Kevin Harvick

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson grabs rare Bristol win after Larson mishap

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BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — It was just last month when people were wondering what was wrong with Jimmie Johnson after he got off to a slow start.

How silly it was to worry.

Johnson grabbed a rare victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday, giving him consecutive wins for the 11th time in his storied career. It was just the second career win in Thunder Valley for Johnson, who considers it one of his most vexing tracks.

His Hendrick Motorsports team hit on something during Saturday’s practice for his Chevrolet, and that locked him in for the race postponed a day by rain.

“This track has been really difficult,” admitted Johnson, who last won at Bristol in 2007. But that Saturday find was “honestly, it’s what I’ve been looking for for 16 years.”

“We finally figured it out. So, I’m very, very happy,” he said. “I’ve loved this racetrack from afar … and it’s been a journey since 2000 until now.”

Johnson snapped his season-starting slump on April 9 at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s last event prior to Monday. It ended any chatter that the seven-time and reigning champion might not be up for a record eighth title.

“After securing a win last week, it obviously takes a huge load off of your shoulders,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “Being able to come in here this week confident, relaxed, we had a weekend off.”

Johnson now has 82 career victories, and is just one away from tying Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time wins list. Two more would put him alongside Darrell Waltrip.

“That’s just mind-blowing,” Johnson said of his place in history.

Johnson doesn’t like Bristol, but had no trouble contending with Kyle Larson, the points leader and most dominant driver of the day. A speeding penalty on Larson late in the race allowed Johnson to make it look easy in the end. Clint Bowyer finished second and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick was third.

Matt Kenseth was the highest finishing Toyota driver with a quiet fourth. Joey Logano in a Ford was fifth for Team Penske and Larson rallied to sixth. He had been dropped to 29th in the field after the penalty and making it back to the top 10 was a victory in itself for Larson, who led a career-high 202 laps.

“I knew I gave the race away there,” Larson said of the speeding penalty. “I was surprised that I was able to line up with an opportunity there at the end. I think even if I was able to get to the lead, I don’t think I would have won because Jimmie and Clint were way faster than I was.

“They were over a straightaway ahead of us, I think, at the checkered flag. Disappointed in myself. I think I speed on pit road every single time I come to Bristol. So got to clean that up.”

Chase Elliott finished seventh and the top 10 was rounded out by Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

JUNIOR’S DAY

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running 20th with just under 300 laps remaining when he wrecked during a restart after a mechanical issue. He didn’t return to the track.

NASCAR’s most popular driver was second in this race a year ago, but this year he’s still trying to find his way back into contention. NASCAR’s last race, at Texas, was his first top-five finish of the season.

As he headed to the care center for a medical checkup, a fan tried to take selfie with Earnhardt . Initially denied, Earnhardt was accommodating after he was cleared medically.

STAGE 2: Truex, who won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 12, tracked down Larson and passed him on Lap 202. Logano also was putting pressure on Larson, who led every lap until that point. Truex built a lead of more than a second and Larson dropped back, getting loose and getting into Denny Hamlin. Truex ran smooth and seamless once he took the lead. The stage also saw the crash involving Earnhardt on Lap 217, when the No. 88 Chevrolet got into the wall. His car dropped oil on the track, which required extra cleanup. Larson, the Stage 1 winner, fell to seventh.

STAGE 1: With qualifying rained out, Larson started at the front of the pack since he entered the race atop the drivers’ standings. Larson is vying for his second victory of the season after taking the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif., on March 26. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led each of the first 125 laps. Kurt Busch was the first driver to lose traction and spin out on the half-mile oval that lost most of its grip after more than a day of constant rain.

Back in the pack, Chris Buescher was unable to stop in time and ran into the back of Reed Sorensen. Buescher’s JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet suffered major front-end damage and became the first car forced out of the race. The wreck on Lap 56 brought out the first caution and, eventually, the first red flag as workers cleaned up the cooling fluid left on the track by Buescher’s car.

NASCAR allowed the cars to pit for the first time after the wreck. Officials had previously announced a competition caution on Lap 60. Busch’s crew was able to fix the damage to the right front end of his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and he returned to the track. Sorensen restarted the race two laps down.

BUSCH STUCK AT NO. 5

Kyle Busch is still seeking his first win of the season after an accident led to a 35th-place finish.

He had been hoping to win his sixth career Cup race at Bristol, and had the speed all weekend to do so.

“I was the fastest one out there those last two runs picking cars off and driving from the back to the front after we lost our track position the first time,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s fundamentally wrong what we’re doing, but it seems like all the rest of our five JGR cars are fine.”

UP NEXT

NASCAR travels to Richmond, Virginia, for another short-track showdown. The three-day show will lack defending race winner Carl Edwards, who bumped teammate Joe Gibbs Racing for the victory in 2016. Edwards is not racing this year.

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FOOD CITY 500 RESULTS

Monday from the 0.533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (11) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 500 laps, 54 points.

2. (9) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 500, 35.

3. (10) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 500, 41.

4. (22) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 500, 33.

5. (5) Joey Logano, Ford, 500, 48.

6. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 500, 45.

7. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 500, 35.

8. (3) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 500, 48.

9. (19) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 500, 29.

10. (16) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 500, 33.

11. (12) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 500, 28.

12. (8) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 500, 35.

13. (21) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 500, 24.

14. (13) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 500, 23.

15. (24) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 500, 22.

16. (26) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 499, 21.

17. (14) Erik Jones, Toyota, 499, 33.

18. (23) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 498, 19.

19. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 498, 18.

20. (17) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 498, 17.

21. (31) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 498, 16.

22. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 497, 15.

23. (33) David Ragan, Ford, 497, 14.

24. (35) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 497, 13.

25. (15) Kurt Busch, Ford, 494, 12.

26. (28) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 494, 11.

27. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 491, 10.

28. (34) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 490, 9.

29. (36) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 487, 8.

30. (25) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 482, 9.

31. (39) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 465, 6.

32. (30) Landon Cassill, Ford, 458, 5.

33. (6) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 452, 4.

34. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 433, 3.

35. (7) Kyle Busch, Toyota, accident, 383, 3.

36. (29) Danica Patrick, Ford, accident, 320, 1.

37. (38) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, suspension, 234, 0.

38. (20) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, accident, 218, 1.

39. (27) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, accident, 53, 1.

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 86.685 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 4 minutes, 29 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.199 seconds.

Caution Flags: 9 for 76 laps.

Lead Changes: 14 among 7 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K.Larson 1-202; M.Truex 203-211; J.Logano 212; M.Truex 213-254; J.Logano 255; L.Cassill 256-260; M.Truex 261-325; J.Logano 326-393; J.Johnson 394-421; J.Logano 422; D.Hamlin 423-432; J.Johnson 433-464; J.Logano 465; K.Harvick 466-479; J.Johnson 480-500

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Larson, 1 time for 201 laps; M.Truex, 3 times for 113 laps; J.Johnson, 3 times for 78 laps; J.Logano, 5 times for 67 laps; K.Harvick, 1 time for 13 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 9 laps; L.Cassill, 1 time for 4 laps.

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

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Larson, 360; 2. C.Elliott, 333; 3. M.Truex, 323; 4. J.Logano, 291; 5. B.Keselowski, 277; 6. J.Johnson, 244; 7. J.McMurray, 244; 8. C.Bowyer, 239; 9. K.Harvick, 239; 10. R.Blaney, 228; 11. Ky.Busch, 214; 12. T.Bayne, 192; 13. E.Jones, 192; 14. R.Newman, 186; 15. D.Hamlin, 184; 16. R.Stenhouse, 168.

Charlotte Motor Speedway moves NASCAR playoff race to Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Schedule

Date Race TV Winner

Feb. 19

11:30 a.m. EST

Advance Auto Parts Clash

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Joey Logano

Feb. 23

7 p.m. EST

Can-Am Duel at Daytona 1

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Chase Elliott

Feb. 23

8:30 p.m. EST

Can-Am Duel at Daytona 2

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Denny Hamlin

Feb. 26

2 p.m. EST

Daytona 500

Daytona International Speedway

FOX Kurt Busch

Mar. 5

2:30 p.m. EST

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

Atlanta Motor Speedway

FOX Brad Keselowski

Mar. 12

3:30 p.m. EDT

Kobalt 400

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

FOX Martin Truex Jr

Mar. 19

3:30 p.m. EDT

Camping World 500

Phoenix International Raceway

FOX Ryan Newman

Mar. 26

3:30 p.m. EDT

Auto Club 400

Auto Club Speedway

FOX Kyle Larson

Apr. 2

2 p.m. EDT

STP 500

Martinsville Speedway

FS1 Brad Keselowski

Apr. 9

1:30 p.m. EDT

O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

Texas Motor Speedway

FOX Jimmie Johnson

Apr. 23

2 p.m. EDT

Food City 500

Bristol Motor Speedway

FOX

Apr. 30

2 p.m. EDT

Toyota Owners 400

Richmond International Raceway

FOX

May 7

2 p.m. EDT

GEICO 500

Talladega Superspeedway

FOX

May 13

7:30 p.m. EDT

Go Bowling 400

Kansas Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 20

6 p.m. EDT

Monster Energy Open

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 20

8:15 p.m. EDT

Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 28

6 p.m. EDT

Coca-Cola 600

Charlotte Motor Speedway

FOX

Jun. 4

1 p.m. EDT

AAA 400 Drive for Autism

Dover International Speedway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 11

3 p.m. EDT

Pocono 400

Pocono Raceway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 18

3 p.m. EDT

FireKeepers Casino 400

Michigan International Speedway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 25

3 p.m. EDT

Toyota/Save Mart 350

Sonoma Raceway

Fox Sports 1

Jul. 1

7:30 p.m. EDT

Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola

Daytona International Speedway

NBC

Jul. 8

7:30 p.m. EDT

Quaker State 400 Presented by Advanced Auto Parts

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

Jul. 16

3 p.m. EDT

New Hampshire 301

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Jul. 23

3 p.m. EDT

Brickyard 400

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBC

Jul. 30

3 p.m. EDT

Pennsylvania 400

Pocono Raceway

NBCSN

Aug. 6

3 p.m. EDT

Watkins Glen 355

Watkins Glen International

NBCSN

Aug. 13

3 p.m. EDT

Pure Michigan 400

Michigan International Speedway

NBCSN

Aug. 19

7:30 p.m. EDT

Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race

Bristol Motor Speedway

NBC

Sep. 3

6 p.m. EDT

Bojangles’ Southern 500

Darlington Raceway

NBCSN

Sep. 9

7:30 p.m. EDT

Federated Auto Parts 400

Richmond International Raceway

NBCSN

Sep. 17

3 p.m. EDT

Chicagoland 400

Chicagoland Speedway

NBCSN

Sep. 24

2 p.m. EDT

New England 300

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 1

2 p.m. EDT

Delaware 400

Dover International Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 8

2 p.m. EDT

Bank of America 500

Charlotte Motor Speedway

NBC

Oct. 15

2 p.m. EDT

Alabama 500

Talladega Superspeedway

NBC

Oct. 22

3 p.m. EDT

Hollywood Casino 400

Kansas Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 29

3 p.m. EDT

Goody’s Fast Relief 500

Martinsville Speedway

NBCSN

Nov. 5

2 p.m. EST

AAA Texas 500

Texas Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Nov. 12

2:30 p.m. EST

Can-Am 500

Phoenix International Raceway

NBC

Nov. 19

2:30 p.m. EST

Ford Ecoboost 400

Homestead-Miami Speedway

NBC

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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

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

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

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

Keselowski’s in

Standings: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blaney said his team deserved much better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAN’T HOLD ON

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

DRY BUT WINDY

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

WOOD CENTURY

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

UP NEXT

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

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

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

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O’REILLY AUTO PARTS 500 RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 147.139 mph.

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

Margin of Victory: 0.340 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 35 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 6 drivers.

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

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

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

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

NASCAR: Erik Jones gets 7th Xfinity victory at repaved Texas track

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Erik Jones skipped his high school graduation ceremony three years ago to run in a NASCAR truck race at Texas, where he was presented his actual diploma before the event.

Two years ago, he went to Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway for the first time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

On Saturday, he won again at the 1 1/2-mile track that has since been completely repaved and reconfigured in Turns 1 and 2.

“Yeah, it’s been a good track for me,” Jones said. “The first time I came here, it’s funny, it really wasn’t that good to me, but after that it just kind of clicked and I felt really good here ever since.”

Jones led 112 of 200 laps for his seventh career Xfinity victory, four of them coming on 1 1/2-mile tracks.

Jones finished a half-second ahead of Ryan Blaney, another full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver and the second-place qualifier for Sunday’s race. Blaney led 43 laps and went into his final pit stop still with the lead before Jones went back in front for good on lap 156.

“We passed him before the last pit stop and I thought our car was pretty decent right there,” Blaney said. “We didn’t come out with the lead and that hurt us. I think if we would have come out with the lead, I don’t know if I could have held him off.”

Only nine drivers finished on the lead lap.

Kevin Harvick, the polesitter for Sunday’s Cup race, finished third more than 21 seconds off the lead, ahead of Austin Dillon and Cole Custer.

Darrell Wallace Jr. overcame a spin 67 laps into the race to finish sixth, the fifth consecutive race in that position. That is the second-longest streak in the series with the same top-10 finish, one behind Jack Ingram’s string of six consecutive runner-up finishes in 1983.

Wallace also won stage two, after Harvick won the first stage of the race.

Elliott Sadler kept the Xfinity season points lead after a 10th-place finish, the first driver off the lead lap. But his gap over William Byron, who finished seventh and got points in the first two stages, was trimmed from 17 to six points.

Still only 20, and now a full-time driver in the upper-level Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for Furniture Row Racing, Jones got his fifth top-five finish in his five Xfinity races at Texas in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

“Pretty stout,” Gibbs said.

“I always felt really comfortable on the old track here, I knew what I needed the car to do,” Jones said. “Honestly, the new surface here, I felt like I was able to get back to what the car needed. Definitely more challenging too on this surface than the old surface. A good day of learning.”

Jones will be in a backup Cup car after his crash in practice Friday, and will start 36th in the 40-car field.

“The repave was really treacherous to start the weekend and this is a nice way to bounce back for myself after going to a backup the other day in the Cup car,” he said. “Hopefully this is a good start for tomorrow.”

SATURDAY’S RESULTS

Lap length: 1.5 miles

(Starting position in parentheses)

1. (2) Erik Jones, Toyota, 200 laps.

2. (4) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 200.

3. (14) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 200.

4. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.

5. (6) Cole Custer, Ford, 200.

6. (8) Darrell Wallace Jr., Ford, 200.

7. (5) William Byron, Chevrolet, 200.

8. (12) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.

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

10. (10) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 199.

11. (9) Ryan Reed, Ford, 199.

12. (15) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 199.

13. (20) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 199.

14. (16) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 199.

15. (13) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 199.

16. (18) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 198.

17. (23) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 198.

18. (17) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 198.

19. (24) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 198.

20. (34) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 197.

21. (28) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 197.

22. (27) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 197.

23. (22) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 197.

24. (38) David Starr, Chevrolet, 196.

25. (29) Ray Black Jr., Chevrolet, 195.

26. (35) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 195.

27. (30) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 194.

28. (33) Alex Labbe, Chevrolet, 194.

29. (21) Jeb Burton, Toyota, 192.

30. (32) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 188.

31. (37) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 179.

32. (7) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 172.

33. (11) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 148.

34. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, engine, 145.

35. (36) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, clutch, 137.

36. (40) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, suspension, 114.

37. (25) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, accident, 66.

38. (26) Casey Mears, Ford, rear gear, 50.

39. (39) Carl Long, Toyota, steering, 24.

40. (31) Jordan Anderson, Chevrolet, electrical, 17.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 131.563 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 16 minutes, 49 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.512 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 31 laps.

Lead Changes: 11 among 7 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J. Logano 1-19; E. Jones 20-48; W. Byron 49-57; D. Suarez 58-59; R. Blaney 60-84; W. Byron 85-92; E. Jones 93-130; R. Blaney 131-148; D. Wallace Jr. 149; B. Jones 150-154; D. Suarez 155; E. Jones 156-200.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): E. Jones 3 times for 112 laps; R. Blaney 2 times for 43 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 19 laps; W. Byron 2 times for 17 laps; B. Jones 1 time for 5 laps; D. Suarez 2 times for 3 laps; D. Wallace Jr. 1 time for 1 lap.

NASCAR: Harvick earns 1st NASCAR Cup pole on fresh Texas track

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Kevin Harvick quickly got up to speed on the new pavement at Texas Motor Speedway, while some top drivers never made on the track for qualifying.

Harvick won all three rounds of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying Friday, earning his 19th career pole with a lap of 198.405 mph during the final segment at the 1 1/2-mile track that was completely repaved this year.

“It’s been a stressful day, coming and breaking in a new race track and then going out there and running as fast as we had to run for qualifying,” Harvick said.

Nine of the 40 cars in the race didn’t make it through inspection in time to make qualifying runs. Those included series points leader Kyle Larson, three of the four drivers for Hendrick Motorsports and defending race winner Kyle Busch after his practice crash earlier in the day.

Ryan Blaney qualified second at 198.020 mph, and will start on the front row Sunday even though he had the same qualifying speed as Clint Bowyer.

“The track has come a long way since we got on it for the first time this morning,” Blaney said. “The first hour was very sketchy getting into Turn 1. Turn 1 has been slick all day. Three and four has actually had a lot of grip. It is surprising how much throttle we can carry over there.”

The only Hendrick driver to get on the track for qualifying was Jimmie Johnson, but the six-time Texas winner got loose and spun on the track in the first round. He still got into the top 24, but will start 24th since he didn’t run a lap in the second round of qualifying after the spin.

Larson will start 32nd, a spot ahead of Hendrick driver Chase Elliott, who is second in points and will be in a backup car after crashing the primary No. 24 in practice.

Harvick will be the polesitter for the first time in 29 starts at Texas. He has never won at the track that was completely repaved for the first time since 2001, along with changes to Turns 1 and 2.

“I’m looking forward to trying to get our car right for the race and trying to get to Victory Lane on Sunday so (track president) Eddie Gossage will leave me alone,” Harvick said.

This will also be the 29th Texas start for Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Matt Kenseth. The track record is 30 starts by Jeff Gordon, who now is in the TV booth instead of a cockpit.

Harvick, like Blaney, said he benefited from the extra time on the track when practicing Xfinity cars for Saturday’s race in that series.

“I’ve got to say thank you to the Xfinity guys for letting me run that car this weekend,” said Harvick, whose other Cup pole this season was at Atlanta, where he also ran the Xfinity Series. “I really feel like the reps allowed us to learn some things in that car that I was able to apply here.”

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Jimmie Johnson has led more laps at Texas than any other NASCAR Cup Series driver, and won a record six times there.

But all that was before the entire 1 1/2-mile track was repaved, and Turns 1 and 2 were reconfigured.

“It’s a clean sheet of paper. You can’t pick a favorite right now,” Johnson said Friday. “Any time there is a reconfiguration, a new asphalt, it’s a total game changer. All of past history is now out the window and it’s like we are coming here for the first time.”

Even for guys like Johnson , who will make his 28th start Sunday at the Texas track that was completely repaved earlier this year for the first time since 2001.

“Everyone is on equal playing ground,” Trevor Bayne said. “Nobody has 10 years of notebooks to go to and say, ‘I am Kevin Harvick and I run the bottom at Atlanta and I am really good at it.’ You can’t do that now. You don’t know what you need to do.”

Harvick is the polesitter after winning all three rounds of qualifying Friday, including a fast lap of 198.405 mph on the fresh track. Johnson qualified 24th, making it through the first round despite a spin and then not running another qualifying lap.

On only the second lap of the nearly 2 1/2-hour Cup practice Friday, Denny Hamlin got loose and spun through Turns 1 and 2, but was able to keep his car off the wall. Kyle Busch later made slight contact with the rear of his car against the outer wall after going too high into the wider and less-banked area on the track.

“I just missed the entry point getting into Turn 1,” Busch said, referring to the area in the track where the changes begin.

Chase Elliott wasn’t as fortunate, forced into a backup car after crashing the primary No. 24 Chevrolet coming out of Turn 2. Erik Jones also had to go to a backup car after his crash, when he went hard into the wall through Turns 3 and 4.

“It’s going to get better, but the problem is the groove itself keeps getting better and better and better as we run in it,” Martin Truex Jr. said “The faster you’re going in the groove, the faster you’re going when you get out of it.”

Johnson has 1,023 laps led in the Lone Star State, well ahead of Matt Kenseth’s 854 that is the second-most and with one more start there. Johnson has 20 top-10 finishes, including the runner-up four times by less than a half-second.

Before last year, when Joe Gibbs Racing drivers swept the two Texas races, Johnson had won three in a row and five of the previous seven here. Busch won last April and Carl Edwards, who has since stepped away from driving, got his fourth Texas victory last fall.

Texas announced plans in January to repave the track and do extensive drainage improvements after both NASCAR weekends and the IndyCar race at Texas last year were hampered by rain. TMS President Eddie Gossage said the old asphalt had become porous, almost like sponge, making it difficult to dry in a timely matter. The IndyCar race had to be pushed back 2 1/2 months after two days of rain.

As part of the project, completed before this race so the track would be the same for the Chase race there in November, Texas also made changes in Turns 1 and 2. The banking was reduced from 24 degrees to 20 degrees and the racing surface widened from 60 to 80 feet in that area.

“I think the asphalt itself is going to be a bigger factor in this first race,” Johnson said. “As time goes on I think the extra real estate we have in 1 and 2 will become more the story, but getting started it’s going to be tire wear-related and the asphalt.”

At least it should be dry. There’s no significant chance for rain in North Texas until next week.

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

NASCAR: Larson gets pole as qualifying washed out at Martinsville

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Things keep going right for Kyle Larson.

Hours after saying he hoped qualifying for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race would be rained out, he got his wish, giving him the pole position on a track where he has struggled.

“I think it will be a good advantage to start on the pole, get the jump and hopefully take care of my stuff early,” said Larson, the early season points leader.

With the lineup set by owner points because of the rain, Chase Elliott will start on the outside of the front row, with Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski in the second row. The rest of the top 10 includes Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Larson, who had three consecutive second-place finishes before winning last weekend at Fontana, California, posted the third-fastest time in Friday’s first practice session, trailing only former winners Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. That was after almost crashing his car early in the hour-long practice session.

“The braking was a little sketchy,” he said.

Since the series switched to stage racing this season, with points awarded to the front runners at the end of two predetermined distances during the race and then at the end, Larson has consistently earned points in every race, but he joked that he will need every advantage possible on the 0.526-mile oval.

“You never know. Our cars are so good right now, maybe we could contend for a win,” he said. “But I’d like for it to continue to rain today so I can start on the pole. But, we’ll see. Yeah, it’s a tough place and tough to complete 500 good laps here.”

Larson did finish third in this race a year ago, but said it was at least in part because the race was run in cold temperatures, which minimized tire wear during the race. Tire wear, brake preservation and patience are typically the three elements that make many drivers consider the oldest and shortest track also the trickiest.

He has company in his appreciation for the rain, too. It put Elliott, another driver who is still learning, on the front row as well.

“Any time I can do anything good at Martinsville, it’s great for me,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said. “It’s been a bit of a struggle here.”

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Winless Johnson, Hamlin look for turnaround at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — NASCAR’s top series has had five different winners in five races this season, and as the Monster Energy Cup Series arrives at Martinsville Speedway and its first experience with stage racing rewarding drivers at three points during the race, the focus shifts to drivers who have yet to break through this year.

Neither Jimmie Johnson, who has taken home nine of the iconic grandfather clocks that go to the race winner on NASCAR’s oldest, shortest and many say trickiest track, nor Denny Hamlin, the Virginia native with five victories on the .526-mile paper clip, has registered a top-five finish this season, but this is their place.

The only other driver in the field of 38 drivers with more than one victory here is Kurt Busch with two.

Johnson won here last October, and said his team’s performance has been better than its results.

“I’ve made mistakes, the team has made mistakes, we’ve had some pit calls not work out in our favor, strategy, pit stops, so we’ve just got to stop making mistakes,” the seven-time series champion said. “That is really where we are at. … I think we are right on the edge there of top five, top three car. We’ve just got to stop making mistakes and ring the bell in that area and then work forward and try to ring the bell for winning the race.”

Hamlin’s last victory here came in this race two years ago, and while he answered “one” when asked Friday how many drivers are on par with him at this track, he said it’s too early to panic about a slow start to 2017.

“We haven’t really hit the heart of the season yet,” he said. “We’ve been to some very intricate type of racetracks that are a little different. Our season always starts off that way. But I think that really eight races in is when you can really look at the bigger picture and kind of figure out where you’re at.”

Hamlin also expects the new stage racing system to make things more intense during Sunday’s race.

“You’re going to be going for every point,” he said, speaking of the points that will be awarded to the leaders after the first 130 laps, the second 130 laps and the final 240 laps. “… I think that it makes you race more intense right from the very beginning.”

The two drivers also drive for teams — Johnson with Hendrick Motorsports and Hamlin with Joe Gibbs Racing — that have been among the strongest in the sport in recent years, and none of their teammates has won a race, either.

Again, not to worry, Hamlin said.

“I think I know where we are at this point and the things we need to work on, and by no means are we at the top,” he said of JGR teammates Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez, who collectively have just two top-five finishes, eight top 10s and have failed six races. “We as a company have a good idea of where we’re at, but I don’t think people from the outside can really make a judgment until probably eight to nine races.”

It may not take that long. Points leader Kyle Larson followed three consecutive second-place finishes by winning last weekend at Fontana, California, but even though he was third here a year ago, the tire and brake wear and patience required to navigate the tight turns, cramped pit road and 500 laps remain a challenge to him.

“I’m glad to have a 29-point lead coming into Martinsville because this is my worst race track we go to, probably, even though we ran well last year,” said Larson, who will be the pole sitter on Sunday after rain washed out Friday’s qualifying. “I’ve gotten better at it each time, but it’s still not a track where I’m extremely comfortable. I can go fast in qualifying or early on tires, but I struggle at saving my stuff. I’ve got to get better at that. If we can get a top five or top 10 here, that would be a huge success.”

Johnson, meanwhile, has been so bad, he said he had a hard time remembering any of the other race winners except for Larson last week.

“I’ve been so far back,” he said, laughing, “I haven’t paid attention to who has been to Victory Lane.”

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Earnhardt says he has felt great all season after concussion

DALLAS (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he has felt great all this season after missing the final 18 races a year ago because of the lingering effects of a concussion.

Earnhardt said Thursday that he wouldn’t be driving the No. 88 car if he didn’t feel like he was 100 percent healthy.

“You can’t go out there with any kind of limitations,” he said while headlining a media and fan event for Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt has suffered numerous concussions in his career, and was sidelined for the final half of last season.

The 42-year-old Earnhardt said he only races cars because it’s fun and that he doesn’t feel an obligation to stay in NASCAR because of his standing as the sport’s most popular driver.

“I just enjoy working with my team and my guys, the camaraderie and the friendships,” he said. “That’s why I drive. Obviously we’ve got a big fan base that has a lot of fun when we do well, so you’d like to be out there and run well while you’re doing it.”

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NASCAR suspends crew chiefs for Keselowski and Harvick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busch qualified ninth.

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

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

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

Bring it on, Logano said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

Are the two OK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jimmie-johnson-titles-021917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And about that eighth championship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Kobalt 400 Results

At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas

Lap length: 1.50 miles (Start position in parentheses)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 136.034 mph.

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

Margin of Victory: 1.495 seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 34 laps.

Lead Changes: 14 among 6 drivers.

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

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

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

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

———

NASCAR Driver Rating Formula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

FULL LINEUP: Kobalt 400

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

NASCAR: Drivers who could get a boost at Las Vegas

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Las Vegas race could shake up NASCAR schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR needs some rivalries to spice up the action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are your highlights, folks.

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

LARSON LOSES

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

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

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

BUILT FORD TOUGH

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

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

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

VIVA LAS VEGAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR: Keselowski steals Atlanta win after Harvick caught speeding

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

Too fast, it turned out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, it was another bitter disappointment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson wound up a lap down in 18th place.

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

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

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

Now, another frustrating day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He finished 27 laps down in 36th.

harvick-atlanta-v3

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SUNDAY’S RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 140.900 mph.

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

Margin of Victory: 0.564 seconds.

Caution Flags: 6 for 32 laps.

Lead Changes: 9 among 5 drivers.

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

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

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

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

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NASCAR: Kurt Busch steals monster victory by winning Daytona 500

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

It was Monster Madness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EARNHART’S HIT

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

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

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

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

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FORD’S BIG WIN:

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

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

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

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

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ELLIOTT’S HEARTBREAK:

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

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

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

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WALTRIP’S FINALE

Michael Waltrip ended his racing career exactly how he hoped.

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

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

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

daytona-500-with-2017-winner

 

DAYTONA 500 RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 142.891 mph.

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

Margin of Victory: 0.228 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 40 laps.

Lead Changes: 37 among 18 drivers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorenson was not pleased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other things we learned from the opening of Speedweeks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its debut was a monster dud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Hendrick

Born: July 12, 1949

Age: 67

Hometown: Palmer Springs, Va.

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

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

Richard Childress

Born: Sept. 21, 1945

Age: 71

Hometown: Winston-Salem, N.C.

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

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

Mark Martin

Born: Jan. 9, 1959

Age: 58

Hometown: Batesville, Ark.

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

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

Benny Parsons

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

Hometown: Wilkes County, N.C.

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

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

Raymond Parks

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

Hometown: Dawsonville, Ga.

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

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

How the Chase was won: Looking back at NASCAR champions

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

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

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

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

 

A look at all the Chase championships:

2004

Champion: Kurt Busch

Pre-Chase rank: Seventh (two wins)

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

PHOTOS: Kurt Busch through the years

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

2005

Champion: Tony Stewart

Pre-Chase rank: First (five wins)

Chase rank: First

PHOTOS: Tony Stewart through the years

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

2006

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Second (four wins)

Chase rank: Second, five points behind leader Matt Kenseth

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

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

2007

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Sixth (six wins)

Chase rank: First

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

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

2008

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Third (four wins)

Chase rank: Third, 40 points behind leader Kyle Busch

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

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

2009

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Third (three wins)

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

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

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

2010

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: Seventh (five wins)

Chase rank: Second, 10 points behind leader Denny Hamlin

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

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

tony-stewart-career-111316-v2

2011

Champion: Tony Stewart

Pre-Chase rank: 10th (no wins)

Chase rank: Ninth, 12 points behind leader Kevin Harvick

PHOTOS: Tony Stewart through the years

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

2012

Champion: Brad Keselowski

Pre-Chase rank: Sixth (three wins)

Chase rank: Third, three points behind leader Denny Hamlin

PHOTOS: Brad Keselowski through the years

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

2013

Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Pre-Chase rank: First (four wins)

Chase rank: Second, three points behind leader Matt Kenseth

PHOTOS: Jimmie Johnson through the years

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

2014

Champion: Kevin Harvick

Pre-Chase rank: Eighth (two wins)

Chase rank: Sixth, six points behind leader Brad Keselowski

PHOTOS: Kevin Harvick through the years

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

2015

Champion: Kyle Busch

Pre-Chase rank: 27th

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

PHOTOS: Kyle Busch through the years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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