Kevin Harvick

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NASCAR: Larson’s whirlwind weekend turned into quite a success

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BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — Kyle Larson drove in a prestigious sprint car event in Iowa on Saturday, then made it back to Michigan in time to win Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.

So the question team owner Chip Ganassi faced in the news conference afterward wasn’t all that outlandish: Could the Indianapolis 500 be a possibility in the future?

“See what you do to me?” Ganassi said to Larson.

Larson’s plan for last weekend was a bold one, and it required some leeway from his owner, but the victory at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday was all the validation he needed. His weekend itinerary was the type of adventurous effort that can help a talented young driver build his fan base, and that’s something Ganassi seemed to understand.

And when he won the most important race of the weekend, the 25-year-old Larson may have earned a little more latitude for the future.

“Indy 500 is definitely on my bucket list,” Larson said. “I don’t know if it is right now at this moment, but for sure some day I’d like to, and Chip knows that.”

Larson has four career Cup victories, and his rise comes at a time when NASCAR could use as many popular, young drivers as possible. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is following Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart into retirement, and recent champions Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are in their 40s.

Stewart had a reputation for extending himself well beyond the basic NASCAR Cup schedule. In 2001, he ran both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, completing all 1,100 miles at Indy and Charlotte.

Kurt Busch tried that “Double” in 2014 and made it through over 900 miles before engine failure ended his bid.

Ganassi seemed to realize what this past weekend’s whirlwind could do for Larson’s popularity, and he publicly urged the sprint car fans to tune in for the NASCAR race Sunday. He said Sunday’s manageable start time — around 3 p.m. in Michigan — played a role in his decision.

“I had concerns, and I was getting ready to take a lot of heat in the media for that if we didn’t have a good day,” Ganassi said Sunday.

Larson didn’t seem like a threat for much of the race, but he found himself close to the lead at the end, then came between cars to pass Martin Truex Jr. on an overtime restart .

“I wanted to make sure that my team and everybody knew that I was focused on the Cup weekend because I think a lot of times it’s easy to see my passion for sprint car racing as me not being focused on Cup,” Larson said. “That’s definitely not the case. Any time I strap into my car, I’m focused on that day and that race.”

Now that Larson has proven he can keep that focus, he can make a case for more weekends like this in the future — even if his owner maintains a bit of skepticism.

“I just don’t want to do something that’s going to slow him down, you know? I think you run the risk of that when you have a talent like that, that wants to go drive other kinds of cars and things,” Ganassi said. “I’ve never been a team owner to keep my drivers from driving other kinds of cars, and obviously — you know, you want to do the best you can for the guy all the time and do what you can do, and hopefully we can continue to do it.

“I don’t want to make any promises.”

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NASCAR: Brad Keselowski wins pole at Michigan

BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — For Brad Keselowski, any victory at his home state’s track is special.

Even if it’s only in qualifying.

Keselowski won the pole Friday for this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race, putting himself in good position to try for an elusive victory at Michigan International Speedway. Keselowski is winless in 16 career Cup races at Michigan. He does have eight top-10 finishes.

“I’m not really known as a great qualifier, so maybe over time I’ve probably put a little less stock in qualifying,” Keselowski said. “But I can tell you that when I saw that we were going to win the pole those last few seconds of qualifying, it put chills down my body. It’s a great feeling. It’s a special track for me to have any kind of success at.”

Keselowski’s pole was his 14th on the Cup Series and first at Michigan. It was his second this year.

Joey Logano was second, giving Team Penske a 1-2 showing in qualifying for Sunday’s race. Kevin Harvick — another Ford driver — was third.

Keselowski took the pole with a lap of 35.451 seconds (203.097 mph) in his No. 2 Ford. Logano was close behind at 35.457.

“Missed it by seven thousandths,” Logano said. “So close. But we’ve got to be proud of the effort that we put in as a team.”

Keselowski, who is from Rochester Hills, won at Michigan on the Nationwide Series but has never done so at the Cup level.

“Any success you have at your home track is right there with having success in the biggest races of the year,” Keselowski said.

Other noteworthy developments at MIS:

EARNHARDT AND HARVICK

Harvick talked a bit more about his comments from earlier in the week about Dale Earnhardt Jr. Harvick suggested on SiriusXM that NASCAR’s growth has fallen short of its potential because Earnhardt — the most popular driver — hasn’t been successful enough. Earnhardt described some of the comments as “hurtful” on Thursday.

“It wasn’t anything personal. He had his opinion the week before on driver salaries and driver ages and those things, and I don’t know that anybody in the garage agreed with those either,” Harvick said. “There’s definitely opinions on a lot of things. There’s nothing personal, and I didn’t take anything that he said the week before personally either.”

Earnhardt said last weekend at Watkins Glen that there’s been “a major shift in how much drivers are getting paid.” He said newcomers are making a fifth to a 10th of what veterans had been getting.

Earnhardt said Friday he’d like to have a conversation with Harvick.

“I would certainly like to clear it up, but just probably between ourselves,” Earnhardt said.

KAHNE’S OUTLOOK

Kasey Kahne, who is being replaced next year by Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevrolet, said the vibe was good within the team Friday.

“It was the first time I had seen my guys since the news,” he said.

Kahne said he still wants to be in the Cup Series.

“I really think that I can come up with something good and come up with something that will be fun to be a part of and also try to work hard to make that team better than it’s ever been and myself better than I’ve been,” Kahne said. “I still have that mindset and I really hope that something works out to where I can be in a strong car next year and enjoy racing in this series.”

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NASCAR: Kyle Busch wins NASCAR Xfinity race at Watkins Glen

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — If Kyle Busch seemed to take a bit longer to take his customary bow after a NASCAR victory, it was understandable. It’s nice to savor milestone victories.

Busch recovered from a spinout and a pit road penalty and survived a late restart to win the Zippo 200 on Saturday, his first triumph at Watkins Glen International in the Xfinity series. It also was the first Xfinity victory at Watkins Glen for Joe Gibbs Racing and the company’s 139th win overall in the series, breaking a tie with Roush Fenway for the top spot.

“It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been so close so many times,” Busch said. “I knew I just had to not screw it up.”

Busch topped the Penske Racing duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski and easily beat them on a restart with three laps to go for his 90th series win. Watkins Glen International and Pocono were the only tracks currently on the Xfinity schedule where Busch had not won. He’s also won on every track in the Cup series except Charlotte.

Logano was second in his bid to win this race for the third straight time from the pole and Keselowski was third, followed by Justin Allgaier and Paul Menard.

Logano and Keselowski had dominated the previous two Xfinity races at Watkins Glen. In 2015, Logano led 39 laps, one fewer than his teammate, and they finished 1-2. A year ago Logano led 67 laps, including the final 27, for his second straight victory from the pole.

“Maybe one more restart and one of those green-white-checkered things would have been nice,” Logano said. “Overall, to start on the pole and be the runner-up doesn’t always feel good, but we did learn some things for tomorrow.”

Busch started second, quickly passed Logano for the lead and led the first 16 laps before wheel-hopping his No. 18 Toyota and spinning out on the first turn, a 90-degree right-hander that points downhill, on lap 17.

Keselowski won the opening 20-lap stage under caution and gained a big advantage over Busch, who drove through too many pit stalls (four) during his first pit stop and was penalized. He restarted near the back of the 40-car field.

“You’ve just got to get through it, but unfortunately I screwed up early and I got us behind,” Busch said. “But the guys gave me such an awesome race car that we could make it back up.”

Menard gained the lead on a restart in the second stage and held it for the remainder of the segment, holding off bids by Keselowski and Logano with Busch surging back into contention. He was eighth when the third caution flew on lap 34 for oil on the track from Stephen Young’s smoking No. 78 Chevy.

Menard proved stout as he held off the Penske duo but lost the lead in the final stage when he accidentally hit the master fuel switch and the car lost power going uphill. Keselowski took over the top spot, then dived into the pits with Logano on lap 49 for the final time in the 82-lap race around the 2.45-mile road course.

Logano’s crew had trouble with the right front tire and a long stop dropped him back several spots.

Busch pitted from the lead on lap 54 and rejoined the field about 10 car-lengths in front of Keselowski, but they were far in the rearview mirror of race leader Brendan Gaughan. The suspense ended when Gaughan pitted with just over 20 laps to go, giving Busch the lead again, this time for good.

Busch lapped points leader Elliott Sadler with seven laps to go and had built a 2.5-second lead when Casey Mears ran out of fuel to bring out the final caution. That set up a three-lap dash to the finish and Busch easily sped away from the Penske duo and won by just over a second.

It was his second NASCAR victory in a week — he won his first Cup race of the season last Sunday at Pocono — and energized him for Sunday afternoon’s 220-lap Cup race at The Glen.

“I don’t know if I’m just in the groove or what, but it feels pretty good,” Busch said.

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ZIPPO 200 AT THE GLEN

Saturday from the 2.45-mile road course at Watkins Glen International (Starting position in parentheses):

1. (2) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 82.

2. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 82.

3. (5) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 82.

4. (7) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 82.

5. (4) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 82.

6. (10) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 82.

7. (11) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 82.

8. (6) Erik Jones, Toyota, 82.

9. (16) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 82.

10. (15) William Byron, Chevrolet, 82.

11. (8) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 82.

12. (9) Cole Custer, Ford, 82.

13. (19) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 82.

14. (18) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 82.

15. (12) Ryan Reed, Ford, 82.

16. (27) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 82.

17. (13) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 82.

18. (20) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 81.

19. (29) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 81.

20. (23) Dylan Lupton, Toyota, 81.

21. (26) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 81.

22. (14) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 81.

23. (36) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 81.

24. (33) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 81.

25. (17) Casey Mears, Ford, 80.

26. (38) Devin Jones, Chevrolet, 80.

27. (24) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 80.

28. (28) Josh Bilicki, Chevrolet, 79.

29. (40) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 79.

30. (37) David Starr, Chevrolet, 79.

31. (35) Enrique Baca, Toyota, 78.

32. (22) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 67.

33. (34) Brian Henderson, Chevrolet, Ignition, 59.

34. (32) Cody Ware, Dodge, Clutch, 52.

35. (21) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, Axle, 36.

36. (39) Stephen Young, Chevrolet, Transmission, 33.

37. (30) Timmy Hill, Dodge, Overheating, 27.

38. (31) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, Vibration, 26.

39. (25) JJ Yeley, Toyota, Engine, 16.

40. (3) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, Engine, 12.

Race Statistaics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 92.569 mph.

Time of Race: 2:10:13.

Margin of Victory: 1.049 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 15 laps.

Lead Changes: 8 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K. Busch 1-16; B. Keselowski 17-20; D. Hemric 21-24; P. Menard 25-46; B. Keselowski 47-48; K. Busch 49-53; B. Gaughan 54-60; K. Busch 61-82.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Busch 3 times for 43 laps; P. Menard 1 time for 22 laps; B. Gaughan 1 time for 7 laps; B. Keselowski 2 times for 6 laps; D. Hemric 1 time for 4 laps.

Allmendinger hoping to duplicate his lone NASCAR Cup win

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — Three years ago AJ Allmendinger didn’t want the second Sunday in August to end, so he lingered in victory lane at Watkins Glen International to soak in the atmosphere with his crew.

The victory on the road course stamped Allmendinger as a threat to win every time NASCAR’s Cup series visits the two twisting layouts on the schedule. With the playoffs looming, he’s 27th in points and needs a victory to qualify for the postseason as the series stops at The Glen, his best shot left to produce that needed result.

If there’s any added pressure, he says he doesn’t feel it.

“No pressure, man. Honestly,” said Allmendinger, who drives the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. “I think the outside world tries to put pressure on it. All we can do is go out there and give it our best effort.

“The racetrack will always be special, obviously, being my first win, reliving those memories,” said Allmendinger, an expert road racer from his days in open-wheel racing. “But when it comes to pressure, it’s in every week. We’ll see how it plays out.”

That victory in 2014 came in Allmendinger’s 213rd Cup start, and he did it by winning a two-lap duel at the end with Marcos Ambrose, who had emerged as the driver to beat at Watkins Glen. Ambrose had been dominant in NASCAR’s top two series at The Glen, winning two straight Cup races and four straight events in the second-tier series.

The previous year Allmendinger also won on the road courses at Elkhart Lake and Mid-Ohio in NASCAR’s second-tier series, but success at the top level has been elusive. He finished fourth at Watkins Glen a year ago and never challenged winner Denny Hamlin . He qualified fifth but finished 35th at Sonoma in June and enters Sunday’s race at The Glen riding a 107-race winless streak.

“This year, we’ve been a little off on speed kind of everywhere we’ve been to,” said Allmendinger, who has one top-five finish and four top-10s in 21 starts this year. “We’re working hard to try to get better as a race team. We’ll see when we get there on Saturday what kind of speed we have in practice.

“It’s one of those things, you don’t really know until you get to the racetrack and you get to practice and qualifying where you stand on speed.”

Sunday’s I Love New York 355 at The Glen is the second straight Cup race with a condensed schedule. Teams won’t practice until Saturday and qualifying is Sunday at 12:05 p.m., three hours before the race.

“With the condensed practices, to unload well (is key),” Allmendinger said. “You don’t have that time to really work on your car. Each practice is 55 minutes long, and if you don’t unload very well, it’s one of those things that you kind of get behind real quick. The last couple of weeks we haven’t unloaded great and then it’s hard to try and catch up because the time just goes quick.”

Xfinity practice on Friday gave a handful of Cup regulars a chance for extra time on WGI’s 2.45-mile layout as they prepare to race in Saturday’s Zippo 200 with an eye toward Sunday. Brad Keselowski topped the speed charts in the first practice, followed by Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Kyle Larson was fifth fastest, two spots ahead of Kevin Harvick.

As for that pressure on Sunday, NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace figures it’ll be ramped-up for Allmendinger.

“There’s so much a feel of, ‘I’ve got to get it done, I’ve got to win this thing,'” said Wallace, a two-time winner at The Glen who will work the race as an analyst for the Motor Racing Network. “AJ Allmendinger, he’s coming up here thinking, ‘Man, you know what, I can run good everywhere else, but I can win here and I’ve got to get it done here. I’ve got to win this race because it’s the only shot I’ve got to win all year long.'”

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NASCAR: Points-leader Truex on track for NASCAR championship

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. believes being far away from NASCAR’s hub has helped him during the most successful stretch of his career, a run he hopes ends with a championship this season.

Truex, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader, also is tied for the series lead with three victories. Already locked into the playoffs for a third straight season, Truex believes he’s better prepared to end the year with NASCAR’s trophy.

“It just seems like consistency has gotten better as we go down this road together as a team,” Truex said Tuesday. “Last year was a good and this year so far seems even better so hopefully we can continue that upward trend.”

A big reason, at least in Truex’s mind, is his Furniture Row Racing team’s headquarters in Denver, two time zones from the NASCAR center outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. The location gives the team an all-in-the-same-boat feeling that has made them bond into a winning group.

“I think it’s a great team, a great situation,” Truex said. “Being in Denver, all by ourselves out there, my crew chiefs, my engineers, we’re just like a family and we get better and better as we work together.”

That’s certainly apparent this season.

Along with his three victories, Truex has had eight top fives and 14 top 10s in 21 races this season. He’s lead the most laps of any driver (1,291) and has been out front in 16 of 21 events so far this year.

“You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, you don’t know what next weekend is going to bring, so we’re enjoying while we have success,” he said. “We’re working hard to stay where we’re at.”

The next step is running for a title.

Truex made the final four two years ago, yet finished 12th at Homestead to fall to fourth in the points race. In 2016, Truex came in as a playoff powerhouse with crown jewel victories in the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte and Southern 500 in Darlington . He then won two of the first three chase races to move out front. But problems in the round of 12 ended Truex’s run as he finished 11th overall.

This time around, Truex isn’t looking ahead. He thinks a focus on the week-to-week racing will keep himself and his crew sharp so when the playoffs come, they’ll be ready.

“The last two years we had some good success in the playoffs and we did that by not changing our strategy,” Truex said. “Obviously, we haven’t got a championship yet so we’ve got some work to do on it. But I feel good about this year and we’ll see how it ends up.”

Truex was outside of the track “Too Tough To Tame,” at Ramsey’s Pond to do a little down-time fishing. Truex, sponsored by Bass Pro Shops, sat in a boat alongside Darlington President Kerry Tharp and Bass Fishing Hall of Famer Guy Eaker. He made a few casts in the pond that local lore says led to Darlington’s misshapen, egg-like layout because the Ramsey family did not want track creator Harold Brasington to get rid of the pond.

“The word environmentalist wasn’t created back then,” said Jim Ramsey, whose grandfather was credited with saving the pond. “But I would say he thought about it years ago. He wanted to save that little pond.”

Truex fished some with the South Florida High fishing team that has won state and national angling titles on the prep level.

“Wished we could’ve caught some,” Truex joked after coming up empty.

A bigger concern for Truex is staying on track with five races left in the regular season, including the Southern 500 at Darlington on Sept. 3.

“Can’t wait for 30-some days to come back here and try again,” Truex said.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR has tightened the restrictions for 2018 on Cup drivers who want to drive in lower-tier race series.

Drivers with more than five years of full-time experience who race for points in the Cup series will be limited to a maximum of seven Xfinity Series races and five races in the Truck Series.

The Cup drivers will be ineligible to compete in the regular-season finale and playoff races in each series, as well as the Dash 4 Cash races in the Xfinity Series.

It’s a change from the rules put in place for this season that limited Cup drivers with five years of full-time experience to 10 Xfinity races and seven Truck races.

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Pocono Takeaways: Kyle Busch builds momentum as NASCAR playoff race tightens

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-    For the third weekend in a row, one of the first words emanating from the mouth of the winning driver was “Finally.”

Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Kyle Busch broke a 36-race winless streak in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. His victory came on the heels of Kasey Kahne’s drought-busting win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that snapped a 102-race winless streak and Denny Hamlin’s victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that ended a 28-race drought.

For Busch, the dry spell was all the more flummoxing, considering how many laps he’s led and how many races he could have won in 2017. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is one of two — along with Martin Truex Jr. — who has led more than 1,000 laps. He was ranked fourth in points entering Sunday’s race ahead of drivers with not just one win, but in some cases two or more.

And yet, the 2015 series champion had not been able to “get the monkey off our back.” Busch said it was “frustrating and aggravating and disheartening” to have run so well and have nothing to show for it.

“We’ve had fast race cars. It’s not like we’ve been running 10th to 15th every week and don’t deserve to win anyways. I think the fact of it was we were running up front, we should be able to capitalize on those good fast race cars and get to victory lane.”

Now, Busch says the team can “breathe a little bit easier” and focus on winning more races and getting ready for the playoffs. The series next heads to the road course at Watkins Glen International, and Busch should be a heavy favorite. He is the only active driver with more than one win at the New York track. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 12 starts — most among active drivers — and his average finish of 10.1 trails only AJ Allmendinger’s 9.4 — sobering numbers for the rest of the field.

Here are four other takeaways as the series moves from the Pocono Mountains to the Finger Lakes region of New York:

SUMMER SWOON: Jimmie Johnson crashed at Pocono for the second time in 2017 and now has crashed in three of the five July races this season. Fans of the 48 team, however, have no reason to panic. Johnson is safely locked into the playoffs with three wins (tied for the series high), and has struggled in this stretch of the season before.

Last year, Johnson crashed in four of nine races between June 6 and Aug. 7 before righting the ship and going on to win his record-tying seventh championship.

In 2014, Johnson crashed in three of four races in a midsummer stretch but ended the regular season with four consecutive top-10 finishes.

WATKINS GLEN WILD CARD: The last road-course race of the season may be the best remaining chance for an underdog driver to snare a win. That is especially true for Allmendinger, who won at The Glen in 2014 and finished fourth last year.

The JTG-Daugherty Racing driver is ranked 27th in the standings and has tallied only one top-five all year — at the season-opening Daytona 500 — but is considered a road-course master. He struggled mightily in the season’s only other road-course race, at Sonoma Raceway — finishing 35th after starting fifth — but The Glen is his best track and his best chance to grab a playoff spot in the remaining five races.

PLAYOFF SQUEEZE: Busch became the 13th driver to qualify for the playoffs via a win, which leaves only three spots open to the remaining winless drivers.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott (616 points), Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray (615) and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth (594), would qualify on points if the playoffs started today, but after his sixth-place showing at Pocono, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer — with 577 points and just outside the final transfer spot — is hot on their heels.

It seems unlikely that any other winless driver will be able to snare a playoff berth via points after the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway on Sept. 9. That means drivers like Team Penske’s Joey Logano (525 points), Furniture Row Racing’s Erik Jones (469), JGR’s Daniel Suarez (464) and Hendrick’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. (378) have reached must-win territory.

POINTS MATTER: Winless drivers are not the only ones thinking about the playoffs. Both Johnson and Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens spoke about the importance of playoff points — a new wrinkle in the system this year — that drivers have been accumulating through race victories and stage wins. Truex leads all drivers with 29 playoffs points, 13 more than Johnson, who ranks second in the category.

Johnson lamented the lost opportunity for playoff points at Pocono: “I don’t think any of us truly understand how important they are. I think we all recognize that they are going to be important. So, we will know so much more at the end of the year.”

Stevens said playoff points were a huge concern for the No. 18 team: “You only get ‘em one at a time when you win the stage. We’ve won the second most stages (eight). But (Truex) has won a bunch (14). … You get in these short three-race segments (during the playoffs), those playoff points are going to be colossal. The sooner we can start racking them up, the better.”

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NASCAR: Kyle Busch ends winless season with Cup victory at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Kyle Busch watched the number of laps he’s led this season tick, tick, tick as it crossed 1,000, and he only really cared about the lap he hadn’t led: the last one.

“We’ve had speed. We’ve been right there,” Busch said. “We’ve been able to do what we should be doing and that’s running up front.”

For all that time up front, Busch also had the longest losing streak of his career, a rare recession over his time building a resume even NASCAR Hall of Famers would envy, with the 2015 Cup championship, 176 wins over three series and an elite ride for Joe Gibbs Racing.

He can add two more feats to the list — 13 straight years with a Cup win and his first checkered flag at Pocono.

Busch used a bump-and-run on Kevin Harvick to take the lead with 16 laps left and held on to snap a 36-race losing streak and win the NASCAR Cup race at Pocono Raceway on Sunday.

“I never thought this day would happen,” Busch said.

Busch won from the pole and gave Toyota its 100th Cup win since its 2007 debut. Busch had Toyota’s first Cup win in March 2008 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Busch had never gone a full season without winning a race. Charlotte Motor Speedway is now the only track where he’s failed to win a Cup points race.

“I wasn’t sure which one was going to be last,” he said.

Busch had seven top-five finishes this season and was runner-up to Austin Dillon in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. All the near misses have gnawed at Busch, who won the All-Star race — at Charlotte. But the exhibition race doesn’t count in the season standings and Busch was in a victory slump that dated to the 2016 Brickyard 400.

He was racing for the lead last weekend in the Brickyard 400 when he wrecked with Martin Truex Jr., which led to a pit road altercation between members of both teams.

He also won his 176th career NASCAR race over the Cup (39), Xfinity (89) and Truck (48) series.

“We’ve all been fighting all year long and just wasn’t sure why,” Busch said. “This is something I’ve been waiting for for a long, long time. It’s been a frustrating year but an awesome day today.”

Harvick finished second, followed by Truex, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski. Harvick, who hasn’t won in 34 career races at Pocono, said he had nothing for Busch down the stretch.

“There was no battle. He was way faster than we were,” Harvick said.

Crew chief Adam Stevens made the right calls a week after his confrontation on pit road with members of Truex’s team. JGR suspended two of Truex’s tire changers because of the profane outburst at the Brickyard. JGR provides the pit crew for Furniture Row Racing as part of a technical alliance, giving them the authority to suspend members of the FRR team.

Busch earned a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs, a significant victory that left just three open spots with five races left before the 16-driver field is set. JGR had been winless overall until Hamlin won two weeks ago at New Hampshire.

“I didn’t fear we wouldn’t make the Chase with our points position,” Stevens said.

Samantha Busch was stressed about her husband’s season, tweeting before the race , “160 laps. We haven’t even started and I’m a ball of nerves. Please let this be the day for the 18!”

It was. She was in tears over the final laps and celebrated in victory lane a win that her husband dedicated to his late grandmother.

Up next, a run at a second championship.

“I think our stats and our runs and our speed shows for itself,” Busch said.

Other items of note at Pocono:

LOOSE NUT

NASCAR found a loose lug nut on the 18 and Stevens could be fined $10,000. He does not face a suspension.

THE BIG ONE

An eight-car wreck on the first lap knocked Aric Almirola and Matt DiBenedetto out of the race. Matt Kenseth got loose and spun to trigger the accident.

Almirola missed two months of the season with a fractured vertebra suffered in a race at Kansas.

“Sort of a bummer not to even make a whole lap,” he said.

JOHNSON WRECK

Jimmie Johnson wrecked and did not finish for the third time in the last four races. Johnson connected with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne and was spun into the wall.

The seven-time Cup champion also crashed out of the first Pocono race in June.

DOUBLE DUTY

NASCAR held qualifying before the race instead of earlier in the weekend. Pocono had no Cup cars on the track Friday during the condensed schedule. NASCAR will try the two-day show again next week at Watkins Glen and Oct. 29 at Martinsville.

“Just thankful for the opportunity to have the two-day shows,” Busch said. “We love spending time with our families, and being on the road, that is sometimes difficult.”

UP NEXT

The series shifts to the road course at Watkins Glen. Hamlin is the defending race winner.

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OVERTON’S 400 RESULTS

Sunday from the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (1) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 160 laps, 50 points.

2. (6) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 160, 43.

3. (2) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 160, 43.

4. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 160, 37.

5. (11) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 160, 48.

6. (7) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 160, 44.

7. (8) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 160, 30.

8. (9) Erik Jones, Toyota, 160, 29.

9. (15) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 160, 28.

10. (13) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 160, 28.

11. (12) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 160, 31.

12. (23) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 160, 25.

13. (18) Kurt Busch, Ford, 160, 31.

14. (20) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 160, 29.

15. (22) Danica Patrick, Ford, 160, 30.

16. (21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 160, 25.

17. (30) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 159, 20.

18. (17) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 159, 21.

19. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 159, 18.

20. (19) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 159, 20.

21. (26) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 159, 16.

22. (33) David Ragan, Ford, 159, 15.

23. (28) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 159, 15.

24. (32) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 159, 13.

25. (34) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 159, 12.

26. (3) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 159, 16.

27. (10) Joey Logano, Ford, 159, 10.

28. (24) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 159, 9.

29. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 158, 8.

30. (5) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 158, 13.

31. (35) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, 157, 6.

32. (36) Stephen Leicht, Toyota, 153, 5.

33. (16) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 148, 6.

34. (37) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, transmission, 85, 3.

35. (14) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, accident, 57, 2.

36. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, engine, 24, 1.

37. (29) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, accident, 1, 1.

38. (25) Aric Almirola, Ford, accident, 0, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 141.087 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 50 minutes, 7 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 6.178 seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 21 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 9 drivers.

Lap Leaders: Ky.Busch 1-21; E.Jones 22-24; R.Stenhouse 25-35; M.Kenseth 36-41; Ky.Busch 42-52; M.Kenseth 53-55; Ky.Busch 56-71; A.Dillon 72-73; D.Hamlin 74-89; M.Truex 90-96; C.Bowyer 97-101; M.Truex 102-125; Ky.Busch 126-134; B.Keselowski 135-140; E.Jones 141; D.Hamlin 142-143; Ky.Busch 144-160

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): Ky.Busch, 5 times for 69 laps; M.Truex, 2 times for 29 laps; D.Hamlin, 2 times for 16 laps; R.Stenhouse, 1 time for 10 laps; M.Kenseth, 2 times for 7 laps; B.Keselowski, 1 time for 5 laps; C.Bowyer, 1 time for 4 laps; E.Jones, 2 times for 2 laps; A.Dillon, 1 time for 1 lap.

Wins: J.Johnson, 3; M.Truex, 3; B.Keselowski, 2; K.Larson, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; Ky.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; D.Hamlin, 1; K.Harvick, 1; K.Kahne, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. M.Truex, 823; 2. K.Larson, 738; 3. K.Harvick, 726; 4. Ky.Busch, 723; 5. D.Hamlin, 649; 6. B.Keselowski, 649; 7. C.Elliott, 616; 8. J.McMurray, 615; 9. M.Kenseth, 594; 10. C.Bowyer, 577; 11. J.Johnson, 566; 12. R.Blaney, 529; 13. J.Logano, 525; 14. Ku.Busch, 494; 15. R.Newman, 491; 16. E.Jones, 469.

NASCAR: What to watch for at Pocono

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    Joe Gibbs Racing on Wednesday suspended two crewmen from Martin Truex Jr.’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team who were involved in an incident with Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens.

Rear tire changer Lee Cunningham and front tire changer Chris Taylor were each sanctioned for three races, JGR spokesman Chris Helein confirmed to USA TODAY Sports. The incident stemmed from a crash with 50 laps left in the Brickyard 400 on Sunday in which points leader Truex made contact with race-leader Busch on a restart, wrecking both. Busch had led 87 laps hunting a first victory of the season.

Fox Sports 1 replays showed Cunningham clapping and shouting “Tell Kyle ‘way to go’,” as Stevens walked past Truex’s Furniture Row Racing pit box afterward. Stevens approached and began an aggressive verbal exchange before Taylor entered and pushed the crew chief away, saying, “I don’t care who you are. I don’t give a [expletive] who you are. Get out of my box.”

This situation was more complicated than the usual racing disagreement in that FRR is an affiliate of JGR and leases pit crews from its fellow Toyota team.

FRR owner Barney Visser said in a release: “Our No. 78 pit crew is hired, trained and managed by Joe Gibbs Racing. They are one of the best pit crews on the circuit and have kept us up front all season. … We admire the talent and dedication of our pit crew and support all of the decisions and actions taken by Joe Gibbs Racing.”

Kip Wolfmeier and John Royer will replace the suspended crewmen.

____

William Byron is cognizant of the speculation. He seems appreciative of the energy being generated on his behalf from beyond the perimeter of Hendrick Motorsports. And the occasional calls he receives from owner Rick Hendrick encourage the 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver about his future.

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network), Byron returns to Iowa Speedway (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC) after winning the first Xfinity race of the season there.

He knows he won’t be elevated to Cup next season as a replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet. In-house product Alex Bowman was officially awarded that promotion last week. So Byron can focus on what has enabled a stretch where he has won three times in the past five races.

But all that success keeps outside chatter a daily part of his existence, because although Kasey Kahne won the Brickyard 400 last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — breaking a 102-race winless streak — Hendrick was vague on the future of the No. 5 Chevrolet or Kahne as its pilot for 2018.

Having heard nothing about his possible relevance to that matter, Byron told USA Today Sports, he will continue to concentrate on an Iowa sweep. But if Hendrick or anyone else is asking, he said, he’s ready for the next step.

“I think I’m ready for anything,” Byron told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “I’ve raced against the Cup guys the last few weeks and shown that I can beat them. That’s what it takes. You have to do that to get the opportunity. But right now, I’m focused on this year.”

Byron said he was pleased to learn of Bowman’s new deal, particularly because the 24-year-old’s promotion represented an opportunity for a young driver. They are friends and chat amid their simulator work at the shop in Concord, N.C.

Byron said handling speculation about his possible ascent has “not been too bad,” and he projects confidence that his time is coming. As was the case with Bowman, Hendrick would have to consider driver readiness and sponsor reaction to promoting Byron, who has 42 starts combined in Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series and won the 2015  K&N Pro Series East championship.

Kahne’s program faces sponsor shortfalls for next season with Farmers Insurance and Great Clips departing.

“I’m just focused on what we’re doing and trying to do the best job I can,” Byron said. “I know that opportunity will come sooner rather than later. I know down the road I want to be with Hendrick Motorsports and they’ve been supporting me a lot … I know I’m ready for anything, so I’m excited.”

Hendrick signed Byron — at the time in the process of setting a rookie record with seven wins for Kyle Busch’s truck series team — to a developmental deal in August of 2016 and assigned him to affiliate JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series for this season. After finishing second at Michigan by .012 seconds — to a car driven by Cup regular Denny Hamlin that failed post-race inspection — Byron won consecutively at Iowa and Daytona International Speedway, and held off Cup veteran Paul Menard by .108 at Indianapolis last week.

He’s currently second in points, 40 behind JR Motorsports teammate and mentor Elliott Sadler, and hoping for more calls from Hendrick, for multiple reasons. Hendrick has deflected questions on Byron’s future with a wry grin and a proclamation of his pupil’s “great job.”

“Right now, I’m just kind of focused on this year,” Byron said. “Right now, honestly I don’t know anything … I know that I’m racing this car this year and trying to do the best job I can this year.

“It’s very cool to have the relationship I do with Mr. Hendrick and for him to take a chance on me this year after racing in the truck series and moving me up to this team and everything like that. It’s been great to hear his reaction, to hear him on the phone when we’ve won races and hopefully that continues this year and I can get a few more phone calls from him.”

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Team Penske expands, adds Ryan Blaney in third car for 2018

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   Team owner Roger Penske’s wishes to bring prospect Ryan Blaney back within the organization for 2018 came to fruition Wednesday, as Team Penske announced that the 23-year-old will leave the Wood Brothers for a No. 12 Ford.

Veteran Paul Menard was announced as Blaney’s replacement in the No. 21 Ford after leaving Richard Childress Racing in another move. Blaney, who ostensibly has qualified for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series playoffs after winning his first race in the series at Pocono Raceway, has been under contract with Penske since 2012 but is racing his second full season in a work-study program at the Wood Brothers.

“This is a huge opportunity for me and my career,” Blaney said in a release. “I’ve always enjoyed racing whatever car I was in and trying to win each and every race. I’ve had some great moments with both Team Penske and the Wood Brothers over the last few years.

“I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am today without Roger (Penske), Eddie and Len (Wood) and the opportunities their organizations have given me. I’m thrilled knowing that Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano) are long-term teammates for me at Team Penske and Paul (Menard) will have input with our team now that he’s with the Wood Brothers organization. Hopefully we can go out there and win races and compete for championships year after year.”

The announcements capped a busy week for Ford Performance and Penske. The team announced Tuesday that 2012 series champion Keselowski had signed an extension to remain with the team. Logano inked an extension earlier this year that the team describes as through “2022 and beyond.” Blaney, the team said, has signed a multi-year extension.

“We have been working on making this a reality and 2018 is the right opportunity to make this move and return our organization to a three-car team,” Penske said in a release. “The benefits of having three full-time teams under our roof, along with the continued technical partnership with the Wood Bothers, will help us remain competitive in the ever-changing NASCAR landscape.”

Neither sponsorship nor crew chief were announced for Blaney.

As has been the case throughout his 14 years at NASCAR’s top level, Menard will bring the might of his billionaire father’s massive home improvement empire to the Wood Brothers. The company will sponsor 22 races, according to a team release. The 36-year-old has one career win – in the 2011 Brickyard 400 – and has a career-best points finish of 14th in 2015.

It has been widely speculated that RCR will downsize from three to two cars next season. In a release Tuesday, team owner Richard Childress said the team “will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: William Byron wins Xfinity Series race at Indy

This gallery contains 1 photo.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Rookie William Byron bobbed and weaved through the final two laps Saturday and held off Paul Menard to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The victory margin of 0.108 seconds was the narrowest in race history. Joey Logano was third, more than three seconds behind.

Kyle Busch finished 12th, failing in his bid to become the first driver to win five consecutive races on Indy’s 2.5-mile layout.

The 19-year-old Byron has won three of his last five starts, the last two at Daytona and Indy. This time, he needed some savvy moves to block Menard, and some good luck to complete the final laps with what he thought was a deflating tire.

Byron also won the first stage over Busch by 0.113 seconds. Pole-winner Elliott Sadler won a caution-flag marred second stage under caution, just ahead of Brennan Poole.

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SATURDAY’S RESULTS

Lap length: 2.50 miles

(Start position in parentheses)

1. (3) William Byron, Chevrolet, 100 laps, 0 rating, 50 points.

2. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 0.

3. (12) Joey Logano, Ford, 100, 0, 0.

4. (1) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 45.

5. (6) Cole Custer, Ford, 100, 0, 39.

6. (10) Ryan Reed, Ford, 100, 0, 31.

7. (17) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 45.

8. (13) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 37.

9. (14) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 34.

10. (19) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 0.

11. (7) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 100, 0, 27.

12. (11) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 100, 0, 0.

13. (16) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 31.

14. (8) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 25.

15. (21) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 100, 0, 25.

16. (23) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 26.

17. (22) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 20.

18. (9) Ben Kennedy, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 23.

19. (25) Jeb Burton, Toyota, 100, 0, 18.

20. (24) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 99, 0, 17.

21. (33) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 16.

22. (29) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 15.

23. (2) Erik Jones, Toyota, 99, 0, 0.

24. (30) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 13.

25. (5) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 12.

26. (31) Tommy Joe Martins, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 11.

27. (26) Mario Gosselin, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 10.

28. (20) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 9.

29. (35) David Starr, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 8.

30. (37) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 98, 0, 7.

31. (32) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 98, 0, 7.

32. (39) Chad Finchum, Chevrolet, 98, 0, 5.

33. (34) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 93, 0, 4.

34. (40) Mike Harmon, Dodge, transmission, 90, 0, 3.

35. (4) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 86, 0, 2.

36. (36) Timmy Hill, Toyota, clutch, 40, 0, 1.

37. (18) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, accident, 38, 0, 5.

38. (27) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, vibration, 23, 0, 0.

39. (38) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, engine, 22, 0, 1.

40. (28) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, vibration, 9, 0, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 126.232 mph.

Time of Race: 1 hour, 58 minutes, 50 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.108 seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 22 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders: E.Sadler 1-16; K.Busch 17; M.Shepherd 18; D.Hemric 19; K.Busch 20-22; W.Byron 23-31; H.Rhodes 32; K.Busch 33-52; J.Allgaier 53-56; K.Busch 57; E.Sadler 58-60; G.Smithley 61; K.Busch 62-69; W.Byron 70; K.Busch 71-81; E.Sadler 82-84; W.Byron 85-100

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Busch, 6 times for 38 laps; W.Byron, 3 times for 23 laps; E.Sadler, 3 times for 19 laps; J.Allgaier, 1 time for 3 laps; D.Hemric, 1 time for 0 laps; H.Rhodes, 1 time for 0 laps; M.Shepherd, 1 time for 0 laps; G.Smithley, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: K.Busch, 3; W.Byron, 3; E.Jones, 2; J.Allgaier, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Reed, 1.

Top 10 in Points: 1. E.Sadler, 665; 2. W.Byron, 625; 3. J.Allgaier, 532; 4. B.Poole, 473; 5. D.Hemric, 458; 6. C.Custer, 435; 7. M.Tifft, 414; 8. R.Reed, 408; 9. D.Armstrong, 368; 10. M.Annett, 367.

The 7 biggest surprises of the NASCAR season so far

(PhatzRadio Sports / FTW)    —-    We’re halfway through the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, and the playoffs are practically around the corner. It’s been an interesting year so far, and you could even call it a little strange.

So to quickly recap the oddities through the first 19 races of the season, here are the seven biggest surprises so far, numbered but in no particular order.

(Note: Dale Earnhardt Jr. announcing his retirement is not on this list. After suffering a concussion and missing half of last year, his career could have been over then because of the many challenges he faced. So his exit is a huge blow to the NASCAR world, but it’s not quite a surprise.)

1. Kyle Busch STILL has not won

This is one of the most talked about storylines of the season, but it’s still a big shocker. The No. 18 Toyota driver has accumulated 38 wins throughout his career with nine in the last two years alone. The last season he finished without a win was back in 2004 when he wasn’t even a full-time driver, so he’ll probably win one of these weekends. But without it, he doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in the 16-driver playoffs this fall.

2. Stenhouse is making moves

In his fifth full-time season and after 157 winless races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finally earned his first Cup Series victory at the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in May. But two months later, he surprised everyone again when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Not many racing fans would have bet that Stenhouse would have more wins than Kevin Harvick (1), Joey Logano (1) or Busch through July.

3. Joe Gibbs Racing’s slow start

An extension of Busch getting shut out, it took Joe Gibbs’ team 19 races to get its first win. Thanks to Denny Hamlin on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, JGR’s winless drought dating back to last year was snapped, but the team looks totally different compared with 2016.

At this point last season, JGR had won eight of 19 events. Busch and Carl Edwards – who all but retired – were major factors, combining for four consecutive wins at one point. Rookie Daniel Suárez replaced Edwards this year, so he’s still getting comfortable at the next level. But that doesn’t explain why Busch, Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have struggled.

4. Speaking of Matt Kenseth…

The 45-year-old driver doesn’t have a ride next season, which he actually announced before his team did a few weeks ago. Despite winning 16 races over five seasons for JGR, Kenseth is being replaced by 21-year-old Erik Jones in 2018. Where the 2003 Cup Series champion’s career goes from here is anybody’s guess.

5. Martin Truex Jr.’s incredible consistency

Not only are Truex and seven-time Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson leading the series with three wins apiece, but the No. 78 Toyota driver is destroying the field in the stages. He has an unbelievable 14 stage wins so far along with 29 playoff points. Busch is second on the list with just five stage wins, while Johnson’s is next with 16 playoff points. Truex was great last year with four race wins, but no one could have anticipated this kind of consistent speed every weekend.

6. Logano getting left behind

Joey Logano won the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway back in April, but it’s encumbered after failing the post-race inspection. He still gets credit for the win but lost the automatic playoff berth.

Since then, the No. 22 Ford driver has struggled. Including the Richmond race, he finished in the top-10 eight out of nine times. But through the next ten events, he did so only twice, he’s wrecked three times and he has an average finish of 23.3. If the playoffs started today, Logano wouldn’t make the cut – a steep difference compared with being just three points away from the 2016 series championship.

7. Richard Childress Racing’s quiet surge

Thanks to wins from Ryan Newman at Phoenix Raceway in March and Austin Dillon at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, RCR has two drivers locked into the playoffs. Although they’ve both been fairly mediocre since their respective wins, it’s still surprising to see this team with more drivers qualified for the playoffs than powerhouses JGR, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske – who each have one driver in.

NASCAR: Matt Crafton wins Truck race at Eldora dirt track

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ROSSBURG, Ohio (AP) — Matt Crafton’s time racing on dirt tracks over the past year paid off at Eldora Speedway.

Matt Crafton won the Eldorda Dirt Derby on Wednesday night for his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory in more than a year.

The two-time series champion passed Stewart Friesen with 17 laps to go in the 150-lap race and won by 1.96 seconds in ThorSport Racing’s No. 88 Toyota. Crafton won for the first time since May 2016 at Charlotte.

Crafton bought a dirt modified car and had been running it at different places including Eldora, the half-mile that is owned by three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart.

“It has helped a lot, learning what the truck does and seeing what spots to pass,” Crafton said after ending a 27-race drought. “Previously, I didn’t know what I was looking at but I just kept studying and studying.”

Crafton’s previous best finish at Eldora was eighth in the first race in 2013. He has 14 career series victories.

Crafton also won the first 40-lap stage after passing Friesen with seven laps to go.

Friesen won the second stage, which was 50 laps. A Canadian with dirt-track experience, Friesen started from the pole, led a race-high 93 laps and finished a career-best second in a Chevy.

Chase Briscoe was third in a Ford, Grant Enfinger fourth in a Toyota and John Hunter Nemechek fifth in a Chevy.

Series points leader Johnny Sauter was involved in an early wreck and finished 23rd. He has a seven-point lead over Christopher Bell.

OTHER NASCAR NEWS:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the replacement he wanted. Alex Bowman got his dream job.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that the 24-year-old Bowman will replace one of the series’ biggest stars in the No. 88 car next season after Earnhardt retires.

Bowman has big shoes to fill. Earnhardt was named NASCAR’s most popular driver each of the last 14 seasons and fans of his late father often tracked Junior’s results following Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 season opener at Daytona.

“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman said. “I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.”

Bowman already has some experience in this job. When the 42-year-old Earnhardt missed 18 races because of a concussion last season, Bowman started 10 of them in the No. 88, winning the first Cup pole of his career and finishing in the top 10 three times.

That was enough to get Earnhardt’s attention and eventually an endorsement in May.

“Alex Bowman to the 88 next year — is that what you guys want?” Junior asked during a livestream on Periscope following the series’ All-Star race. “That would be pretty awesome to see Alex in that car. That’s the plan, I hope. . Yeah, Alex in the 88. That sounds good to me. That kid earned it last year. He ran good.”

The 24-year-old Bowman performed well enough to get several full-time offers to drive in the Cup series this year.

Instead, he stayed patient. Bowman said he turned down each offer as he continued searching for the right situation. The Tucson, Arizona, native wound up with no full-time ride in 2017.

But with Earnhardt’s concussion history, Bowman likely knew it wouldn’t be long until he stepped away. Rick Hendrick’s team contemplated its options for months before finally deciding bring back Bowman.

In 81 career Cup starts and 50 career starts in the Xfinity Series, Bowman has never won a race. But he had 13 top-finishes and won three poles on the Xfinity circuit before blossoming in Earnhardt’s car last season.

He joins a series that is clearly in transition.

With television ratings and attendance sagging and three major stars — Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt — retiring since 2015, Bowman will become yet another prominent fresh face in a series that currently has five drivers who are in their 20s in the top 15.

The announcement comes two days Earnhardt attempts to qualify for his final Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. The race is scheduled to be run Sunday.

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

Five takeaways from the NASCAR Cup race at New Hampshire

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    In retrospect, perhaps Denny Hamlin’s victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway shouldn’t be surprising.

Despite Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates enduring a frustrating and winless campaign prior to Sunday’s race, the signs were there that the 1.058-mile oval could be the track where the organization finally broke through.

JGR has now won six of the last 10 races at Loudon — dating back to the fall of 2012 when Hamlin dominated — leading nearly two-thirds of the laps. Since then, Matt Kenseth has won three times and finished second in another, and Kyle Busch tallied one win and three-runner-up finishes.

Team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Michael Wheeler and Hamlin all noted the success the organization has had at the New England track, and credited a mix of style, comfort and setup for its recent run:

• “For whatever reason, this has been a favorite place for our drivers, crew chiefs,” Gibbs said. “Denny, if he picked a racetrack, it would probably be here in Loudon where he would like to have his final race at. Certainly anything about this place has been good for us.”

• “Once you get a package here that works good and you understand why, it’s easy to kind of duplicate over time, do different tire changes and aero changes,” Wheeler said. “It might take a race or two to get it back, but once the drivers get a good feel for what it takes to get around here, get in the corner, get off the corner, you can go year in, year out and try to get that same feel for them again.”

• “I think it probably started with Tony Stewart many, many years ago (Stewart won at New Hampshire with JGR in 2000 and 2005),” Hamlin said. “I watched him many times get around this racetrack, and the track has changed a lot over the years. The cars have changed. But just kind of being a student to the game and seeing what all he’s done. … I just kind of levitated to that ever since I got in a race car on a short track, and I think it’s raised all of our games.

“Really the short tracks and flat tracks weren’t really Kyle’s forte. We worked together so much now over the last few years, he’s really good if not exceeded beyond that. Matt has come in and been dominant at this racetrack and so we look at him and look at his notes, and so I think it’s just kind of a feeding off of all the good things that have happened here, and everyone is just working off of that and getting better.”

Here are four other takeaways from Sunday’s race at New Hampshire:

No change at the top: While Hamlin may have crossed the finish line first, the result didn’t do much to dent the fact that Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson are the two best drivers this season. Larson, who has won twice, and Truex, a three-time winner, finished second and third, respectively, and increased their margins at the top of the standings. New Hampshire marked the fifth time this season where Truex, the points leader; and Larson, who currently ranks second; finished in the top four in the same race (also Las Vegas, Fontana, Dover, Kentucky). One or the other has topped the points since the fourth race of the season at Phoenix Raceway, and the gap to third in points — occupied by Kyle Busch — now stands at 108.

Penalties have not derailed Larson: In a span of three days, Larson was penalized twice by NASCAR — first for failing postrace inspection at Kentucky Speedway and then for failing post-qualifying inspection at Loudon. The Kentucky penalty cost Larson the points lead and the New Hampshire penalty cost Larson the pole, but the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was unfazed even after starting from the rear of the field.

“I think with how fast we’ve been running and all that, NASCAR has kept a closer eye on our team in particular,” Larson said after the race. “Obviously, I don’t think it really affected us, which is a good thing, because the little stuff that we got in trouble for so far hasn’t seemed to affect the performance. Just got to keep working hard on the areas of our race car that are legal and find some more speed that way.”

Logano loses ground: Since his victory at Richmond Raceway, which NASCAR subsequently ruled was encumbered and couldn’t be used to secure a playoff berth, things have not gone well for Joey Logano. The Team Penske driver has now finished outside the top 20 in seven of the past 10 races and outside the top 30 in four of those, including Sunday’s 37th-place showing after a handling issue forced him to the garage for repairs. Logano, who ended 2016 second in the standings, now finds himself outside of the playoffs — 52 points behind Kenseth, who currently holds the 16th and final transfer spot.

Patrick’s silver lining: Danica Patrick has not had a memorable season by anyone’s standards — with just one top-10 finish in 19 races — but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned a solid result for the second consecutive week. After rolling to a 15th-place result at Kentucky, Patrick rallied to a 13th-place finish after starting 30th at New Hampshire. She next heads to a track at which she is intimately familiar — Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though her NASCAR results haven’t been particularly stellar at the Brickyard — with a best finish of 22nd last year — Patrick tallied six top-10s in seven Indianapolis 500 races in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

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Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin holds off Kyle Larson to win at New Hampshire

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LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Joe Gibbs Racing has undergone an unexpected upheaval that forced the organization into a youth movement.

The biggest surprise, though, was going 0 for 2017.

Denny Hamlin ended that rut with the kind of finish down the stretch that showed that — yes, the new generation may be on the way — but the JGR lynchpin still knows how to win.

Hamlin held off Kyle Larson over the final laps Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to send Gibbs to its first victory of the season.

One of the top organizations in NASCAR, JGR had yet to have any of its four drivers win until Hamlin took the lead with 33 laps left and held off the hard-charging Larson on the final lap.

Hamlin needed his 30th career Cup victory to secure a berth in NASCAR’s version of the postseason and end a winless streak that stretched to last September at Richmond.

“Definitely needed a win for the organization, for myself,” Hamlin said.

He’ll take the checkered flag — just hold the nutcracker.

Hamlin, who has a Cup win in each of his 12 seasons, gave everyone a laugh when he scampered away from the lobster traditionally awarded to the winner in victory lane.

“I have a lobster phobia,” he said.

Larson had a sensational run from the rear of the field, where he was forced to start because he failed inspection after he won the pole. Larson lost his points lead last week and his crew chief was suspended after failing a post-race inspection at Kentucky.

Hamlin crashed the No. 11 Toyota in practice and was forced to race in a backup car. It seemed to suit him just fine at New Hampshire.

Martin Truex Jr., was third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick.

JGR won seven of the first 12 races last season and Carl Edwards was 10 laps away from a possible championship when he crashed out in the finale. Daniel Suarez replaced Edwards this season, and Hamlin, Kenseth and Kyle Busch have made strong runs at the checkered flag, they just couldn’t find the winning formula until New Hampshire.

“It’s not from a lack of trying,” Hamlin said.

JGR also announced this week that Erik Jones would replace two-time Daytona 500 champion Kenseth in the No. 20 next season. With Hamlin sending the crowd into a frenzy by burning the tires down, Sunday was simply a reason for the organization to celebrate.

Jones and Suarez will soon be expected to carry the load into the next decade once Busch and the 36-year-old Hamlin finish their careers.

“They’re going to be there long after I’m gone,” Hamlin said. “They’ll be the team leaders. You just try and set an example for them. Show the work ethic that it takes to be a winner on a weekly basis. Hopefully, that infectious-type atmosphere bleeds into them and they lead the team after we’re gone.”

Larson was second and nearly caught Hamlin — after a trying week where NASCAR caught Larson’s Chip Ganassi team trying to tinker a bit too much outside the rule book on the No. 42 Chevrolet.

Larson’s team was penalized 35 points this week, erasing what had been a one-point advantage over Truex in the driver standings. Truex, who led 137 laps, leads the standings by 38 points over Larson.

Larson’s pole-winning time was disallowed because of an unapproved rear deck fin lid.

“NASCAR’s kept a closer eye on our team, in particular,” Larson said. “Had to go to the back. I don’t think that really affected us which I think is a good thing. The little stuff we got in trouble for so far hasn’t affected our performance. We’ve got to keep working hard on the areas on our race car that are legal and find more speed that way.”

Here are other items of note from New Hampshire:

LOGANO OUT:

Joey Logano’s miserable stretch continued on his home track. Logano, who needs a win or a string of strong finishes to make NASCAR’s playoffs, was forced off the track on the third stage because of a suspension issue. NASCAR seized a rear suspension part with the No. 22 Ford in the garage. He finished 37th.

The Connecticut driver reeled off six top-five finishes in the first nine races that included a win at Richmond. The win did not count toward the playoffs because of rules violations. Logano has posted just two top-10 finishes over the last 10 races and this was the fifth time he finished 25th or worse.

TRACK CRACK

The race was stopped for 5 1/2 minutes when a pot hole opened on the track. The hole was discovered just before the second stage and crews hit the scene to make repairs.

ALMIROLA’S RETURN

Aric Almirola finished 24th in his first race since he suffered a fractured vertebra during a fiery multi-car wreck May 13 at Kanas Speedway.

UP NEXT

Kyle Busch heads to Indianapolis to try and win his third straight Brickyard 400 championship. Busch has not won a Cup race since he kissed the bricks at Indy.

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SUNDAY’S RESULTS

(Starting position in parentheses)

1. (8) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 301.

2. (39) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 301.

3. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 301.

4. (3) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 301.

5. (12) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 301.

6. (14) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 301.

7. (19) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 301.

8. (9) Kurt Busch, Ford, 301.

9. (10) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 301.

10. (2) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 301.

11. (11) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 301.

12. (7) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 301.

13. (30) Danica Patrick, Ford, 301.

14. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 301.

15. (26) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 301.

16. (25) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 301.

17. (4) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 301.

18. (18) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 301.

19. (15) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 301.

20. (27) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 301.

21. (23) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 301.

22. (29) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 301.

23. (28) Landon Cassill, Ford, 301.

24. (21) Aric Almirola, Ford, 301.

25. (22) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 300.

26. (20) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 300.

27. (24) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 300.

28. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 300.

29. (32) David Ragan, Ford, 300.

30. (16) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 299.

31. (31) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 298.

32. (36) Ryan Sieg, Toyota, 298.

33. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 297.

34. (35) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 296.

35. (34) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 295.

36. (38) Josh Bilicki, Chevrolet, 290.

37. (13) Joey Logano, Ford, 269.

38. (33) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, Engine, 66.

39. (6) Erik Jones, Toyota, Accident, 40.

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 105.8 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 0 minutes, 36 seconds. Margin of Victory: 0.509 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 7 for 34 laps.

Lead Changes: 11 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders: M. Truex Jr. 1-78; Kyle Busch 79-153; D. Hamlin 154-173; M. Truex Jr. 174-217; Kyle Busch 218-237; K. Larson 238; D. Earnhardt Jr. 239-245; M. Truex Jr. 246-260; M. Kenseth 261-263; D. Earnhardt Jr. 264-266; M. Kenseth 267; D. Hamlin 268-301.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): M. Truex Jr. 3 times for 137 laps; Kyle Busch 2 times for 95 laps; D. Hamlin 2 times for 54 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr. 2 times for 10 laps; M. Kenseth 2 times for 4 laps; K. Larson 1 time for 1 lap.

NASCAR: Larson’s NASCAR pole tossed out with inspection failure

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LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Kyle Larson has made a habit of flunking NASCAR inspection.

Knocked from the top of the points standings this week because of an inspection failure, Larson was stripped of his pole Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and had his winning time tossed out for yet another infraction. He will start at the rear of the field in Sunday’s Cup race.

Martin Truex Jr. will lead the field to green for the first time this season.

“Not the way we wanted to get our first pole of the year but looking forward to starting up front,” Truex said.

Larson’s time was disallowed because of an unapproved rear deck fin lid. NASCAR said there would be no additional penalties.

He had raced to the top of the field without his suspended crew chief, turning a lap of 133.324 mph to win his fourth pole of the season. Larson’s team was penalized 35 points this week by NASCAR, erasing what had been a one-point advantage over Truex in the driver standings. Crew chief Chad Johnston was suspended for three races because of a rear brake cooling assembly that did not meet standards.

“I wish I could have him on the box on Sunday, but we will be strong these next few weeks,” Larson said.

Team owner Chip Ganassi did not appeal the penalty issued for failing post-race inspection at Kentucky. Tony Lunders served as the interim crew chief.

“I know nothing about race cars,” Larson said. “I don’t honestly know what it was that got us in trouble. Yeah, a big penalty so it must have been something important in their eyes.”

NASCAR’s eyes got bigger at New Hampshire — though Larson did pass pre-qualifying inspection.

Larson also started in the rear because of inspection issues at Kentucky Speedway.

“It’s really cool to get the pole the first week back after the penalty,” he said.

No so fast.

Truex has the pole and the rest of the field moved up a spot. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne completed the top five.

Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, starts in the top five for the first time this season.

“Well damn, we’re starting second now. I should close my eyes in Q more often,” Johnson tweeted.

Kenseth had a solid round just days after it was announced he would be out at Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season. Furniture Row Racing driver Erik Jones, who will replace Kenseth, starts seventh. Kyle Busch starts eighth and Denny Hamlin ninth to give JGR three drivers in the top 10.

Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin are again all chasing Truex. Truex has three of wins driving for Furniture Row — which shares a technical alliance with JGR — while the Gibbs drivers remain winless.

“It’s the biggest question of the universe right now, probably, which is why the 78 is outperforming the house cars, so we’re just as confused and disgruntled by it as probably others,” Busch said. “I wish I had a theory. I’ve had probably 10 theories since they’ve joined us and none of them are true, so I’m done with theories.”

With Jones moving on, Furniture Row owner Barney Visser has not decided if the team will field two cars next season.

“I know his plans originally were not for this team to be a one-year deal,” Truex said. “We’ll just have to see how it all pans out, but I’ve enjoyed working with Erik. He’s been a good teammate. He’s a great kid. Love talking to him and hearing his point of view and things, so it would have been nice to have him for a couple years.”

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LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Matt Kenseth knows his NASCAR career will soon fade to black.

But the same week he was given a pink slip by Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth hit the road for a Metallica concert instead of pounding the pavement to find a ride in 2018.

“Actually made me feel 20 again for about four hours, which was pretty fun,” Kenseth said.

If Kenseth actually was 20, he’d be an in-demand driver for a Cup Series rapidly undergoing a changing of the guard. Young is cool. And for a sport desperately angling to hook a new generation of fans, 20-something drivers such as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones could lead the charge into the next decade and beyond. Some of that evolution comes at the expense of veteran drivers such as Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion and a two-time Daytona 500 champion, who got the official news this week he was out at JGR at the end of the season.

The 21-year-old Jones will take Kenseth’s job in the No. 20 Toyota. Jones is on a one-year loaner contract to Gibbs’ sister team Furniture Row Racing, and Gibbs had to put Jones somewhere in 2018.

Kenseth’s fate had been in limbo — though it seemed obvious Jones was being groomed for the ride — and Gibbs made the transaction complete, leaving the 45-year-old driver without a car next year.

“I’m just glad they finally put it out so I don’t have to pretend anymore,” Kenseth said at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Everybody can ask you about it, everybody can move on and get back to racing.”

Kenseth, who qualified third at New Hampshire, said Friday he had no hard feelings toward the organization and has no concerns about his future. He also has no timetable for a decision but there are few options.

The best bet could be a one-year landing spot at Hendrick Motorsports driving the No. 88 Chevrolet. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride will be open once he retires at the end of the season. Team owner Rick Hendrick has promising prospect William Byron, a 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver, and could consider Alex Bowman following a solid stint subbing last season for the injured Earnhardt.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said sponsorship dollars would likely dictate who gets the coveted ride. Johnson, who will have a vote on his new teammate, also said Kenseth has the resume that will earn him a ride somewhere next season.

“Matt’s just too good,” he said. “The guy can win races and championships and that won’t be overlooked. But I do feel Matt’s at a point in his career where he just won’t take any ride.”

Kenseth has won 16 races over five seasons with JGR and is NASCAR’s oldest full-time driver. He is the veteran at Gibbs, which has 2015 champion Kyle Busch, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez. Kenseth, 11th in the standings in his 18th Cup season, said he knew for about a year he could be on the way out at JGR.

“I feel like we did a lot of great things,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think there’s anything to be bitter about or feel bad about. We’re both living up to the agreements we made.”

Outside of the 88, quality rides are slim for 2018.

“I hope to race next year,” Kenseth said. “I still enjoy racing. I still feel like I could be an asset to somebody, so I hope so.”

His other options include a bunch of maybes: Hendrick could cut ties with underachieving Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 and Stewart-Haas Racing may have two openings if Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch do not return. NASCAR has already lost veteran stars Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards over the last three seasons and the popular Earnhardt is on his way out.

The new generation is ready to take over. The cover of the New Hampshire race program shows Elliott and Larson in sunglasses with the headline “The Future is Bright: Elliott and Larson to Carry NASCAR Torch.”

“NASCAR needs Chase Elliott to win,” 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick said. “Chase Elliott is the tie to the traditional NASCAR fan. It’s the only shot they’ve got with the traditional NASCAR fan. His dad. The history and heritage of the sport. There isn’t anybody else in the lineup that I can think of.”

That includes Larson, a dirt tracker from California who will race anything at any time. Larson turned the fastest qualifying lap for Sunday’s race at New Hampshire before his time was disallowed for an inspection failure.

“A distant second,” Harvick said. “Dirt racing is great, but they don’t have the fanbase that a NASCAR-type fanbase does to help elevate him because most of those people aren’t going to go to a NASCAR race.”

Kenseth was once considered one of NASCAR’s hottest young drivers. He’s now riding out the string, hoping for a win and a strong showing down the stretch to showcase to other teams he still has something left for next year.

“We’re both going to work as hard as we can to win races, win a championship for JGR,” he said. “Next year doesn’t affect anything for this year at all. It really doesn’t.”

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

NASCAR: New Hampshire perfect track for Matt Kenseth to reset his season

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   Racing as a team sport is predicated on selfishness furthering the overall effort of the organization.

This weekend’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was bound to be important to Matt Kenseth, especially since he and his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing remain winless after having racked up seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories by this time last season. But as a future former driver of the No. 20 Toyota — with official word this week that he will be replaced next season by 21-year-old rookie Erik Jones — the 45-year-old, 18-season veteran could very much benefit from a reprise of his recent success at the 1-mile oval.

Kenseth has won two of the last three races at Loudon and finished second in the most recent installment last fall after leading 105 of 300 laps. His victory in the 2015 playoff race put him atop the points standings and advanced him automatically to the second round. His victory there in the summer of 2016 — after taking the lead from teammate Denny Hamlin for the final 31 laps — was his second of the season. His runner-up finish last fall elevated him to fourth in points and he kept his bid for a second championship viable until the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix Raceway.

Kenseth has an average finish of 12th and has completed 99.2 percent of the laps in 34 starts at Loudon.

Kenseth, now 11th in the driver standings, arrives this time in search of much more humble progress — keeping his figurative crampons sunk into the granite escarpment that is currently the final transfer slot on points with eight races left in the regular season. Kenseth’s recent run of results doesn’t portend momentum, but his 20th, 27th and 17th-place finishes came on a road course, a restrictor-plate superspeedway and an intermediate track, respectively, which isn’t applicable to the variable-banked, relatively flat Loudon course.

Finding a comparison is not possible, Kenseth said.

“It’s really the only flat one-mile track that we go to on the circuit, and I really can’t compare it to anywhere else that we go,” he said in a team release. “The track changes a lot from practice to race time since there are so many different divisions of races going on throughout the weekend.”

Kenseth admitted last week at Kentucky Speedway that he had no job for 2018 and the transition of Toyota prospect Jones from his rookie ride at Furniture Row Racing to JGR was no surprise when it was announced days later. Retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. expressed confidence that his long-time friend from their formative days together in the Xfinity Series would acquire a quality job, but Kenseth was loathe to discuss the prospect of taking over the No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports.

“I probably already said too much about what I’m not doing next year,” the 2003 Cup Series champion said last week. “So I don’t really have anything to talk about for what I am doing. … I don’t have anything going on for next year and [I’m] pretty focused on trying to get running better this year and winning some races.”

Doing so would help solidify his case as a valuable free agent in a market where at least one and perhaps numerous jobs could become available in the offseason depending on sponsor acquisitions and potential downsizing on some power teams.

Kenseth could be a short-term fix for the No. 88 Chevrolet if owner Rick Hendrick and potential sponsors deem William Byron or Alex Bowman unready or unqualified. Kurt Busch is in a contract year at Stewart-Haas Racing and Danica Patrick’s No. 10 Ford team has struggled with sponsor shortages, although the team has not officially commented on their futures.

There’s never a good time for limbo, but for Kenseth, a recent fitness enthusiast who won seven races in 2013 and five in 2015, there have been others in worse predicaments, especially with New Hampshire up next.

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Larson loses Cup series lead after failed inspection

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson has lost his Cup series lead and his crew chief has been suspended after failing a post-race inspection at Kentucky.

Larson’s team was penalized 35 points Wednesday, erasing what had been a one-point advantage over Martin Truex Jr. in the driver standings. Larson is still 66 points ahead of third-place Kyle Busch.

Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet was penalized for a rear brake cooling assembly that did not meet standards. Crew chief Chad Johnston was suspended three races and fined $75,000. He will miss Cup races starting this weekend at New Hampshire.

Chip Ganassi Racing says it will not appeal NASCAR’s penalty.

NASCAR has also fined Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens $10,000 after an unsecured lug nut was found in post-race inspection.

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Aric Almirola plans to return to action this weekend after missing two months of the NASCAR season with a fractured vertebra.

Richard Petty Motorsports announced Wednesday that Almirola would be back in the No. 43 car this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Almirola suffered an acute compression fracture to his T5 vertebra — just above the middle of his back — during a fiery multi-car wreck May 13 at Kanas Speedway.

The final step of his comeback involved a test Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Almirola said in a statement that “when something gets taken away from you at a moment’s notice like that, it has certainly made me appreciate my passion for racing and my desire to compete at this level.”

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Joe Gibbs Racing announced Tuesday that long-time Toyota prospect Erik Jones will replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series entry next season.

Jones, 21, is currently 14th in the Cup standings as a rookie for JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing.

Kenseth, the 2003 series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner, has won 38 races in 20 seasons at NASCAR’s top level. The 45-year-old won seven races in his first season with JGR in 2013 and five two years ago. He currently is winless with the rest of the four-driver lineup.

“Matt has been a tremendous asset to our organization over the past five seasons both on and off the track,” team owner Joe Gibbs said in a statement. “He’s been a great teammate and a great ambassador for our sponsors. We have a great deal of respect for him and we are working hard to get the 20 team into the playoffs to make a run for the championship. We have a great deal of confidence in his abilities to do just that.”

None of the four Gibbs drivers – Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin or Daniel Suarez – have won yet this season.

Jones has five top-10s and has credited Truex with helping him adjust to NASCAR’s premier level.

Meanwhile, Truex is having a career year, sitting second in points with three wins.

In a statement, FRR owner Barney Visser said in part:

“… Furniture Row Racing’s commitment to Jones and the No. 77 team remains the same for the remainder of the season. Our goal is for Jones to qualify for the playoffs, make a run for the championship and capture Rookie of the Year honors.

“We are working on our team plans for 2018 but don’t have anything concrete to report at this time except that Martin Truex Jr. will continue to drive the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.”

Five story lines that will shape NASCAR’s second half

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-    Five story lines that will help shape the second half of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, which begins Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway:

The true value of playoff points will be realized: It’s apparent that drivers have discussed the new points system a great deal because they often recite the same concepts, if not verbiage. As race and stage wins have distributed playoff points – the greatest amount to Martin Truex Jr. – drivers have become increasingly cognizant of the value of winning the regular-season title and attaining the 15 bonus points that come with the feat. They are citing the value as “like three wins” in the regular season.

The second-place driver will receive 10 points, with the other top-10 finishers rewarded with descending values. The weight of the playoff points is becoming increasingly concrete in the competitors’ minds. All of those points carry over into each round of the playoffs in which a driver remains title-eligible. But their real value will not be fully appreciated until the field has made a first run through this latest version of the title format. As the second half begins, playoff points leaders are: Truex (28), Jimmie Johnson (16), Brad Keselowski (13) and current regular-season points leader Kyle Larson (13).

Joey Logano’s title pursuit: The Team Penske driver should be a lock for the playoffs, having won at Richmond International Raceway in April. However, his No. 22 Ford failed a post-race laser inspection station test and NASCAR ruled his victory was “encumbered” — worthless as a playoff voucher.

Logano’s performance has cratered since – impacted by three DNFs – as he’s posted just one top-five and two top-10s in the subsequent nine races, falling from fifth to 12th in points. He’s led just 17 laps since Richmond after pacing the field for 240 in the first nine events. Adding to Logano’s predicament should he remain winless is there are drivers who have won that remain outside the top 16 in points. So Ryan Newman (17th) and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon (20th) will take playoff slots from winless drivers within the top 16. Logano currently is outside that transfer window.

 

Shutout? It seems highly unlikely that former series champion Kyle Busch (four victories in 2016), Denny Hamlin (three) and Matt Kenseth (two) will finish the season winless after helping Joe Gibbs Racing collectively oppress the series and power Toyota to its first manufacturer’s title last season. Busch, in particular, has been close numerous times, leading 100 or more laps in four races this season and hovering third in points even though there have been five multi-race winners.

The question is whether the supposed inevitability of a breakout win for talented drivers on a resourceful team yields to the crunch of pressure – particularly for Hamlin and Kenseth – as the regular season spools away.

Exit music: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2016 regular season lasted just 18 races because of a recurrence of concussions. Now healthy and reinstalled in the No. 88 Chevrolet, he embarks on the last half of his final season as a full-time Cup driver. As of now, his performance hasn’t hinted of the type of farewell procession Jeff Gordon (2015) and Tony Stewart (2016) earned with wins in their final seasons. He’s 21st in points with one top-5 and four top-10s. The pursuit of a final playoff qualification and the desire for fans and promoters to laud him one last time will be concurrent and constant story lines.

Who replaces Earnhardt? Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports that he believes a driver needs two foundation-building seasons in the second-tier Xfinity Series before ascending to a full-time Cup ride. That would eliminate 19-year-old Hendrick Motorsports prospect William Byron from contention for the No. 88 seat in Earnhardt’s estimation. However, he readily concedes that decision is not his and instead is left for team owner Rick Hendrick and sponsors. Earnhardt professed aloud last week that Kenseth – who is being replaced at JGR by Erik Jones in 2018 – will find solid work. Kenseth’s veteran presence could buoy Hendrick until Byron is ready or another option opens as Kasey Kahne continues to face speculation over his future amid another underwhelming season at HMS.

NASCAR: Kyle Busch repeats as Xfinity Series winner at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Ky. (AP) — No matter the circumstances, Kyle Busch always seems to figure it out at Kentucky Speedway.

Busch took the lead during a late caution on lap 168 Saturday and held on to win the 300-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series race. The race had been postponed a day earlier because of storms, creating a 700-mile doubleheader for Busch and several other Cup drivers.

Starting the first of two races on the pole, Busch led three times for 70 laps to earn his second straight series victory at Kentucky and third overall on the 1.5-mile oval. Though less dominant than last July’s triumph from the pole in which he led 185 laps, Busch’s strong car and wise pit strategy yielded a familiar result.

Pitting earlier for tires and fuel paid off for Busch, who stayed on the track during the final yellow flag. There was no catching his No. 18 Toyota after the restart, though Ryan Blaney tried his best on the final lap after passing Erik Jones’ Toyota for second.

“We did what we needed to do to be there at the end,” Busch said. “We took four tires and that kind of got us behind there with two pit stops to go, and then some of those guys came in again. Obviously, our car was really fast out front and once I got in clean air I didn’t think anybody had anything for us.”

Blaney’s Ford finished 1.097 seconds behind, a strong recovery after he was penalized for a pit road tire violation during the caution.

Kevin Harvick was fourth in a Ford, with Ty Dillon fifth in a Chevy.

“I thought the right call was to pit and we just had a violation,” said Blaney, who led twice for 52 laps and won the second stage. “That stings. It almost stings worse running all the way up there and finishing second than if we would have finished 10th or something.”

Busch soon blew out the left rear tire that served him well while doing the celebratory burnout.

Jones led twice for a race-high 77 laps and won the first stage of a race that initially featured more fits than starts.

The green flag was still waving when debris starting flying mid-pack. Ryan Reed’s No. 16 Ford collided with Brandon Jones’ Chevy to trigger a chain-reaction wreck as the field passed the start-finish line. Brendan Gaughan wrecked a few laps later to bring out another caution.

Things eventually settled down, with Busch, Blaney and Jones trading the lead before Busch did what he usually does at Kentucky.

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FULL RESULTS: ALSCO 300

1. (1) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 200 laps.
2. (3) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 200.
3. (2) Erik Jones, Toyota, 200.
4. (11) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 200.
5. (12) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.
6. (4) Joey Logano, Ford, 200.
7. (5) William Byron, Chevrolet, 200.
8. (13) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 200.
9. (10) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 200.
10. (6) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 200.
11. (8) Cole Custer, Ford, 200.
12. (18) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 200.
13. (14) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 200.
14. (15) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 200.
15. (25) Casey Mears, Ford, 200.
16. (23) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 200.
17. (22) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 200.
18. (27) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 200.
19. (29) Jeb Burton, Toyota, 200.
20. (24) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 200.
21. (7) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 199.
22. (26) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 199.
23. (19) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 199.
24. (31) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 198.
25. (30) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 197.
26. (32) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 196.
27. (34) Ray Black II, Chevrolet, 195.
28. (33) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 195.
29. (38) Chad Finchum, Chevrolet, 194.
30. (40) Angela Ruch, Chevrolet, 192.
31. (36) David Starr, Chevrolet, 188.
32. (16) Ben Kennedy, Chevrolet, electrical, 178.
33. (35) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, transmission, 125.
34. (9) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, accident, 102.
35. (39) Mike Harmon, Dodge, engine, 58.
36. (21) Ryan Reed, Ford, overheating, 55.
37. (28) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, ignition, 53.
38. (37) Timmy Hill, Toyota, suspension, 31.
39. (17) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, accident, 6.
40. (20) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, accident, 0.

RACE STATISTICS:

Average speed of winner: 119.258 mph.
Time of race: 2:30:56.
Margin of victory: 1.097 seconds.
Caution flags: 8 for 44 laps.
Lead changes: 7 among 4 drivers.

Lap leaders: K. Busch 1-5; E. Jones 6-47; J. Logano 48; R. Blaney 49-99; K. Busch 100-131; R. Blaney 132; E. Jones 133-167; K. Busch 168-200.

Leaders summary (driver, times led, laps led): E. Jones 2 times for 77 laps; K. Busch 3 times for 70 laps; R. Blaney 2 times for 52 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 1 lap.

Driver standings: 1, Elliott Sadler, 578. 2, William Byron, 533. 3, Justin Allgaier, 520. 4, Daniel Hemric, 396. 5, Brennan Poole, 395. 6, Cole Custer, 368. 7, Matt Tifft, 357. 8, Ryan Reed, 354. 9, Dakoda Armstrong, 338. 10, Michael Annett, 334.

NASCAR: Kyle Busch earns Kentucky pole with track-record speed

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SPARTA, Ky. (AP) — Kyle Busch set a track record to earn his first Kentucky Speedway pole before thunderstorms shortened NASCAR Cup Series qualifying on Friday.

Busch, a two-time winner of Saturday night’s 400-mile race, clocked 190.282 mph in the No. 18 Toyota for his third pole this season and 22nd of his career. Third in points, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver seeks his first Cup victory since last summer at Indianapolis.

Martin Truex Jr. will start second with Busch’s JGR teammate Matt Kenseth third as Toyotas claimed four of the top five spots in the 40-car field. Jamie McMurray (189.713) starts fourth in a Chevy with JGR’s Denny Hamlin (189.687) next.

The pole was the second of two Busch claimed on Friday; he also earned the top spot for the Xfinity Series race.

Busch was preparing for the third and final round of qualifying before NASCAR officials abruptly cancelled the segment and postponed the Xfinity Series race to Saturday at noon because of the threatening weather system. He smiled as he climbed out of his car to a suddenly-free evening, rest that will certainly be needed to handle a double-duty Saturday for the second weekend in a row.

The good news is he’ll have a prime starting spot for both events in the latest chapter of his Kentucky dominance.

“The guys have done an amazing job this year at building faster race cars as we’ve gone on this year,” Busch said of his JGR team. “We started out a little behind. Just right there, so close having an opportunity to win each and every week, we just need to bust through and get it to happen.”

Contrasting Kyle Busch’s good day was one that series points leader Kyle Larson would like to forget.

After having one of the fastest cars during both rounds of practice, Larson didn’t get to prove it in qualifying after his No. 42 Chevy failed inspection. He didn’t know what the issue was and is left to prepare to start last in 40th.

“We will be fine from the back,” Larson said. “Obviously, it will be hard to pass, but we also thought the same thing at Texas and we didn’t get to qualify there and I cruised right to the front no problem. So, we will see.”

Other qualifying notes from Kentucky:

FORD’S FOURSOME: Ford placed four cars in the top 11 with Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick starting sixth and seventh respectively while defending race winner Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer are 10-11.

Though Keselowski’s spot is his lowest in seven starts, the three-time Kentucky winner gained his first win here from the eighth position in 2012. That might provide some hope after an effort he felt could have been better.

“It was just OK today, Keselowski said. “We really worked hard to get the most we could out of it. The guys did a nice job chasing it but we just needed some more. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to get that last round in.”

BETTER THAN EXPECTED

Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 13th for his final Kentucky start and seemed fine with that after struggling early on.

“I didn’t anticipate doing well,” he said. “But they worked on the car and they made a lot of adjustments, and we kept going out there and making runs and ended up in the top 15. So, I’m pretty happy with that. We almost made it into the top 12 without even making a mock run in practice.”

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

The rain came fast and furious, flooding parts of the garage area with several inches of water.

One surprise casualty was the Toyota Camry pace car, which had water lapping at the bottom of the doors. A track media representative quickly moved the car to higher ground and suggested that it would be ready for Saturday night.

Crew members and spectators meanwhile waded through the area either by rolling up pants or just dealing with wet clothes.

NASCAR: Clint Bowyer senses momentum, still in good position for NASCAR playoffs

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)     —-    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Clint Bowyer was working through an answer in the Daytona International Speedway media center early Sunday morning when the din of a post-race fireworks display prompted a pause.

“Are we under attack?,” he joked. “I think they just blew every firework all at once.”

Sort of reminiscent of a race in which aggressiveness sparked numerous wrecks and a race-record 14 cautions.

But as has been the case for much of this would-be comeback campaign for Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing, he weathered it, and remains in sound position to qualify for the 16-driver playoffs.

Even though, Bowyer said, “this bridesmaid deal sucks,” after also finishing second to teammate Kevin Harvick as Sonoma Raceway, he senses momentum entering the final nine regular season races. And at 10th in the driver standings, he safe enough, for now.

“Look at the last two weeks, we’ve been second, runner up. Second sucks, but it’s better than third,” he said. “We finished second two weeks in a row, so that’s a huge confidence booster for our team, but nonetheless, the pressure cooker is turning up.

“You’re sitting there looking up there that green-white-checker coming to the green there, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, somehow, some way, I’ve got to get up there and keep one of those guys that are going to be first-time winners out of this thing.’ That’s real, it’s alive, and it’s something you’re going to have to pay attention to. You hope you keep riding this wave and turn one of those seconds into a win.”

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Joey Logano already has a win, but it’s no good to him right now. Saturday night was not productive for him, and his momentum is not flowing in a positive direction. Because even though the Team Penske driver reached the checkered flag first at Richmond International Raceway this spring, a post-race penalty prevents him from using the victory for playoff qualification.

And Logano got caught squarely in the middle of the fireworks outside on Saturday, being collected in a Lap 71 wreck and producing a 35th-place finish. He dropped to 12th in the standings and fell provisionally out of the playoffs as the lowest driver without a victory to use to playoff entry.

Ten other drivers have won races this season, with Charlotte Motor Speedway winner Austin Dillon — 21st in the standings — soaking up a spot that would have gone to a driver via points.

“Wrong place at the wrong time again for us,” Logano said.

Logano has crashed out of three races, has one top five and an average finish of 23.5 since the encumbered win, falling from fifth in the points standings. He’s just three points behind 11th place and winless Matt Kenseth, though, and has won at six of the nine tracks left in the regular season.

NASCAR: Five takeaways from Daytona / Byron wins at Daytona for second straight Xfinity victory

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Five takeaways from Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway as the series moves through the hot summer stretch that will determine the field for the playoffs:

TRICKY RICKY SCORES AGAIN: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stormed to the front on the final restart, leading a line of drafting cars that swept past leader David Ragan. After years of frustration, Stenhouse finally scored his first Cup victory May 7 at Talladega Superspeedway, then he struck again in the next restrictor-plate race Saturday night.

The successes of the past weeks don’t mean Stenhouse suddenly is a major threat for the series championship, but his turnaround this season is certainly cause for celebration in the Roush Fenway Racing camp, which appears to be stirring from a long slumber. And, with two victories, Stenhouse is a lock for the playoffs.

JUNIOR FLIPS THE SCRIPT: Everything seemed to be falling into place for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to glide into victory lane at a track that defined his career, a win that would have completed a storybook weekend.

He won the pole for the 400, marking the first step toward scoring a win in what could be his final Cup race at the track. Although he led only one lap Saturday, he ran well in the early part of the race, then made up two laps using the free pass after he hit the outside wall.

He charged to sixth place after that rebound, but then exited the race after hitting the wall again when Kevin Harvick spun in front of him.

ANOTHER KYLE CALAMITY: Kyle Busch’s struggles continued at Daytona. Winless – as is everyone else driving a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this season, Busch crashed after a tire rub sent his car into a spin in the middle of a gaggle of traffic.

Repairs kept Busch in the race, and he finished 20th, but the zero-for-2017 record looks uglier with each passing week.

 

SPEAKING OF NON-WINNERS: With the cutoff to the playoffs looming large – the 16-driver field will be set after the Sept. 9 race at Richmond – several key drivers continue to accompany Busch on the season’s winless list.

Still carrying the big goose eggs as the tour rolls toward Kentucky Speedway this Saturday (Quaker State 400, NBC Sports Network, 7:30 p.m. ET) are Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt.

CRASHING, SMASHING, BASHING: Saturday night’s race was pockmarked by accidents, several of the multi-car variety.

Twelve cars were eliminated from the race in accidents as 14 cautions slowed the action. Only 24 of the 40 starters were on track for the checkered flag.

What was going on?

“I think part of it is you come from Talladega — our last time we were plate racing, and you’re able to run three-wide, four-wide, relatively easy, and then you get here and you’re thinking, three-wide is kind of the norm,” Clint Bowyer said. “But, at the end of the day, you’re three-wide because you can, and then all of a sudden somebody starts slipping up off the corner or something like that, checks up, stacks everybody up, late block or something, and the rest is history.”

Wrecks took out a long list of contenders, including Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Earnhardt.

On the other hand, the fact that so many top drivers parked their cars opened the door for strong finishes by surprise drivers. Paul Menard (third) and David Ragan (sixth) scored their best finishes of the season, and fourth-place Michael McDowell celebrated the best run of his career.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — William Byron got his second win of the season, and this time he got to do it in front of his bosses.

Byron won his second consecutive Xfinity Series race on Saturday by leading a 1-2 finish at Daytona International Speedway for JR Motorsports. Byron raced to his first career Xfinity victory last weekend at Iowa, but team owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick weren’t at the track to see him.

This time, Hendrick was the first person to the window of his car in victory lane. The 19-year-old became the youngest series winner at Daytona.

He used a push from teammate Elliott Sadler to clear the traffic on the restart. Byron was aided when Erik Jones was knocked out of line, and it gave Byron a clear lead.

An accident behind the lead pack caused the race to end under yellow.

“I have to go around one more time, right?” Byron radioed his crew about the procedures. He did a celebratory burnout and was interviewed live by NBC Sports on the frontretch for the crowd to hear in a new wrinkle from the network.

“This is so cool to win in Daytona,” Byron said. “We’ve had a great last three weeks. We’re bringing faster cars, executing better and as a team we’re getting more and more confident.”

Byron was prepared to stick around Saturday night ant watch the Cup race, which is being billed as the last at Daytona for retiring driver Earnhardt Jr. The owner of the winning Xfinity Series car was scheduled to start from the pole in Saturday night’s main event.

“Dale is so good here and I’ve watched a lot of his stuff, seen how he side drafts,” Byron said. “I never thought I’d win one of these things and I’ve kind of learned some things watching him.”

Sadler was second, followed by Dakoda Armstrong, Jeb Burton and David Starr.

Rain postponed the race from Friday night until Saturday, and then a second weather delay of nearly two hours made for a lengthy 250 miles.

Seven drivers were scheduled to run both the Xfinity Series race and the 400-mile Cup race.

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

 

Follow Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree

NASCAR: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins crash-filled race at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Junior went to victory lane at a restrictor-plate race again.

Just like last time, it was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. celebrating after the checkered flag.

Stenhouse raced to his second victory of the season — second consecutive on a restrictor-plate track — Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. Both events were billed as showcases for retiring driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Stenhouse stole both shows.

Stenhouse picked up his first career NACAR Cup Series win in May at Talladega. Just like last time, girlfriend Danica Patrick was there to greet him in victory lane — she had wrecked out shortly before and was the first person at his car window when he pulled in to celebrate.

“It validates what we did in Talladega,” Stenhouse said.

He earned this one for Roush Fenway Racing in a two-lap overtime sprint when leader David Ragan tried to block the field and lost momentum. Stenhouse squirted by and held on for the victory. He did it in a new car, too, because he wasn’t giving back the Ford he drove at Talladega to his first career Cup victory.

“I kept my Talladega car and told them to build a new one,” he said. “I have been coming here since 2008. I actually came in 2006 one time with Bobby Hamilton Jr. and it is cool to put it in victory lane and get our second win this year.”

Clint Bowyer was second for the second consecutive week.

“This bridesmaid deal sucks. I want to win. We’re in this business to win,” said Bowyer. “But second is better than third.”

Bowyer joined Stenhouse to give Ford Performance a 1-2 finish for the manufacturer and engine builder Doug Yates. Ford also won all three plate races this season.

Paul Menard was third, followed by Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman and Ragan.

Brendan Gaughan, AJ Allmendinger, Erik Jones and Chris Buescher rounded out a bizarre top 10. Many of the top contenders were knocked out in accidents, including Patrick, who kicked her car in frustration when she wrecked. She also was out of the race and in street clothes when Stenhouse won at Talladega.

The race had hit full intensity in the final 10 laps with series points leader Kyle Larson slicing his way back into contention. He was chasing Ty Dillon for the lead with seven laps remaining when he moved up a lane to block Stenhouse.

There wasn’t enough room for Larson’s car in front of Stenhouse, and the contact turned Larson toward the wall and lifted his car off the track. It triggered an eight-car accident that collected Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch and whittled down the field to just a handful of contenders.

NASCAR red-flagged the race to clean the damage, and went back to yellow after a stoppage of nearly nine minutes.

Dillon was out front as the leader, followed by Ragan, Allmendinger and Stenhouse, who despite driving under Larson’s airborne car, seemed to come out unscathed and restarted fourth.

Ragan got a good push from Allmendinger on the restart, but a spin by Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones brought out the caution to send the race into overtime. That’s when Stenhouse got his chance.

“I zigged when I should have zagged,” Ragan said. “It’s tough to block two or three lanes coming to the white flag. I missed it on that run. If I couldn’t win I’m glad another Ford is in victory lane. Ricky’s a good guy and I’m proud for that team.”

The race was allegedly the final one at Daytona for Earnhardt . But he opens the door wider and wider every time he speaks about racing in the future, and winning the pole for Saturday night made him eligible for an exhibition race next February.

It set the stage for what felt like an Earnhardt kind of night, but he was forced into the wall riding in traffic early in the second stage and it seemed to end the feel-good story.

But Earnhardt worked his way back inside the top 10 and was sixth and pushing hard, demanding on his radio to know who was in front of Kevin Harvick, when he hooked Harvick to trigger a multi-car crash. Harvick said he got a flat tire right before the contact.

Earnhardt’s night was over, and he headed to the garage and a 32nd-place finish.

“It’s been a wild night,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t anticipate this much action and this much torn up sheet metal.”

SHORT NIGHT: Joey Logano was knocked out in a multi-car accident after 72 laps. But, Logano was one of seven drivers to run in the rain postponed Xfinity Series race earlier in the day. Even with the wreck, Logano raced 430 miles in the two races.

UP NEXT: A Saturday night race at Kentucky Speedway, where Brad Keselowski won last year. He has won three of the last five races at Kentucky.

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SATURDAY’S RESULTS

(Starting position in parentheses)

1. (6) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 163 laps, 0 rating, 40 points.

2. (11) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 163, 0, 42.

3. (24) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 34.

4. (23) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 38.

5. (22) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 32.

6. (30) David Ragan, Ford, 163, 0, 38.

7. (32) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 0.

8. (27) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 29.

9. (17) Erik Jones, Toyota, 163, 0, 28.

10. (29) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 27.

11. (36) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, 163, 0, 26.

12. (12) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 33.

13. (28) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 163, 0, 24.

14. (8) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 27.

15. (31) Darrell Wallace Jr, Ford, 163, 0, 0.

16. (34) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 24.

17. (20) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 163, 0, 20.

18. (4) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 23.

19. (26) Landon Cassill, Ford, 163, 0, 18.

20. (16) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 163, 0, 17.

21. (33) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 163, 0, 0.

22. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 162, 0, 15.

23. (14) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 160, 0, 14.

24. (18) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, accident, 157, 0, 22.

25. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, accident, 154, 0, 12.

26. (9) Ryan Blaney, Ford, accident, 154, 0, 20.

27. (13) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, accident, 154, 0, 22.

28. (15) Kurt Busch, Ford, accident, 153, 0, 19.

29. (21) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, accident, 153, 0, 8.

30. (37) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 147, 0, 7.

31. (3) Brad Keselowski, Ford, accident, 113, 0, 16.

32. (1) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, accident, 106, 0, 14.

33. (5) Kevin Harvick, Ford, accident, 105, 0, 9.

34. (25) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, accident, 73, 0, 3.

35. (7) Joey Logano, Ford, accident, 71, 0, 8.

36. (19) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 70, 0, 1.

37. (39) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, engine, 57, 0, 1.

38. (40) D.J. Kennington, Chevrolet, engine, 14, 0, 1.

39. (35) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, engine, 9, 0, 1.

40. (38) Ryan Sieg, Toyota, engine, 7, 0, 0.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 123.976 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 17 minutes, 12 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.213 seconds.

Caution Flags: 14 for 51 laps.

Lead Changes: 33 among 16 drivers.

Lap Leaders: D.Earnhardt 0; C.Elliott 1-4; B.Keselowski 5-28; K.Harvick 29-30; B.Keselowski 31-33; K.Harvick 34; B.Keselowski 35; D.Earnhardt 36; B.Keselowski 37-43; E.Jones 44-47; D.Hamlin 48; E.Jones 49-53; D.Hamlin 54-67; M.Kenseth 68-69; T.Bayne 70-71; M.Kenseth 72-78; D.Hamlin 79; M.Kenseth 80-81; K.Harvick 82-85; R.Stenhouse 86-91; D.Suarez 92-101; M.Kenseth 102; J.Johnson 103-106; C.Bowyer 107-110; R.Stenhouse 111-117; M.Kenseth 118-126; R.Blaney 127-135; K.Kahne 136-137; D.Suarez 138; K.Kahne 139-148; R.Stenhouse 149-150; T.Dillon 151-157; D.Ragan 158-161; R.Stenhouse 162-163

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): B.Keselowski, 4 times for 31 laps; M.Kenseth, 5 times for 16 laps; R.Stenhouse, 4 times for 13 laps; D.Hamlin, 3 times for 13 laps; K.Kahne, 2 times for 10 laps; D.Suarez, 2 times for 9 laps; R.Blaney, 1 time for 8 laps; E.Jones, 2 times for 7 laps; T.Dillon, 1 time for 6 laps; K.Harvick, 3 times for 4 laps; C.Bowyer, 1 time for 3 laps; C.Elliott, 1 time for 3 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 3 laps; D.Ragan, 1 time for 3 laps; T.Bayne, 1 time for 1 lap; D.Earnhardt, 2 times for 0 laps.

Wins: J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 2; K.Larson, 2; R.Stenhouse, 2; M.Truex, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Harvick, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Larson, 667; 2. M.Truex, 649; 3. Ky.Busch, 559; 4. K.Harvick, 557; 5. B.Keselowski, 535; 6. C.Elliott, 524; 7. J.Johnson, 516; 8. J.McMurray, 504; 9. D.Hamlin, 498; 10. C.Bowyer, 469; 11. M.Kenseth, 445; 12. J.Logano, 442; 13. R.Blaney, 435; 14. Ku.Busch, 408; 15. R.Newman, 399; 16. R.Stenhouse, 395.

NASCAR: Earnhardt lands pole for what could be Cup finale at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The chances are dwindling for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, the final shot for NASCAR’s most popular driver to win a coveted Cup title.

First he has to make the playoffs, and his best opportunity at one of those 16 slots is a win Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt will start from the pole, the first time in nearly four years that his No. 88 Chevrolet will lead the field to the green flag. Next to him will be Chase Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate who has made clear that he’ll pass Earnhardt to win at Daytona even though Earnhardt is scheduled to retire at the end of the year.

“We are running out of time, and I am aware of that,” said Earnhardt, who is winless this season and ranks 22nd in points, well out of the playoff picture. “Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other race tracks. We’ve got that ability to do that. It’s been a very frustrating, tough year statistically.”

In winning his first pole since September 2013, Earnhardt is now eligible to run a preseason race next February at Daytona.

“I’ll talk to my boss and see what he has in the shed,” Earnhardt quipped.

Earnhardt is on a farewell tour and admittedly afraid to miss a moment in his final, full-time season. He’s feeling nostalgic — even though he’s made clear he’ll race a handful of Xfinity Series events in 2018 — and in two insightful visits to the media center Friday, he touched on his favorite Daytona memories. He recalled eating fried chicken at a post-race picnic to celebrate Richard Petty’s 200th victory, which came with President Ronald Reagan on hand. There was the 1999 IROC race at Michigan in which Rusty Wallace inexplicably helped rival Dale Earnhardt Sr. instead of pushing Junior to the win.

He recalled spending Speedweeks as a kid in beachside hotels. “You’d have drivers in the pool after practice,” he said. “That was cool for those guys to be able to do that.”

He also weighed in on “Days of Thunder,” the NASCAR-centered movie released in 1990 that surely helped popularize the racing circuit, and stoked a decades-old rumor that his famous father was offered the role of Rowdy Burns.

“This is all hearsay because nobody was in the room but dad, the producer and director and (Tom) Cruise,” Junior said, recalling Cruise having pimples and being a foot shorter than he expected. “They go into dad’s office and they come out 30 minutes later, and I guess they were picking dad’s brain. But the rumor was they offered dad the role of Rowdy Burns. I don’t know if that is really true or not, but that was the rumor. But dad turned it down because he didn’t want to play the bad guy.”

Elliott welcomed being the bad guy Saturday night, if he can. But he also said Earnhardt has a different edge this week.

“I won’t say he has a chip on his shoulder, but I do think he has been very, very determined this weekend on making sure his car is driving exactly like he wants it,” Elliott said. “He doesn’t want it good. He doesn’t want it great. He wants it perfect, and I think he has made that very apparent in our post-practice meetings.

“Yes, I think he is very determined to run well here.”

Earnhardt was the final driver to qualify and bumped Elliott to second. It was a strong day overall for Hendrick, with Kasey Kahne qualifying fourth. Wedged between the top Hendrick cars was Brad Keselowski, who qualified his Ford third for Team Penske.

All the attention, though, was on Earnhardt. No surprise for NASCAR’s favorite son, especially this weekend.

Although Earnhardt expects to race at Daytona in the future, his trip to NASCAR’s birthplace is being treated like a career finale.

The track developed a “Daletona” mosaic in the stadium’s Axalta Injector that allows fans to create a piece of artwork to commemorate what could be Earnhardt’s final start at Daytona. Officials also presented Junior with a painting featuring three of his most memorable wins at the superspeedway: His July 2001 victory that came 4 1/2 months after his father’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500; his July 2010 win in the second-tier series in which he drove a No. 3 Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme; and his February 2014 win in “The Great American Race.”

“A lot of great things have happened here,” he said. “A lot of drivers have made their careers here. It is something to be proud of if you are in the industry. It is a pretty fun race track.”

He hasn’t gotten too emotional yet. But he expects the weight of walking away to hit him during the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

“I’m not having any anxiety about the end coming,” he said. “I feel pretty good about that. I feel pretty good about my decision. I haven’t had any second guesses or regrets about that. So, I don’t believe I will have any anxiety as it starts to get closer to Homestead. I just don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to miss a moment that I should take in. I don’t want to miss opportunity to let people know how much they mean to me, everybody in the industry means to me.”

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Rain forced NASCAR to postpone the Xfinity Series race Friday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Drivers completed 11 laps before it began to rain. The race was rescheduled for Saturday at noon and NBC Sports will air it on CNBC.

Daytona owner International Speedway Corp. brought mixed martial arts to the fan area as a post-race treat for those in attendance. The fights were moved up when the rain began to give fans waiting for racing something else to watch.

NASCAR will have a doubleheader Saturday. The Monster Energy Cup Series is scheduled for Saturday night at Daytona.

NASCAR suspends the interim crew chief for Kyle Busch

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR has suspended yet another crew chief for Kyle Busch.

Engineer and interim crew chief Ben Beshore will miss Saturday night’s race at Daytona because the No. 18 team had two unsecured lug nuts at the end of the Sonoma Raceway race over the weekend. Crew chief Adam Stevens will miss his fourth and final race this weekend for a tire rolling off Busch’s car at Dover. He returns next weekend at Kentucky.

Beshore, who was also fined $20,000, had been Stevens’ replacement. Joe Gibbs Racing says engineer Jacob Canter will crew chief for Busch at Daytona.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement tour will get in full swing this weekend at Daytona International Speedway as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins to cycle back to tracks for a second time this season.

But that doesn’t mean Earnhardt won’t race at the 2.5-mile trioval after Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). When he announced in April that this would be his last full-time season on the circuit, he said that he already was planning to run some Xfinity Series races in 2018. And he hasn’t ruled out a return in the Daytona 500 at some point.

Nevertheless, this could be his farewell in front of Junior Nation at the track where he has seen his lowest point – his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. died after a last-lap crash in Turn 4 in the 2001 Daytona 500 – and his highest, with career-making victories.

So with that in mind, we look back at Earnhardt Jr.’s five most compelling moments there:

2001 Pepsi 400: Just over four months after the death of his father, Earnhardt found victory lane at the track for the first time. He held off Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip by 0.123 seconds. Waltrip joined Earnhardt in the infield grass, and both embraced atop Waltrip’s car in a dual celebration – Earnhardt for his win, Waltrip perhaps soaking in the moment he didn’t have in February when he won.

“He was with me tonight. I don’t know how I did it,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. He started 13th and restarted sixth after the final caution with seven laps remaining. He bobbed and weaved his way to the front, showcasing his coveted restrictor-plate skill set that would carry him to 10 career wins at NASCAR’s two plate tracks.

2004 Daytona 500: Three years after his father’s death and six years to the day after his father’s first and only win in NASCAR’s most prestigious event, Earnhardt won his first ‘Great American Race’. He passed Tony Stewart with 20 laps to go and held on to win in his fifth attempt, at 29. When he stopped his car at the start/finish line after his cool-down lap, he emerged to a chorus of screaming, jubilant fans and quickly was mobbed by his crew.

In victory lane, he said: “It’s been lost so many times by Dad, over and over, and I was taught so many lessons by this place before I ever got behind the wheel. … He was over in the passenger side with me. I’m sure he was having a blast.”

It was the first of a career-high six wins that season.

2014 DRIVEFORCOPD 300: Earnhardt finished 11th in the Xfinity Series opener that year, but the winner was Regan Smith. Smith drove for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Earnhardt, his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and his Cup team owner, Rick Hendrick. It marked Earnhardt’s first win at the track as a team owner.

2014 Daytona 500: It took Earnhardt 10 years before he won his second Daytona 500, and the wait was prolonged that Sunday by a 6 ½-hour rain delay and tornado warning after the race began. It was closing in on midnight when he pulled into victory lane to celebrate with Hendrick and then-girlfriend Amy Reimann and sink his hands and right foot into the wet cement that would be installed on the Champion’s Walk of Fame.

“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting (the) trophy for the championship,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again.

“This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted, man. This doesn’t happen twice, let alone once. Just real thankful.”

He would win three more races that year, his last with crew chief Steve Letarte. His win at Daytona snapped a 55-race winless streak.

2015 Coke Zero 400: His last win at the track – so far – came in the July 4 weekend event that didn’t start until nearly midnight because of a rain delay and probably will be remembered for Austin Dillon’s horrific crash on the final lap.

Dillon – driving the iconic No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt Sr., flew into the frontstretch catchfence and landed back on the track in a shredded car. The fiery engine block came to rest behind Dillon, who was hit again by Brad Keselowski’s car. Crew members from severali teams and safety workers ran to Dillon and helped him out of the car. Dillon gave a double wave to the crowd and later was treated at the infield medical center for a bruised tailbone and arm. Five fans were injured by debris that came through or over the fence.

Earnhardt Jr. screamed “Oh my God!” into his team radio as he watched the scene develop after he crossed the start/finish line. He said from a subdued victory lane: “That scared the hell out of me. I saw the whole thing in my mirror. That was terrifying to watch. You saw the car get high and get into the fence. It was touch and go there for several moments. I (am) more thankful that everyone is OK than standing here in victory lane at the moment.”

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Follow Tucker on Twitter @HeatherR_Tucker

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