saw the sequence unfolding, let off his gas early, and slid into the lead after the accident. He then held off Busch in the second overtime for the win that qualified him for the championship next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Prior to Kenseth’s accident, Logano was in danger of elimination.

“I’m like ‘Oh, shoot, we’re out,’ and it was going to be so close there at the end to try to get ourselves through, and next thing you know the caution comes out and the whole game changes,” Logano said. “We find ourselves as the leader and we win the race. That’s NASCAR racing at its finest.”

Logano won the race — the second time in this Chase he used a victory in an elimination race to advance — and will race for his first Sprint Cup title next Sunday. He’ll be trying to give Roger Penske a season sweep during its 50th anniversary season. Simon Pagenaud won the IndyCar title in September.

“I’ve never felt this good about a win before,” Logano said. “There was so much on the line and everyone brings their A-game when it comes to winning championships and this team did it.

“I feel like I just won the Daytona 500 again.”

Busch finished second and earned a chance to defend last year’s title. He’ll meet Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who is seeking a record-tying seventh championship, in Homestead.

JGR, which was trying to get all four of its Toyotas into the final , wound up with only two and Busch wasn’t feeling celebratory. He believed his contact with Bowman triggered the accident that wrecked Kenseth’s season.

“It’s really unfortunate and devastating to have the race come down like that,” Busch said. “That’s so frustrating and aggravating, and I feel horrible.”

Eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday were Kevin Harvick, an eight-time winner at Phoenix who had raced in the last two finales, as well as his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Gibbs drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin were also knocked out of the field.

“Disappointing would be the way to put it lightly,” Kenseth said. “Finish that race five minutes before that, looked like we had a chance to go race for a championship. It was a big swing in 10 or 15 minutes.”

Hamlin finished seventh after a bizarre decision not to pit with the rest of the field for track position. Although it gave him a brief lead, he was no match for drivers with fresh tires.

“I knew it was going to be an uphill climb,” Hamlin said.

PIT ROAD PENALTIES: NASCAR picked Sunday to enforce a rule against passing the pace car when a driver dips onto pit road for a stop. Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were both penalized for the infraction, and the punishment was holding the car for a lap on pit road.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were incredulous.

“I don’t understand that in the least little bit,” Johnson said on his radio. “This is absolutely ridiculous, NASCAR. I have no clue what I did wrong.”

Johnson said he’ll ask for clarification this week.

“In 15 years, that has never been a concern, and I was always told that the last thing NASCAR wanted to do would be to penalize the leader,” Johnson said. “I am still baffled, and I don’t know if I will stop being baffled.”

BOWMAN OUT FRONT: Alex Bowman badly wants a job for next year, and his continued strong pace as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is giving him a solid case to present to prospective employers.

Bowman had led just nine laps in his first 79 career Sprint Cup races. Six of those laps were earlier this year driving Earnhardt’s Chevrolet. A pole-winning run for Sunday’s race helped Bowman lead a race-high 194 laps and was attempting to win the race before the late accident. He faded to sixth, and felt bad about his incident with Kenseth.

“I hate it for Matt. I would have raced the hell out of him for the win, but definitely don’t want to do that,” Bowman said. “Hate that, and it ruined our day, too. So it’s unfortunate.”

UP NEXT: The season finale at Homestead, where the championship will be decided. Harvick won the race in 2014 to win his championship, and Kyle Busch won last year to claim the title.

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Can-Am 500

Sunday’s results from the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (4) Joey Logano, Ford, 324 laps, 44 points.

2. (19) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 324, 39.

3. (2) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 324, 38.

4. (6) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 324, 37.

5. (12) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 324, 36.

6. (1) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 324, 0.

7. (5) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 324, 35.

8. (8) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 324, 33.

9. (3) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 324, 32.

10. (20) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 324, 31.

11. (9) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 324, 30.

12. (15) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 324, 29.

13. (13) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 324, 28.

14. (14) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 324, 27.

15. (25) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 324, 26.

16. (24) Greg Biffle, Ford, 324, 25.

17. (18) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 324, 24.

18. (22) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 324, 23.

19. (11) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 324, 22.

20. (28) Landon Cassill, Ford, 324, 21.

21. (10) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 324, 21.

22. (27) Aric Almirola, Ford, 322, 19.

23. (21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 322, 18.

24. (34) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 322, 17.

25. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 322, 16.

26. (36) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 321, 15.

27. (29) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 321, 14.

28. (23) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 321, 13.

29. (16) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 3212.

30. (33) Brian Scott, Ford, 319, 11.

31. (31) David Ragan, Toyota, 319, 10.

32. (30) Chris Buescher, Ford, 318, 9.

33. (35) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ford, 318, 8.

34. (26) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 318, 7.

35. (39) D.J. Kennington, Chevrolet, 316, 0.

36. (38) Reed Sorenson, Ford, 315, 5.

37. (37) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, fuelpump, 296, 4.

38. (17) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 296, 4.

39. (7) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 289, 2.

40. (40) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, accident, 258, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 102.865 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 22 minutes, 25 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.500 seconds.

Caution Flags: 9 for 53 laps.

Lead Changes: 8 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: A.Bowman 1-92; J.Logano 93-119; J.Johnson 120-132; A.Bowman 133; J.Logano 134-156; A.Bowman 157-257; D.Hamlin 258-261; M.Kenseth 262-316; J.Logano 317-324

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): A.Bowman, 3 times for 191 laps; J.Logano, 3 times for 55 laps; M.Kenseth, 1 time for 54 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 12 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 3 laps.

Wins: Ky.Busch, 4; K.Harvick, 4; J.Johnson, 4; B.Keselowski, 4; M.Truex, 4; C.Edwards, 3; D.Hamlin, 3; M.Kenseth, 2; J.Logano, 2; C.Buescher, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; K.Larson, 1; T.Stewart, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. J.Logano, 5000; 2. J.Johnson, 5000; 3. C.Edwards, 5000; 4. Ky.Busch, 5000; 5. M.Kenseth, 2296; 6. D.Hamlin, 2288; 7. Ku.Busch, 2268; 8. M.Truex, 2266; 9. B.Keselowski, 2261; 10. C.Elliott, 2255; 11. K.Harvick, 2250; 12. K.Larson, 2247; 13. J.McMurray, 2195; 14. A.Dillon, 2194; 15. T.Stewart, 2192; 16. C.Buescher, 2152.

NASCAR: Kyle Busch wins Xfinity race as inaugural Chase field is set

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kyle Busch won for the 10th time in the Xfinity Series this season with a victory at Phoenix International Raceway on the night NASCAR’s second-tier series’ set its inaugural championship field.

The final four for next weekend’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be a battle between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joe Gibbs.

Both car owners got two drivers each into the championship field the first year NASCAR rolled out the Chase for its lower two national series. The Chase uses the same elimination format as the Sprint Cup Series, and eight drivers were competing for the final four slots on Saturday night.

Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, both driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, got in. JR Motorsports qualified Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler.

But, after the race, Sadler’s car was being inspected by NASCAR for an apparent loose lug nut on his car. It’s unclear if Sadler could face a points penalty that would knock him out of the championship field.

“I think we might have a loose lug. They’ll look at it. But, hey, we did what we had to do,” Sadler said.

Sadler, a longtime NASCAR veteran, is seeking his first title at the national level and has his best chance this year in this winner-take-all format.

“We’re pumped about it, we really put all our eggs in one basket, and that’s that Homestead car,” he said.

Allgaier had to stretch a drying gas tank over the closing laps to claim his spot and keep Blake Koch out of the field. Koch was keeping an eye post-race on Sadler’s situation, but immediately apologized for an earlier incident with Darrell Wallace Jr. that knocked Wallace out of title contention.

Busch, meanwhile, is racing Sunday for a spot in Cup’s final four. New rules will make him ineligible to race in any Chase races in a lower series next year, so this was his last victory in the fall race at Phoenix.

Busch noted he’d learned something about the tires by running the Xfinity race, and he planned to confer with his Cup team to get better prepared for Sunday’s main event. The reigning Sprint Cup champion had the fastest car in Saturday’s final practice.

“We got a lot better, I feel like we’re at least in the ballpark,” Busch said of Sunday. “We’ve got a top-five race car and we’ll go from there.”

Brendan Gaughan’s championship chances ended when he wrecked with 63 laps remaining. He was in a must-win situation and came to Phoenix last in the eight-driver standings.

Wallace, who was seventh in the standings, was wrecked when Koch ran into Wallace’s lane to cause the accident. Wallace was mourning his grandmother, who died earlier this week, and had trouble controlling his emotions after.

“My grandmother was giving me the ride of my life,” said Wallace, nearly sobbing. “That was the most fun I have had all year. Just circumstances took us out.”

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kevin Harvick has been backed into a corner before in NASCAR’s elimination-style playoffs. Put Harvick in a must-win situation, and he’s proven repeatedly he can deliver.

So here he is, again, at Phoenix International Raceway in need of a victory to continue his bid for a second Sprint Cup championship. If he is stressed, you can’t tell. Harvick sat relaxed on the wall along pit road with the cavalier attitude of a driver who isn’t at all worried about winning Sunday. He’ll start sixth in the field.

“We just have to control the things that we can control, try and put ourselves in position to where we usually do and see where it all falls,” Harvick said. “What I like about it is the sense of the unknown, the competition, the effort, the thought and everything that goes into that is intriguing for me.

“From a team standpoint, to see where everybody is at and how they approach it, is fun to me and I like to see people performing and working at that level.”

Harvick has been in this position before at Phoenix, in 2014 when the elimination format debuted. He deserved to be in the championship race but had to win at Phoenix to qualify.

He did win — he routed the field, actually — then won again the next week to claim his first career Cup title. He’s also been in must-win situations in earlier rounds of the Chase.

Harvick has a stellar record at Phoenix, where he’s an eight-time Cup winner. He’s won five of his last six visits to this desert race track — four since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 — and his only defeat was last November, when he led 143 laps but wound up second in a rain-shortened race.

That defeat, by Mother Nature, has Harvick confident the odds of winning over and over again won’t turn against him Sunday.

“You know, we dominated the end of that race and wound up losing it to rain,” he said. “They are a lot easier to lose than they are to win.”

Although he joked that his success at Phoenix was born after a trip to Disney World: “I have magic … I found this magic wand, and I wave it here,” he finds it “silly” that so many people assume he’s an automatic winner Sunday.

Only the statistics back up the predictions of a Harvick win at Phoenix. He’s won six of the last eight races and has barely been contested. Harvick has led an astounding 1,016 laps in that span and has generally forced drivers to believe they are racing for second before they even arrive at the track.

The only driver Harvick believes is in the same league as he is at Phoenix is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sidelined with a concussion and hasn’t raced since July.

That’s not a slight on his competition, and he knows he’s racing five other drivers Sunday for one of two slots in next weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Of the five Chase contenders in this third round of the playoffs, only Joey Logano has never won at Phoenix.

But only Kurt Busch, Harvick’s teammate at Stewart-Haas, is in the same precarious position. Both of them need to win on Sunday to advance, and if neither gets to victory lane, SHR will not have a car in the finale. And, because of the current points situation, it’s virtually impossible for both SHR drivers to advance.

The rest of the field — Logano, and Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin — are separated by just two points in the standings. As far as Harvick is concerned, the entire Chase field is racing with the same goal on Sunday.

“Everybody is in the same position that we are,” Harvick said. “If somebody (in the Chase) wins, there is only going to be one points guy that goes through, so you need to pretend like you’re in a must-win situation.”

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick locked in for another Phoenix win

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It’s almost always a sucker bet to pick one driver against the field in NASCAR. No matter how good a driver is, no matter his track record or his team’s history, NASCAR is so unpredictable that it’s often a losing proposition to choose one over 39.

But Kevin Harvick at Phoenix International Raceway? That’s as close to a lock as it gets. Add in the element of Harvick being in a must-win position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a situation in which he’s undefeated, and it seems outright foolish to bet against him.

If only it were that easy, though. Even Harvick — the winner of six of the last eight Phoenix races and eight overall — knows anything can happen.

In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver pointed to last year’s Phoenix Chase race as evidence. Harvick was dominating the race but lost when a caution in the middle of pit stops saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. get out front, then hang on when a rare rainstorm shortened the race.

“It doesn’t take any more than that,” Harvick said. “Your race can go south with rain in the desert, it can go south on a restart, you can have a problem of any kind. I wish it was that easy to win.”

The thing is, that sort of fluke scenario might be the only way to stop him. A California native, Harvick has been racing in various events at Phoenix since 1995. He was successful through the years, and when the track was reconfigured in 2011, it seemed to only heighten his talent there.

Yes, the track is different than when he was coming up through the ranks. But the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion said many of the same elements still apply to making a successful lap, and he closes his eyes at different points in the year to visualize Phoenix — when to brake entering the corner, when to turn in, when to get back on the gas.

He loves it, he gets pumped for it and his team provides him with the equipment that matches his capability.

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“It’s in a fortunate spot for us on the schedule,” he said. “This (third) round is really funny for us. I’ve never won at Texas. Martinsville hasn’t been my best track. Then we go to Phoenix, and two of the last three years we’ve been in this (must-win) situation. I wouldn’t want to pick anywhere else to put ourselves in that position.”

It’s not just this round where Harvick has been in a must-win situation (Harvick is 18 points behind the four-driver cutoff entering Sunday’s race). He doesn’t know why it keeps happening this way and acknowledges it would be easier if he didn’t have to win each round, but it’s clear he thrives off the pressure.

He’s come through in situations where he needed to win at Phoenix (2014), Homestead-Miami Speedway (2014) and Dover International Speedway (2015), then won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this year after a bad finish at the Chicagoland Speedway Chase opener and won at Kansas Speedway to erase an engine failure the previous week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which opened the second round.

Harvick is doing it the hard way, but he’s still doing it. He’s never been eliminated from this version of the Chase.

“You could say, ‘Oh, it always happens to them and they always come out on the other side,’” he said. “But I think we’re fortunate we have a good race team and fast cars to put ourselves in position to overcome those things. I think that’s where other people have fallen short.

“It also wouldn’t be as rewarding if it was that easy. Anything you’re going to achieve that has a huge prize at the end of it is going to be hard to get to.”

So now here comes Harvick again, heading to his best track in a must-win situation and openly embracing the pressure. He called it “fun” that everyone is talking about him and everyone is “stirred up.”

The more that happens, the more his team tightens its ranks and focuses on pulling off improbable feats.

“It really is you against the world,” Harvick said. “It’s either survive for yourself, or somebody else is going to take what you want.”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR driver Brian Scott plans to retire after next week’s season finale to spend more time with his family.

Scott is 28 and has been racing at NASCAR’s national level since 2007. He has two young children.

Albertsons Companies, Scott’s longtime sponsor, said it would terminate its NASCAR program after the season. However, Richard Petty Motorsports plans to field the No. 44 that Scott drove with a new sponsor and another driver.

Scott posted a statement about his decision on several social media platforms and explained the Sprint Cup schedule “has taken its toll” and caused him “to re-evaluate what I want in life for myself and for my family.”

Scott raced in the Truck Series through 2009, the Xfinity Series from 2010 until 2015 and joined RPM in the Cup Series this season.

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin ready for the playoff pressure at Phoenix

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It has not been an easy march through NASCAR’s playoffs for Denny Hamlin, who once again must race his way into the next round.

Hamlin was on his own at Talladega Superspeedway, a track that requires help from other drivers to be successful. Hamlin’s teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing had too much to lose that day and rode around in the back of the pack. He needed a strong finish, and had to figure it out alone.

Now he again goes into an elimination race with the pressure on to pull off a big finish. Carl Edwards is the only JGR driver who already has earned a berth in the championship race, and Hamlin is competing with teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch for a spot in the final four.

All three of the JGR drivers are within two points of each other in Chase standings. Busch is tied with Team Penske’s Joey Logano for the lead, with Kenseth one point behind them and Hamlin two behind. Hamlin finished third at Phoenix earlier this year.

“Phoenix was a good track for us in the spring,” Hamlin said. “I look to go back there and have another great run and go out there and try to win. That’s what we’re going to do. Any time I’ve been below (the cut line) in an elimination race, I’ve found a way to get in (to the next round).

“I like our chances. It’s a pressure race and I like pressure.”

CREW CHIEF FINED

Team Penske crew chief Todd Gordon has been fined $10,000 because a lug nut was not properly installed on Joey Logano’s car at Texas.

The penalty was the only monetary fine issued by NASCAR on Wednesday. But, five drivers were docked 15 minutes of practice time for inspection issues at Texas.

Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. all failed the pre-qualifying template inspection three times. AJ Allmendinger failed the laser inspection three times before qualifying. All will miss practice time Friday at Phoenix.

DIBENEDETTO CLEARED

Matt DiBenedetto was cleared to race at Phoenix International Raceway after NASCAR held him out of one event because of a possible concussion.

DiBenedetto missed last Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he was involved in a crash during the Xfinity Series race one day earlier. Jeffrey Earnhardt replaced DiBenedetto for BK Racing and finished 34th.

It was the first Cup race DiBenedetto had not started since early in the 2015 season.

DiBenedetto had said Sunday morning at Texas he felt fine and able to race, but said he had to respect the decision by NASCAR’s doctors.

“They decided they wanted to err on the side of caution, which I understand,” he said. “They’re doing their job.”

DEJORIA-CONCUSSION

Alexis DeJoria has a concussion that will sideline the Funny Car driver from this weekend’s NHRA Finals in Pomona, California.

DeJoria suffered the concussion in a crash during qualifying at the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas, where her head hit the roll cage after the impact. She’ll be replaced this weekend by Jeff Arend. DeJoria is not cleared to race, or even fly in a plane.

“I underwent a series of cognitive tests and the doctors diagnosed me with a full-blown concussion that required me to step away from the seat for the time being,” she said. “It takes two weeks for these symptoms to subside and even then, because of the trauma from the concussion, it would be unsafe for me to race this weekend.”

DeJoria missed two races earlier this season with a fractured pelvis.

MERCEDES-IMSA

Mercedes-Benz USA will race next season in IMSA’s SportsCar Championship as Riley Motorsports will race two Mercedes-AMG GT3 cars in the GT Daytona class. One of the team’s cars will run as AMG-Team Riley Motorsports, and the other as WeatherTech Racing.

The No. 33 AMG-Team Riley Motorsports entry will be co-driven by Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen, and the No. 50 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 will be shared by co-drivers Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette. MacNeil and Jeannette got their first seat time in the car in a late September test at Germany’s Hockenheim circuit.

Other cars announced for the new-look IMSA GT Daytona class next year include the Acura NSX GT3 and the Lexus RC F GT3.

NASCAR: If Harvick wins Phoenix, there’s only 1 spot left in Chase

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Only an amateur would fill out a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship bracket and not mark Kevin Harvick down for a win at Phoenix.

Harvick has proven he’s just about unbeatable in the desert, and when his playoff chances are on the line, he’s delivered time and again. Harvick has won six of the last nine races at Phoenix, finished second in two of his losses and is guaranteed to show up this weekend with a car capable of demoralizing the field.

Assuming it will take nothing short of a freak incident to keep Harvick out of victory lane, there’s essentially only one spot in the finale up for grabs Sunday.

Problem is, there are five drivers jockeying for that last spot.

And only two points separate three of those drivers in the standings.

To say there will be some brokenhearted teams on Sunday is an understatement. This year’s version of the Chase has been anticlimactic, sometimes even boring, but this bottleneck in the standings is something to behold.

Reigning series champion Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are tied in the standings. Busch teammate Matt Kenseth is just one point back, and Denny Hamlin sits two points out.

Only one of them is making it to the final four Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway if Harvick wins, and the chances of Joe Gibbs Racing getting multiple cars into the championship took a hit on Sunday. The team dominated the regular season and had 50 percent of the drivers in this round of eight.

Once a threat to get all four cars into the finale, JGR is only guaranteed to be represented by Carl Edwards, who used a fast pit stop to win a rain-shortened race Sunday night at Texas. It was the least optimal outcome for JGR in terms of getting multiple cars into the finale.

Edwards, you see, was last in the playoff standings and that miracle win gave him an automatic berth. Although the rules show two spots still remaining and three JGR drivers hovering at the top of the standings, the threat of a Harvick win at Phoenix has burst JGR’s hopes.

So here’s the situation:

HARVICK FOR THE WIN: He’s an eight-time winner at Phoenix and has absolutely owned the place since the track was reconfigured in 2011. He’s also in a situation that Harvick handles quite well — he pretty much has to win or won’t make it to the finale for a third straight year.

Harvick is known as a macho driver brimming with confidence, and he didn’t seem concerned about his positioning headed into Phoenix. His warning? He’ll just go to Phoenix and do what he always does there.

JGR: The team had hoped to sweep the finale but can’t because Jimmie Johnson earned one of the spots with a win at Martinsville. Best case scenario is that the team gets two more cars into the final, but that will certainly come with hard internal feelings.

Busch, Kenseth and Hamlin will likely all be racing for themselves on Sunday and teamwork will be an afterthought.

It wouldn’t be a shock if JGR doesn’t get even one more car into the finale because anything can happen on Sunday.

LOGANO: He won at Talladega in the last round to stave off elimination, and he doesn’t need to win at Phoenix to make it to Homestead. He’s essentially racing the Gibbs cars and trying to finish higher than the three Toyotas so he can snatch a spot on points.

It’ll be a tough battle, but Logano likes sticking it to the team that let him go three years ago.

KURT BUSCH: He’s an afterthought right now after iffy performances in the last two races have him ranked last in the standings. He most certainly has to win at Phoenix to advance, and it’s a good track for Busch. He has four consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix and could pull off a miracle.

Should he get the win, it will come at the expense of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick. Based on the standings, they both can’t make the final four.

NASCAR: Edwards wins rain-shortened Texas race for Chase finale spot

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Carl Edwards got some vindication with a rain-shortened victory to earn a championship-contending spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup finale.

A year after his shot at the title came up five points short because of a rain-shortened race, Edwards got the victory he desperately needed this season by winning at Texas in a race cut by 41 laps because of rain after the start was delayed nearly six hours Sunday.

“This is huge. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. That’s all we said was needed, just a shot,” Edwards said. “Now we’re going to go to Homestead, we’re going to do what we need to do. This was a great test. We came here and did what we needed to do, we performed, and I really believe we can do that at Homestead.”

Edwards entered the second-to-last race before the Nov. 20 season finale eighth in points among the drivers still eligible for the championship.

With his fourth career win at Texas, Edwards joined points leader Jimmie Johnson as drivers locked into the championship-contending spots in Homestead. Edwards is seventh in points, but like Johnson advanced by winning.

Joey Logano finished second at Texas and is second in season points, with Kyle Busch third. Matt Kenseth is fourth, ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, with Kurt Busch eighth. If one of those six drivers doesn’t win at Phoenix, the final two championship spots would be determined by points.

Last year’s race at Phoenix was delayed nearly seven hours as a series of storms passed through the area, and then once it started under the lights was called after 218 laps. Edwards finished fifth, leaving him five points out of the final spot for the Chase finale.

“This rain was a lot more welcome than that rain,” Edwards said. “That was frustrating.”

Edwards’ three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates — Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Kenseth — are among the six other drivers still in contention this season, and clearly not all of them can advance.

Light rain had already been falling at Texas, and plenty more was on the radar around the track, when the caution came out with 45 laps remaining of the originally scheduled 334-lap race.

All the cars were brought to pit road four laps later, and it was only a few more minutes before NASCAR declared the race over and official after 293 laps. It could have taken two hours or more to dry to track.

Edwards had taken the lead on lap 258 after beating Martin Truex Jr. off pit road, and led the rest of the way.

“The last pit stop, we had a little bit of an issue,” Truex said, without elaborating. “I guess all in all, happy with third.”

It was Edwards’ first win at Texas in eight years. He swept the two Cup races at the track in 2008, the season he had nine wins overall and finished second in season points. Three years later, Edwards was the season runner-up again even though he matched Tony Stewart for the most points. Stewart won the championship on a tiebreaker (his five wins to Edwards’ one).

Logano led a race-high 178 laps. Truex finished third and Chase Elliott fourth.

“When you’re that close to winning and you lead the most laps, second stings,” Logano said. “But ultimately we did gain some points. We’re in right now. We were out going into this race.”

Harvick got his track-record eighth win at Phoenix in March, and has won six of the last eight races there.

“We’ve done it I don’t know how many times,” Harvick said. “We’ll just go there and do what we always do and race as hard as we can.”

Some other things from Texas:

DRIVE FOR FIVE SHORT: Johnson had won the previous four fall races at Texas, but finished 11th after starting 19th.

TRAILING AFTER GREEN: Polesitter Austin Dillon led only the race’s first six laps, but didn’t lead a green-flag lap. He was passed by Logano for the lead on lap 7, the first lap after the green flag.

BIG BOBBLEHEAD: The first 30,000 fans were given Tony Stewart bobbleheads commemorating the retiring Sprint Cup driver’s final race at Texas. During driver introductions, track president Eddie Gossage presented Stewart with his own bobblehead — a life-sized replica with an oversized head.

HELD OUT: Matt DiBenedetto wasn’t allowed to drive because of NASCAR’s concussion protocol. He was involved in a hard crash in the Xfinity Series race Saturday, and wasn’t cleared by doctors to drive in the Cup race even though he said he felt “perfect” on Sunday.

LOUD POP: A tire specialist for Richard Childress Racing was treated and released from the infield care center after a tire just taken off Paul Menard’s car popped while being checked behind the wall.

UP NEXT: An elimination race Sunday at Phoenix. Assuming Harvick wins again, the playoff picture is realistically five drivers racing for the final slot in the finale.

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AAA Texas 500

Sunday’s results at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (9) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 293 laps, 0 rating, 44 points.

2. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 293, 0, 41.

3. (12) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 293, 0, 39.

4. (11) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 38.

5. (24) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 293, 0, 37.

6. (3) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 35.

7. (7) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 293, 0, 34.

8. (31) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 33.

9. (17) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 293, 0, 33.

10. (18) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 31.

11. (19) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 30.

12. (8) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 293, 0, 29.

13. (16) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 0.

14. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 293, 0, 27.

15. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 26.

16. (20) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 293, 0, 25.

17. (14) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 293, 0, 24.

18. (25) Greg Biffle, Ford, 292, 0, 23.

19. (15) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 292, 0, 22.

20. (10) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 292, 0, 21.

21. (30) Chris Buescher, Ford, 292, 0, 20.

22. (21) Aric Almirola, Ford, 292, 0, 19.

23. (28) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 18.

24. (22) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 17.

25. (27) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 16.

26. (32) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 291, 0, 15.

27. (29) Brian Scott, Ford, 291, 0, 14.

28. (6) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 290, 0, 13.

29. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 290, 0, 12.

30. (26) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 289, 0, 11.

31. (23) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 288, 0, 10.

32. (37) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 287, 0, 9.

33. (36) David Ragan, Toyota, 287, 0, 9.

34. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota, 285, 0, 7.

35. (38) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 285, 0, 6.

36. (39) Joey Gase, Ford, 280, 0, 0.

37. (1) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 262, 0, 5.

38. (35) Ryan Ellis, Toyota, 261, 0, 0.

39. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, accident, 260, 0, 2.

40. (40) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, electrical, 257, 0, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 137.274 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 16 minutes.

Margin of Victory: seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 37 laps.

Lead Changes: 12 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders: A.Dillon 1-5; J.Logano 6-30; D.Ragan 31; J.Logano 32-74; A.Dillon 75; D.Hamlin 76; Ky.Busch 77-78; J.Logano 79-188; M.Truex 189-222; C.Elliott 223-224; M.Truex 225-256; C.Elliott 257; C.Edwards 258-293

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): J.Logano, 3 times for 175 laps; M.Truex, 2 times for 64 laps; C.Edwards, 1 time for 35 laps; A.Dillon, 2 times for 4 laps; C.Elliott, 2 times for 1 lap; Ky.Busch, 1 time for 1 lap; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 0 laps; D.Ragan, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: Ky.Busch, 4; K.Harvick, 4; J.Johnson, 4; B.Keselowski, 4; M.Truex, 4; C.Edwards, 3; D.Hamlin, 3; M.Kenseth, 2; J.Logano, 2; C.Buescher, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; K.Larson, 1; T.Stewart, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. J.Johnson, 4074; 2. J.Logano, 4074; 3. Ky.Busch, 4074; 4. M.Kenseth, 4073; 5. D.Hamlin, 4072; 6. K.Harvick, 4056; 7. C.Edwards, 4049; 8. Ku.Busch, 4040; 9. M.Truex, 2265; 10. B.Keselowski, 2234; 11. C.Elliott, 2223; 12. K.Larson, 2209; 13. A.Dillon, 2192; 14. T.Stewart, 2166; 15. J.McMurray, 2165; 16. C.Buescher, 866.

NASCAR: Larson wins Xfinity in Texas, 4 title-chasing spots open

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FORT WORTH (AP) — With all four spots in the chase for the Xfinity series championship open going into the final elimination race, Erik Jones won’t need a season-best fifth victory to advance.

And he probably won’t be racing for it either, with the focus shifting to points at the top of the standings after Sprint Cup regular Kyle Larson won the Xfinity race at Texas on Saturday.

Jones was tops among the eight Xfinity drivers still in title contention, finishing fourth behind Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. The 20-year-old is third in points, 10 behind Daniel Suarez, who has a one-point lead over Elliott Sadler.

Because none of the Xfinity contenders won, all four spots are open next weekend in Phoenix. For the finale at Homestead, no Cup drivers will be on the grid with the title on the line.

“The toughest part of our chase is racing the Cup guys,” Jones said. “Had there been no Cup guys in the race, we would have won today and advanced. Yeah, we’re still going to chase a win (in Phoenix). You’ve still got to be points racing and thinking about advancing at the same time.”

Larson held off Keselowski for his first Xfinity win in Texas and second of the season despite a brush with the wall with about five laps remaining. He said he should have won the fall Xfinity race in Texas a year ago, but cut a tire late in the race.

“I looked up in the mirror and I was like, ‘Ah, great, here he comes. He’s probably going to have a big run,’” Larson said about Keselowski, who closed within a couple of car lengths on the final lap. “Actually, after that, I thought it tightened my car up and made it easier to drive up there.”

Larson led for the final 30 laps after Keselowski dominated most the race, leading 145.

Suarez finished fifth despite a battery problem that had him worried about finishing the race. A bad alternator forced him to cut power less than halfway through, and he said he managed to keep his main battery alive until about final 40 laps.

“We were a little lucky that we had the issue right in the middle of the race,” Suarez said. “Maybe 20, 30 more laps and who knows if we were going to finish the race or not.”

While Suarez and Sadler are separated by a point at the top, the same is true for the final qualifying spot, barring a win from those with a bigger deficit.

Blake Koch finished 14th — seventh among the eight title contenders — and is fourth in points and 16 behind Suarez. Justin Allgaier, who finished 10th after spinning out 72 laps into the race, is another point back.

Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Brendan Gaughan are all at least five points out of the final qualifying spot. But any of the eight can get into the final four with a win in Phoenix.

“At that point it is your whole season,” Reed said. “There is nothing left to lose there. You aren’t points racing at that per se. You have to go beat those guys by five positions.”

_____

O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge

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

1. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200.

2. (1) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 200.

3. (9) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 200.

4. (2) Erik Jones, Toyota, 200.

5. (4) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 200.

6. (8) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 200.

7. (7) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.

8. (10) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 200.

9. (3) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 200.

10. (6) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 200.

11. (18) Darrell Wallace Jr, Ford, 200.

12. (13) Ryan Reed, Ford, 200.

13. (14) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 200.

14. (12) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 200.

15. (16) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 200.

16. (17) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.

17. (20) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 200.

18. (21) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 199.

19. (11) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 199.

20. (19) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 199.

21. (15) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 198.

22. (25) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 197.

23. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 196.

24. (26) David Starr, Chevrolet, 196.

25. (27) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 196.

26. (30) Clint King, Ford, 196.

27. (24) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, 194.

28. (28) BJ McLeod, Ford, 193.

29. (29) Austin Theriault, Chevrolet, 192.

30. (35) Martin Roy, Chevrolet, 190.

31. (34) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 190.

32. (36) Mike Harmon, Dodge, 185.

33. (38) Ryan Ellis, Chevrolet, 185.

34. (40) Matt Waltz, Chevrolet, 184.

35. (37) Brandon Hightower, Dodge, Engine, 130.

36. (22) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, Accident, 129.

37. (32) Dexter Stacey, Chevrolet, Handling, 80.

38. (39) Timmy Hill, Toyota, Suspension, 24.

39. (33) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, Handling, 19.

40. (31) Jeff Green, Toyota, Brakes, 1.

———

Average Speed of Race Winner: 140.992 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 7 minutes, 40 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.385 seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 22 laps.

Lead Changes: 5 among 4 drivers.

Lap Leaders: B. Keselowski 0; E. Jones 1-23; B. Keselowski 24-48; B. Poole 49-50; B. Keselowski 51-170; K. Larson 171-200.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): B. Keselowski 2 times for 145 laps; K. Larson 1 time for 30 laps; E. Jones 1 time for 23 laps; B. Poole 1 time for 2 laps.

Top 10 in Points: D. Suarez – 3,075; E. Sadler – 3,074; E. Jones – 3,065; B. Koch – 3,059; J. Allgaier – 3,058; R. Reed – 3,054; D. Wallace Jr – 3,039; B. Gaughan – 3,036; B. Poole – 2,148; T. Dillon – 2,139

NASCAR: Out of Chase, Dillon on pole for Sprint Cup race in Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Austin Dillon is on the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas two weeks after a heartbreaking finish knocked him out of the championship chase.

“We missed the Chase by just 2 feet. We want to prove that we can win a race by the end of this year,” Dillon said.

Dillon had a fast lap of 192.301 mph in the final round of qualifying Friday to earn his third career pole.

Joey Logano qualified second, and will be the highest starter Sunday in the AAA Texas 500 of the eight drivers still eligible for the season championship. His best lap in the final session was 192.269 mph.

The other Chase contenders to qualify in the top 10 were Kevin Harvick (third), Matt Kenseth (seventh), Carl Edwards (ninth) and Kurt Busch (10th). Denny Hamlin starts 17th.

Jimmie Johnson is the only driver locked into one of the four spots for title-deciding race at Homestead in two weeks. He has also won the last four fall races at 1 1/2-mile, high-banked Texas track, but qualified 19th on Friday.

Defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch had the second-fastest time in the first round of qualifying while in a backup car after wrecking on the first lap of practice earlier in the day. But he will start 24th, the lowest of the Chase contenders, after never taking the lap for the second round of qualifying because of a water leak on pit road.

Adam Stevens, crew chief for the No. 18, said the issue was an aftereffect of the earlier wreck with a radiator hose not getting properly clamped down after an engine switch.

When Hamlin had a frantic ending to finish third at Talladega to end the second round of the playoffs, he tied Dillon for the eighth in season points. Hamlin had the tiebreaker to get the final spot in the round of eight.

Dillon said just being in the Chase this season helped the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team.

“I felt like together as a team, our team is very strong. We’ve just been missing here and there,” he said. “It is going to be good to have another year with this group of guys to see what we can do next year.”

Logano, who is currently fifth in points, qualified on the front row for the second consecutive weekend. It is also the second race in a row at Texas he will start second — he finished third in the April race.

“We are mad about second and that is when you know your team is in a good spot,” Logano said. “We are starting close to the front. That is just too many seconds. Second always stings and we were second here in the spring and here we are again and last week as well.”

______

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Johnny Sauter is still alone in qualifying for the title-deciding race in the first Chase in the NASCAR Truck Series.

Sauter won his second consecutive playoff race Friday night with a late pass of Chase contender Matt Crafton, getting a victory at Texas that prevented anyone else from clinching a spot to contend for the championship in the finale at Homestead in two weeks.

“This is amazing,” Sauter said after climbing out of the No. 21 Chevrolet in Victory Lane. “I feel very lucky to be here. … Matt was content to keep running the bottom, so I’m going to the top.”

Just before reaching the line with two laps remaining, Sauter went high and passed Crafton for the lead.

There were only three yellow flags in the 147-lap race, each after the caution clock had expired. Crafton took the lead after the final restart.

But just like at Texas in June, Crafton got passed on the high side late and finished second. Rookie driver William Byron, another Chase contender, beat him five months ago after his winning pass with five laps remaining.

“It is what it is,” Crafton said. “I’m not worried about the Chase. I’m worried about winning races. The Chase will take care of itself.”

It was Sauter’s third win this season. He won the opener at Daytona and last week at Martinsville to earn the first of four spots available for a chance to win the inaugural Chase championship for trucks.

With only next week’s race at Phoenix before the finale at Homestead, there are still three spots up for grab.

The next four drivers after Sauter in the points — Bryon, Christopher Bell, Crafton and Timothy Peters — are separated by only five points. Ben Kennedy is the sixth driver still in Chase contention.

If Sauter or a non-Chase contender win at Phoenix, the final three spots would be determined by points.

Polesitter Spencer Gallagher, who led three times for 88 laps, was in front with the final caution came out. But he dropped six spots on pit race and restarted seventh on the restart with 18 laps to go, when Sauter and Crafton got out front.

The only 15 laps Sauter led were those right after the final caution. Sauter led twice for only six laps.

“I was able to throw caution to the wind,” Sauter said.

Sauter did offer one apology after the race. That was to the fans for not doing a customary extended burnout on the frontstretch of the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked track.

“I know that was lame,” he said. “I’ve got to have this truck for Homestead.”

This Chase lacks drama, emotion. And that’s a problem for NASCAR.

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Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect year for the Ryan Newman-Kyle Larson incident at Phoenix International Raceway. The year was 2014. 

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The first two years of the Chase for the Sprint Cup 2.0 format – the elimination-style tournament with a one-race championship – was filled with memorable moments, drama, tempers and entertainment.

This year’s version? So far, not so much.

The Chase has been a disappointment compared to the first two editions, mainly because not much has really happened. The traditionally exciting races at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway failed to deliver on their reputations, and there hasn’t been a great race among the other five so far, either.

There’s still time, of course, starting this week at Texas Motor Speedway. The final elimination race at Phoenix International Speedway should then be high drama, and the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway – by design – should be a thriller.

What’s missing to this point? Well, in a format that revolves around eliminations, the cuts have been relatively clean.

Three drivers – Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray – have been eliminated because their engines failed. When that happens, there’s no highlight reel replay; it’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “We’ll get ‘em next year.” The same could be said for how Kyle Larson departed the Chase, with an electrical problem and blown tire.

Three more  – Chase Elliott, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher – were cut because they had two bad races and put themselves in must-win situations for the elimination events. And when that didn’t happen, there was no one to be mad at but themselves.

The one driver whose elimination had some drama was Austin Dillon. He was cut when Denny Hamlin edged Kurt Busch for third place at Talladega. But even that was hard to follow in the moment, because of the way the pack races on a superspeedway. In other words, it wasn’t Ryan Newman putting Larson into the wall in a desperate act to get that one point he needed at Phoenix in 2014.

Fans seem to have noticed that a format specifically created for more entertainment value hasn’t provided it this season. TV ratings have been down double-digit percentages almost every week when compared to last year’s Chase races, continuing a slump in that area. There are a variety of factors in that, but one certainly has to be the lack of compelling storylines.

Jimmie Johnson will race for his record-tying seventh championship at Homestead, which will be a major headline there. But NASCAR needs more, and many of the stars who would drive interest are not in the playoff.

Stewart already is eliminated in his final season, Jeff Gordon is retired and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is done for the season with a concussion. Keselowski would have been a lightning rod and mixed things up, but he’s out – as is Truex, whose story of overcoming adversity could have been a feel-good moment had he won the title. Young drivers like Larson and Elliott didn’t make the final eight, either.

So NASCAR is left to hope the remaining drivers can create a spark at Texas and Phoenix, revitalizing a playoff and reminding everyone how enjoyable this format can be to watch.

But there’s a growing possibility that might not happen, because drivers have figured out the best way to make it through the playoff is to avoid bad finishes. They don’t want any rivalries or drama, because that only hampers their chances. Consistency – also known as points racing – still is the best way to go.

If that remains the case, NASCAR will have to take a serious look at whether the Chase is working as intended.

NASCAR: Sprint Cup story lines to watch at Texas

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-   Jimmie Johnson already has secured a billet in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship after winning Sunday at Martinsville.

Now he returns to Texas Motor Speedway, where he has won the fall race four consecutive years.

Will this be another momentum-building exercise as he attempts to win a record-tying seventh championship, or a chance for one of the other seven title-eligibles to earn a pass to the final at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

Three story lines to watch on Sunday:

But first, more Jimmie Johnson

A winner of five of the last eight races on the 1.5-mile Texas oval, the Hendrick Motorsports driver can frenzy the pursuit of the final three Homestead spots by continuing his domineering ways outside Fort Worth.

Having advanced to the third round of this Chase iteration — unbelievably — for the first time since its inception in 2014, the six-time champion looks very much like a title favorite despite his reluctance to accept the designation.

Either way, he has two races for he and crew chief Chad Knaus to hone before the final on the last 1.5-miler of the season, at Homestead.

Creative tension

Fast cars and a dwindling number of races made for inevitable conflict among Joe Gibbs Racing drivers at Martinsville.

Defending series champion Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth each expressed some degree of displeasure with the tactics of teammate Denny Hamlin as they failed in attempting to intercept Johnson in the late stages of the race. No one was going to catch Johnson anyway, Hamlin said after the race.

After winning 11 of 26 regular-season races, the Toyota standard-bearer now faces the vision of the metaphorical roulette ball as it reveals the holders of the scant few slots left in the championship.

It could be worse for JGR, as Hamlin, Kenseth and Busch control points positions two through four. The fourth member of the team, Carl Edwards, sustained a tire failure Sunday that relegated him to a 36th-place finish. He is last of the remaining eight Chase drivers in the points (32 behind Kyle Busch, who currently holds the fourth and final transfer slot).

Expect the quips to become more barbed as those Gibbs drivers continue to contest the same valuable spaces.

Oh, no, Kevin Harvick is in trouble again

There will come a time, crew chief Rodney Childers said after their Chase win at Kansas, that Harvick will fail to produce in a potentially terminal postseason spot. Their streak of advancing through each elimination will end.

And yet again, after the first race of a round, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet is submerged in the standings, sixth (16 points behind Busch) after a sluggish 20th-place finish at Martinsville. Harvick has won six of eight at Phoenix, so Texas could be undersold as an afterthought.

But Childers is right, of course. Just as Harvick’s Chase run eventually will end, even if they take another great car to the desert, the Phoenix dominance — or at least the victory lane visits — are going to end, too. So here’s thinking that a points bounty at Texas really matters for Harvick this time.

And that’s not a terrible prospect either. In his last four, Harvick has two second-place finishes, a third and a 10th this spring.

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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